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Tomb of Christ. Martin Biddle.
The Tomb of Christ is falling down. Beneath the dome of the Rotunda of the Anastasis, (the Resurrection), in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the tomb is an Ottoman Baroque kiosk, erected in 1809-10 by Nikolaos Komnenos, a Greek architect practising in Constantinople. Komnenos building is the fourth in a sequence of four aediculae, "little houses" which have covered and protected the rock-cut tomb of Christ ever since its discovery by the Emperor Constantines workmen in 325-6 CE.
The present edicule has suffered much over the 190 years since it was built. For 40 years, the rains and snows of Jerusalem winters poured down on it through the open eye of the dome immediately above. The water rotted the iron cramps which fastened the stones of Komnenos edicule. In 1868, the dome was rebuilt and the opening shielded by a cover, probably for the first time since a dome was first erected over the tomb, at the end of the fourth century CE. But the damage had been done. Gradually the edicule settled under the weight of the heavy vaults Komnenos had erected over the two compartments inside the tomb, the Chapel of the Angel and the tomb chamber itself. The earliest known photograph of the edicule, taken in 1869-70 and looking along its north side, shows that the stonework was then already bulging outwards under its own weight.
The British Mandatory authorities were alarmed by the state of the tomb as soon as they arrived in Palestine in 1917. In a long report on the antiquities of Jerusalem and its district written late in 1919, Capt. E. Mackay, "Inspector of Antiquities, O.E.T.A. (South)," found that:
"... the modern marble structure placed over the site of the Sepulchre ... (is) in imminent danger of falling. On all sides the walls are bulging badly ... On certain feasts, pictures and ornaments to the weight of 7-8 thousand pounds, are hung on the upper part of the structure which certainly must affect its stability."
Ronald Storrs, then Military Governor of Jerusalem, at once requested the Latin, Greek, and Armenian patriarchs to suspend the custom of hanging these Lenten ornaments on the tomb, as they were accustomed to do under the status quo which governs procedures in the church. Two of the patriarchs agreed, but the third would not, and Storrs wrote laying responsibility "for any possible damage accruing to the sacred structure ..." at the door of the third patriarch.
I n 1926, alarmed by the open gaps between the bulging stones, the government arranged for an architect, A.C. Holliday, civic advisor to the Pro-Jerusalem Society, (which had been founded by Storrs) to survey the tomb. After lengthy negotiations, the agreement of the religious communities was obtained to the removal of some stones on the north side of the edicule, so as to allow inspection of the core of the wall.
The British were somewhat reassured. Hollidays report, seemingly the only surviving copy of which is among the Colonial Office papers in the Public Records Office in London, revealed that the edicule had an inner structure which seemed vertical and sound enough. Only the skin of masonry cladding added in 1809-10 was coming away under the weight of the vaults and upper works.
The really important thing which no-one seems to have realized at the time was that this investigation showed that within the 19th-century skin there was an earlier edicule. Recent discoveries suggest that the remains of several earlier edicules survive one inside another, like the skins of an onion. We will return to this later.
The calm wisdom of Hollidays report was vindicated the following year; when the church was severely damaged in the great earthquake of 1927, the edicule held fast. For the next 40 years the whole church was a forest of scaffolding. Even to get in, one had to pass under the raking shoring which prevented the Crusader south front from collapsing into the courtyard. For 20 years nothing was done to the edicule, but in 1947 a survey by a firm of consulting engineers, Freeman, Fox and Partners of London, showed that its "condition must be on the border of instability and reconstruction cannot be safely neglected." In March, 1947, as the last of the Mandate governments many actions in the care of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Public Works Department wrapped the edicule in a cradle of steel, the girders inscribed "Burn Steel India Scob" ("Steel Company of Bengal"), emblems of a vanishing empire.
And so the edicule stands today, the holiest shrine of Christendom clothed in a garment of steel. But there are no girders supporting the elaborately decorated eastern front, and none at the curving western end. From time to time small pieces flake off the marble blocks as the pressures shift, and little piles of stone dust can be found around the bases of the spiral columns of the east front. The structure is tottering and it can only be a matter of time before another earth tremor brings it down.
So what is being done? Slowly, stage by stage, the surroundings of the tomb are being put in order. After many years of discussion the three great religious communities in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre the Greeks, the Latins and the Armenians were able to agree on how the interior of the dome of the rotunda should be decorated. The work was completed in 1996, again by British engineers, the scaffold which had formed a decking below the dome was removed, and light poured down for the first time in 20 years over the still scaffolded tomb. The date was the 2nd January 1997, and the dedication marked the start of the Triennium of Preparation for the Great Jubilee of 2000.
Now the floor of the rotunda is to be repaved with new stone. The present stones are scratched, worn and broken by at least two centuries of wear by millions of feet, not least by those of the crowds which each year await the Descent of the Holy Fire on Easter Saturday. In this ceremony, unchanged in its essentials since at least the ninth century, Orthodox Christians believe that a lamp is kindled in the tomb by the descent of the Holy Spirit. The Greek and Armenian Patriarchs then enter the tomb and pass the fire out through holes in the walls of the edicule to the waiting crowds.
In preparation for relaying the floor of the rotunda, work has been taking place in what was once the ambulatory between the columns which support the dome and the outer walls. This space has long been partitioned off to form a series of rooms now occupied by several of the communities. For various reasons it was not possible to complete the restoration of these rooms in the 1970s during the major restoration of the church which took place then. Now this is being done. In the Coptic rooms south-west of the edicule, a fine opus sectile floor of pieces of black and white marble set in a geometric pattern has been uncovered, dating probably from the reconstruction of the church following its destruction by the Fatimid Caliph al-Hakim in 1009.
When the rotunda floor is taken up, it will be possible for the first time in centuries to see the rock beneath. Observations made when the rotunda and the edicule were shored up in the 1930s and 1940s, and on occasions when drains and other trenches have been dug, show that the rock beneath the floor preserves important evidence of the earlier use of the site. It was a quarry in the First and perhaps the Second Temple periods. In the latter part of the first century BCE and during the early part of the first century CE the area was used as a Jewish cemetery and the remains of several rock-cut tombs from that period have been found, including the tomb preserved within the edicule and identified since 325-6 as the Tomb of Christ. After the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus in 70 CE, the area seems to have been left unoccupied until Hadrian renamed the destroyed city, Aelia Capitolina in 132, when a large public building, said to have been a temple to Aphrodite was erected on the site in 135. Two centuries later, in 325-6, this temple was destroyed by Constantines agents. In the excavations which followed, Calvary or Golgotha,* the site of Christs crucifixion, and the tomb identified as the place of his resurrection were uncovered. To protect these holy places, Constantine built one of the greatest complexes of Christian buildings. This comprised the rotunda surrounding the tomb, a porticoed court before the Rock of Golgotha, and the church known as the Martyrion, the "Witness," a vast basilica perhaps marking the place where the supposed remains of the True Cross were found.
When the floor of the rotunda has been renewed, it may finally be possible to examine the edicule itself, for its restoration is urgent and cannot be long put off. Here, within all the subsequent stages in the rebuilding of this most sacred of Christian shrines, the remains of the original rock-cut tomb may be found.
But is this indeed the Tomb of Christ? All we can say with absolutely certainty is that this is the tomb which has been recognized as such since 325-6. Eusebius, the bishop of Caesarea, was surprised by its discovery. It was "beyond all expectation," and he hailed it, apparently without any doubt, as the place where Christ had risen from the dead. Why did he do this? What was the evidence? Eusebius, using the Greek word antron, says only that it was a cave. Perhaps, like the tomb of St. Peter in Rome, found below the papal high altar in the 1940s, the rock-cut tomb in Jerusalem bore inscriptions or graffiti: "Jesus, save us!", or "He is risen!" Eusebius does not say and we do not know.
It is not as if it was the only tomb there. Some eight rock-cut tombs have so far been found below the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Some have kokhim (Heb.), the deep niches at right-angles to the wall into which a body could be inserted as into the drawers of a modern mortuary. At least one of these tombs (now below the Coptic Patriarchate) seems to be very like the tomb whose remains are still today covered by the edicule. Perhaps Eusebius identified the tomb now preserved within the edicule as the Tomb of Christ because it was near to Golgotha. This is suggested in St. Johns Gospel when it says that there was a "garden" at the place of Crucifixion, and that in that garden there was a tomb. But it may also have been because of the features of the tomb then discovered: a movable rolling stone, a low entrance through which it was necessary to bend down to look in or enter, and a bench on the right-hand side where Christs body could have lain and the "angel" could have sat, matched those described in the Gospel.
What we can say is this: if the events of Jesus arrest, trial and execution in Jerusalem are to be taken as historical fact, then there is no other site which has any significant claim to be the place of his execution and burial.
Some points are crucial to note. First, the site was outside the city walls at the date of the Crucifixion in 30 or 33 CE. Second, the tomb was in an existing Jewish cemetery of rock-cut tombs typical of the Jerusalem area in the Second Temple period. Third, the place-name Golgotha seems to have lived on in local memory, despite the vast changes in the area brought about by Hadrians foundation of Aelia Capitolina in 132 CE. Before the end of the third century, Eusebius wrote in his Onomastikon, the "Place-Names of Palestine," that: "... Golgotha, place of a skull, where the Christ was crucified ... which is pointed out in Aelia to the north of Mt. Sion."
It is only in recent years that study of Eusebius text has shown that the writing of his Onomastikon should be dated to the late third century, perhaps to the 290s, long before Constantines workers cleared the Rock of Golgotha and uncovered the tomb.
There was thus a landmark to guide Constantines workmen. They removed the Roman temple covering the site and the masses of earth and rubble forming the platform on which it stood, cleared the Rock of Golgotha and then, to their surprise, found a tomb which fitted the Gospel descriptions. The position is best put by the Israeli scholar Dan Bahat, former City Archaeologist of Jerusalem:
"We may not be absolutely certain that the site of the Holy Sepulchre Church is the site of Jesus burial, but we certainly have no other site that can lay a claim nearly as weighty, and we really have no reason to reject the authenticity of the site."
What happened to the tomb thus discovered? Constantines engineers dug away the living rock leaving the block in which the tomb was cut standing as an isolated monolith in the middle of a broad flat area. They cut away the partly covered forecourt in front of the tomb a feature typical of Jewish tombs of the Second Temple period in the Jerusalem area and surrounded the rock with marble columns to form a small rotunda covered by a facetted conical roof, and in front of it, in the place of the forecourt, erected a pedimented portico.
Constantines edicule, the first of the four "little houses" which have covered and protected the remains of the tomb since its discovery in 325-6, was destroyed in 1009 and no fragment of it has been seen since. How then do we know what it looked like? The best evidence is provided by a replica standing about a metre high, cut in a block of Pyrennean marble, found at Narbonne in south-west France, and dating from the fifth or sixth century CE. Being cut in local marble it cannot be a direct copy of the edicule in Jerusalem, but must be based on some intermediate copy, probably itself a model rather than a set of drawings. Its evidence is therefore second-hand, but there are sufficient other sources to show that it is likely to be in architectural terms a close representation of the Jerusalem original. The other fifth to seventh-century sources are pictures in mosaic, moulded pewter flasks and medallions, the painted lid of a box of relics (found in the Lateran in Rome), images on pottery and glass, and the written records of pilgrims. All these sources present their own problems of date and interpretation, but it is a remarkable range of evidence in different media, more evidence perhaps than for any other vanished building of late antiquity. But the picture is confused by the parallel existence of completely fanciful representations, some of the highest artistic quality, in the form of ivory panels carved in Alexandria and Italy. These show idealized edicules, bearing no relation to reality, but they have confused generations of scholars. Only the objects made in Palestine, mostly probably in Jerusalem, for the pilgrim trade, or copying such local products, like the Narbonne marble, tell us what the edicule built by Constantine was really like.
Constantines edicule survived for 600 years until it was deliberately destroyed in 1009 by order of the Fatimid Caliph of Egypt, al-Hakim, in an insane and short-lived attack on the holy sites of Christianity. Within three or four years al-Hakim had relented, urged on by his mother, Maria, a Christian whose brother Orestes had been Patriarch of Jerusalem. By 1012 rebuilding had begun, and by 1014, Maria had "began to rebuild with well-dressed squared stones the Temple of Christ destroyed by her sons order."
The destruction had been very thorough: Constantines great church of the Martyrion was cut down and never rebuilt, but al-Hakims agents admitted that they could not entirely root out the tomb, and they left parts of the rotunda surrounding the tomb standing to a height of about 11 metres, as one can still see today. By the millennium of Christs crucifixion in 1030 or thereabouts, when thousands of pilgrims were again travelling to the Holy Land, the edicule and the rotunda had been put back into sufficient order for pilgrims to take part in the Easter liturgies and to observe the ceremony of the Descent of the Holy Fire.
William of Tyre, the great Crusader historian, who wrote in the 1160s and 1170s, says that the restoration was completed by the Byzantine Emperor Constantine IX Monomachos in 1048. William is our only evidence for this, and his indications of date are inconsistent. No Byzantine chronicler believed this. John Skylitzes, writing in the mid-11th century, a strictly contemporary witness, noted that the Emperor Romanos III (1028-34) "strove eagerly to take the rebuilding in hand; but his death intervened and his successor completed the work." This was the Emperor Michael IV, the Paphlagonian, who reigned from 1036-41.
Byzantine historians of the next generation either repeat Skylitzes, or do not refer to the Holy Sepulchre at all. None attributes the work to Constantine IX. Why then did William of Tyre get it wrong? He was, he says, for this early period, a full century before he was writing, "informed solely by traditions" (solis traditionibus instructa). It looks as if he was given a wrong date, which he knew fell in the reign of Constantine Monomachos, and so attributed the work to him. This second phase of the Byzantine reconstruction lasted from about 1037 to 1040. It was begun by the Emperor Romanos III and completed by Michael IV Paphlagon. Constantine Monomachos had nothing to do with it.
This redating explains why the church seems to have been fully complete when it was visited by the Persian traveller Nasir-i-Khusrau in the spring of 1047. He described the church (surprisingly he does not mention the edicule) as:
"... a most spacious building ... capable of containing eight thousand persons built with the utmost skill, of coloured marbles, with ornamentation and sculptures, inside everywhere adorned with Byzantine brocade, worked in gold with pictures. ... There are also pictures [i.e. mosaics] of the prophets."
It was this edicule built by the Byzantines which the Crusaders found when they first entered the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on the evening of 15 July, 1099. This second edicule was rather different from Constantines edicule which it replaced, but in all essentials it was like the edicule of today: a cupola supported by columns over the tomb chamber, and a front compartment, still not the room represented today by the Chapel of the Angel, but more enclosed than the Constantinian portico it replaced.
For the next 88 years Jerusalem remained in the hands of the Crusaders. Almost at once they erected a life-sized silver statue of Christ on top of the edicule, but little more was done for many years. Around the middle of the 12th century, the portico in front of the tomb was reconstructed as a solid structure, more like the Chapel of the Angel as it is today, and covered inside with mosaics and inscriptions. By now the edicule was at the zenith of its splendour. The cupola was covered with plates of gilded silver, the flat roof of the edicule with sheets of gilded copper, and a gilt cross topped by a gilt dove rose over the cupola above the tomb chamber. The burial couch within was covered with gold given by the Byzantine emperor Manuel I Comnenos (1143-80).
The glory did not last. After the defeat of the Crusaders by Saladin at the Battle of the Horns of Hattin on 4 July, 1187, the silver was stripped from the edicule to be minted into coin to pay the knights and soldiers defending Jerusalem. When the city surrendered to Saladin on 2 October, 1187, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was closed for three days while its future was discussed. In the end it was decided to follow the example of the Caliph Omar who, on his capture of the city in 638, had confirmed the Christians in possession of their church. It was not therefore demolished as some had advised, but returned to the hands of the Eastern Christians from whom the Crusaders had seized it 88 years before. Four Syrian priests were permitted to remain in the church.
Under the truce concluded between King Richard I ("Lionheart") of England and Saladin in 1192, Christian pilgrims were to be free to go up to Jerusalem and visit the Holy Sepulchre. Two Latin priests and two deacons were allowed to join the Syrian priests in the service of the church. There was some revival when by treaty in 1229, the Crusaders recovered the church for ten years, but in 1244, ten thousand Khwarismian horsemen swept down from the north-west and broke into the city. They entered the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, broke open the tombs of the kings of Jerusalem, slaughtered the Christians who had taken refuge in front of the edicule, decapitated the priests who were celebrating mass at the altars, demolished the marble cladding of the edicule and removed the carved columns in front of the tomb, sending them as a sign of victory "to the Tomb of Mohammed."
For the next three centuries, although cared for by the Franciscans from the 14th century onwards, and the goal each year of many hundreds of Christian pilgrims, the edicule decayed. At last, in 1555, Father Boniface of Ragusa, the Franciscan Custos of the Holy Land, was able to rebuild the edicule. Using funds provided by the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, and his son King Philip of Spain, who had been given the long vanished kingdom of Jerusalem on his marriage the year before in Winchester Cathedral to Queen Mary of England, Boniface claimed that he had rebuilt the edicule from its foundations. He described in a solemn letter issued some years later how in the course of his work he had seen the original rock-cut tomb within. There was, he said, a tomb just like it still to be seen in Acheldama, which was shown to pilgrims.
The edicule of 1555, the third in succession, preserved all the essential features of the medieval edicule it replaced. Some 250 years later, this third edicule, known to us through many pictures and models, was badly damaged in the fire of 1808 and was replaced in its turn by the fourth edicule built by Nikolaos Komnenos. This is the edicule we see today, which in its turn now demands to be restored.
One sometimes reads in the press about the problems which divide the religious communities in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Working in the church at intervals over the last ten years to make a definitive record of the present state of the edicule and of the floor of the rotunda, we have actually been more impressed by the concerns which unite the communities, and by the warmth of personal relationships stretching across denominational boundaries. Our task has simply been to provide some of the evidence, structural, archaeological and historical, on which informed decisions can be taken by those responsible for the care of the fabric: the Greek Orthodox, Latin, Armenian, and Coptic communities. Using both the traditional methods of architectural archaeology precise description, drawing, and logical analysis and photogrammetry, one of the most modern of survey methods, we have now completed our work and are pleased and honoured to find that our results are proving useful to the communities as they seek to advance the work of restoration.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the church itself was brilliantly restored by a common technical bureau working for the three main communities. The columns, walls, and dome of the rotunda were all restored as a part of this programme. In 1996 the decoration of the dome was completed. Plans are now being made to restore the floor of the rotunda, hopefully before the Millennium. In due course, the decisions will be taken which will lead to the restoration of the edicule. This extensive and successful programme, now well on its way to completion, is a not a catalogue of dissent and delay but rather, a record of agreement and achievement.

* Calvary - from calvarium (Lat.skull); Golgotha - from gulgulta (Aram); and gulgolet (Heb.) - also skull.

  © 2005 The Orthodox Scientific Educational Society
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