Construction of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher was started around 326 CE, and was completed in 335 CE. Throughout its existence, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher has been destroyed and reconstructed numerous times, which means that the current Church in Jerusalem is not the original building. However, the significance behind the building remains. When the first iteration of the Church was built, it strengthened the legitimacy of Christianity in Jerusalem. Emperor Constantine ordered the Church to be built upon the western hill, indicating a shift away from the Temple Mount on the eastern hill, which
Judaism, one of the previous dominant religions in Jerusalem, had regarded as a holy space. Through the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the western hill was established as the new holy center. The geographical location, the architecture, and the interactions pilgrims had with the Church of the Holy Sepulcher indicate the significance of this religious space. Furthermore, these aspects of the Church highlight the kinetic, changing nature of Jerusalem, and the Church’s interrelationships with other religious spaces at the time it was built, as well as religious spaces from before its construction.
Christianity was able to ecome the main religion of Jerusalem with the help of Constantine. Constantine gave the bishop Macarius permission to demolish the Temple of Aphrodite in order to “rescue the site of the Resurrection from the oblivion to which evil men had consigned it” (Drake, 1984, p. 263). The allowance of the destruction of the Temple of Aphrodite indicated Constantine’s desire to purify Jerusalem of the previous pagan worship that had dominated the city.
The Tomb of Christ had been built over under the rule of Hadrian in the second century CE, and by destroying the temple that was on top of it, Constantine initiated the revival of Christianity. Eusebius described the discovery of the Tomb of Christ as “a testimony to the resurrection of the Saviour clearer than any voice could give” (Eusebius, ). Eusebius’ description of the discovery of the Tomb of Christ recalls the description of the resurrection of Jesus himself, and it also emphasized the return of Christianity to the city.
The tomb had risen through the ground and given Christianity a symbol for their faith. The physical location of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher on the eastern hill was deliberately chosen in order to establish the dominance of Christianity in Jerusalem. Lawrence D. Sporty (1991) notes that the Church was constructed on a hill that was higher than the Temple Mount (p. 32). This location allowed the Church to interact with the space of the Temple Mount. The Church overlooked the ruins of the Second Temple, and symbolized the rise of Christianity in the city while Judaism and paganism were still in ruins.
Furthermore, the Church was deliberately built facing the Temple Mount, which Eusebius described as “facing the far-famed Jerusalem of old time,” and upon exiting the Church, worshippers would see the ruins on the Temple Mount, preserved for this moment (Sporty, 1991, p. 32). This direction further strengthened the ascendancy of Christianity in Jerusalem, as it allowed the people to look directly at the ruins of the old religious center of Jerusalem while they were standing upon the new religious center. The Church would replace the Second Temple and help establish the eastern hill as the New Jerusalem.
However, while Christianity had deserted the Temple Mount, it had not completely abandoned the ideas of Judaism. While Christianity rose above Judaism, it also incorporated aspects of Judaism into their own religion. Christianity took various events that had happened on the Temple Mount and laced the events on the site of the eastern hill. Sylvia Schein (1984) notes that one pilgrim wrote that the location of Jesus’ crucifixion was also the location where Adam was formed and the location of the Binding of Isaac (p. 177).
This account establishes Golgotha and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher as Mount Moriah, which removes religious significance from the Temple Mount and places that significance at the location of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The western hill had not only replaced the eastern hill as a religious center, but also as the location of where significant events on the eastern hill had ccurred. Mount Moriah was no longer in the holy geography of Judaism, but instead was in the holy geography of Christianity. The location where Zacharias was killed had also shifted.
In the fourth century CE, the pilgrim of Bordeaux had seen the altar where Zacharias was killed, but in the sixth century CE, the author of Breviarius noted that the altar was located in front of the Tomb of Christ (Ousterhout, 1990, p. 46). Both religious sites and events had been taken away from Judaism and placed into Christianity. Appropriating the events that happened on the Temple Mount allowed Christianity to retain the important eligious events of Judaism, while also slowly letting Judaism fade away. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher began construction in 326 CE, and with it came a new form of Christianity.
Both the construction process, architecture, and the contents of the Church emphasize western hill as the religious focal point in Jerusalem. As previously mentioned, the Tomb of Christ became a symbol for Christianity. However, before the Tomb of Christ was unearthed, Christians did not worship specific holy spaces. Instead, Christianity was trying to separate itself from physical locations by spiritualizing the religion. When he tomb was discovered, Constantine desired that the church to be built to be “the fairest structure in any city of the empire” (Eusebius, ).
Constantine changed Christianity by worshipping the location of Jesus’ tomb, highlighting the kinetic nature of the religion. Regarding the cost of the church, Karen Armstrong (2005) writes that “no expense was to be spared, and the building was financed by contributions from all the governors of the eastern provinces” (p. 181). The amount of resources that went into the construction of the Church shows how much importance Constantine had placed in this location nd his ambition to create a New Jerusalem.
The architecture of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher focused on the Church as a religious space by setting it up as if it were at the center of the world. Before entering the Church, “There was a monumental entrance, a gate of heaven in the sense that in this holy place earth meets heaven and one may pass between” (G. Armstrong, 1974, 16). This description of the entrance indicates that the Church was a place that one could go to cross into heaven. Being able to cross into heaven means that the Church provided worshippers the ability to be close to God, which the First and Second Temple used to provide for the Jewish people.
Although the Church of the Holy Sepulcher was acting as a replacement for the old Jewish temples, it still contained architecture and designs that related to Judaism. In the apse of the Church there were twelve columns, which “symbolized the twelve disciples and the twelve tribes of Israel” (G. Armstrong, 1974, 16). Despite Jews not being allowed into Jerusalem and the dominance of Christianity at the time, the columns show that the Christians still recognize their connection to Judaism. Incorporating the twelve columns into the Church of the Holy Sepulcher further mphasizes the shift of the religious center to the Church.
The twelve tribes of Israel worshipped Yahweh, a Judaic god, and having the columns in the Church shows that Christianity has also taken over. In the thousands of years separating the construction of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in 326 CE to now, it has been destroyed and rebuilt numerous times. Although it had been destroyed, when it was rebuilt, the significance remained the same, if not increased. Robert Ousterhout (2003) notes that while the location of the Tomb of Christ was immutable, the architecture of the building was not (p. , and that “the church not only housed the most important sites in Christendom, but in the Middle Ages the very fabric of the building came to be regarded as a sacred relic (p. 20).
When the Church was rebuilt in the Middle Ages, the architects added their own features to it. The significance of the Tomb of Christ went from just the religious significance of Jesus to also including what had happened after Jesus death – the efforts of Constantine and the Crusades. Thus, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher’s significance transcended time. The old architecture of the building indicated that it was indeed the holy site of the
Tomb of Christ, and the newer architecture added by the architects of the Crusades indicated that the holiness of the building at the current time. Due to the reconstructions, it is unknown what the original Tomb of Christ looked like, let alone the entire Church. The only illustration of what the Tomb of Christ looked like was what was engraved on pilgrim flasks (Wilkinson, 1978, p. 9). Although the images on the flasks were just crude illustrations, they all showed that the basic arrangement of the tomb remained unchanged up until the early seventh century CE.
Illustrations on flasks from the twelfth entury show that the schematic of the Church had not changed (Ousterhout, 2003, p. 5). In between the time of these two flasks, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher had been destroyed once. The second flask shows that the architecture of the original Tomb of Christ was significant enough to preserve. After the Church of the Holy Sepulcher finished construction, many pilgrims visited Jerusalem to visit the location of the recently unearthed Tomb of Christ. The pilgrims’ interactions with the Tomb of Christ highlighted how significant it was for them to have a strong Christian symbol.
In one of his letters, Saint Jerome wrote that Saint Paula “kissed the stone which the angel had rolled away from the door of the sepulcher. Indeed so ardent was her faith that she even licked with her mouth the very spot on which the Lord’s body had lain, like one thirsty for the river which he has longed for” (Jerome, ). Jerome’s account displays Paula’s desire to be as close to Jesus as she could. By performing these actions, she was worshipping Jesus and connecting with him. Paula’s actions was not an isolated incident. For Christians, “Matter was no longer something to be cast aside; Christians were beginning to find that it could