Stories from Palestine

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre part 2, an audio tour

October 02, 2022 Kristel Season 6 Episode 3
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre part 2, an audio tour
Stories from Palestine
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Stories from Palestine
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre part 2, an audio tour
Oct 02, 2022 Season 6 Episode 3

In the previous episode you could hear an introduction to the history of the Holy Sepulchre Church in Jerusalem.

This episode can be used as an audio tour when you are visiting the Church. Start on the square in front of the main entrance.

If you are listening from elsewhere you can follow the description and use your imagination! There are lots of photos online as well as YouTube videos.  Here is a 20 minutes documentary by AlJazeera English that gives an idea about the church and the community:

If you want to read the transcript of this podcast you can do so under the transcript button on the Buzzsprout page or on the website :

Follow Stories from Palestine podcast on social media, sign up for the newsletter, visit the website and support the show with a donation, all through one link:

Show Notes Transcript

In the previous episode you could hear an introduction to the history of the Holy Sepulchre Church in Jerusalem.

This episode can be used as an audio tour when you are visiting the Church. Start on the square in front of the main entrance.

If you are listening from elsewhere you can follow the description and use your imagination! There are lots of photos online as well as YouTube videos.  Here is a 20 minutes documentary by AlJazeera English that gives an idea about the church and the community:

If you want to read the transcript of this podcast you can do so under the transcript button on the Buzzsprout page or on the website :

Follow Stories from Palestine podcast on social media, sign up for the newsletter, visit the website and support the show with a donation, all through one link:

Before we enter into the Church in this audio tour, imagine that you are on a square in front of the Holy Sepulcher church. This square is on the southern side of the church, it is also called the parvis. The term parvis comes from the Latin paradisus meaning "paradise" and is used to indicate an open space in front of a church. 

To reach this square you have to come either through the Muristan area, or as it is called now Suq Aftimos. Or you pass from the Christian Quarter street through a narrow road and a flight of stairs past the entrance of the Omar mosque. A third way to arrive is from the roof of the church at Deir es Sultan through the convent and chapels of the Ethiopians and Copts. Whatever way you chose, it is quite tricky to find the entrance of this important church and sometimes the parvis is overcrowded with tourists and pilgrims. 

To the left of the entrance you can see the small part of the Crusader bell tower that remains. Most of the upper part was lost during earthquakes.

If you look up above the entrance of the church, you will see two windows with below it a ledge on which you can see a ladder. This ladder is known as the immovable ladder. This ladder has been there at least since 1728 and we know this because it can be seen on an engraving made by Elzearius Horn in that year. It may have been there even longer. 

The reason that is has remained on the ledge is due to the agreement of the Status Quo that no cleric of the six Churches may move, rearrange, or alter any property without the consent of the other five orders. The window, the ledge and the ladder belong to the Armenians. The ladder is mentioned in the firman of 1757, the royal decree of sultan Abdul Hamid I and since then it has not been moved. Well that's not completely true. It has not been moved by the Armenians. But in 1997 there was a Protestant Christian who wanted to make a point and he went up into the Armenian Convent and pulled the ladder into the window and hid it behind the altar. When the Armenians found it, they put it back. And nothing changed, although in 2009 some tour guide students who were studying the church noticed that the ladder was under the left window instead of the right window and they took a picture. Not long after the ladder was back under the original window.

I find this story both hilarious and sad. It is a good example and symbol of Christian division.

The main entrance and actually also the ONLY entrance to this very important and famous church is not the kind of impressive entrance you would imagine. 

Originally there were two Crusader entrance gates made of wood. The right one has been bricked up and is closed, although you can still see the arch and columns. It is not known when this happened. So the only entrance to the church is the left one. And it has a beautifully carved wooden door. 

To the left of the door is a marble column that has a crack, a fissure of about 1.20 meter in length and looks like a flame that is rising upwards. Some say this was caused by an earthquake, others point to the year 1579 in which the Greek Orthodox were not allowed to enter the church to celebrate their yearly feast of the holy fire. They were not allowed by the Ottomans. The feast of the holy fire is a very old tradition in which the patriarch on the Holy Saturday before Easter enters into the aedicule inside the church and prays and receives the holy fire by a miracle, from God, and lights candles that are used to light candles that travel around the country and even beyond. 

On that Holy Saturday in 1579 they were not allowed to get into the church. And while praying outside on the parvis, the column split and the Holy fire appeared from the column and the patriarch lit his candle and the fire was spread quickly via the candles of all the Christians who were present and the Ottomans were so surprised and astonished that they allowed them to go inside the church.

Oh we are still only at the entrance of the church and I have to mention another three things!! First of all above the church entrance were two lintels of marble with engraved reliefs that were taken down in the 1930s under the British Mandate. Some sources mention it was because of fire, others because of an earthquake that the lintels were damaged and removed. But you can still see them if you visit the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem. This museum started as the Palestinian Archaeological Museum but was later renamed Rockefeller after the American business magnate and philanthropist who financed the Museum in British Mandate time.

To the right side of the entrance we see some stairs leading up to a chapel with a small dome on a higher level, which was the entrance the Crusaders used to get up to the Calvary or Golgotha to commemorate where Jesus was crucified. But before getting there they would commemorate at station number 10 of the Via Dolorosa that Jesus was stripped of his clothes.

The last thing, before we enter the church. The keys of this church are kept by two Muslim families. One family, the Husseini family, holds the key of the church, while the Nusseibeh family physically opens and closes the door. Every morning at 4 AM and every evening at 7 PM you can witness this event. They are honored and they take it very seriously. According to some this agreement dates back to the time of Salaedin who saw that the different religious groups were fighting, already then, over the custody of the church. Others say that it dates back even much earlier to the time of Omar ibn el Khatab in 637 AD with the first Muslim conquest of Jerusalem. 

Now we are really stepping inside the church and we are in the southern part of the church. Right in front of us we see a large flat stone with many lamps above it and a big mosaic behind it with the scene of the new testament that tells about how Jesus was taken from the cross after his death and he was anointed with balm and they wrapped him in linen and then they brought him to a grave. 

This is the location where according to tradition this actual scene took place and it is commemorated right on that spot. But the stone that we see is not 2000 years old. It is a new stone dating from 1810. It is also called the stone of unction, which means the act of anointing someone with oil or another anointment. 

Usually you can see a lot of pilgrims around this stone. Many of them kneel down and they spread some water on the stone and then rub their souvenirs over the stone as if they want to bring home some of the sacredness of the place and holiness of the stone. Many believe that this will have healing powers and bring blessings. 

But even though this is the first thing that you see and witness when you set foot in the church, the traditional route to take is not straight forward to the stone of unction. Most pilgrims first go up the stairs directly on the right after entering the church. And this is very hard maybe to imagine but try to imagine it. The stairs are leading up to the cliff on which Jesus was crucified according to the tradition. Remember that Jesus was taken outside the city gate and then brought on a cliff right next to a stone quarry. So basically as we are entering in the church we are down in the stone quarry, that is lower, because stones were cut out and removed to be used as construction material. But going up the stairs we are going up on the cliff. It is very hard to imagine and to recognize even when you are inside the church. I will share some drawings and images that I have found online on the website and on social media so that you can get a better idea. You can also google it yourself if you use the search terms Holy Sepulcher and quarry.

Up the stairs you find yourself in a chapel, it doesn't look at all like the cliff anymore, because this part of the church is built over the cliff and the floor has been paved so nothing reminds of the rocky cliff that's below the surface. EXCEPT for one place where you can see a bit of that rock, now covered with protective glass and there is one place below the altar of the Orthodox part of the chapel where they indicate that the cross of Jesus was set up.

So as I explained in the previous episode there are 9 sites that are shared between different religious denominations and the status quo agreement indicates who is responsible for which part of the church. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher has chapels for the Roman Catholics, the Greek Orthodox, the Armenians, the Syriac and the Copts. 

And the Calvary or Golgotha where we are now in our audio tour, is divided between the Catholics and the Orthodox. Calvary is Latin and means bald head or skull and Golgotha is Aramaic for skull and is used in the original first four books of the new testament of the Bible which was written in Aramaic.

In this area we have the 11th and 12th stations of the cross. So the first 9 are outside of the church, station number 10 as I mentioned is right beside the Golgotha and used to be the area that gave entrance to the Crusaders who were coming from the stairs outside into the church. 

And now comes something interesting. So we can see some of the bedrock, the original rock the white stone, of the cliff, now protected by glass. But inside the rock is a big crack. And some people believe this crack was the result of an earthquake that happened, according to the Bible, when Jesus died. It is also believed by some that directly below the Golgotha in a cave, the first man on earth, Adam, was buried. He was also the first sinner who did not obey Gods orders. It is said that when Jesus was on the cross his blood dripped through the crack in the rocks down onto the remains of Adam and this is what redeemed him. 

Maybe for people who are not Christian here it is important to explain that Christians believe that Jesus was the Son of God. That God sent him to the world with a message of how to live together. And he had to die, like they used to sacrifice animals to God before when they had sinned and wanted to make things right with God, but this time the death of the Son of God was the way to redeem all people. So through the sacrifice of Jesus, the sins of all humans could be forgiven by God. 

So now if you go down another flight of stairs opposite the one you came up to this chapel then you have on your right hand the Chapel of Adam and you will see part of the bedrock cave including the continuation of the crack that you saw up on the Golgotha.

But we are going to the left here back to the stone of unction, which is the 13th station of the cross. Where Jesus was anointed. And then we continue towards the place where he was buried. 

On our left we pass by a small circular stone with four pillars and a marble canopy. This is a small shrine called the Station of the Holy Women. It commemorates that Jesus’ mother and two other women watched the crucifixion of Jesus. This part is under the Armenians. 

On the wall behind the shrine you can see a large mosaic that recalls the scene of the women looking at Jesus on the cross. 

And now you reach the most important part of the church. You will be in the Rotunda, a circular shaped stone structure with a dome with light coming down from the top of the dome. And in the middle of this Rotunda is the aedicule, it literally means a little house. Inside this aedicule Christians believe is the grave in which Jesus was buried. It is written that a man called Joseph of Arimathea had a new grave that had not been used before and he allowed Jesus to be buried there.

So just try to picture it. We are now in the stone quarry. We just came down from the cliff where Jesus was crucified. They brought him down into the quarry and there on the western side of the quarry, some caves were prepared to function as graves. That was very common in ancient times to use existing caves or to dig out space inside the limestone rocks and use them to bury people.

And now imagine this: when emperor Constantine and especially his mother Helena came here, removed the Temple that Hadrian had built here and found the burial cave inside the rocks, they wanted to cover it and protect it in a church, but they also wanted people to be able to visit and to walk around the grave. So they brought in workers to cut the rocks around the grave. To completely remove the stones, the rocks and to leave just the area of the burial site that they had pointed out to be the burial place of Jesus. 

Then they built a small chapel or aedicule over the burial site. 

The church has been destroyed twice and suffered from earthquakes and a big fire since that first church was built, so the aedicule that we see today is not the original one at all, it dates from after the big fire that happened in 1808.

You can visit the aedicule from inside, sometimes you have to line up for a long time to enter and the priests that are guarding the site generally do not allow you to spend a lot of time inside, because the line has to keep moving!

When you enter through the low door, bending down to get in, you first arrive into the small chapel called the Angel's chapel. In the middle is a piece of stone that is believed to be part of the big circular stone that was used to close off the tomb where Jesus was buried. The second chamber that is very small and can have maximum three or four people inside, is the actual area with the tomb. 

There are long studies done about the type of tomb and the way that Jesus was buried, or maybe he was left on a stone inside the tomb after the anointment because it was Shabbath and officially forbidden for Jews (because don't forget, Jesus was a Jew!) to move the dead body into the actual burial niche that was dug out into the rocks on floor level. This is what is called the kokhim tomb that was the most common in that time.

To protect the actual stone on which Jesus would have been laid, there is a marble slab on the original stone so what you see is NOT the actual stone.

This is the part of the tomb where on Holy Saturday the Holy Fire emerges when the Patriarch prays inside and he lights a candle and the fire is given from one to the other candle spreading around the church and from there around the whole area and the world. 

Under the Status Quo the three main religious communities in Palestine: the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Armenian Apostolic Churches all have rights to the interior of the tomb, and all three communities celebrate the Divine Liturgy or Holy Mass there daily.

If you come out of the aedicule and turn right to go to its back side, you will find a small addition to the aedicule that is a small chapel for the Coptic Orthodox. There is usually a monk inside and you are allowed to go in and from here you can also see the rear of the natural rock with the marble slab on it where Jesus was laid.

And just across from the Coptic Orthodox chapel there is a door that gives access to a chapel inside the apse of the church that looks a bit shabby actually. It is not in a very good state. This is also the outcome of the status quo and some different view points of who is responsible for this chapel, but it is used by the Syriac Orthodox Church on Sundays and Feast days to have mass and the chapel is dedicated to Joseph of Arimathea, the man who gave his new tomb to bury Jesus. 

And the interesting thing here is that from the chapel you can see the bedrock of the original stone quarry and several kokhim tomb that are hewn into the rock. The tombs date from the 1st century and there is a tradition that says these are the tombs of Joseph of Arimathea himself and of Nicodemus who was a Jewish Pharisee and member of the Jewish Sanhedrin, the Court, who was one of the first followers of Jesus and Jesus met him in private to answer his questions. 

From this Syriac chapel we return back to the rotunda with the aedicule in the middle if we continue our circle around the aedicule in the rotunda then we are back at its entrance. And directly across from the entrance you can see what is called the katholikon. 

This is in the central part of the nave that was built by the Crusaders. It is where the transept and nave meet. You know how the churches were built in the shape of a cross, with the long nave as the Romans used to built there basilica, the long halls for public meeting. The Christians took the same building style of the basilica but added a transept that symbolizes the horizontal beam of the cross of Christ. So here in the Holy Sepulcher church, in the center of the church where the nave and transept meet, is the place where the altar is. This part is Greek Orthodox. Here we find a stone called the omphalos, meaning the naval of the world, the center of the world, like the ancient Greeks believed Delphi to be the center of the world. For Orthodox Christians this place with the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ is the center of the world.

The katholikon has two seats, one for the Patriarch of Jerusalem and one for the Patriarch of Antioch.

And now we leave the Katholikon, facing the aedicule we go to the area on the right which is the north side of the church. This area belongs to the Catholics. There is an altar dedicated to St Mary Magdalene, who is mentioned several times in the Bible as one of the female followers of Jesus. She was one of the women who followed him the day of his crucifixion and she was the first one to come to his tomb and find it empty. 

Big double bronze doors (donated by the people of Australia in 1982) lead to the Franciscan Chapel of the Apparition. This place commemorates the old tradition that Jesus appeared to his mother after his Resurrection. This event is NOT found in the Gospels.

On the right inside the entrance of the chapel is a section of a column, said to be the one to which Jesus was tied when he was scourged. Along the far wall, scenes of the Way of the Cross are depicted in wrought iron.

From the Catholic part of the church we turn left into the northern nave which is a rather dark and gloomy area without a lot of light or decorations. It has a number of columns and pillars that date back both to the first church built in the 4th century under emperor Constantine and others to later dates of renovation, mainly the Crusader time. The arches between the different columns are referred to as the arches of the Virgin. And this is a reference to mother Mary, the virgin who gave birth to Jesus, that she is thought to have made visits to the tomb of Jesus passing here on her way.

At the far end, on the left, is a small Greek chapel called the Prison of Christ. It is believed that Jesus was kept on this spot before the crucifixion. Although this is not mentioned in the Bible stories and technically contradicts the generally accepted stages of the cross.

Now if we continue further around the semi-circular aisle then we see another two chapels on the left. 

The first is the Greek Chapel of St Longinus. This is the Roman soldier who pierced Jesus’ side with his spear to see if he was really dead and then after that he believed and accepted him as the Son of God.

Further along is the Armenian Chapel of the Division of the Garment, recalling that the Roman soldiers divided Christ’s clothes among them. However, because Christ’s tunic was without seam, and woven from top to bottom, it was impossible to divide it, so they decided to cast lots. And according to Christians with this a prophesy from the Old Testament was fulfilled because in the book of Psalms it is written “they parted {divided} my garments among them, and for my clothing {raiment} they cast lots” {Psalm 22: 18 and John 19: 24}. 

Next on the left is a stairway, we will go down there, but let's first look at the third chapel just after the stairway. This is the Orthodox chapel of the derision, meaning the mocking of Jesus, which happened when he was condemned by Pilate and the soldiers dressed him in a red robe and put him a crown of twigs with thorns, to mock him as the King of the Jews. In this chapel you see another stone pillar, that is said to have been a pillar of the building, the Praetorium, where Jesus was condemned and that it was brought from there to this chapel. 

Now we will go down the 29 stairs that take us deeper into the original stone quarry. If you look closely to the walls as you go down you will see hundreds of crosses that were carved into the stone by pilgrims in the past centuries. Recent research suggests that they were not all made by individuals but that probably Crusaders and pilgrims paid some artists to do this service as most crosses are very very similar.

The chapel that we see used to belong to the Ethiopians but because of their financial difficulties they were forced to sell it to the Armenians. It is called the Chapel of Saint Helena. She was the mother of Constantine and gave order to build the church. She was the one according to tradition who came and searched for any evidence of Jesus' crucifixion and she found the crosses and tools that were used by the Romans. 

The Armenians call this chapel the Chapel of St. Gregory the Illuminator after the saint who brought Christianity to the Armenians. The Armenians were the first nation to adopt Christianity in the year 300.

The mosaic floor in this chapel is new and not ancient as some guides are telling the tourists. It is by an Israeli artist called Hava Yofe and it depicts churches in historical Armenia. 

From the chapel of Saint Helena there is another staircase with thirteen steps that ends in the cave where they discovered the Holy Cross, the nails and the crosses of the two robbers. According to the legend, Saint Helena wanted to know which cross was Jesus' cross and she brought a very sick woman and had her touch the three crosses and when she touched the True Cross of Christ she was healed. 

This cave is bigger than what you see today, the wall on your left side has been placed in the middle. On the other side is the continuation of the cave and that is accessible from the Armenian Chapel of Helena up the stairs but only if you get to ask one of the Armenian priests. 

And IF you get a chance to go there then you will find a slab of stone with what is probably the oldest Christian inscription found in Jerusalem. It was not found here but it was brought here to safeguard it. It reads in Latin DOMINE IVIMUS and there is a drawing of a boat. The translation of Domine Ivimus is ‘Lord, we have gone or Lord we went' referring to their pilgrimage to the holy land.