One of the most popular tourist destinations in Jerusalem is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, located where many Christians believe Jesus was crucified, buried, and resurrected. It was built during the reign of Constantine the Great in the 4th century A.D., destroyed several times, and rebuilt or enlarged several times. Currently, the Church is closed, due to the COVID-19 outbreak. The last time the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was closed to the public was in 1349, also due to sickness: the Black Plague.
I have been inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre several times, but still consider it as confusing as a maze. Therefore, I unfortunately cannot provide directions on how I arrived at any of the interesting places that I have seen there.
Several different church groups have a section of the Church allotted to them. These are the Greek Orthodox Church (they are easy to identify because their priests have ponytails), the Roman Catholic Church, the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Coptic (Egyptian) Orthodox Church, the Syrian Orthodox Church, and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. The latter four are known as “Oriental” Churches, each using liturgy in languages unique to themselves (Armenian, Coptic/Egyptian, Aramaic, and Ge’ez, respectively).
The most crowded part of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is a small building inside the high-domed Church, which is allegedly over Jesus’ tomb. You must stand in line to enter this little building, known as the Edicule, where a priest directs the visiting pilgrims. I did not enter the Edicule, so cannot share more information about it. There are other ancient tombs nearby the Edicule, which you can find by entering a nearby doorway. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre also includes a stone where the cross was said to be, and a variety of different relics (I remember a bone being one of them, but do not remember more).
Since the early Christian church endured enormous persecution when it began, nobody can be sure if the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is over the actual place where Jesus died. However, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is built over ancient tombs that may date to that period. Jesus is believed to have been buried outside of Jerusalem’s city walls. Since the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is inside the walled Old City of Jerusalem, this may seem confusing. However, the current walls of the Old City were built during the 16th century under the Ottoman Empire. I was told that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre would have been outside of Jerusalem’s city walls during the Roman era.
I had the opportunity to go on the top of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre’s smaller dome, because I had a wonderful professor who received permission to take her class up there. This dome was part of the section of the Church owned by the Greek Orthodox Church. In addition to going on top of the dome, we also went into a little room below it, where people work on repairing broken icons that churches send to them from all over the world. My professor also took us to a part of the Church’s roof that is accessible to the public, and is the section owned by the Ethiopian Church. Additionally, she took us to a water tunnel beneath the Church. However, I, unfortunately, cannot remember how to find any of those places.
Whether you are Christian or not, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is worth the visit. If you are lucky, you will hear a church procession singing beautiful liturgy. You will also smell spices, probably frankincense, throughout the entire building. However, you must also be prepared to see visitors lighting candles and kissing various objects, which may be strange to people who do not follow those traditions.
Sources and Further Reading
Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Church of the Holy Sepulchre.” https://www.britannica.com/place/Holy-Sepulchre (accessed April 10, 2020).
Vaiciulaityte, Giedre. “The Muslim Keymaster of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre Closed Its Doors for the First Time Since the Black Plague in 1349.” Boredpanda. April 8, 2020. https://www.boredpanda.com/church-of-the-holy-sepulchre-key-master/?utm_source=google&utm_medium=organic&utm_campaign=organic (accessed April 10, 2020).