Church of the Holy Sepulchre: Microcosm of the Holy Land


The destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on October 18, 1009 AD led to the First Crusade.
(Image credit: Bigstock/benshots)

Exactly one thousand and nine years ago today, on October 18, 1009 AD, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was completely destroyed following an order given by Fatimid caliph Al-Hakim to destroy all Christian places of worship throughout Palestine and Egypt. Very few parts of the original church are still intact, and according to chroniclers of the event, only those things that were too difficult to destroy were spared.

It is said that the caliph called for the destruction of the church because he was apparently angered by what he considered to be fraud during the ritual of the Holy Fire, which occurs annually on Holy Saturday, the day before Orthodox Easter. It is thought that the destruction of the church was one of the events that led directly to the First Crusade. But what is so important about this particular church that its destruction could lead to a Holy War?

Following the siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD led by Roman emperor Titus, the city was left in ruins. Roman Emperor Hadrian later rebuilt Jerusalem and named it Aelia Capitolina, and he also built a new temple dedicated to Venus (or Aphrodite) within Jerusalem's Old City walls.

Empress Helena, the First Pilgrim

Nearly two centuries later, in 326 AD, Empress Helena, a devout Christian and mother of Roman emperor Constantine I, began her pilgrimage in an attempt to retrace the footsteps of Jesus throughout the Holy Land. During this pilgrimage, she laid the foundation for several churches, including the Church of the Nativity, in Bethlehem, and the Church of the Pater Noster on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, just to name a few. Her top priority, however, was to rediscover the actual site of Jesus' crucifixion, burial and resurrection, under the Hebrews name "Golgotha," or the place of the skull, as described in the New Testament. However, the locals didn't have any meaningful information for her about where Calvary might be and so she eventually believed that the sins of her son, Constantine, who had ordered the execution of some of his family members, might prevent her from ever finding this most holy of Christian sites.

Some modern Christians might think that Golgotha or Calvary (a Latin name, also a reference to a "skull"), derived its name from being a macabre area in Jerusalem where crucifixions were typically and routinely carried out by the Romans, but it's possible the site gets its name from something else entirely: some early Christians believed Golgotha was actually the location where Adam, the first man, had been buried. The skull, therefore, was a reference to Adam's skull.

Discovery of the True Cross

Helena eventually ordered the destruction of Emperor Hadrian's Temple of Venus and during the demolition, legend has it that three crosses were found buried at the site. As recounted in the biblical story, Jesus was crucified along with two thieves. The so-called True Cross (the cross of Jesus) was identified when, according to legend, Helena presented all three crosses to an ill woman. Upon touching the first two crosses, nothing happened, but when she touched the third cross--the True Cross--her illness miraculously vanished and her health returned. Empress Helena identified the location of where the True Cross was found as Calvary Hill or Golgotha, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was constructed at the site of the former pagan temple in 330 AD.


Empress Helena ordered the complete destruction of Emperor Hadrian's temple to Venus, a site now occupied by the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
(Image credit: Bigstock/GuilhermeMesquita)

Following its complete destruction in 1009, the Byzantine emperor Constantine IX attempted to rebuild the church, but it really wasn't until Jerusalem was conquered by the Crusaders in 1099 that the church again became the heart of Christianity.

A Microcosm of Jerusalem

The building can perhaps be seen as a microcosm of Jerusalem, itself. Jerusalem is a divided city, but since it is a holy place for Arabs, Jews and Christians, all have to interact and try to get along together. The city's tumultuous history is replete with division and foreign interference, much like the church itself. Today, seven different Christian denominations use the church for their various religious ceremonies, but identifying its primary Christian custodian has sometimes been a matter of debate throughout history.

The caliph Omar came to Jerusalem in 637 AD after the conquest of Jerusalem and toured the city with Sophronius, the Patriarch of Jerusalem. Sophronius invited Omar to pray inside the church, but Omar refused, because he didn't want to encourage future Muslims to convert the church into a mosque. Instead, he built a mosque for Muslims, basically right across the street, the Mosque of Omar. This enlightened decision by the caliph to tolerate other religions and peacefully coexist is reflected even today by the fact the keys to the of Church of the Holy Sepulchre remain in the hands of a Muslim family.

In the biblical account of the Resurrection, some of the disciples went to the tomb to find it empty. No one saw the body of Jesus in the tomb and no human being actually witnessed the Resurrection. The empty tomb is a interesting statement on faith and serves as a magnificent allegory reminding us that sometimes we shouldn't be so concerned with what we are able to see with our own eyes. Maybe there is be a reality in life and in the universe far greater than what can be perceived by our limited five senses, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre stands as a grand monment to that idea.