There are many places of special interest to Christians in Jerusalem, including no less than nine churches and four convents. But the one building often uppermost in the minds of visitors to the Jordanian metropolis is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. It rests on perhaps the holiest ground of Christendom.
Beneath the huge domes of this ancient church adorned with gifts of precious jewels, gold and silver, tradition says, lies the site of Calvary and the place of the crucifixion. Here, too—under the same church's roofs—are the places of the burial and the resurrection.
Ironically, the church, first built in 326 A.D., owes its existence in part to an infamous Roman ruler who was violently anti-Christian. In 135 A.D., the Emperor Hadrian, then 16, was determined to crush the memory of Jesus by remaking Jersusalem into an entire pagan city. One of his acts was to have erected upon Calvary and Jesus' tomb a sprawling temple to Venus. His contemptuous deed, however, served to mark forevermore the sites he was intent on obliterating. Thus, two centuries later, when Empress Helena of Constantinople wanted to finance the building of a basilica over the sites, she had no trouble finding them.
Helena's structure was begun in the year 326 and was finished a decade later under the direction of her son, Constantine. Reports issued from time to time by church and other historians hint that during the excavation workmen found three crosses, a few nails and an inscription such as Pilate ordered to be placed on the cross of Jesus.
Crosses had long been used as gallows and were familiar to the Egyptians, Africans, Macedonians and Greeks centuries before the Romans used them. During Constantine's own rule, crucifixion was the official method of capital punishment. Whether his workmen found the cross of Jesus is something which will probably never be proved. But it is known that at a point during the building of the Jerusalem basilica Constantine suddenly abolished crucifixion and venerated the cross as a symbol on the coin of the realm.
Constantine's church, dedicated in 336, was a magnificent wooden and stone monument. The sepulchre itself had been tediously separated by excavation from the mass of surrounding rock, and the emperor had its walls lined with fine marble. The restored sepulchre was then surmounted by a gilded dome in the center of a rotunda. Lastly, the main structure, the church, was built around the rotunda.
In 614, the Persians under Chrosroes II conquered Jerusalem, and the city and much of Constantine's church were destroyed by fire. In 638, when Abu Bakr's successor, the second Caliph, Omar, entered Jerusalem, he helped clear with his own hands its accumulated refuse. On the site of Moriah, the sacred rock where today stands the splendid Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque, he ordered built a simple wooden mosque. A deeply pious man, Omar also encouraged the Christians living in the city to retain their faith and rebuild their shrines. Under Muslim rule, the church and the precious sites it covers have been preserved to this day.
In 1147, a fire started by lightning caused the main building to burn, but it was soon restored. In 1342, Rome awarded custody of the church to the Franciscan friars, a responsibility they still retain. The keys of The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, however, are traditonally kept in the custody of the Muslim Nuseibeh family. Because of the firmans of Malimud II (1834) and Abdul Megid (1841), which laid down the principles of the status quo in the sacred places of the Holy Land, the properties, rights and privileges of the respective communions in the church have not appreciably changed.
Today, the church is open daily from 4 a.m. to 11:30 a.m., and from 12:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Although scores of sightseers visit it between these hours every day, on religious holidays their numbers are greatly increased. Literally thousands of visitors will crowd into Jordan to annually commemorate various of the events, sad and joyful, in the life of Jesus.
Among the dates which specifically involve Jerusalem are: the week of His Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem, the week of the Last Supper, the Time of His Agony (in nearby Gethsemane), the day of His Arrest and Trial before Pilate, the hour of His Death and Burial, and finally the week of His Resurrection and Apparition.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre lies within the Old City of Jerusalem—which in turn is situated in the center of the modern city. Surrounded by an impressive crenelated brown stone wall built in the sixteenth century by Suleiman the Magnificent, the Old City is a five-minute taxi ride from most Jerusalem hotels. Once inside its walls, the tourist proceeds on foot along narrow winding streets, often ascending shallow flights of worn stone steps.
One of these narrow streets is the Via Dolorosa, or Way of Sorrow. This route, which by tradition marks where Jesus trod carrying His cross, begins not far from the site of Pilate's praetorium.
Now, every Friday at 3 p.m., a Franciscan procession including visitors retraces the steps and stops at each of the Way's 14 stations to pray. Of particular interest to them are the three stations where Jesus fell under the heavy weight of the cross, and the second station, at which Pilate is said to have come out, seen "Jesus wearing the crown of thorns and purple robe," and sneered: "Behold the man!"
The Via Dolorosa's last station is, of course, "at the place called Calvary," inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Since the severe earthquake of 1927, which weakened some main structural supports, the church has been partly supported by steel scaffolding. Late in 1962, a repair and restoration plan for the entire building was announced by the Jordan government. The work will be done by a technical company appointed by the various Christian communities represented in Jerusalem.
A similar renovation was begun in 1958 on another of Old Jerusalem's religious sites—the ancient Dome of the Rock. Repair operations on this beautiful mosque, which shelters the famed sacrificial rock of Abraham, will be completed in 1964, and the Holy Sepulchre project should be finished by 1967. Then, people from everywhere will come to Jerusalem to witness these two revered structures in all their original splendor.