Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land - 06/03/2000 info: custodia@netvision.net.il
The Holy Sepulchre
tel: +972-2-6273314

Today the Site of the Holy Sepulchre of Jesus lies amidst the buildings of the Old City of Jerusalem. Surrounded by markets, souvenir shops and minarets it invites pilgrims to meditate about the Mystery of Redemption that unfolded at this spot. Time and history have left their scars but it has managed to preserve its incomparable meaning. Regardless of the Christian denomination you belong to, you will feel that this spot has witnessed the "Glory of God in Jesus Christ".

From quarry to Garden (IVth cent. BC - 135 AD)

Restoration work began in 1961 and archaeological trenches were opened in various points of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Thanks to these we can ascertain that the area around the Garden of Golgotha served as a quarry between the eight and the first century BC.

This large east-west quarry, which supplied building stone for the ancient city, was abandoned in the first century BC. The resulting excavated area of the quarry was transformed into a garden, becoming a well protected area outside the city walls of Jerusalem. Various tombs were dug in the high walls surrounding the Garden of Golgotha . Amongst these is the "kokhim" tomb popularly known as the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea.

This Garden of Golgotha remained outside the city walls of Jerusalem until the building of the third perimeter wall, which was completed by Agrippa I (41-44 AD), enclosing the Garden of Golgotha within the city walls. During this time the Mother Church of Jerusalem, having its seat on Sion, visited the site of the Garden of Golgotha and there celebrated the "Memory" of the great events of the Crucifixion, Death and Resurrection of the Lord.

A temple to the Roman gods (135-335 AD)

Emperor Hadrian suppressed the jewish revolt in 135 AD and decided to demolish the whole city of Jerusalem in order to erase all sites which could incite another revolt by the Jewish people. The emperor also forbade any Jewish presence in the new city. A Gentile-Christian community continued to live in Jerusalem and they ensured the continuity of identification of the sacred sites (the first bishop of this community was Marcus).

Hadrian thus prepared a completely new city structured on Hellenistic plans and renamed it "Aelia Capitolina". In this new architectural plan the Garden of Golgotha came to be at the centre of the new city. Some authors maintain that the area on this Garden became the Capitol of the new city with altars for the three main Roman gods - Jupiter at the centre flanked by Juno and Minerva. Others, quoting evidence provided by the writings of Eusebius of Caesarea, maintain that the temple was dedicated to Aphrodite. Both schools of thought agree that a pagan temple was erected on this site.

Christian literary sources recount how the Garden of Golgotha was filled up to level off the area for the construction of the new Roman temple. Here is how Eusebius of Caesarea (265-340 AD), a native of Palestine, describes these events in his Life of Constantine.

The pagan temple of Hadrian was built on the east-west axis and was surrounded by a Temenos (a protective wall with its façade on the Cardus Maximus from where you entered into the sacred enclosure). St. Jerome witnesses to it.

Unearthing the Garden of Golgotha (335 AD)

In 325, during the first ecumenical council of Nicea, the bishop of Jerusalem, Macarius, invited Emperor Constantine to destroy the pagan temples built atop the Christian holy sites in the Holy City. The Emperor, now Pontifex Maximus of the whole Roman Empire and strong in his position decreed the demolition of the pagan temples built atop the Christian Holy Site.

Besides clearing the area from the pagan temples the work involved also an excavation of the land fill which Hadrian had placed in the Garden of Golgotha to level the area. Eusebius describes the event.

The Byzantine monument at the Garden of Golgotha (335 AD)

A new building project was planned by the architects of Constantine. But this meant also a complete change in the topography of the site. The new building comprised five structures which covered the whole area previously occupied by the pagan temple of Hadrian. A flight of steps led from the Cardus to the western atrium. This was the space of the atrium of the Temple which was further embellished by Constantine. The façade of the Martyrium, with three doors, dominated this western atrium.

The Martyrium was a five nave basilica terminated by an apse and a raised presbytery where the main Sunday and festive liturgies were celebrated. Twelve silver columns surrounded the main altar on the presbytery.

A large cloister-garden was developed behind the apse of the basilica and served to join the Martyrium with the Anastasis. This open air three portico cloister was "guarded" by the bare rock of the spur of Calvary left under the open sky in the southwest angle. It is because of this bare rock of Calvary that the basilica was called Martyrium as the pilgrim Egeria recounts: "It is called the Martyrium because it is in Golgotha behind the Cross, where the Lord suffered."

Christian mosaicist of the VI century, in the town of Madaba(Jordan), reproduced the city of Jerusalem of his time which he placed at the centre of his floor Map comprising the territories from Lebanon to Egypt. The city of Jerusalem dominates this mosaic, known as the Madaba Map and the Constantine building of the Holy Sepulchre is the central building of the walled city.

The first destructions and reconstructions (614 - 1009 AD)

All the lavish beauty and richness of the post-Constantinian era vanished in 614 AD when the city of Jerusalem was conquered by the Persian hordes led by general Romizanes. "Cosroe -narrates the patriarch Eutichium in the Annals- sent his general Scharbaraz...he destroyed the churches of Constantine, that on Calvary and that of the Sepulchre, he burned the Church of Calvary and the Sepulchre and destroyed most of the city". This was a tremendous blow with all the Christian churches ransacked, all relics robbed and 33877 persons killed and buried in a cave at Mamilla.The damage incurred during the Persian period was soon repaired through the zeal of the monk Modest, who could perform the restoration thanks to the generous help which poured in from the Christians of Tiberias, Damascus, Tyre and Alexandria. During this restoration the spur of Calvary was covered up by a church.

This Persian invasion stirred the whole empire and by 622 AD, emperor Heraclius had already recaptured the whole territory and forced the Persians to return the war trophies amongst which the relic of the Cross, which was returned to the church of the Holy Sepulchre on the 20th of March 630 AD.

The arrival of the Arab conquerors in 638 AD did not alter the sanctity of this shrine.

Omar ibn al-Khattab and his generals left Syria towards Jerusalem and laid siege to the city. Sofronius, the Patriarch of Jerusalem, went to Omar ibn al-Khattab who granted his protection to the inhabitants and the city through a letter handed over to the Patriarch himself. Omar ibn al-Khattab granted the safeguard of the Christian sites ordering not to destroy them or to use them as living quarters.

At the beginning of the IX century a violent earthquake damaged the dome of the Anastasis. The damages were repaired in 810 by the Patriarch Thomas. The church was set on fire in 841 and in 935 the Christians overcame the Moslem persistent attempts to build a mosque adjacent to the church. The church was again set on fire by the Muslims in 938 and the fire engulfed the basilica, the cloister-garden and also the Anastasis. Once again, the church was set on fire in 966 as revenge for the war lost in Syria by the Moslem army. But all these mishaps affected only wooden structures which could be repaired through great sacrifice by the already impoverished Christian community.

The great destruction and its aftermath (1009 - 1099 AD)

In 1009 AD, the Fatimite Khalif of Egypt al-Hakim explicitly ordered the destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. They started by demolishing the tomb itself, the dome and the high parts of the buildings until the debris at their feet blocked their destruction.

For eleven years the Christians were prohibited to visit the rubbles on the site and were not allowed in to pray in these ruins. It was only some years later that the Christians could rebuild their sanctuary on the site. This was due to a peace treaty between the Byzantine emperor Argyropulos and the successor of al-Hakim in which the reconstruction of the Holy Sepulchre basilica was stipulated. Works started under emperor Constantine Monomacus.

When the imperial architects arrived in Jerusalem they concluded that it was impossible to restore the whole Constantinian structure. So they opted to keep only the Anastasis with a large apse towards the East and various small chapels in the area of the Cloister-garden and the Martyrium. These works were carried out between 1042 and 1048. In this reconstruction the eastern Atrium, the Martyrium and the Cloister-garden vanished!

The Crusader transformation (1099 - 1188 AD)

The Crusaders conquered Jerusalem on July 15th 1099. It was their intention to give back to the Holy Sepulchre its splendor. Initially they only retouched the construction on the tomb of Jesus.

The Crusaders conceived the idea of uniting the scattered sanctuaries, found at the site at their time, under one new monument in the form of a cross. The Holy Sepulchre was repaired and an aedicula placed over it; the Rotunda was conserved in great part, furnished with a grand triumphal arch opening onto the new church erected on the former garden, used as a choir, which was contained within pillars and columns, provided with a tribune and surrounded by an ambulatory.

The new basilica was consecrated by bishop Fulcherius on July 15th 1149, the 50th anniversary from their conquest of Jerusalem

A period of decadence

Jerusalem fell to Saladin's Army in 1188. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was closed and no one could officiate in it. The Christians obtained permission to use it only during the cease fire of 1192 and 1229. In 1244 many Christians were killed during the invasions of the Charismians and the building of the Holy Sepulchre was damaged.

The Christian world protested strongly against the massacre and Sultan Ajub apologized in 1246 to Pope Innocent IV saying that everything was done without his knowledge. He also informed the Pope that he had handed the keys of the basilica to two Moslem families who were to open the doors of the basilica to the pilgrims who arrived at the site.

The pilgrims coming from all over the world, after paying heavy taxes, used to be let inside the church, offered a space and altar where they could celebrate their liturgy. This was the time when all around the Holy Sepulchre various colonies coming from Mesopotamia, Egypt, Armenia, Ethiopia, Syria, Greece and Georgia established themselves. This is a very dark period in the history of this holy shrine. Unscrupulous public officials played games with the Christian willingness to get into this holy building and bring it back to life. Public auctions were held on multiple occasions! And the sanctuary gradually decayed. The wall mosaics crumbled and with them the whole structure started to give in.

The Christians at the door of the Holy Sepulchre

The western powers, after failing several attempts to conquer the Holy Sites manu militari, tried to secure agreements that would ensure the worship at the site and assistance to the pilgrims. The royal couple of Naples, Angiò and Sancia of Majorca (1309-1345) succeeded, after long negotiations and large sums of money to obtain from Melek en-Nazer an official residence for the Latin community of Jerusalem within the Holy Sepulchre.

With the approval of Pope Clement VI this responsibility was conferred onto the Franciscans who had established themselves on Sion in 1335. The papal Bull "Gratias Agimus" of Pope Clement VI written to the general of the Order of Friars Minor established that "the Friars of your Order may live permanently at the church of the Sepulchre and there solemnly celebrate the Masses and the other divine offices".

Furthermore, sultan Barsabai (1419-1467) ordered to the authorities of Jerusalem that the friars 'are not to be hindered in all their visits to the sites in which the are accustomed to go, neither are they to be hindered from entering these sites and there celebrate their functions and solemnities as their religion demand of them, as well as to exercise their worship, they and those who go to them on the altar situated on Calvary, inside the Holy Sepulchre, according to their custom, kept since many years ago and in force of the noble decrees they possess'.

Under the Turks (1517-1917)

Under the new Turkish dominion the Greek community, being direct subjects of the Ottoman Empire, tried to get possession of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Entering Costantinople in 1453, Mohammed II proclaimed the Greek Patriarch of Costantinople the religious and civil head of all the Oriental Christians resident in his Empire.

It was a time when money and gold were valued most and the meanders of intrigues made the Church of the Holy Sepulchre a prized trophy which the sultan could sell to the one offering the most money! In fact between 1630 and 1637, under Murad IV (1623-1640), various parts of the Holy Sepulchre changed hands six times. The Franciscans would not have been able to sustain this costly battle had it not been for France which became the official protector of the Holy Sites and their custodians.

The earthquake of 1545 shook the belfry and a part of it fell onto the baptistery underneath.

In 1555 Fr. Boniface of Ragusa, Custos of the Holy Land, obtained the permission to restore parts of the basilica and completely renew the Aedicula. This was a major restoration and the friar left a detailed description of the work carried out.

In 1644 the Georgians, unable to sustain the expenses in the intricate deals with the Turkish authorities, left definitively the basilica of the Holy Sepulchre, followed, a few years later, by the Abissinians. The Franciscans acquired most of the property which had been abandoned by the other fraternities.

Towards the end of the XVII century the cone shaped dome over the Anastasis built by Constantine Monomacus started giving in. In 1691 the Friars applied for the necessary permits from Turkey to repair the damages. The Aedicula of the Holy Sepulchre was restored in 1728.

On Palm Sunday 1767 the Greeks entered the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre and created havoc. The Ottoman Porte, without inquiry, issued a firman giving the Greeks possession of the Basilica of Bethlehem, the Tomb of the Virgin, and joint possession with the Latins of parts of the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre. Despite the appeals of the Pope Clement XIII to all the Western Powers, the firman stood and the possession of the Holy Places has undergone only minor changes since then.

The nineteenth century opened with the great fire of 1808 in the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre, causing extensive damage to the site. Due to the Napoleonic wars in Europe the Friars did not find enough money to get the necessary permissions from Turkey to perform the restoration. Russia, now patroness of the Orthodox community, obtained permission for the Orthodox community to perform this restoration.

In 1860 the French Ambassador at the Porte, General Aupick, in the name of the Catholic countries, demanded the restoration of the rights of the Franciscans held prior to 1767. The Ottoman Government was ready to acquiesce, when the Russian Czar, Nicholas, intervened and ordered the Sultan to make no change in the existing state of affairs under the threat of a breach of diplomatic relations. Turkey was forced to issue in 1862 a firman directing that the Status Quo (i.e. that of 1767) be maintained.

A new beginning

When on l3th of September 1810 Komninos of Mitylene presented his restored work, one realized that nothing was left or was at least visible of the basilica built in the XIIth century by the Crusader architects. Big pillars had taken the place of the columns, the windows had been closed, plain walls had covered the beautiful ogival arches of the central transept, the shrine on the tomb appeared completely rebuilt in a dubious style. The tombs of Godfrey de Bouillon and of Baldwin I were removed to make way to two steep stairways that led to Calvary. The marble at the Stone of Unction was replaced by a plain one.

The situation became worse after a strong earthquakes in 1867 which shook the central dome which had to be pulled down and replaced with a metal structure. Another earthquake shook Palestine in 1927 and the whole edifice was in danger of collapse. In 1934 the British Authority, administering Palestine since the end of World War I, decided to reinforce the whole building (inside and outside) with iron girdles and wooden structures, as suggested by architect Harvey. This completely disfigured the monument.

The latest achievement

On 2nd January 1997 the Church of the Holy Sepulchre "breathed" life again. The rays of sunlight came down again to illuminate the area where the tomb of the Lord tood. It was 10.00 am when the drapes that covered the newly restored dome where drawn to the awe of the faithful and personalities that took part in a very significant ceremony. This is the latest achievement in the "recovery" of the monument on this Holy Shrine for Christendom. The signs of hope foreseen way back in the sixties are bearing fruit. All visitors to the Holy Sepulchre in recent years have never been able to see this dome as it was completely obscured by a scaffolding awaiting the agreement between the three major rites that officiate at the Holy Sepulchre.

More information and pictures available at our Holy Sepulchre site



Created / Updated Monday, March 06, 2000 at 11:19:04