PART XV: Some History of Zion, Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, and Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre

A narrative tour of the church of today

The Altar of the Crucifixion, where The Rock of Calvary (bottom) is encased in glass. Just inside the church entrance is a stairway leading up to Calvary (Golgotha), tradition- ally regarded as the site of Jesus’s crucifixion and the most lavishly decorated part of the church.

Calvary is split into two chapels: one Greek Orthodox and one Catholic, each with its own altar. The Greek Orthodox chapel’s altar is placed over the supposed rock of Calvary. (the 12th Station of the Cross), which can be touched through a hole in the floor beneath the altar. The Roman Catholic (Franciscan) Chapel of the Nailing of the Cross stretches to the south. Between the Catholic Altar of the Nailing to the Cross and the Orthodox altar is the Catholic Altar of the Stabat Mater, which has a statue of Mary. This middle altar marks the 13th Station of the Cross.
On the ground floor, just underneath the Golgotha chapel, is the Chapel of Adam. According to tradition, Jesus was crucified over the place where Adam’s skull was buried. According to some, the blood of Christ ran down the cross and through the rocks to fill Adam’s skull. Behind the Chapel of Adam is the Greek Treasury [Treasury of the Greek Patriarch].
Just inside the entrance to the church is the Stone of Anointing/Stone of Unction, which tradition holds to be where Jesus’s body was prepared for burial by Joseph of Arimathea. The wall behind the stone was a temporary addition to support the arch above it. It sits on top of four of the now empty and desecrated Crusader graves and is no longer structurally necessary.

Rotunda interior painted by Luigi Mayar, before 1804
The Aedicule with the Coptic chapel to the left with golden roof; main entrance to the right


The Dome of the Anastasis above the aedicule

The rotunda is the building of the larger dome located on the far west side. In the center of the rotunda is a small chapel called the Aedicule in English, from the Latin aedicula, in reference to a small shrine. The Aedicule has two rooms: the first holds a relic called the Angel’s Stone, which is believed to be a fragment of the large stone that sealed the tomb.
Under the Status Quo, the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Armenian Apostolic Apostolic Churches, all have rights to the interior of the tomb; and all three communities celebrate the Divine Liturgy or Holy Mass there daily. To its rear, in the Coptic Chapel, constructed of iron latticework, lies the altar used by the Coptic Orthodox. Historically, the Georgians also retained the key to the Aedicule. To the right of the sepulchre on the northwestern edge of the Rotunda is the Chapel of the Apparition, which is reserved for Roman Catholic use.
The entirety of the complex is under the police control of the Palestinian Muslims appointed under the Status Que to control the often difficult, sometimes very violent, interactions among Christians who have been unable to police themselves in the most sacred church in the world dedicated to Christ .

East end of the Greek Orthodox catholicon, with its iconostasis

In the central nave of the Crusader-era church–just east of the larger rotund–is the Crusader structure housing the main altar of the Church, today the Greek Orthodox catholicon. Its dome is 65 feet in diameter and is set directly over the center of an omphalos [navel] stone once thought to be the center of the world and still venerated as such by Orthodox Christians and also associated with the site of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection.
Since 1996 this dome is topped by the monumental Golgotha Crucifix, which the Greek. The catholicon’s iconostasis demarcates the Orthodox sanctuary behind it, to its east. The iconostasis is flanked to the front by two episcopal thrones.

Orthodox Cross over the catholicon

South of the Aedicule is the “Place of the Three Marys. From there one can enter the Armenian monastery, which stretches over the ground and first upper floor of the church’s southeastern part. West of the Aedicule–to the rear of the Rotunda–is the Syriac Chapel with the Tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, located in a Constantinian apse and containing an opening to an ancient Jewish rock-cut tomb. This chapel is where the Syriac Orthodox celebrate their Liturgy on Sundays.
On the far side of the chapel is the low entrance to an almost complete first-century Jewish tomb, initially holding six kokh-type funeral shafts radiating from a central chamber, two of which are still exposed. Although this space was discovered relatively recently and contains no identifying marks, some believe that Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus were buried here. Since Jews always buried their dead outside the city, the presence of this tomb seems to prove that the Holy Sepulchre site was outside the city walls at the time of the crucifixion.

Chapel of the Apparition Franciscan area

The Franciscan Chapel of St. Mary Magdalene is located in an open area and commemorates the place where Mary Magdalene met Jesus after his resurrection. The Francisc-an Chapel of the Apparition/Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament, directly north of the above–in memory of Jesus’s meeting with his mother after the Resurrection, which is a non-scriptural tradition. In the same area stands a piece of an ancient column, some believe to part of the one Jesus was tied to during his scourging.
The Arches of the Virgin are an arcade of seven arches at the northern end of the north transept. Since before most religionists can remember, the Arches have been disputed by the Orthodox and the Latin; so, the area is used to store ladders.
In the northeast side of the complex, there is the Prison of Christ, alleged to be where Jesus was held. The Greek Orthodox show their pilgrims another place where Jesus was allegedly held, the similarly named Prison of Christ in their Monastery of the Praetorium, located near the Church of Ecce Homo, between the Second and Third Stations of the Via Dolorosa. The Armenians regard a recess in the Monastery of the Flagellation as yet another Prison of Christ. There are still two more: a cistern among the ruins beneath the Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu on Mount Zion is also alleged to have been the Prison of Christ; some allege that Jesus was held in the Mount Zion cell in connection with his trial by the Jewish high priest, at the Praetorium in connection with his trial by the Roman governor Pilate, and near the Golgotha before crucifixion.

The Chapel of the Parting of the Raiment, in the Church of Holy Sepulchre

There are six more chapels in the Church of the Holy Seplchure complex—located in the ambulatory: the Greek Chapel of Saint Longinus, the Armenian Chapel of the Division of Robes, the entrance to the Chapel of Saint Helena, the Greek Chapel of the Derision, and the Chapel of Saint Helena [also called by the Armenians, who own it, the Chapel of St. Gregory the Illuminator, after the saint who brought Christianity to the Armenians.], and the Chapel of Saint Vartan Mamikonian beyond which a raised artificial platform affords views of the quarry, and which leads to the Chapel of Saint Vartan. The latter chapel contains archaeological remains from Hadrian’s temple and Constantine’s basilica. These areas are open only on request. Finally, there is
The Chapel of the Invention of the Cross [named for the Invention/Finding of the True Holy Cross by Saint Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine.

Although the Status Quo law is detailed and precise, it is sometimes violated. In addition, none of these entities controls the main entrance. In 1192, Saladin assigned door-keeping responsibilities to the Muslim Nusaybah family. The Joudeh al-Goudia/al-Ghodayya family were entrusted as custodian to the keys of the Holy Sepulchre by Saladin in 1187. Despite occasional disagreements, religious services take place in the Church with regularity and coexistence is generally peaceful. Not always.
The establishment of the modern Status Quo in 1853 did not halt controversy and occasional violence, however. In 1902, 18 friars were hospitalized and some monks were jailed after the Franciscans and Greeks disagreed over who could clean the lowest step of the Chapel of the Franks. In the aftermath, the Greek patriarch, Franciscan custos, Ottoman governor, and French consul general, signed a convention that both denominations could sweep it. On a hot summer day in 2002, a Coptic monk moved his chair from its agreed spot into the shade. This was interpreted as a hostile move by the Ethiopians, and eleven were hospitalized after the resulting fight. In another incident in 2004–during Orthodox celebrations of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross–a door to the Franciscan chapel was left open. This was taken as a sign of disrespect by the Orthodox and a fistfight broke out. Some people were arrested, but no one was seriously injured.
On Palm Sunday, in April, 2008, a brawl broke out when a Greek monk was ejected from the building by a rival faction. Police were called to the scene, and they were also attacked by the enraged brawlers. On Sunday, November 9, 2008, a clash erupted between Armenian and Greek monks during celebrations for the Feast of the Cross. Evil in the name of evil is bad enough; God save us from evil in the name of good. [? Talmud].
In February 2018, the church was closed following a tax dispute over 152 million euros of uncollected taxes on church properties. The city hall stressed that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and all other churches are exempt from the taxes, with the changes only affecting establishments like “hotels, halls and businesses” owned by the churches. The Greek Orthodox Church calls itself the second-largest landowner in Israel, after the Israeli government. There was a lock-in protest against an Israeli legislative proposal which would expropriate church lands that had been sold to private companies since 2010, a measure which church leaders assert constitutes a serious violation of their property rights and the Status Quo.
In a joint official statement, the church authorities protested what they considered to be the peak of a systematic campaign in: “a discriminatory and racist bill that targets solely the properties of the Christian community in the Holy Land.” [reminiscent] of laws of a similar nature which were enacted against the Jews during dark periods in Europe. The 2018 taxation affair did not cover any church buildings or religious related facilities: they are exempt by law; but commercial facilities such as the Notre Dame Hotel which was not paying the arnona tax, and any land which was owned and used as a commercial land. The church holds the rights to land where private homes have been constructed, and some of the disagreement had been raised after the Knesset had proposed a bill that will make it harder for a private company not to extend a lease for land used by home-owners. The church leaders said that such a bill will make it harder for them to sell church-owned lands. According to The Jerusalem Post:

  • The stated aim of the bill is to protect homeowners against the possibility that private companies will not extend their leases of land on which their houses or apartments stand. In June, 2019, a number of Christian denominations in Jerusalem raised their voice against the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the sale of three properties by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate to Ateret Cohanim–an organization that seeks to increase the number of Jews in Jerusalem. The church leaders warned that if the organization gets the access to control the sites, Christians will lose access to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
  • Jerusalem after being rebuilt by Hadrian. Two main east–west roads were built rather than the typical one, due to the awkward location of the Temple Mount, blocking the central east–west route.


The site of the church had been a temple to Jupiter or Venus built by Hadrian before Constantine’s edifice was built. Hadrian’s temple had been located there because it was the junction of the main north–south road with one of the two main east–west roads and directly adjacent to the forum. The forum itself had been placed–as is traditional in Roman towns–at the junction of the main north–south road with the other main east–west road [now El-Bazar/David Street]. The temple and forum together took up the entire space between the two main east–west roads; a few above-ground remains of the east end of the temple precinct still survive in the Alexander Nevsky Church complex of the Russian Mission in Exile.
The New Testament describes Jesus’s tomb as being outside the city wall, as was normal for burials across the ancient world, which were regarded as unclean. Today, the site of the Church is within the current walls of the old city of Jerusalem. It has been well documented by archaeologists that in the time of Jesus, the walled city was smaller; and the wall then was to the east of the current site of the Church. The city was much narrower in Jesus’s time, with the site then having been outside the walls; since Herod Agrippa [41-44 CE] is recorded by history as extending the city to the north beyond the present northern walls. the required repositioning of the western wall is traditionally attributed to him as well. The area immediately to the south and east of the sepulchre was a quarry also outside the city during the early first century CE.
From the archaeological excavations in the 1970s, it is clear that construction took over most of the site of the earlier temple enclosure and that the Triportico and Rotunda roughly overlapped with the temple building itself; the excavations indicate that the temple extended at least as far back as the Aedicule, and the temple enclosure would have reached back slightly further. Virgilio Canio Corbo, a Franciscan priest and archaeologist, who was present at the excavations, estimated from the archaeological evidence that the western retaining wall of the temple itself would have passed extremely close to the east side of the supposed tomb; if the wall had been any further west any tomb would have been crushed under the weight of the wall (which would be immediately above it) if it had not already been destroyed when foundations for the wall were made.

1842 lithograph after David Roberts, in The Holy Land, Syria, Idumea, Arabia, Egypt, and Nubia



I chose to use a pseudonym for personal reasons. I’m a retired neurosurgeon living in a rural paradise and am at rest from the turbulent life of my profession. I lived in an era when resident trainees worked 120 hours a week–a form of bondage no longer permitted by law. I served as a Navy Seabee general surgeon during the unpleasantness in Viet Nam, and spent the remainder of my ten-year service as a neurosurgeon in a major naval regional medical center. I’ve lived in every section of the country, saw all the inhumanity of man to man, practiced in private settings large and small, the military, academia, and as a medical humanitarian in the Third World.