Jerusalem at Easter – All Roads Lead to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Yes, we’re back at Jerusalem today but well, it’s Easter Sunday and it was in Jerusalem where the whole Easter thing started. I have talked about the incredible but crowded Church of the Holy Sepulchre on the blog before. I visited last year and felt swamped and overwhelmed when I was there.

Painting as you enter

But this Easter, it’s going to be a very different scene at the church. Every year there is an Easter Service or even a few Easter services at this church. It is unique for many reasons, one of those reasons being it is a church that boasts not one single denomination, rather it is shared by five separate Christian faiths. I was under the impression it was actually seven, but my research is telling me five.

Those would be Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Coptic and Armenian. Most of the oldest Christian faiths. Another website includes the Ethiopian Orthodox, perhaps they felt that was implied in one of the orthodoxies or Coptic. Nevertheless, it is unique that a church serves some many denominations at once.

Crowds in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre
crowds push to get out

What I have found strange is there seems to be a bit of differing information around the Church. But it seems to me that this must be the most important and significant church in Christianity. The church was consecrated in 335, and then destroyed in 614, to be rebuilt in 630 (obviously dates are AD). From there it was damaged by earthquake and fire over the next few centuries and repaired, then mostly destroyed in 1009 by Al-Hakim. The reconstruction was completed in 1048. Since then it has undergone more repairs and reconstructions owing to fires, remodelling to some extent. The current dome for instance dates back to 1868.

from seetheholyland.net

In 1349, the church was closed due to the Black Death. And since March 25th this year (2020 for those reading in the far future!) it has been closed again, for the first time since the 14th century, due to the corona virus. Hence a very different Easter is being held this year, with live feeds of services being available to be viewed. Worshippers will not be allowed in on Easter Day for obvious reasons.

For a devout Christian visiting on a normal year at Easter time, you probably want to walk to Via Dolorosa, which is a road that leads to the church. Christians know of the ‘Stations of the Cross’, fourteen points that led to the crucifixion of Christ along this road and the last five inside the church itself. It’s a pilgrimage for Christians and the walk to the church is around 600 metres. For those who don’t know, this the walk that Christ did carrying his own cross through Jerusalem. Why does it end at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre? Well, because this is purportedly where he was crucified.

Edicule under domed roof

Hence one of the two reasons this site is considered so holy. The other being that this is also the site of his tomb, where he was buried after crucifixion – that being Good Friday, to rise again on Easter Sunday. The Holy Edicule therefore is the most holy point in the church, and to me it’s unclear if this sort of edifice under a dome (Dome of Anastasis) is around or over where the remains of the tomb are (and apparently the stone where Christ’s body was laid), but nevertheless in times of the church being open, it is the place to check out.

Dome over the Edicule

So I should say that I didn’t. The line was hours long to get in there, and actually I didn’t know what I was looking at at the time, and I wasn’t the only one. It’s such an overwhelming place and there’s so much to see and take in, and you see people praying and lighting candles and you have to marvel at the way they seem to block all the noise and craziness out. Because I found it impossible.

Dome over chapel of St Helena
Chapel of St Helena
Unicorn or Anointed Stone

There are chapels and chapels around to explore, the chapel of St Helena, responsible for the building of the original church, is perhaps the largest. Unlike many churches you may visit, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is something of a maze, a rabbit’s warren. If you go down further you can find yourself at the Chapel of the Finding of the Cross. I think the name explains it…

Chapel of St Helena
Dome over chapel of St Helena
Chapel of the Finding of the Cross

You climb stairs and there’s a chapel up there, featuring the Altar of the Crucifixion. And down near the entrance was a stone everyone was kissing – this was ‘Unicorn Stone’, which meant little to me. But it is (again purportedly) the stone on which Jesus was anointed before burial.

Chapel of the Crucifixion – with man kiss floor under altar
Ceiling of the Chapel of the Crucifixion

This is all a lot to take in, and as someone who turned up to this church completely ignorant, facing mad crowds, I can tell you I felt swamped and stupid at the same time. As I often say, I have often been to places and found out the true meaning of where I was some time later. How many of these stones and places are what they say they are? I have no idea at all. The cynic in me says people are just cashing in. But then, this is one of the rare places in Jerusalem not to charge admission.

Although I don’t look back at my visit with a lot of fondness, I have to appreciate that this is a pretty special location. Just one with a lot of people inside it. Do I regret not lining up and seeing inside the Edicule? No. Firstly, you can’t take photos (to be expected and fair enough), but the lines were so tightly packed, all so claustrophobic, and I gather most of it is covered…

An image in the church

Thanks for joining me today, in writing this post I learned more about a place I visited than when I was actually there and I made sense of a few things I saw. Wherever you are this Easter, whatever your faith, take care. Of course – that should be at home! LOL. Thanks again – May the Journey Never End!

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