Founded by St. Helena, mother of Roman Emperor Constantine, during her fourth century pilgrimage to uncover the Christian holy places, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre incorporates many of the places associated with Jesus’s crucifixion and death (the last four Stations of the Cross, to be specific). Having been destroyed by conflict and fire, and continuously rebuilt and expanded, it is a historical mishmash comparable, among the sites we have visited, only to the Sri Meenakshi Temple of Madurai in South India (see post of 3.19)–not remotely an architectural masterpiece of aesthetic harmony but an awe-inspiring complex of medieval and modern chapels and shrines, pulsing with pilgrims and seething with spirituality. This is no museum, as the great cathedrals of Europe sometimes feel, but a place where the most sacred, whether true or false, can be literally touched and felt.
Pilgrim outside of the “edicule,” the shrine surrounding Christ’s tomb, lighting and extinguishing candles to take home
Catholic chapel on Golgotha, or Calvary, the location of the crucifixion
Every stone, even every crack in every stone, seems to have a story, going as far back as Adam, the first man. The rock of Golgotha, the site of the crucifixion, is exposed, not only to be seen but touched. Dark stairs lead to the place that St. Helena is said to have discovered the True Cross, the walls leading the site etched with countless crosses, left by medieval pilgrims with apparently ample time. All around are remnants of Crusader churches and columns, mosaics and icons, old and new, and on the wall the sword of the Crusader Godfrey of Bouillon. Ambulatories open into chapels with Roman, Greek and Armenian script. The floor is a mosaic of paving stones, mismatched and laid in various eras, their relative blackness suggesting their age.
Crosses etched into walls in medieval times
Dome above the Greek Orthodox Catholicon
An Italian pilgrim crosses himself. Greeks await service in the Greek Orthodox Catholicon. A Filipino group recites the Lord’s Prayer in English after having carried a wooden cross along the length of the Via Dolorosa. Dozens of pilgrims wait in line for their few seconds inside the Tomb of Christ. Mother Teresa nuns light candles on the Golgotha shrine. Indian and African Christians wipe the Stone of Unction with scarves, as if to absorb residual blood, the power of Christ. Polish pilgrims scrape the mortar from between the church’s bricks, to take back home a piece of the sacred building. All around are priests in myriad vestments–Coptic monks in their hoods, Orthodox priests in their caps, Franciscans in their frocks–walking around with keys, crosses and artifacts for services.
In the basement, an Ethiopian Orthodox chapel
African Christian at the Stone of Unction, on which the body of Christ is said to have been lain after his crucifixion
Central dome, with top of the “edicule,” the shrine surrounding Christ’s tomb, rising at bottom