Church Of The Holy Sepulchre guide starts with basics (hours, map, history, ladder), and then we will tour through the church. Let’s begin!
Sepulchre Or Sepulcher?
In past blogs, I always wrote Sepulcher. But when I check now in Wikipedia, I see that they spell Sepulchre. So what is the correct form of writing?
The short answer is both. According to WikiDiff, Sepulchre and Sepulcher both mean a burial chamber. Sepulchre is the UK version, and Sepulcher is mainly the US one.
Church Of The Holy Sepulchre is located within the Christian Quarter inside the Old City Of Jerusalem.
Map of the Old City:
And here is my photo of the Old City map sign that I saw during one of my visits:
On the map above, the Church Of The Holy Sepulchre is located in squares G5 and G6.
Note: you can click on the image to enlarge it.
So far, we have seen the map of the area. But what about the church itself?
Recently we visited the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, and there we saw the “In Statu Que” exhibition. This exhibition discussed negotiations of different structures, and one of them was Church Of The Holy Sepulchre. So in this section, I want to show several photos from “In Statu Que.”
Let’s begin with the model of the church.
In the model above each block of the church has a different color. The color states whom this block belongs to. Here is the legend:
And here is the plan of the church.
Note: you can click on the image to enlarge it.
My favorite way to reach the Old City is by using Park and Ride. Park and Ride mean that you leave your car at one of the free parking lots near the Jerusalem Light Rail (in my case, and if you are arriving from the center of Israel, it is the Ammunition Hill parking). And then take the Jerusalem Light Rail to City Hall station. The City Hall, which is located at Safra square, is a short walk from the Jaffa gate.
Jaffa gate and Damascus gate are the closest to the Church Of The Holy Sepulchre, but since the Old City is quite small you can reach it from any gate. Usually, we enter from the Jaffa gate and continue straight to the market. Once you enter the market, you proceed straight till Muristan street (third turn to the left). On Muristan street, you will see the Church of the Redeemer, and after it, you turn left to St. Helena.
The compound of the Church Of The Holy Sepulchre has two entrances. The one I mentioned above (from the directions of Church of the Redeemer) is the more common one. But, you can also enter the church from Christian Quater street (it is useful if you are looking for a faster way and not through the market to Jaffa gate).
I have checked three different websites, and they all listed the same opening hours. And they are:
April – September
Monday – Saturday: 05:00 AM – 9:00 PM.
Sunday: 05:00 AM – 8 PM.
October – March
Daily: 04:00 AM – 7:00 PM.
When To Visit Church Of The Holy Sepulchre?
But, unless the opening hours were changed recently, my experience suggests shorter opening hours. About a year ago, we were in the Old City, and at around 18:00 the Church Of The Holy Sepulchre was already closed. Thus I would suggest not to come late. Moreover, since the church is usually crowded (especially during Easter), I would suggest coming early. Around 10 am, you will see that tourist groups start to arrive. Thus, if you prefer a more secluded experience (and spending less time waiting in line), visit before 10 am (and preferably before 9 am).
As in all religious sites, you are requested to dress modestly. Moreover, I would suggest that women will take a light scarf, which can be used to cover the head and shoulders.
To understand the importance of this church, we need to explain what happened in this place before there was a church.
According to traditions, this church contains two of the holiest sites in Christianity. They are the Golgotha (AKA Calvary) – the site where Jesus of Nazareth was crucified, and Jesus’s empty tomb, where he is said to have been buried and resurrected.
Within the church, proper are the last four (or, by some definitions, five) stations of the Via Dolorosa, representing the final episodes of the Passion of Jesus. The church has been a major Christian pilgrimage destination since its creation in the fourth century, as the traditional site of the resurrection of Christ, thus its original Greek name, Church of the Anastasis (‘Resurrection’).
In this section, I will go over some of the historical highlights, and if you are interested in a complete version, then you can find it at Wikipedia (the historical quotes were taken from there).
In 70 AD, the siege of Jerusalem by Emperor Titus saw the destruction of the Second Temple. Sixty years later, in 130 AD, the Roman emperor Hadrian started a Roman colony in Jerusalem and c. 135, ordered that a cave containing a rock-cut tomb be filled in to create a flat foundation for a temple dedicated to Jupiter or Venus. The temple usually referred to as Jupiter Capitolinus, remained until the early 4th century.
After seeing a vision of a cross in the sky in 312, Constantine the Great converted to Christianity, signed the Edict of Milan legalizing the religion, and sent his mother Helena to Jerusalem to look for Christ’s tomb. With the help of Bishop of Caesarea Eusebius and Bishop of Jerusalem Macarius, three crosses were found near a tomb, leading the Romans to believe that they had found Calvary. Constantine ordered in about 326 that a church will replace Jupiter Capitolinus. After the temple was torn down and its ruins removed, the soil was removed from the cave, revealing a rock-cut tomb that Helena and Macarius identified as the burial site of Jesus, which a shrine was constructed around.
The church was consecrated on 13 September 335.
Damage, Destruction, And Reconstruction
This building was destroyed by a fire in May of 614 A.D when the Sassanid Empire, under Khosrau II, invaded Jerusalem and captured the True Cross. In 630, the Emperor Heraclius rebuilt the church after recapturing the city. After Jerusalem came under Arab rule, it remained a Christian church, with the early Muslim rulers protecting the city’s Christian sites, prohibiting their destruction or use as living quarters. A story reports that the Caliph Umar ibn al-Khattab visited the church and stopped to pray on the balcony; but at the time of prayer, he turned away from the church and prayed outside. He feared that future generations would misinterpret this gesture, taking it as a pretext to turn the church into a mosque. Eutychius added that Umar wrote a decree prohibiting Muslims from praying at this location. The building suffered severe damage due to an earthquake in 746.
Church Of The Holy Sepulchre suffered from additional disasters, like earthquakes and fires. And finally, in 1027-28 after negotiations between the Fatimids and the Byzantine Empire, an agreement was reached. According to the understanding, rebuilding and redecoration of the church were done.
Many historians maintain that the main concern of Pope Urban II when calling for the First Crusade was the threat to Constantinople from the Turkish invasion of Asia Minor in response to the appeal of Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Komnenos. Historians agree that the fate of Jerusalem and thereby the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was of concern if not the immediate goal of papal policy in 1095. The idea of taking Jerusalem gained more focus as the Crusade was underway. The rebuilt church site was taken from the Fatimids by the knights of the First Crusade on 15 July 1099.
The First Crusade was envisioned as an armed pilgrimage, and no crusader could consider his journey complete unless he had prayed as a pilgrim at the Holy Sepulchre. Crusader Prince Godfrey of Bouillon, who became the first crusader monarch of Jerusalem, decided not to use the title “king” during his lifetime and declared himself “Advocatus Sancti Sepulchri” (“Protector [or Defender] of the Holy Sepulchre”). By the crusader period, a cistern under the former basilica was rumored to have been the location where Helena had found the True Cross. And it began to be venerated as such. Although the cistern later became the “Chapel of the Invention of the Cross,” there is no evidence of the rumor before the 11th century, and modern archaeological investigation has now dated the cistern to 11th-century repairs by Monomachos.
William of Tyre, the chronicler of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem, reports on the renovation of the Church in the mid-12th century. The crusaders investigated the eastern ruins on the site, occasionally excavating through the rubble, and while attempting to reach the cistern, they discovered part of the original ground level of Hadrian’s temple enclosure; they decided to transform this space into a chapel dedicated to Helena (the Chapel of Saint Helena), widening their original excavation tunnel into a proper staircase. The Crusaders began to refurbish the church in a Romanesque style and added a bell tower.
The renovations continued until the Khwarezmians captured both city and church in 1244.
Ottoman And Later Periods
The Franciscan friars renovated the church in 1555, as it had been neglected despite increased numbers of pilgrims. The Franciscans rebuilt the Aedicule, extending the structure to create an antechamber. A marble shrine commissioned by Friar Boniface of Ragusa was placed to envelop the remains of Christ’s tomb, probably to prevent pilgrims from touching the original rock or taking small pieces as souvenirs. A marble slab was placed over the limestone burial bed where Jesus’s body is believed to have lain.
After the renovation of 1555, control of the church oscillated between the Franciscans and the Orthodox, depending on which community could obtain a favorable firman from the “Sublime Porte” at a particular time, often through outright bribery, and violent clashes were not uncommon. There was no agreement about this question, although it was discussed at the negotiations to the Treaty of Karlowitz in 1699. In 1767, weary of the squabbling, the “Porte” issued a firman that divided the church among the claimants.
Let’s stop at this point when there is no agreement among religious communities regarding the church. And this is a good place to discuss the ladder, also known as the Immovable Ladder.
Here is a photo of the exterior. And if you take a closer look at the second-floor windows (you can click on the picture to enlarge it), then beneath one of them you will see a ladder.
Here is a closer view of the second floor.
This ladder was not moved for more than 250 years. To understand why we need to discuss the Status Quo.
The Status Quo is an understanding among religious communities concerning nine shared religious sites in Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
The status quo stemmed from a firman (decree) of Ottoman sultan Osman III in 1757 that preserved the division of ownership and responsibilities of various Christian holy places. Further firmans issued in 1852 and 1853 affirmed that no changes could be made without consensus from all six Christian communities. The actual provisions of the Status Quo were never formally established, but the 1929 summary prepared by L. G. A. Cust, The Status Quo in the Holy Places, became the standard text on the subject.
And since the Status Quo understanding, this ladder was not moved (more precisely, almost not moved).
Some consider the so-called immovable ladder under the window of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to be a visible symbol of the alleged inactivity the Status Quo imposes. Made of Lebanon cedar wood, the ladder was in place by 1728 and has remained there ever since the 1757 status quo was established, aside from being temporarily moved twice. The ladder is referred to as immovable due to the agreement of the Status Quo that no cleric of the six ecumenical Christian orders may move, rearrange, or alter any property without the consent of the other five orders.
According to various accounts, the ladder once belonged to a mason who was doing restoration work in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Jerome Murphy-O’Connor states that “the ladder was first introduced at a time when the Ottomans taxed Christian clergy every time they left and entered the Holy Sepulchre.” The Catholics adapted by setting up quarters inside the church.
Note: up to this day, I visited more than a dozen times at the Church Of The Holy Sepulchre. Thus, you will see photos from different times of the day and various seasons. But, in all of them, you will see crowds. Therefore, I would suggest reading when to visit the section above.
I have been to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre many times before, but never took a closer look at the entrance.
Stone Of Anointing
The first thing that you see when you enter the church, will be probably the Stone of Anointing. It is a little hard to see it behind the crowds, but it located on the floor level about ten meters from the entrance.
The Stone of Anointing is where Jesus’s body is said to have been anointed before burial.
Just inside the entrance to the church is the Stone of Anointing, which tradition believes to be the spot where Jesus’ body was prepared for burial by Joseph of Arimathea. However, this tradition is only attested since the crusader era, and the present stone was only added in the 1810 reconstruction.
The wall behind the stone is defined by its striking blue balconies and tau cross-bearing red banners (depicting the emblem of the Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulchre) and is decorated with lamps.
The lamps that hang over the Stone of Anointing, adorned with cross-bearing chain links, are contributed by Armenians, Copts, Greeks, and Latins.
On the wall behind the Stone of Anointing, you can see a modern three-part mosaic. Here is a panorama of the mosaic:
The mosaic shows three scenes. The pictures are (in the right to left order): descent from the Cross, anointing of Jesus’ body, and burial of Jesus.
Here is a closeup of descent from the Cross:
To the right of the Stone of Anointing, you can find the staircase leading to Golgotha. Further along, the same wall is the entrance to the Chapel of Adam. But we will continue to the left. Out visit will be in a clockwise direction. And we will visit Golgotha in the end. Meanwhile, I will show you how Stone of Anointing and the entrance look from the balcony near Golgotha.
As you can see from the photo above to the left of the Stone of Anointing, there is a corridor. That corridor leads to Rotunda and Aedicule.
Rotunda And Aedicule
First, let’s start with a short explanation of what is a rotunda.
A rotunda is any building with a circular ground plan and sometimes covered by a dome. It can also refer to a round room within a building. The Pantheon in Rome is a famous rotunda.
Here is a broad view of the Rotunda.
In the middle, you can see a small chapel. It is called Aedicule, and it encloses the Holy Sepulchre.
In the center of the rotunda is a small chapel called the Kouvouklion in Greek or the Aedicula in Latin, which encloses the Holy Sepulchre. The Aedicule has two rooms, the first holding the Angel’s Stone, which is believed to be a fragment of the large stone that sealed the tomb; the second is the tomb itself. Possibly because pilgrims laid their hands on the tomb or to prevent eager pilgrims from removing bits of the original rock as souvenirs, a marble plaque was placed in the fourteenth century on the tomb to prevent further damage to the tomb.
Usually, there is a long line around the rotunda to the Aedicule. Thus, if you want to Aedicule, come early.
And if you look up, then you will see that this rotunda has a dome.
During one of our visits, we accidentally arrived at the Lent Ceremonies. And since most of the time I was near the Rotunda, I will now show several of my photos from the procession (the featured image is also from the lent ceremonies).
And here is how Lent Ceremonies looked from outside:
If you turn your back to the entrance to Aedicule, you will see the Catholicon.
In the central nave of the Crusader-era church, just east of the larger rotunda is the Crusader structure housing the main altar of the Church, today the Greek Orthodox catholicon. Its dome is 19.8 meters in diameter and sits directly over the center of the transept crossing of the choir where the compass, an omphalos once thought to be the center of the world (associated with the site of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection), is situated.
In my recent visits, I noticed that they started to limit the entrance to the Catholicon. So here is an earlier photo of the Catholicon.
And if you stand in the center of the Catholicon and look up, then you will see the “Christ Pantocrator” mosaic on the dome.
Let’s continue in the clockwise direction until we reach stairs that lead down.
On your way, you will see a recently constructed chapel (see next photograph), and nearby you can find newly built restrooms.
Your visit can begin by descending a flight of stairs whose walls are covered with crosses incised by hundreds of pilgrims over hundreds of years. Deep below ground level is the Armenian chapel, abutting a First Temple-period stone quarry where tradition says Queen Helene found the cross. The centerpiece of the main floor is the Edicule. Its icons and lanterns may be unfamiliar to some, but visitors often say they feel spiritually uplifted from the moments spent in the utter silence of the tiny interior room marking the traditional tomb.
Nearby is a stone slab where tradition says the body of Jesus was prepared for burial, and where you may see pious Orthodox and Catholic Christians praying fervently. Visitors are moved by the beautiful mosaic behind the stone, which shows with sadness and hope the moments when Jesus is taken down from the cross and laid in the tomb. Up a steep flight of stairs, the site of the crucifixion itself is marked by both a Greek Orthodox and a Catholic altar, where Christians from around the world stand patiently in line waiting to touch the rock they hold sacred.
Visitors to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre find themselves steeped in the Christian history as well as experiencing living testimony to the tenacity of Christians to revere their piece of Jerusalem from the earliest times to the present.
And if you take a look at the right wall along the stairs, then you will see Crusader graffiti.
As you descend the stairs you will enter into Chapel of Saint Helena.
Chapel Of Saint Helena
Chapel of Saint Helena is a 12th-century Armenian church, called after Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine, who came here to find the True Cross.
– Chapel of Saint Helena – between the Chapel of Division of Robes and the Greek Chapel of the Derision are stairs descending to the Chapel of Saint Helena.
– Chapel of Vartan (or Vardan) Mamikonian – on the north side of the Chapel of Saint Helena is an ornate wrought iron door, beyond which a raised artificial platform affords views of the quarry, and which leads to the Chapel of Saint Vartan. The latter chapel contains archaeological remains from Hadrian’s temple and Constantine’s basilica. These areas are open only on request.
– Chapel of the Invention of the Holy Cross – another set of 22 stairs from the Chapel of Saint Helena leads down to the Roman Catholic Chapel of the Invention of the Holy Cross, believed to be the place where the True Cross was found.
Here are several photos of Chapel Of Saint Helena.
And now let’s go back to the ground level and continue in clockwise direction until we almost reach the Stone of Anointing. You will see the stairs to your left. And after you climb them, you will find yourself near Golgotha.
Golgotha – Calvary
Golgotha, or Calvary, was, according to the Gospels, a site immediately outside Jerusalem’s walls where Jesus was crucified.
Matthew’s and Mark’s gospels translate the term to mean “place of [the] skull,” in Latin rendered Calvariæ Locus, from which the English word Calvary derives.
Calvary is split into two chapels, one Greek Orthodox and one Catholic, each with its altar. On the left (the north side), the Greek Orthodox chapel’s altar is placed over the rock of Calvary (the 12th Station of the Cross), which can be touched through a hole in the floor beneath the altar. The rock can be seen under protective glass on both sides of the altar. The softer surrounding stone was removed when the church was built. The Roman Catholic (Franciscan) Chapel of the Nailing of the Cross (11th Station of the Cross) stretches to the south. Between the Catholic and the Orthodox altar, a statue of Mary with an 18th-century bust marks the 13th Station of the Cross.
If you want to light candles near Golgotha, or in any other place in the Church Of The Holy Sepulchre, then you can purchase them in the Old City’s market.
Golgotha ends our visit to the church, and now we will go over common questions.
Tours Or Individual Visits?
In this post, I covered the main parts and chapels of the church. But there are others as well. For example, there is the Prison of Christ and the Chapel of Adam. A regular visitor can miss many of those places and does not know all of the church’s history.
At this point, you should decide whether you want a standard or an in-depth visit. If you want the standard one, or you are limited in time, then the information in this post should be enough. And if you prefer an in-depth tour, then I would suggest either joining a tour or hiring a guide. Almost all Old City tours stop at the Church Of The Holy Sepulchre. Just ask them how much time you will spend inside the church (not including free time). Aim for at least one hour.
The problem with tours is that most of them are during midday. And in earlier in this post, I suggested visiting early (the earlier, the better). Thus, if you want both an in-depth tour and visiting Aedicule, then I recommend making two separate visits. First, start with a tour and learn about the church. Moreover, you might get lucky, and there will be no long line to the Aedicule, and you could visit the Holy Sepulchre at the same time. If not, then make another early morning visit for the Aedicule and Golgotha.
How Much Time A Visit To Church Of The Holy Sepulchre Takes?
The short answer is that it depends. It might be anywhere from half an hour to three hours. And I am not talking about guided tours, where the guide determines the duration of your visit.
The main variable that affects the duration of your visit is the length of the lines. There are usually two queues. The longer one to the Aedicule, and a short one at Golgotha. And at the Aedicule line, you can easily spend 2 – 3 hours (did I already say come early 😉 ). And the Golgotha line usually takes up to 20 minutes. Beyond the queues, a typical visit will take 0.5 – 1.5 hours depending on your interest in this site.
Have you ever been to the Church Of The Holy Sepulchre? Tell us about your experience in the comments below.
That’s all for today, and I’ll see you in future travels!
Additional ResourcesHere are several resources that I created to help travelers:
- Israel Trip Planner is the page that will help you to create your perfect travel route.
- National Parks And Nature Reserves page lists and put all national parks on the map. There is also a top list, information about ticket types and campsites.
- If you are looking for things to do, here are the pages for Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa, Sea Of Galilee, and Makhtesh Ramon.
- Wondering what events are there in Israel? Here is the Events And Festivals By Season guide.