To: (Multiple email addresses may be specified by separating them with a comma)
On the 1,000th anniversary of the sacking of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, Register correspondent Angelo Stagnaro takes a look.
BY ANGELO STAGNARO
There is no
holier site in Christendom than the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher.
Christians for centuries braved
highway bandits, Muslim armies, the vagaries of local despots, slavers,
pestilence, extreme weather, deprivation and harsh deserts for the honor and
privilege of standing on the spot upon which Our Lord and Savior was crucified
Historians are confident that the
church is built on the Golgotha (Place of the Skull) of the Gospels, since the
site has been venerated by the Christian community in Jerusalem since the first
century. Though the Gospels describe Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection as
having taken place outside of the city’s walls, the Basilica of the Holy
Sepulcher is inside the walled Old City of Jerusalem. That’s because Herod
Agrippa ordered an expansion of the city’s walls in A.D. 41-44, enclosing
After Christ’s crucifixion, Golgotha
became a meeting place for Christians. In the second century, as part of the
persecution of Christians, a temple dedicated to Venus was built over the site.
In 326, Emperor Constantine ordered the temple razed and a basilica built in
In 614, when Persian conqueror
Khosrau II invaded Jerusalem, he stole the cross found at the site by St.
Helena, Constantine’s mother. In 630, Emperor Heraclius returned it to the
church. Fatimid caliph Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah ordered the destruction of the
basilica in 1009, apparently incensed by what he saw as a “fraud” going on
there: the “miraculous” descent of the holy fire celebrated during the Easter
Vigil. The destruction was extended in time to other churches and convents in
the Holy Land, a practice that, along with the maltreatment of Christians
there, was a catalyst for the Crusades. In 1027, Emperor Constantine VIII
struck a deal with a later caliph, Ali az-Zahir, to restore all of the
churches, including Holy Sepulcher.
By 1048, construction had been
completed, but it was fundamentally different from what we currently see. The
site was an enclosed court with five attached chapels each dedicated to aspects
of Christ’s passion.
However, by the 11th century, all of
this was destroyed due to infighting between Fatimids and the Seljuk Turks.
When the Crusaders arrived in Jerusalem on July 15, 1099, their leader, Godfrey
of Bouillon, eschewed the title “king” in favor of “Defender of the Holy
Sepulcher” and restored the basilica. In 1149, renovations on the site finally
placed all the shrines and chapels under a single roof.
Subsequently, Muslim authorities
banned Christian pilgrims from entering the basilica. In fact, it was only
after the 1187 signing of the treaty that ended the Third Crusade when pilgrims
were allowed to visit the basilica.
Since the Franciscans renovated the
church in 1555, an ongoing power struggle between the Catholic and Orthodox
Churches has sometimes erupted in violence. Under Ottoman rule, Muslim
authorities, tired of the infighting, divided the chapels in the basilica among
Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox and Armenian Orthodox.
Further, the authorities decreed
that a local Muslim family that lives immediately next door to the Holy
Sepulcher would be given the sole key to the front door. Even today, members of
the family lock and unlock the door every day.
When one approaches the church, one
wouldn’t know it is the holiest site in Christendom: It’s wedged into the
corner of a small, unassuming plaza. I stepped in through the door in what
amounted to trembling joy and even a bit of trepidation. I was standing in the
spot of Christ’s passion and ultimate sacrifice, the raison
d’être of Christianity.
Visiting the Tomb
Immediately inside the entrance is
the Stone of Anointing, which is where Christ’s body was anointed prior to
burial. Next to it is the Rotunda of the Anastasis, over which is the larger of
the church’s two domes. In the center of the rotunda is the Edicule (little
house; Latin Aediculum), which is comprised of two
rooms. One of these rooms contains the Angel’s Stone, the stone that sealed
Christ’s tomb and upon which an angel addressed St. Mary Magdalene (Matthew
28:1-7). The second room contains Christ’s tomb.
An enormous Greek Orthodox priest
dressed completely in black stood before the Edicule welcoming every pilgrim
who came to pay homage to Christ. The tiny door is very narrow and much too low
to accommodate even a short person, thus forcing the pilgrim to bow in order to
enter. Only one pilgrim was allowed in the Edicule at a time, giving each an
opportunity for private prayer. I bowed deeper than was necessary because the
experience of being at Christ’s tomb was absolutely overwhelming. Inside the
Edicule was a large stone where Christ’s body was laid. For those moments in
the Edicule, I felt perfectly at peace with both God and man.
A short staircase led up to the top
of Golgotha. Once at the top, one finds a chapel built over the spot where
Christ’s cross was planted. A nearby sign marks a spot beneath an enormous
chandelier, halfway between the sites of Christ’s death and resurrection, as
the “center of the world.” Geographically speaking, this is, of course, an
arbitrary designation, but to the Christian, it is highly significant.
Nearby is the Chapel of Adam.
Tradition holds that Christ was crucified over the place where Adam is buried.
Close to Heaven
become apparent to me, as I prayerfully meandered through the series of
chapels, that the basilica was set up as a permanent Stations of the Cross. I
asked a particularly happy-looking Franciscan who was trimming altar candles
when the next commemoration of the Stations of the Cross would take place.
The friar offered to give me a more
thorough tour of the Holy Sepulcher, for which I was very grateful. This time,
freed from the pressures of interpreting everything for myself — which I had
done before as I wandered through the basilica armed only with a guidebook — I
concentrated upon the faces of my fellow pilgrims. I was first struck by the
great multitudes of people who came to do homage. The next thing that hit me
was the ethnic mix and the languages I overheard. Perhaps this is what heaven
is like: all of the peoples of the world coming together in peace and love,
recognizing their Creator.
from New York.
On the Web
Custodia.fr (follow link to “Sanctuaries,” then
Planning Your Visit
The eastern Mediterranean coast is always warm
and humid with high rainfall, except during the summer, when it can be
unmercifully hot. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is in Jerusalem’s Old City
and within walking distance of the Wailing Wall.
The nearest airport is in Tel Aviv. Buses make
the trip between there and Jerusalem on a regular basis. Keep the weather in
mind in planning your wardrobe. It’s important to dress respectfully, modestly
and appropriately. Photos are not allowed in the basilica.