Updated: Oct 9
The Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. In normal times, the place would have been packed with thousands of tourists and pilgrims, who came to worship and see on the tomb of Jesus. This is the dome of the Rotunda and the Aedicola - the tomb structure that contains the assumed burial site of Jesus, from which he was resurrected, according to the New Testament. The Orthodox Christians call it the "Church of the Anastasis" (resurrection).
I usually write about travel sites in the Holy Land. Now, due to the broad restrictions on foreign travel, let us improve lockdown with mental journeys, at least, to places far and wide
St John the Divine, NYC, USA
Our trip to New York, in 2017, was designed to take a break from the country, the hustle and bustle of work in tourism and whatever, to freshen up a bit on other things. However, I could not resist my drive to visit some churches. Out of sheer curiosity, I entered the cathedral of the Episcopal diocese of New York in Manhattan, St. John the Divine. An impressive neo-Gothic edifice (built mostly in the early 20th century and still unfinished) on Amsterdam Avenue, not far from Central Park.
As we entered the main aisle inside the church nave, I looked down to the floor and saw a series of medallions paved into it, with the inscriptions: Bethlehem, Nazareth, Cana, the Jordan, Capernaum, Samaria, Mount Tabor, Beth Saida and finally - Bethany. Bethany, the ancient Beit-Onia, the town on the eastern slopes of the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, the place where Jesus arrived when he came to Jerusalem on Easter week, where he raised Lazarus from the dead, present day Elazariya, the Palestinian town named after him. Well, here I was - back home!
These are the key events of Jesus' life, from the moment he was born until he came to Jerusalem. Suddenly I realized the excitement of my tourists from all over the world when they hear the names of the places mentioned in the Bible and the New Testament, as they have lived with these names and heard about them all the time. Sites of the Holy land are mentioned in every church, in every religious reading. Many cities commemorate sites of Jerusalem to hold processions, such as those of the Way of the Cross. In many cities there is an edifice called "The House of Pilate", after the Roman governor of Jerusalem, as the place where Jesus' Via Crucis procession begins. Way of the Cross stations are found on walls of every Catholic church because they are part of a devotion.
Ever since, on every visit to a city in Europe or America, I usually search if there is a church reminiscent of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. This is the central church in the heart of Jerusalem, the main destination of every pilgrim, and tourist.
Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher Jerusalem
This church is one of the most fascinating and enigmatic churches in the world. It is ancient and complex. and holds within it the last five stations of the cross, the Hill of Calvary, and the tomb of Christ.
Major sites within the basilica
The pictures, left to right, top to bottom: 1. The church within the Christian Quarter. 2. The parvis of the church, now abandoned in the days of Coronavirus. 3. The main hall, the Katholikon. 4. The dome of the hall with Jesus Pantocrator (Ruler of all).
The Rock of Golgotha/Calvary Hill
Today, Calvary rock is located inside the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem and is virtually hidden by a two-story chapel structure, which helps large numbers of the faithful reach and touch the top of the rock. They can also and insert a hand into the space inside the stone where it is believed the cross stood. It is designed to protect the rock from pilgrims seeking to break off relics of the stone to take home, as has been the practice in the past ...
1. Golgotha/Calvary Hill, the place of the crucifixion according to tradition: the tip of the rock where the cross was stuck. 2. Pilgrims bend down to feel the place of the cross in stone.
The Stone of Unction
The Stone of Unction, the place upon which the body of Jesus was laid, when it was taken down from the cross. Pilgrims prostrate themselves at the place where Jesus' body was laid, where they anointed him with oils according to the Jewish purification rites. This is not the holy tomb and is found at the entrance to the church.
The tomb of Jesus
1. The structure of the tomb inside the rotunda, the aedicula, closed due to the pandemic lockdown. (Photo: Ami Meitav). 2. The rotunda and the aedicula, the structure of the tomb with the crowd filling it in the pre-pandemic days. 3. The Great Dome of the Rotunda.
The Church of the Holy Sepulcher stands above the place where Jesus of Nazareth was crucified and buried. The Romans sentenced him to death by crucifixion and he was led in a procession, carrying a cross on his shoulders, from the palace of the Roman governor to a quarry that then stood outside the city walls.
Ascent to Calvary by Tintoretto, 1567 and The Crucifixion by Andrea Mantegna 1467
Jesus was crucified on a rock, which stood out in a quarry (Golgotha, a skull in Aramaic, Calvary) and died on the cross. It was a Friday, so he was temporarily buried in a tomb hewn in the quarry, due to the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath. On Sunday, when the tomb was reopened, it was empty. According to the New Testament, Jesus was resurrected, as there were testimonies of those who saw him later. Forty days after his crucifixion, he ascended alive to heaven, from the Mount of Olives, according to the New Testament.
Possible reconstruction of the site of crucifixion, outside the city walls, made according to recent studies in collaboration with National Geographic.
The church was built about three hundred years after the crucifixion, in 328 CE, ostensibly on the remains of the same quarry, where Jesus was crucified and buried that had meanwhile been included within the city walls. A huge, monumental and impressive church was built on the site, which has become a great holy site for worship and adoration, the object of yearning, and a subject of conflict for seventeen hundred years.
The church was founded by Empress St. Helena, to whom we have dedicated a chapter. The church was already then characterized by a huge dome above a central and round hall ('Rotunda'), which covers the structure of the tomb, which is inside a shrine called the 'Aedicule' in the heart of the church.
The Holy Sepulcher throughout the ages
Here is an excellent presentation by "National Geographic" on the historical development of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, based on recent research and excavations in the church, on behalf of the National Geographical Society in which its various forms can be seen.
Most of the churches imitating the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Europe were built during the Crusader period, when pilgrims visited Jerusalem and restored its sites when they got back home, but there were some cities that since the dawn of Christianity in the fifth century, had already tried to recreate Jerusalem. Because of this, they sometimes restored certain elements, which were destroyed, altered or disappeared in Jerusalem itself in later periods, through fires, wars, due to earthquakes or political destruction of objects inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. It is known, for example, from historical records, that the tombs of the Crusader kings of Jerusalem were scattered throughout the entrance hall of the church, with magnificent statues over them. They were eliminated by the Greek Orthodox after the great fire of 1808, on the pretext that they were destroyed. There are rumors that they are still kept in one of the hidden cellars of the church ... however, some hint of their existence is found in the following church.
Temple Church, London
While the Church of the Holy Sepulcher was still standing in a free Jerusalem, after the renovations of the Middle Ages, a church was built in the heart of the City of London by the Knights Templar as a conscious imitation, and was named after them Temple Church. The church was consecrated in London in 1185, by Heraclitus, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, just two years before the fall of the holy city to Saladin. Heraclitus had set out for London to persuade King John II of England to accept the crown of Jerusalem and embark on another crusade to save the unstable Kingdom. ... King John refused and the kingdom was defeated by Saladin.
This church was the venue to the signing of the Magna Carta. As in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, until the great fire of 1806, nobles were buried in the floor of the church. The Temple Church in London has been destroyed, damaged and renovated several times since it was built, but some similarities can still be seen with the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.
The pictures are in order (left to right, top to bottom) 1. The rotunda of the Temple Church in London. 3-2. The rotunda and the dome. The tombstones of the knights buried on the floor of the church. This is what those in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem that disappeared after the fire of 1806 looked like? The church has many picturesque stone sculptures.
The city of London sees itself as the new Jerusalem. One of the British national anthems is called "Jerusalem" and was written by the poet William Blake in 1808 and is sung, usually after, "God Save the Queen", as another national anthem, although it is in fact a church hymn. Here, an enthusiastic English audience rises to sing "Jerusalem" with a flare, as is customary on the Last night of the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall.
Here is the last stanza:
"I will not cease from Mental Fight
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England's green & pleasant land. "
The illustrated manuscript of poet-painter William Blake. The image can be enlarged
Jeruzalemkerk, (Jerusalem Church) Bruges, Belgium
The church was built in the Flemish city of Bruges. It was consecrated in 1429, by the Adornes family, merchants originating from Genoa who settled in the city. After returning from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, they built a private church as a memorial to the family and a contribution to the city. One can feel the inspiration of the Jerusalem Church Although this church is very small compared to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. However, it contains some very interesting elements: there is a reconstruction of the Golgotha rock with three crosses above it.
In addition, in the restoration of the Holy Sepulcher, there is a statue of the body of Jesus! Today, Jesus' tomb in Jerusalem is empty. Was this also the case in Jerusalem during the time this church was built?
As mentioned, the Golgotha rock in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem is now almost completely hidden from view by a two-story chapel structure. Could it be that this is what Golgotha looked like in Jerusalem in the Middle Ages?
The photos are in order (left to right, top to bottom). 1. The Church of Jerusalem in Bruges. The main tower is octagonal, in an attempt to commemorate the rotunda of Jerusalem. 3-2. Reconstruction of the Golgotha stone of Jerusalem with the three crosses, skulls and ladders. 4. The main tower. 5. Amazing picture of a statue of Jesus in his tomb. 7-6. The entrance hall. As in Jerusalem, the family graves in the center of the entrance hall. 8. Gonfalon, the procession flag of the church as Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
Basilica of the Holy Blood, Heilig-Bloedbasiliek, Bruges, Belgium
Another interesting church in the city is the Basilica of the Holy Blood. At the church's main apse, there is a spectacular fresco showing the Heavenly Jerusalem (on the right) and Bethlehem (on the left). In this church there is a sacred relic which is its namesake: a glass phial, in which there is a small cloth, ostensibly, with the blood of Jesus that was shed at the time of his crucifixion. According to legend, Joseph of Arimathea lifted up a lump of mud under the cross, squeezed out the sacred blood that had been preserved and that was miraculously brought to Bruges after the Crusades. I witnessed a ceremony at the church, in which the congregation waited in line to worship the holy relic.
Château de Bouillon
In southeastern Belgium, on the French border, stands the beautiful and picturesque city of Bouillon, on a bend of the Semois River. On a high rock at the heart of the city, stands an impressive castle. On its ramparts and towers, the white flag with the red Cross of Jerusalem flies. This is the fortress of Godfrey of Bouillon, leader of the First Crusade, conqueror of Jerusalem in 1099 and the one who was elected as its first king, although he rejected the crown. (For the full story, please see this page)
Today, the castle is a tourist venue, with activities for children, falconry displays, archery classes and a museum about the famous knight.
The visit to the castle, which is really a memorial to Godfrey of Bouillon, is full of symbolism and references to the Holy City: Emblems of Jerusalem, actors dressed as crusader knights and a presentation describing the first crusade. Although Godfrey died about a year after being elected king in a battle near the city of Acre and never returned from Jerusalem, one can feel a little of the atmosphere of the alleys of the Old City throughout the fortress. It should be noted that until the 12th century, construction in Northern Europe was mainly of wood. The Crusaders who returned from the Holy Land learned from the Arabs and the Byzantines stone-building techniques, which they used to build their castles. Perhaps because of this, it is not surprising that this castle is reminiscent of Jerusalem.
San Lorenzo, Mantua, Italy
At the heart of the city of the Este-Gonzaga family, in Piazza delle Erbe, between the palace and the Church of St. Andrea, stands the Church of San Lorenzo, built to imitate the rotunda of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. It joins a line of churches of this name along the Italian peninsula: in Milan, Pisa, Mantua and Bologna and other cities.
I asked Lorenzo Bonoldi, a senior tour guide and historian in Mantua, to explain this phenomenon. He believes these churches stood along the pilgrimage route to the Holy Land and constituted places of spiritual purification and preparation for pilgrims, but also final stops for those who could not complete the journey and had to turn back. These were places for them to conclude and fulfill their pilgrimage. Therefore, he argued, such churches existed along the Italian pilgrimage trail up to the port cities, from where the pilgrims continued by sea to the Holy Land.
The Church of San Lorenzo in Mantua was probably built around 1083, even before the conquest of Jerusalem by the Crusaders. It is an example of Romanesque style construction. After several attempts at renovation failed, the church was taken out of use and deconsecrated as early as 1579. It was used as a warehouse until the dome collapsed, after which the city's Jews settled in and around it, and it became an inner courtyard of the Jewish ghetto. When the ghetto was evacuated and demolished in 1907, the remains of the rotunda were discovered under buildings built upon it over the years. The dome was restored and it was reconsecrated to Catholic worship.
Holy Sepulcher, Santo Sepolcro, Pisa, Italy
The Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Pisa is another replica of the Church in Jerusalem and has existed since 1113. In addition to a structure similar to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (some claim that it is more reminiscent of the Dome of the Rock due to its octagonal structure) it has several elements very reminiscent of Jerusalem: the Ablaq stone technique, of the alternate use of dark and light stones as well as stone carvings, very common in the Jerusalem Mamluk architecture. Also, stone reliefs, reminiscent of the relief on the lintel of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem displayed at the Rockefeller Museum.
Seven Churches, Sette Chiese, Bologna, Italy
A city that expressly tried to recreate Jerusalem within it and create a replica of the holy places is Bologna in Italy. The city center has seven churches that together create an image of Jerusalem and its Christian sites. This great project was initiated by St. Petronius, bishop of the city and its patron saint, as early as the fifth century CE. Indeed, the replica built of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is similar to the first church of Helena and Constantine in Jerusalem of the fourth century. At the heart of the rotunda, under the great dome there is an aedicula, like in the rotunda of Jerusalem, only here it used to contain the tomb of St. Petronius. The rest of the churches mention the Mount of Olives and Calvary.
The courtyard between the churches is called the court of Pilate, to commemorate the Lithostrotos, the stone courtyard where Jesus was sentenced, and a large basin at the center symbolizes the basin where Pilate washed his hands of Jesus' execution. The entire city center is part of the same reconstruction of Jerusalem and in the past, there was a street called Valley of Josaphat, named after the valley in Jerusalem. St. Stephen was the first martyred saint, and was stoned in Jerusalem after the death of Jesus. The Lions' Gate in Jerusalem is named after him by Christians.
It is said St. Petronius tried to rebuild Jerusalem in his town, Bologna, to spare believers the perilous journey. And of course, he tried to build a concept of a spiritual Jerusalem, more important than the physical and concrete one.
As a tour guide, leading Christians in Jerusalem, I witness their exaltation and excitement when they hear the names of the mystical sites and realize that they have reached the "real" sites. I will never forget the reaction of a young, secular German girl. When I announced: "And here are at Gethsemane". "Wow! She exclaimed in amazement, I'm in Gethsemane!". Distant religious education lesson came to her mind, the story of Jesus' suffering before the crucifixion. She was totally overwhelmed.
Jewish and Muslim tourists also encounter the holy sites with awe. The Jews are excited in front of the Western Wall, and its minimalism - just a few stones, allows us to imagine the great temples of Solomon and Herod, arousing emotional responses among Christians and Muslims as well. The Muslims are endlessly enthralled by the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, as the place where the Prophet Mohamad pbuh arrived in his Nocturnal Journey and from there ascended to the seventh heaven to receive the prayer.
In the next chapter we will deal with the reflection of the image of Jerusalem and the Holy Land in Western art, and the reaction of tourists to the discrepancy between fantasy and the real Holy Land.
I hope you've enjoyed this voyage. Let me know.