The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem is a sight to see, no matter if you are Christian or non-Christian. As a tour guide in Jerusalem, I’ve been to this church dozens of times, but it manages to amaze me over and over again. Usually, it’s packed with tourists and pilgrims, and you can barely see anything. But nowadays, with the coronavirus pandemic, the church stands empty. It gave me a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to look around without rush.
So why is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre so important to Christians around the world? What can you see inside? And when should you come? Here’s a full visitor’s guide to the magnificent Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
Last updated: 2 April 2022.
Why is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre important?
Thousands of Christian believers visit the church every year. According to tradition, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem is the place where Jesus was crucified and buried. Three days afterward, he resurrected and left his tomb, which is why it is empty today. So, the church is so important because it is the place of the crucifixion, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.
History of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre
In the time of Jesus (the 1st century)
Archeological excavations suggest that in the time of Jesus, this place was a rock quarry. This rock quarry operated between the 7th century BCE and the 1st century CE. Today, you can still see some remnants of this quarry on the bottommost floor of the church.
Inside the church, you will also see ancient tombs from the time of the Second Temple. These tombs suggest that there was a cemetery here. Generally, Jews do not bury within the city. This means that this area might have been outside the city walls at that time.
A pagan temple is built
In 135 CE, when the Romans turned Jerusalem into Aelia Capitolina, a pagan temple was built on top of the quarry. The temple was dedicated to Aphrodite-Venus, the Goddess of Love.
The first church is established
After years of persecution of Christians by the Roman empire, the Christian religion was legalized in 313 CE by the Roman emperor, Constantine the Great. Helena, the mother of Constantine, visited the Holy Land in 326 CE. She decided to break down the pagan temple that stood here and to search for Jesus’ tomb. With the help of a local Jew, she found it underneath the temple. That is why she ordered to build a church in this place.
In 335, the church was inaugurated and named “Anastasis”, which means “resurrection”. Only when the Crusaders arrived in the 11th century, people started calling it the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which means “the Church of the Holy Tomb.”
When the church was first built, it was much larger than we see today. In the middle of the church was a large open-air garden. Inside the garden was a large rock, which is believed to be the rock on which Jesus was crucified. Today, we call it the Golgotha. West to the garden was the rotunda, where the empty tomb was and still is located. The original entrance to the church was from the east, from one of the city’s main streets.
Here is how it might have looked like:
Destruction and rebuilding of the church
Almost 700 years passed. The Persians and the Muslims conquered Jerusalem, but the church remained quite unharmed. This changed in 1009, when the Fatimid caliph, al-Ḥākim bi-Amr Allāh, gave an order to demolish the church. While most of the church was destructed, you can still see some rows from the original wall inside it.
When the Christians rebuilt the church in 1048, it was much smaller than the original. The entrance to the church moved from the east to the south, where it is located today.
Later, in 1099, when the Crusaders arrived as part of the Crusades, they were shocked by the looks of the church. They were expecting to see something splendid and divine but instead, found something extremely modest. So, they decided to rebuild the compound and make major changes. They built a huge roof and domes above the church, so the garden was no longer open to the sky.
In modern times
The church stood almost unharmed for centuries until a fire broke in it in 1808. This fire caused much damage and required extended renovations. The owners of the church used the opportunity to add a few more walls to the compound. This made the church darker and more claustrophobic.
Later, in 1927, an earthquake shook Jerusalem and the church. It led to another round of renovations. Catholic archeologists used the opportunity to make excavations in the church for the first time. These excavations helped us learn a lot about the history of the holy place.
The Status Quo
In Latin, “Status quo” means “the existing state of affairs.” The property rights and liturgy rights in the Christian holy places of the Holyland have been dynamic for centuries. But they have stopped being dynamic since the mid-19th century. Following the Crimean War, several great powers signed the Paris Treaty in 1856. Amongst other things, they pledged to observe the status quo of the Christian holy places. So, they could no longer change the existing state of affairs unless the owners agreed.
The agreement refers to only four sites in the Holyland: The Church of Nativity in Bethlehem, Mary’s Tomb at the base of Mount of Olives, the Chapel of Ascension on Mount of Olives, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City of Jerusalem.
When the Status Quo started, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was divided between six Christian denominations. Those denominations are the Catholic-Franciscans, the Greek-Orthodox, the Armenians, the Copts, the Assyrians, and the Ethiopians. Each one of the denominations is responsible for different spaces in the church. Some spaces are owned by two different denominations, which sometimes causes problems because then they need to both agree to change things in the particular space. The ownership of the different spaces has stayed the same since the mid-19th century.
When is the best time to visit the church?
Normally, when there are tourists, the church is packed during the afternoon. If you’re planning to enter the empty tomb itself, be aware that the waiting time might be very long, sometimes even more than an hour. If you want to get away from the crowds, come early in the morning or late in the evening. I advise coming before 9 AM or after 5 PM. In the early morning, it is usually less packed. But keep in mind that the first hour of the morning is dedicated to cleaning. Also, entrance is not allowed half an hour before closing time. By the way, entry is free of charge!
The opening hours of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre are October to March from 4 AM to 7 PM and April to September from 5 AM to 9 PM. On Sundays, parts of the church might be closed alternately for the different ceremonies.
Also, if you plan to visit in April, keep in mind that the church might be very crowded or closed for special ceremonies. April is the month of Easter and there are many events done in the church.
How to get there?
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is located in the Christian Quarter of the Old City. To get there, you will need to walk. You can enter the city through Jaffa Gate, the New Gate, or Damascus Gate. It’s about a 5-minutes walk from all of them.
- Take off your hat before entering the church. I have already been with someone who was walking around with a hat, and one of the monks asked him to take it off.
- Dress modestly.
- Do not smoke in the area of the church.
- Do not eat or drink beverages in the church.
- Be respectful of the place. Try to keep as quiet as possible and definitely do not laugh.
What to see in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre?
I think the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is one of the most magnificent churches in the world. It is enormous, so there are a lot of things to see inside. So, I won’t go over every detail, but I’ll tell you about the main things to see:
Before you enter the church, take a look at its façade. Yes, it’s quite simple, but there are some things to talk about:
You can see a short staircase on the right side of the façade. The staircase leads to a small chapel with a dome. In 1149, the Crusaders used this chapel as the direct entrance to the Golgotha, the crucifixion point. Instead of entering the church and then climbing up to the Golgotha, the pilgrims could simply climb up from here.
The Unmovable Ladder:
Look below the right-hand window, and you’ll see a wooden ladder. In Wikipedia, it is called “the Unmovable Ladder.” After the Crusader period, the rights of the Christians of Jerusalem were very limited. They had to block part of the entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and were not allowed to ring the bells. Also, the church was locked throughout the year, and they were allowed to open it only once or twice a year on important holidays. The problem was that the monks lived in the church. They had to get food. So, they climbed down the ladder to the windowsill, lowered a rope with a basket, and someone loaded it with food supplies.
In 1831, an Egyptian ruler named Ibrahim Pasha of Egypt arrived and improved the rights of the minorities. Since then, the church is open every day. The ladder was no longer needed, but for some reason stayed there. And then, in 1856, the Status Quo kicked in, and the ladder became its symbol. It shows that even the smallest thing is not changeable. Even if they would want to move the ladder, it would be a problem. It is not clear who is the owner of the ladder. The windowsill belongs to the Greek-Orthodox, while the room behind the window belongs to the Armenians. Only the rightful owner can move it from its place.
Here’s a fun fact: The keys to the church are kept in the hands of two Muslim families. They claim that they got the keys in the time of Saladin, around the late 12th-century. If you’re lucky, you might meet the family representative on the bench inside the church. They hold the keys because that was the state in the mid-19th century, and it stayed that way because of the Status Quo. They also perform the opening and closing of the church every day.
The Stone of Anointing
When you enter the church, the first thing you see is the Stone of Anointing, also known as the Stone of Unction. If there are pilgrims, they will usually be on their knees next to the stone, touching it. Some also place small items on it for a few seconds and then take them back home. They believe that the items absorb the holiness of Jesus because his body was laid here after being removed from the cross. Here, they believe he was prepared for burial.
Jesus was a Jew, and Jews cannot be buried during the holy day of Shabbat. According to tradition, Jesus died on Friday morning. Though, there are scholars who believe he died on Thursday afternoon (see this article for example). Anyway, they had to prepare him fast to bury him before Shabbat enters on Friday eve. The preparation included anointment and wrapping of the body in shrouds.
Look on the wall in front of the Stone of Anointment. There’s a modern mosaic depicting the crucifixion, the preparation for burial, and the burial itself.
From the entrance, turn right, and climb up a set of steep stairs to the second floor. Here, you can see the topmost edge of the Golgotha, believed to be the rock on which Jesus was put on the cross. Today it is secured underneath a thick layer of glass so pilgrims won’t break a piece to take home.
The space is made of two chapels, one is Catholic-Franciscan and the other Greek-Orthodox. The first chapel you enter is the Catholic one, with beautiful modern mosaics on the walls. One of the mosaics shows the scene of the Binding of Isaac. There’s a ram, a male sheep, caught in the thickets. In the Biblical story, Abraham sacrificed it instead of Isaac. The other mosaic in the chapel shows Jesus nailed to the cross. In the background, there’s a bush, but there’s no ram caught in it. That’s because Jesus is going to be sacrificed. In this case, according to Christian belief, Jesus is like the ram for humanity.
The Greek-Orthodox chapel rises above the Golgotha. The Golgotha is about 5 meters (16 feet) tall. In the past, this area was an open garden, and you could really appreciate the height of it. But now you can only imagine. If you want to see a bit more of the Golgotha, climb down the other set of stairs and then turn right. You’ll see another bit of the rock behind glass.
Did you know? The Golgotha is part of the Via Dolorosa and the 14 Stations of the Cross, a famous Christian route in the Old City of Jerusalem. The route follows Jesus’ steps to crucifixion and resurrection. Read more about it in my full guide >> Walking the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem.
The Chapel of the Finding of the Holy Cross
Exit the Golgotha from the other set of stairs and then turn right. Continue through the curving corridor until you see another set of stairs to your right, going down. As you climb down the stairs, notice the small crosses sunken in the stone walls. These are ancient graffiti done by thousands of pilgrims over the years.
At the bottom of the stairs, you’ll reach the Chapel of Saint Helena. It’s a beautiful chapel owned by the Armenians, with many mosaics, paintings, and wall paintings.
On the right side of the chapel, you’ll find another set of stairs. They’ll lead you to the Chapel of the Finding of the Holy Cross. The chapel walls are probably part of an ancient quarry, that existed here in the time of the Romans. According to tradition, this is where Saint Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great, found the True Cross. There’s a statue of Saint Helena here, holding the cross on which Jesus was crucified.
There are many legends connected to the finding of the True Cross. One of them tells that Helena forced a Jew to tell her where the cross was hidden. She made him starve for a week in a dry well until he led her to this place. Then, he dug and revealed three crosses. One belonged to Jesus, one to the Good Thief, and one to the Bad Thief. All three were crucified together on the same day. So, which one belonged to Jesus? Luckily, a funeral passed by, and Helena hurried to test the crosses on the dead body. They placed one cross on the body, and nothing happened. They placed the second cross, and nothing happened. Then, they placed the third cross, and the man came back to life.
The Holy Sepulchre
Climb back up to the corridor and walk to the other side of the church, the circular Rotunda. There, you’ll find the Holy Sepulchre, the empty tomb of Jesus. Look up to see the spectacular ceiling. If you’ll come during daylight, you’ll see the sun rays spilling through the hole in the ceiling.
According to Christian belief, Jesus was buried here, in a burial cave originally intended for Joseph of Arimathea. Joseph was a rich man and a disciple of Jesus, and because Jesus didn’t have a burial cave, he offered his own. Three days after the burial, on Sunday, a group of women came to visit the tomb. But they found it open. When they stepped inside, they saw an angel that told them: “You came to visit Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified, but he is not here, because he was raised from the dead.”
The Holy Sepulchre is found inside the Aedicule, the small chapel in the middle of the Rotunda. The Aedicule is made of two rooms. In the first one, you’ll find a relic of the Angel’s Stone. This stone is believed to be part of the large stone that sealed the tomb. In the second room, you’ll find what is believed to be the tomb of Jesus. When there are many tourists, entering the Aedicule could take a very long time, sometimes even more than an hour. And every visitor can only stay a few moments in the chapel.
About the Holy Fire
One of the most important Christian ceremonies take place in the Aedicule every year, on the night before Easter Sunday. The Greek-Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem enters the Aedicule and comes out with the “Holy Fire.” Then, the fire is passed between thousands of believers, who want to take a bit of the holiness back home.
Watch this video by the Christian Youth Channel to get a better understanding of the ceremony:
The Tomb of Joseph of Arimathea
West of the Aedicule, you’ll find a door leading to the Chapel of Joseph of Arimathea. What’s interesting here are the ancient niche tombs that you can see there. There’s a small opening in the wall and you can peek inside with a flashlight. They are typical of Jewish burial in the Second Temple period. According to a new tradition, these are the tombs of Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus. Both helped prepare Jesus for burial. Joseph of Arimathea gave him his tomb; Nicodemus brought a large mixture of myrrh and aloes to make it a royal burial.
Jewish people never buried their dead within the walls. That is why these niche tombs are important. They prove this area was outside the city walls sometime during the Second Temple period. So, it is one of the archeological proofs that this could be the place of Jesus’ crucifixion.
“The Center of the World” – the Catholicon:
Get back to the Rotunda and walk to the other side of the Aedicule. Right in front of its entrance, there’s a huge hall called the Catholicon. Usually, it is closed by a rope.
The Catholicon was built by the Crusaders on the place of the Holy Garden. It was the central nave of the Crusader-era church. Above it, is the largest Crusader-era dome in Israel.
In the hall, there’s a low, circular object made from stone, called “omphalos.” According to Greek-Orthodox tradition, this omphalos symbolizes the center of the world. Jews also believe that Jerusalem is the center of the world, but they say it is where the Foundation Stone is, beneath the Dome of the Rock. That is where the Holy Temple stood. In Christianity, the tradition moved to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and specifically to the Catholicon.
More things to do in Jerusalem
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