The authenticity of the site is questioned by
some, but for Christians belonging to the Roman
Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions, this is
the holiest site in Christendom.
It certainly has a fascinating history.
After the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD,
Christians fled to other parts of the region. Then in
135 AD, the Roman Emperor Hadrian destroyed
what was left of Jerusalem and built a Roman city
on the ruins, naming it Aelia Capitolina. Tradition
says the current site of the Church of the Holy
Sepulchre was a temple to Aphrodite.
When Constantine became a Christian, he decided to reclaim the holy sites.
His mother Helena travelled
to Jerusalem in 326 AD and
located many sites including
the birthplace of Jesus in Bethlehem and the site of Calvary
and the tomb.
By 335 AD, a large Byzantine basilica was built over
both Calvary and a nearby sepulchre. That structure was destroyed by Persians in 614 AD,
and was rebuilt and destroyed
several more times. When the
Crusaders arrived, they reunited the collection
of small chapels under the roof of the Romanesque church we see today. Now those chapels
are each managed by one of the six ancient church
traditions: Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Armenian, Syrian Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox and
There have been fist fights in the church between these groups while asserting their rights to
perform worship and maintain their spaces within the larger structure. To manage these conflicts,
a document was created, ironically named “The
Status Quo,” which sets out the terms and locations for each group, when their worship services
can occur and their maintenance responsibilities.
For the past 400 years the key to the massive front
door of the church has been held by generations of
the same Muslim family – to keep peace among
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is anything
but a place for reflection. It is bustling with tour-
ists from around the world. Priests with different
robes, vestments, staffs and incense censers criss-
cross the floor between different chapels, altars
and holy spots performing worship. The milling
tourists appear to be a nuisance for these clergy as
they struggle to get through their liturgies on time
while dodging quizzical visitors.
The garden Tomb
It was a rainy day in December when our group
arrived at the Garden Tomb on the eastern side
of the old city. The site is near
a hillside which resembles a
skull, and it’s easy to see why
General Charles Gordon, a
British officer, believed this
was Golgotha when he dis-
covered this site in 1883. The
nearby tomb actually dates
back to the 9th to 7th centuries
BC, which means it was not a
“new tomb” as described in
Matthew 27:60 and John 19: 41
at the time of Christ’s death.
But the appearance of eye
sockets in the hillside and the presence of an an-
cient tomb close by meant this site immediately
garnered the attention of Christian pilgrims to Je-
rusalem. Besides, Protestants needed a holy site
in Jerusalem. The quiet simplicity here, now sur-
rounded by a lovely garden with spaces for Chris-
tians to sing hymns and enjoy communion, is a
welcome and refreshing contrast to the bustle and
clutter inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
The tomb looks like what we would imagine the
Garden Tomb to look like. Whether or not it is the
historical site, it certainly looks the part.
Each of our group visited the nearby tomb,
a stone chamber with a space for a body. The
wooden sign on the door says, “He is not here.
He is risen!”
Then, under a canopy of trees protecting us
from a light drizzle, our group sat in one of the
garden spaces where we shared communion and
reflected on Christ’s death and resurrection.
The appearance of eye
sockets in the hillside and
the presence of an
ancient tomb close
by meant this site
the attention of Christian
pilgrims to Jerusalem.
“Those two sites are a classic example of contested
histories of the holy sites in Israel,” says Paul Spilsbury of Ambrose University College in Calgary,
one of the leaders of my 2008 visit. “Constantine