Constructed around what’s believed to be the location of Christ’s crucifixion, burial, and resurrection, this complex church is the most important in Christendom. The first basilica right here was constructed by the Roman emperor Constantine between 326 and 335 at the suggestion of his mother, St. Helena. It was rebuilt on a smaller scale by the Byzantine emperor Constantine Monomachus within the 1040s, following its destruction by Fatimid Sultan Hakim in 1009, but was enlarged once more by the Crusaders between 1114 and 1170. A disastrous fire in 1808, and an earthquake in 1927, necessitated intensive repairs.
Contained in the church, two staircases lead up to Golgotha, which means “Place of the Skull” in Hebrew. On the left is a Greek Orthodox chapel, with its altar positioned directly over the rocky outcrop on which the cross of Christ’s Crucifixion is believed to have stood (Rock of Golgotha). The crack in Golgotha, seen from the apse of the Chapel of Adam beneath, is believed to have been caused by the earthquake that followed Christ’s death. To the right is a Roman Catholic chapel containing a silver and bronze altar made in 1558 and donated by Cardinal Ferdinand de Medici. In between the two altars is the Stabat Mater, an altar commemorating Mary’s sorrow at the foot of the cross.
No fewer than 17 churches are represented in Jerusalem, a results of many historical schisms. The lengthy, fierce disputes between Christian creeds over ownership of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher have been largely resolved by an Ottoman decree issued in 1852. Still in force, and generally known as the Status Quo, it divides custody of the church amongst Greeks, Armenians, Copts, Roman Catholics, Ethiopians, and Syrians.
For the construction of the first church, builders dug away the hillside to leave the alleged Christ’s Tomb isolated, with sufficient room to construct a church round it. To attain this, an previous temple needed to be cleared from the location, and within the process, the Rock of Golgotha, believed to be the location where Christ was nailed to the cross, was discovered. A succession of shrines replaced the original 4th-century one. The current shrine, with two chapels, was rebuilt in 1809-10 after a fire. The outer Chapel of the Angel has a low pilaster with a bit of the stone mentioned to have been rolled from the mouth of Christ’s tomb by angels. A low door leads to the interior Chapel of the Holy Sepulcher, which houses the place where Christ’s body was said to have been laid.