Vast numbers of Christians, especially adherents of the older "mainstream" churches, believe this to be the place where Jesus was crucified by the Romans, was buried, and rose from the dead. Some claim that the very antiquity of the Holy Sepulcher tradition argues in favor of its authenticity, since the fiercely committed Early Christian community would have striven to preserve the memory of such an important site. The church is outside the city walls of Jesus' day—a vital point, for no executions or burials took place within Jerusalem's sacred precincts.
The site was officially consecrated, and the first church built here, following the visit in AD 326 by Helena, mother of the Byzantine emperor Constantine the Great. The Crusaders built the present great structure, the fourth church on the site, in the 12th century. Interior additions over the years have distorted the original Gothic plan, but look for the Norman-style vault at the far end of the Greek Orthodox basilica (facing
the tomb) and also the ceiling of the dim corridor leading to the adjacent Catholic chapel.
On the floor just inside the entrance of the church is the rectangular pink Stone of Unction, where, it is said, the body of Jesus was cleansed and prepared for burial. Pilgrims often rub fabric or religious trinkets on the stone to absorb its sanctity and take them home as mementos. Steep steps take you up to Golgotha, or Calvary, meaning "the place of the skull," as the site of the crucifixion is described in the New Testament. The chapel on the right side of the upper level is Roman Catholic: a window looks out at Station X of the Via Dolorosa; a wall mosaic at the front of the chapel depicts Jesus being nailed to the cross (Station XI); and a bust of Mary in a cabinet to the left of it represents Station XIII where Jesus was taken off the cross. The central chapel—all candlelight, oil lamps, and icons—is Greek Orthodox. Under the altar, and capping the rocky hillock on which you stand, is a silver disc with a hole, purportedly the place—Station XII—where the cross actually stood.
The tomb itself (Station XIV), encased in a pink marble edifice, is in the rotunda to the left of the main entrance of the church, under the great dome that dominates the Christian Quarter. The only hint of what the tomb must have been like 2,000 years ago is the ledge in the inner chamber (now covered with marble) on which the body of Jesus would have been laid. You can see a more pristine example of an upscale Jewish tomb of the period in the gloomy Chapel of St. Nicodemus, opposite the Coptic chapel in the back of the sepulcher.
An astonishing peculiarity of the Holy Sepulcher is that it is shared, albeit unequally and uncomfortably, by six Christian denominations (Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Egyptian Coptic, and Ethiopian). Centuries of sometimes-violent competition for control of key Christian sites culminated in the Status Quo Agreement, imposed by the Ottoman Turkish authorities in 1852. The Holy Land had become an issue of imperial power politics—the Crimean War broke out less than two years later—and under the pressure of Orthodox Russia, the Ottoman Turks recognized the precedence of the Greek Orthodox as on-the-ground representatives of the Eastern Rite churches.
Each denomination jealously guards its assigned possessions and privileges, and seemingly trivial infringements by one of its neighbors can flare up into open hostility. At the same time, the phenomenon gives the place much of its color. Try visiting in the late afternoon (the exact time changes with the seasons), and watch the groups in turn—Greek Orthodox, Latins (as Roman Catholics are known in the Holy Land), Armenian Orthodox, and Egyptian Copts—in procession from Calvary to the tomb. The candlelight and swinging censers are similar; the robes and lusty hymn singing are distinctly different.
Yet there have been more harmonious moments. A modern agreement among the Greeks, the Latins, and the Armenians on the interior restoration of the great dome was hailed as an almost miraculous breakthrough in ecumenical relations, and it was rededicated in January 1997 in an unprecedented interdenominational service.