The Holy Sepulchre’s long history

Jerusalem holy site went through massive changes since 335 consecration

Worshippers hold candles as they take part in the Christian Orthodox Holy Fire ceremony at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem (photo credit: REUTERS)
Worshippers hold candles as they take part in the Christian Orthodox Holy Fire ceremony at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Little remains of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre that Constantine consecrated on September 13, 335.
It took more than 10 years to build the original church, in what was then the city of Aelia Capitolina, on top of what was once a temple to Aphrodite. During the demolition, they discovered a series of tombs, one of which being Joseph of Armithea’s.
Less than 300 years later, over three days, the Persian invasion destroyed the Constantinian complex of the church. The tomb of Jesus, church historians say, was destroyed in 1009 after Caliph Hakim gave an order to destroy all churches in the Middle East. His soldiers took sledges to the rock, and the remains are covered up by the Edicule.
The church went through a renaissance in the age of Crusaders, with the Pope’s soldiers rebuilding the ruined church and unifying the adjacent chapels. The holy site took on an extreme importance for the soldiers, with author Terry Trainor writing in Bedlam. St. Mary of Bethlehem that “no crusader could consider his journey complete unless he had prayed as a pilgrim at the Holy Sepulchre,” and that the Crusader leader Prince Godfrey of Bouillon declared himself Advocatus Sancti Sepulchri (Protector of the Holy Sepulchre).
The building was later closed after Saladin’s conquest of the Holy Land, and the church eventually decayed as worshipers had limited access to the holy site.
In the 14th century, by means of a papal bull, the Franciscans took over the church. Over the next few centuries, the church survived fires and earthquakes, and was renovated and repaired several times. Today, six denominations – Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Egyptian Copts, Syriacs and Ethiopians – celebrate their rites in the church and have a share in the building. It is currently undergoing another major restoration, with the funds coming from Jordan’s King Abdullah.
For a 19-year period, from Israel’s War of Independence in 1948 to the Six Day War in 1967, just as Israeli Jews could not visit the Western Wall and Temple Mount, Israeli Christians could not visit their holy sites in Jerusalem’s Old City.
Only after Israel’s prophetic victory in the 1967 war, was the religious freedom of the holy site in Jerusalem’s Old City guaranteed.
Benny Hinn, born in Jaffa in 1952 to Greek Orthodox parents, and who later immigrated to North America, converting to Pentecostalism and becoming a televangelist, described the joy of being able to take part in the church’s Holy Fire ceremony, albeit from a distance.
“At a specified time, we would go to the military-guarded Mandelbaum Gate that separated east and west Jerusalem, waiting to have the Holy Fire passed from the other side,” he wrote in his book He Touched Me: An Autobiography.
“In the distance we could see the pilgrims coming toward us with their candles burning – ready to transfer the Holy Light to people who would carry the flame to their churches for Easter.
“I felt honored. One of the men on the journey said, ‘Benny, you are the only boy in Israel who carries the Holy Fire to the churches.’”
During the 1967 war, Defense Minister Gen. Moshe Dayan approved the use of tanks and planes in the fight for the Old City of Jerusalem, however he gave a strict order not to hit the Dome of the Rock, al-Aksa Mosque or the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Immediately following the war, Dayan declared: “We have returned to the most sacred of our holy places, never to part it from again... And to our Christian and Muslim fellow citizens we solemnly promise religious freedoms and rights. We came to Jerusalem not to possess ourselves of the holy places of others, or to interfere with the members of other faiths, but to safeguard the city’s integrity and to live in it with others in unity.”
Only weeks later, the Knesset passed the Protection of Holy Places Law, turning Dayan’s remarks into law.