So – where was Jesus really crucified? An Easter mystery!

Back in 2012, I visited the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem – a real hotch-potch of a church on different levels and sprawling over a large area. Within its ancient walls dating back to the first Christian Roman emperor Constantine is the reputed site of the crucifixion.

But not everybody agrees.

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The crypt of the Holy Sepulchre

Every year, thousands of pilgrims trudge up the Via Dolorosa – as I did – following the last footsteps of Jesus to his place of death. The cobbled road is punctuated with all those familiar sites – such as the point at which he fell and where his face was wiped.

And it all ends up in the Holy Sepulchre. Within the church you can venerate the spot at which the cross was erected and also the tomb of Jesus.

It’s all rather convenient, a sceptic might think. What a happy accident to have both these sacred places under one roof. And the discovery of the location of the crucifixion and the tomb were made by the Empress Helena, mother of Constantine, on a state visit to Jerusalem in the fourth century AD. In fact, Helena just found one miraculous biblical item after another during her stay.

But there are problems. Was the crucifixion really carried out within the city walls? Wouldn’t it have been more likely for grim executions to be conducted outside the gates, by the local rubbish tip for example, away from the houses of local citizens? You have to consider that the bodies were normally left to rot and be picked at by animals for days afterwards. Did people really want to see that outside of their window?

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The  Garden Tomb – the real site of Jesus’ burial?

Also, where is the skull-shaped hill of Golgotha?

This question led some Christians in the nineteenth century, mainly Protestants, to pick a spot for the crucifixion outside the city walls near a tall mound that does appear to have a skull-like appearance. It’s just north of the Damascus gate. They also alighted on an old tomb nearby as the final resting place of the Messiah – the so-called Garden Tomb.

Now, some critics have argued that this theory has more to do with Protestants having no control over any part of the church of the Holy Sepulchre. Even today, that church is divided between the Roman Catholic, Coptic, Ethiopian, Syrian, Armenian and Greek orthodox churches. They occasionally fight each other in turf wars over who controls which bit of the church – and they’re certainly not letting the Protestants get a look in.

All I can say is that while I adore the Holy Sepulchre, it’s not a convincing site for the crucifixion. However, the Knights Templar thought it was and their churches all over Europe replicated the circular design of the Holy Sepulchre. I’m sure many of you will feel that the symbolic significance is more important than the reality. But some of you may not. So what is the truth?

When you approach the site of the crucifixion at the Holy Sepulchre, there can sometimes be scenes of deep religious ecstasy. You may think I was a bit naughty doing this but on my old iPhone (so apologies for the grainy quality), I filmed some Russian nuns showing their devotion in 2012 before the place where Jesus was executed by the Romans.

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The grave of the Prophet to be destroyed – but not by crusaders

medinaDuring the crusades, there were numerous plans to try and invade Mecca and Medina to dig up the Prophet Mohammed and despoil the holy places.

The view of Templars and all crusaders was that Islam had been a terrible heresy, a theological aberration, that could be crushed by attacking its most revered site. If only the tomb of its founder could be destroyed, then the Muslim world would implode in on itself.

Most notoriously, Reynald de Chatillon (portrayed in the movie Kingdom of Heaven as something of a monster) menaced Mecca and Medina until the Saracens managed to get hold of him and end his life. It’s even said that he managed to capture Saladin’s sister (or some accounts say his aunt or mother) as she returned from a pilgrimage to Mecca.

Over three hundred years later and Christians still dreamed of getting the Prophet’s body. The Portuguese adventurer and governor of Goa – Afonso de Albuquerque – set out in 1513 to secure the Red Sea for Portuguese ships on route to India. In the process, he hatched a plot to seize the corpse of Mohammed and wouldn’t return it until all Muslims had left the Holy Land. In the end, however, much like the crusaders before him – all his attempts to attack Mecca and Medina came to nothing.

And so – the original mosques built in the seventh century AD by Mohammed and his immediate followers survived. Until the last few years. Incredibly, the Saudi authorities have been busy demolishing buildings that the Prophet himself would have known. And their enthusiasm for the task goes beyond anything that Chatillon or Albuquerque could have possibly imagined.

The Wahhabi variant of Islam in Saudi Arabia is against any whiff of idol worship or veneration of sites not directly associated with the Prophet. As early as 1806, when the first Wahhabi state was formed in Arabia, gouged out of the Ottoman Empire, there was an attempt to destroy Mohammed’s tomb. This caused outrage across the Muslim world and was stopped. The Ottomans reasserted control but when the Saudis achieved full independence after the First World War, then the destruction began in earnest.

Ironically, as the number of pilgrims to Mecca and Medina has increased hugely in recent years – so has the pace of demolition. In effect, those going to Saudi Arabia are contributing to the leveling of the tombs and mosques dating back to the life of Mohammed.

In 1998, the grave of Mohammed’s mother was burnt down and his father’s tomb has also gone in recent years. The reason, apart from Wahhabi purity, is the massive expansion in modern religious complexes to house and channel all these pilgrims. New buildings are simply being slapped on top of seventh century structures. It would be rather like demolishing Westminster Abbey to make way for a hotel for worshipers – if that makes any sense.

And now in Medina, the biggest building in the world (the Masjid al-Nabawi) is about to shoot up sweeping away another three mosques from the century of the prophet. Unbelievably, these mosques contain the tombs – you guessed it – of the Prophet himself as well as Abu Bakr and Umar, his two closest associates. Reynald de Chatillon must be laughing in his grave.

 

The Holy Sepulchre – sacred to the Knights Templar

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Site of the crucifixion – photo I took during my visit

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.

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Photo I took in the crypt 

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.

Ethiopian monkOne 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.

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Priests riot in 2011

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.

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Photo I took within the chapel covering the tomb of Jesus

 

The power of saints relics in the Middle Ages

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Relics that I photographed in Arles, France

For the Knights Templar – saints’ relics were very important.  And the ordinary people had a great deal of faith in the leg bone or skull of a dead holy person.  Various stories circulated at the time about the power of these relics.

Two beggars had the misfortune to get a little too close to the relics of Saint Martin.  They were desperate not to be healed as nobody would ever give them money again.  And they certainly didn’t want to do an honest day’s work.  But the sweep of the crowd edging forward to touch the body of the saint caught them up and before they knew it, their blindness was cured.  The chronicler says the two men were hugely pissed off by this – rather like the character unwillingly healed in Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian’.

One story that shows how everybody was a sucker for a good relic in the Middle Ages was the claim by monks at the abbey of Saint Jean in Aquitaine, south west France, that they had discovered the head of John the Baptist.  This would have come as something of a surprise to a church in far off Antioch – modern Turkey – where they quite sure that the head of John the Baptist had been sitting above their altar for centuries.

But nothing was to stop the French monks who were a bit hazy on the small details of where and how they’d found this head so far from where it had been chopped off a thousand years before.   Needless to say plenty of French peasants began claiming that their ailments were cured by the head in their midst.  And as relics seem to need the company of other relics, John the Baptist was soon joined by the remains of Saint Eparchius.

Saint Eparchius had died in the sixth century and his good deeds in life had centered on rescuing condemned criminals.  Bit soft on crime you could say.  One man hung at the gallows was brought back to life by the saint whose head now joined John the Baptist.  The sky burned with fire when the two relics were put together.

Another relic that showed off its power was that of Saint Junianus whose bits and pieces were being transported in a sack by some monks and one night they stopped off at a village to sleep.  After they left, the villagers erected a wicker fence around the place where the relics had been set down.  Later that very day, an angry bull charged in to the fence and died instantly.

Bishop Gregory of Tours, who was writing in the very early medieval period after the fall of the Roman Empire, was sure that Saint Martin – mentioned above – had cured him of all sorts of things.  One was a massive attack of dysentery that left him vomiting and on the toilet constantly.  His physician couldn’t cure him but lo and behold, some dust taken from Saint Martin’s tomb and mixed in to an elixir, did the trick.

Touching Saint Martin’s tomb also sorted out Gregory’s recurring headaches, removed a fishbone from his throat, cured what sounds like chickenpox or shingles and when his tongue swelled up, he took to licking part of the tomb.  Yuck!

Most incredibly to Gregory, a woman who had been beaten up and rendered speechless by a ghost (I’m not making this up!) recovered her speech and was able to tell Gregory all about what had happened after she visited Martin’s tomb.  I’m hoping she didn’t have to lick it as well.