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 and resurrected.

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 Golgotha.

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 its place.

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

It 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.

Angelo Stagnaro writes

from New York.

On the Web (follow link to “Sanctuaries,” then “Holy Sepulcher”)

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.

Getting There

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.