Archaeological Sites in Israel-The Church of the Holy Sepulcher

Archaeological Sites in Israel-The Church of the Holy Sepulcher


Jerusalem - The Church of the Holy Sepulcher
The entrance to the present-day Church of the Holy Sepulcher
  Constantine the Great was the first Roman emperor to adopt Christianity; he made it the official religion of the Roman Empire. Constantine started his career as ruler of the western region of the Roman empire (306); after defeating his three co-regents, he emerged in 324 as sole emperor, retaining unrivalled power until his death in 337. He made Byzantium his capital, rebuilt it and renamed it Constantinople.

In 326, involved with Christianity and ecclesiastical controversy, he called a meeting of bishops of all the parts of the empire, including Macarius, Bishop of Aelia Capitolina, as Jerusalem was still called. The emperor's mother, Queen Helena, who had converted to Christianity, was much impressed with the bishop's tale of the sad neglect of the sites hallowed by the life and death of Jesus and, with her son's blessings, authority and funds, left to visit the Holy Land.

In Jerusalem she identified the place of crucifixion (the rock held to be Golgotha) and the nearby tomb known as Anastasis (Greek for resurrection). The emperor decided to build an appropriate shrine on the site the magnificent Church of the Holy Sepulcher, described in detail by Eusebius, a contemporary historian and biographer.

The church was destroyed by the Persians in 614 and soon afterwards partly reconstructed; in 1010 it was destroyed by the Caliph Hakim of Egypt and rebuilt in 1048 by Byzantine emperor Constantine Monomachus; in 1144 the Crusaders rebuilt the entire church, put it under a single roof, and made many alterations and additions. Over the following centuries the church fell into disrepair.

In the 1960s, as part of the proposed restoration of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, a comprehensive survey, including excavations beneath the foundations of the present-day church, which largely follows the plan of the Crusader church, was undertaken.

Based on the written sources, architectural evidence and discoveries made during the survey, the plan of the large complex of the original church was reconstructed. It was composed of four distinct elements: The entrance from the main street - the Cardo - (today the main market street of the Old City), led to the courtyard (the eastern atrium); from there to the basilica (the martyrion); to an inner atrium (the Holy Garden); and to the westernmost building, the rotunda (the anastasis) with the sepulcher.

Reconstruction of the original Byzantine church (after Corbo)

The Present-day Courtyard

This courtyard, outside the present-day Church of the Holy Sepulcher, is partly supported by a large, vaulted cistern. The northern wall of this cistern is very impressive, consisting of large blocks with dressed margins, still standing several meters high. It has been suggested that this early wall served as the retaining wall of the second century Hadrianic raised platform (podium). This appears to support Eusebius' statement that the Temple of Venus, which Hadrian erected on the site of Jesus' tomb, stood here before the original church was built.

The Basilica

Early masonry below the catholicon of the Crusader period was exposed during the excavations. This made possible the reconstruction of the original design of the 4th century basilica. The position of the two central rows of columns in the basilica (out of the four rows) may be determined by the remains of their foundations, which can be seen along the northern and southern sides of the chapel of St. Helena. In a small underground space north of this chapel, a massive foundation wall of the early basilica was exposed. On a large, smoothed stone which was incorporated in this wall, a pilgrim to the original church left a drawing of a merchant ship and the Latin inscription: "O Lord, we shall go." Beneath the apse of the present-day catholicon, part of the apse that marked the western end of the original church was exposed. Eusebius described this apse as being surrounded by twelve columns, symbolizing the twelve apostles.

The Rotunda and Sepulcher

The most important element of the complex is the rotunda which contains the sepulcher itself. The sepulcher stands in an elaborate structure within the rotunda, surrounded by columns supporting an ornamented, domed roof.

Some masonry remains were revealed below the floor and around the perimeter of the rotunda. Wherever bedrock was exposed, there were indications of stone-quarrying in earlier periods. The quarrying operation lowered the surface level around the sepulcher, which thus stood well above its surroundings. An architectural survey of the outer wall of the rotunda - 35 m. in diameter and in some sections preserved to a height of 10 m. - shows that it maintains its original 4th century shape. The sepulcher itself is surrounded by a circle of twelve columns - groups of three columns between four pairs of square piers. It is possible that the columns for the 4th century rotunda were removed from their original location on the facade of the Roman temple. Renovation of the piers exposed evidence that the columns had originally been much higher and that the Crusaders cut them in half for use in the 12th century rotunda.

The renovation of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is still in progress, but after generations of neglect, the building has already regained most of its former beauty.

The survey and excavations were conducted by V. Corbo, Ch. Coüasnon, M. Broshi and others, on behalf of the Christian communities which control most of the Holy Sepulcher: the Roman Catholic; the Greek Orthodox; and the Armenian Orthodox.

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