In 2012, I visited the church of the Holy Sepulchre several times in the heart of Jerusalem. It’s a church that inspired the construction of Templar places of worship from London to Tomar with its distinctive circular shape. The dome of the Holy Sepulchre also appeared on Templar seals
The Holy Sepulchre was originally built by the Romans after they converted to Christianity in the early fourth century CE. It was, they believed, the site of both the crucifixion and the tomb of Jesus. How did they arrive at this conclusion?
Well, the first Christian Roman emperor, Constantine, authorised the demolition of a temple to the goddess Venus in order to venerate the place where Christ died to save the sins of humanity. As the temple came tumbling down, a tomb was revealed. All those present decided that it had to be the resting place of the Messiah.
The first church erected by Constantine was a richly decorated affair with brilliant mosaics and a garden with the rock of Golgotha as its centrepiece. From there, the pilgrim would have entered another open space where a rock cut tomb was exposed to the elements. This church was damaged massively by invading Persians in the seventh century CE and then all but flattened by the volatile Fatimid caliph Al-Hakim in 1009. It’s more than likely that Al-Hakim had the tomb of Jesus hacked to bits.
The Byzantine emperor Constantine IX Monomachus began funding of a new church decades later but it was never completed.
In fact, when the crusaders invaded Jerusalem in 1099, the church had no roof. It was left to the newly victorious crusaders to put up a new building that would enclose the site of the crucifixion and the tomb, giving the latter it’s own little chapel. This was consecrated in the mid-12th century. The crypt is possibly the most evocative of the Middle Ages and its walls are covered in carved medieval crosses.
Up until the 19th century, you could have seen the tombs of Godfrey of Bouillon and Baldwin I, the first rulers of the crusader kingdom of Jerusalem. But they were removed by Greek monks doing repairs. I assume that the ill feeling of the Greek church towards the Latin crusaders had continued from the 12th century to the 19th!
The tomb of Jesus was excavated in 2016 and it revealed the existence of an older tomb under a marble slab placed on the spot where Jesus was said to have been buried. The slab dated to 1555 when the Franciscans carried out major renovation work.
One oddity of the Holy Sepulchre is that the church is divided up between different Christian denominations. Since the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic have been custodians. In the 19th century, the church was divided up again to include the Coptic Orthodox, the Ethiopian Orthodox and the Syrian Orthodox. The relationship between these different groups is often competitive and unfriendly.
Things got ludicrous in 2011 when priests rioted and beat each other with broom handles in a vicious row over who controlled which bit of the church. When I visited, I saw a Coptic Orthodox priest sitting on the roof. Apparently, there is always a Coptic at that spot staking a claim against the Ethiopians. There is also a ladder that has been propped up against a window since 1852 and nobody has moved it because of similar aggro about who can go where and do what.