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All you want to know about the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is like the Israeli government. The Holy Sepulchre has a coalition government representing Eastern Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox, the Ethiopian Orthodox and the Syriac Orthodox churches as well as ordinary tourists. The beauty is in its variety. The plan below shows how the various chapels are divided between the churches.

The site of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem is identified as the place both of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Protestant tradition allow the tomb of Jesus to be the Garden Tomb – further north, just outside the walls of the Old City and the Damascus Gate. Jesus was crucified outside Jerusalem’s walls and buried (albeit temporarily), according to Jewish tradition outside the city on a hill called Golgotha. Golgotha or Calvary means the place of the skull and was a place of public executions and perhaps near a cemetery. Tradition places this as the burial place of the skull of Adam.

In 325,  Helena (Saint Helena) not only identified the location of Golgotha and the Tomb of Jesus but also claimed to have discovered the True Cross. Her son,Emperor Constantine, built the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on this site.
Status Quo in Holy Sepulchre MHz’as
Public Domain

Christian Atmosphere in the Old City of Jerusalem

In a united Jerusalem even the street signs have religious content. All of the religions and churches are represented.

When Omar conquered Byzantine Jerusalem

The Mosque of Omar is not on the Temple Mount. That is the Dome of the Rock. This is a very common mistake. When he conquered Jerusalem, Omar ibn Al-Khattāb did not want to set foot in the Church of the Sepulchre in order not to incite the Christian population. Instead, with great political wisdom, he chose to pray nearby. This is the site adjacent to the Holy Sepulchre that became known as the Mosque of Omar. According to Jewish tradition, Omar set aside the Christian Crusader ban on Jews and allowed them to enter Jerusalem and to worship.

Take you time to take a digital walk through all the chapels in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. To help you become familiar with all the chapels and the the various churches that have administrative rights in the complex, has prepared this presentation just for you.

Entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

The entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (or the Church of the Resurrection) is from the south. Not everyone is aware that the original entrance to the church was in fact from the east.  The entrance to most churches in the world is from the west. This courtyard, outside the present-day Church of the Holy Sepulcher, is partly supported by a large, vaulted cistern.

The first Church of the Holy Sepulchre was approached by a flight of steps from the Cardo, the main street of Jerusalem. Then pilgrims went through a narthex; a basilica; and an open area, the “holy garden,” which had in it the rock of Golgotha, finally reaching the Holy Sepulchre itself.

The Byzantine emperor Constantine IX Monomachus (1042–1055) funded its rebuilding after its destruction by fanatical Fatimid Caliph al-Hakim, but on a different plan, with the entrance on the south side.

The Main Entrance Today

Today’s main entrance to the Church was originally a double-door, but the door on the right was sealed after 1187 when Saladin captured Jerusalem from the Crusaders. Until 1999 two Arab families—the Joudeh and Nuseibeh families—officially possessed the key to the main door of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. To the left (west) of the outside courtyard are three 11th century chapels controlled by the Greek Orthodox: the Chapel of St. James the Just, the Chapel of St. John the Baptist, and the Chapel of the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste,  built over the baptistery of the Constantinian church.

Several Christian “denominations” share custody of the facility: Roman (Latin) Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox, and Coptic Orthodox.

The immovable ladder of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is a religious symbol of a sort – a symbol of rivalry between the Christian sects. Notice the “Status Quo  Immovable Ladder” in the window which is a symbol of the separation of power between the many churches claiming “rights for rites” at the Tomb of Jesus. It is also one of the most powerful and iconic symbols of the divisions and religious disputes within Christian World.

Frankish Chapel

10th Station of the Via Dolorosa where Jesus’ clothes were taken away (Stripping of the Garments)  (Mark 15,24) The chapel is dedicated to Our Lady of Sorrows. The wall on the left side inside  the blue-domed Frankish Chapel is the location of station 11 inside the Holy Sepulcher. This once provided exclusive access to Calvary.

There are a total of 14 stations along the Via Dolorosa. Eight stations are marked along the old city road, one just outside the Holy Sepulchre and six stations are in the compound of the church.

Beneath the Frankish Chapel is the Greek Orthodox Chapel of St. Mary of Egypt was a prostitute who was converted in the church courtyard in the 4th century. This Saint Mary was a 5th C hermit and is the patron saint of penitents.

Frankish Chapel
Frankish Chapel of St. Mary of Egypt

Chapel of St. John (Armenian)

Armenian Chapel of Saint John is in the courtyard (parvis) of the Holy Sepulchre.

Armenian Chapel of Saint John
Armenian Chapel of Saint John

Monastery of Abraham – Greek Orthodox

The St. Abraham’s Monastery is in the southeastern portion of the Holy Sepulchre Square. It used to be run by the Ethiopians but it was transferred to the Greeks in 1660 because they failed to settle their taxes to the  Sultan. Now, the St. Abraham’sGreek Orthodox Monastery is a Christian guest-house for pilgrims visiting Jerusalem.

St. Abraham's Monastery
St. Abraham’s Monastery

Coptic Chapel of St. Michael the Archangel

The Coptic Chapel of St. Michael the Archangel, which includes a staircase leading to the Ethiopian Orthodox Chapel and the Coptic convent to the northeast.

Ethiopian Orthodox Chapel

The Ethiopian Orthodox Deir as Sultan Monastery (Debre Sultan) on the roof of the Church of The Holy Sepulchre in conflict with Egyptian Coptic territorial claims. A dispute that has been searing for centuries.  The Ethiopians were once caretakers of a substantial portion of the interior of the Holy Sepulchre. In 1838, during a plague, the Egyptian Coptics took over the keys to the passageway leading to the two small Ethiopian chapels and to the main entrance of the Holy Sepulchre. The Copts agreed to accept the Ethiopian monks as “guests” but they re-occupied the monastery and the two churches. The complex is often without water, heat, lights and desperately needs repairs on the roofs of the 40 makeshift dingy, gray, single-level mud huts. The Copts and the Ethiopians  tried to convince the Ottomans, the British, the Russians, the Jordanians and the Israelis to grant them full control over the site. The Israeli government endeavours to remain neutral in this dispute because of their international relations with Egypt and Ethiopia.

The Ethiopians, for example, trace their Christian origins back to Philip’s conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-34)

Coptic Convent

Situated literally on the roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is the Coptic Patriarchate of Jerusalem. This includes His Eminence the Patriarch’s residence, St Anthony’s Monastery, 5 Churches and St Anthony’s Coptic College (Secondary). You may notice a similarity between the Ethiopian Orthodox and the Egyptian Coptic areas on the Holy Sepulchre roof. That’s obvious because both church have opposing claims to the same roof and have squatters occupying the dilapidated quarters. Repairs are being held up by a long-running dispute between two Christian sects who claim ownership of the site.

According to Coptic tradition, during the reign of the Muslim Sultan Al Mo-ez (1033-1054), Egyptian delegates used to carry the Gezia money (Islamic taxes) collected from the Copts of Egypt, and bring it to the Muslim Caliphate in Baghdad. Once, the delegation was attacked by thieves, so they hid the Gezia money in the Coptic Patriarchate. Sultan Al Mo-ez granted Deir-El-Sultan to the Coptic families – for their loyalty.

11th Station –  Jesus is nailed to the Cross

Reaching the place of crucifixion, the hill called Golgotha, Jesus is nailed to the cross. This station is located inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, just behind the wall of the 10th station. This is the Latin (Franciscan) altar on Calvary (place of the skull – Golgotha). The more modern mosaics above the altar illustrate the crucifixion, the holy women at the foot of the cross, and the sacrifice of Isaac. This nave was constructed and designed in 1937  by Antonio Barluzzi.
Church of Holy Sepulchre   שימוש חופשי במסמכי גנו – המוסד לתכונה חופשית 

12th Station –  Jesus dies on the Cross

Jesus is crucified and dies on the cross, ending His agony. This station is a Greek Orthodox crucifixion altar. A silver disk with a central hole, underneath the altar, marks the spot where the Cross stood, and pilgrims kneel and kiss the spot. The silver icons of Virgin Mary and St John are on Jesus’ sides.

One can reach below the altar, stick your hand thru the hole, and actually touch the mountain of Calvary.

This station is Greek Orthodox as you can see from the icons and Greek script. The Rock of Calvery can be seen through the glass window.

13 Station -Descent from the Cross  – Stone of Anointing

Thirteenth Station: According to tradition, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus took Jesus down from the cross after his crucifixion was laid him  on this stone. (John 19:38-42) This spot commemorates the place where the body of Jesus was prepared for burial (though this stone dates only from 1810). The Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene and Mary Salome also saw the burial (Mark 15:40 and Mark 15:47)

Place of the Holy Women is to the left of the Stone of Anointing. This is a small circular slab with four pillars surmounted by a marble canopy. This shrine is the Armenian Station of the Holy Women. It commemorates Jesus’ mother and her companions who viewed the crucifixion.

The Stone of Anointing belongs jointly to the Greek Orthodox, Catholics and Armenian Orthodox. The wall behind (north of) the Stone of Unction covers the graves of four Crusader kings.

Cave (Chapel) of Adam

Directly beneath Calvary, the Chapel of Adam is one of the oldest in the church. Adam was buried here.  The Chapel ofAdam is directly beneath the Chapel of Calvary upstairs, and an ancient tradition suggests that Adam was buried here and that the blood of Jesus tricked down to his skull.

It is here that the Crusaders placed the remains of Godfrey de Bouillon and Baldwin, first King of Jerusalem. Their remains were removed in 1809.

Cave (Chapel) of Adam
Cave (Chapel) of Adam

Greek Treasury

From the  Chapel of Adam, a door leads to the Greek Treasury, holding relics including one piece of the True Cross. The treasury is usually closed, but a member of our group, an Israeli Arab Christian Priest was able to gain access for us. Here you can see a real relic and also get a candy from the friendly Greek Orthodox monk.

View of Rock of Golgotha

Next to the Chapel of Adam the rock of Calvary can be seen again, with a fissure running through it. (Matthew 27, 51)

Rock of Golgotha
Rock of Golgotha

14th Station – Edicule

Fourteenth Station: This is the final station of the Via Dolorosa, located in round hall (Rotunda). The tomb of Jesus is located in a small structure in the center of the circle. A stone edicule (“little house” – also written Aedicule) encloses the sepulchre where Jesus lay buried for three days and where he rose from the dead.

The entrance to the tomb is through a narrow door on the east side. There is normally a queue to the enter the inner chamber. The first chamber is called the “Chapel of the Angel”. A fragment of the blocking stone of the Sepulchre is stored here. (Matthew 28 2-3) This is believed to be a portion of the stone that sealed the tomb when the angels removed it for the resurrected Christ

Behind the Chapel is another narrow door which leads to a smaller chamber – the Tomb of Jesus.

The original Edicule was destroy in 1099. Subsequent wooden copies were created and lost in fires.The present wooden monument built around the tomb site dates only to 1810 since a fire in 1808 destroyed the previous one, which had itself been a replica of earlier ones.

Chapel of the Copts

A tiny Coptic chapel from the 12th century is attached to the edicule.

Armenian Shrine

Chapel of St Joseph of Arimathea and St Nicodemus

This the Syriac Orthodox chapel is opposite the Chapel of the Copts.

Directly opposite the tiny Coptic chapel, between two of the pillars of the Rotunda, there is a dilapidated room, the Syriac Orthodox Chapel of St Joseph of Arimathea and St Nicodemus.

On the far side of the chapel is the low entrance to two complete 1st-century Jewish tombs. Since Jews always buried their dead outside the city, this proves that the Holy Sepulchre site was outside the city walls at the time of the crucifixion. There is a tradition that Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus were buried here. (Luke 23: 50-56)

The Syriac Orthodox pray in Aramaic, the language Jesus used on a daily basis.

Anastasis (resurrection) Rotunda

A circular stone structure with a huge dome encompassing the Tomb of Jesus is known as the Rotunda.


The largest chapel in the church, known as the Catholicum (or Katholikon)

Opposite the Rotunda, originally the choir of the 12th-century Crusader church, it is now the Greek Orthodox cathedral. In the Katholikon you can see the rose-colored marble basin containing a circular stone marked with a cross is known as the Omphalos, (navel), the center of the world.

A highly decorated screen called the iconostasis partially hides the altar from view. There are thrones for the patriarch of Jerusalem and the patriarch of Antioch. The smaller dome of the Church is over this chapel.

Catholicum - Greek Orthodox
Catholicum – Greek Orthodox

Greek Orthodox Prison of Jesus

On the northeast side of the Church of the Sepulchre there is a small Greek Orthodox chapel based on a belief, alleged by the Franciscans, that Jesus and the two thieves were temporarily confined here before the crucifixion. The Greek Othodox claim that he was held in a similarly named Prison of Jesus in their Monastery of the Praetorium near the Church of Ecce Homo at the first station of the Via Dolorosa. Armenians regard a recess in the Monastery of the Flagellation near the second station of the Via Dolorosa to be the Prison of Jesus. A cistern among the ruins of the Church of Peter Gallicantu is also alleged to have been the Prison of Jesus.

On the floor, in front of the chapel,  is a mosaic figure of a double headed eagle – symbol of the Byzantine empire and the Greek Orthodox church. Before the entrance to the Prison of Jesus is a smaller chapel of the handcuffs of Jesus, seen on the right side. Under the altar, behind a glass window, are two holes in the floor. According to tradition, these holes (seen below) are the imprints of the feet of Jesus. Pilgrims leave notes inside the window.

St. Longinus Chapel

On the Ambulatory (Corridor) a Greek Chapel of St Longinus dedicated to the Roman soldier who pierced Jesus’ sidewith his spear and then accepted him as the Son of God. (Matthew 27, 54)

St. Longinus Chapel
St. Longinus Chapel

Armenian Chapel of Division of Robes

Further along the Ambulatory is the Armenian Chapel of Division of Robes also called the Chapel of the Division of the Raiment in memory of the the Roman soldiers divided Christ’s clothes among them. (John 19 23)

Armenian chapel of the Division of the Holy Robes
Armenian chapel of the Division of the Holy Robes

Greek Chapel of the Derision

This chapel on the Ambulatory recalls the mocking of Jesus by the Roman soldiers. Under the altar is a fragment of a column, said to be the one Jesus sat on when the crown of thorns was put on his head.

Chapel and Altar of St. Mary Magdalene

Mary of Magdala (Migdal) accompanied Jesus on his way to the cross and burial (Mark 15, 47)

Chapel of the Aparition - also the Franciscan Chapel of the Column
Chapel of the Aparition – also the Franciscan Chapel of the Column

There is an altar dedicated to St Mary Magdalene, then double bronze doors (donated by the people of Australia in 1982) leading to the Catholic Franciscan Chapel of the Apparition. It commemorates the ancient tradition that Jesus appeared to his mother after his Resurrection, an event not found in the Gospels. There is an organ fixed against the wall of the chapel said to be the one to which Jesus was tied when he was scourged.

Armenian Chapel of St. Helen

The 29 steep steps descend to the underground crypt  – the Armenian Chapel of St. Helena, honoring the mother of Emperor Constantine. This is the oldest complete part of the entire building. This chapel is called St. Gregory the Illuminator by the Armenians. The Armenians have re-named the chapel to honour their national patron, St Gregory the Illuminator. The left-hand altar is dedicated to St Dismas (the Good Thief). (Luke 23 42)

29 steps that lead down to the Chapel of St. Helena
29 steps that lead down to the Chapel of St. Helena

Along the walls of this wide staircase is ancient graffiti of crosses.

Graffiti of crosses
Graffiti of crosses

Chapel of the Finding of the Cross – Catholic (Latin) in  Church of the Holy Sepulchre

From the Chapel of St. Helen another steep staircase of 22 steps leads to the Franciscan Chapel of the Finding of the Cross. This rough-walled area has been built within part of the ancient quarry, apparently later converted into a cistern for water storage.

Here, according to tradition, St Helena (Constantine’s mother) discovered the True Cross and other instruments of the Passion and crucifixion. A statue behind the altar shows her holding the Cross.

Chapel of Saint Vartan in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

The Chapel of St Vartan and the Armenian Martyrs is in an ancient quarry behind a wrought iron gate (open only with permission from the Armenians). On a stone in a second-century wall is a drawing of a sailing vessel with a Latin inscription usually rendered as DOMINE IVIMUS (“Lord, we will go”).

In summary:

360Cities Panoramic Photo exterior of Church of Holy Sepulcher

Virtual tour – Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre

Stations of the Cross on the Via Dolorosa

About Israel and You

Cameling in the holy land since forever
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