Located approximately in the physical center of the Old City of Jerusalem, the church of the Holy Sepulcher is a dominant feature in the city's landscape. It is the most venerated sanctuary in the Christian world and had been a place of attraction and pilgrimage for many centuries. According to Christian belief, the church is built above the empty grave of Christ. The place he was buried after his crucifixion, and where he came back to life before ascending to the heavens. It is a physical point associated with Christ's transfiguration from human to divine. The grave is located in Golgotha (the place of the skull), which is believed to be the burial place of Adam -- the first human being whose sins were redeemed by Christ's crucifixion.
The complex of the Holy Sepulcher as we see it now is the result of numerous restorations, alternations and additions. It is an enormous and intricate structure that houses different Christian sects such as the Coptic Orthodox church, Catholic church, Franciscan church, Ethiopian church, Armenian church and the Syrian Orthodox church. The different communities still live according to the status quo defined by the Ottoman Sultan Abd al-Majid I in 1852. The church is full of hidden walls and spaces, many of which were discovered during the restoration that took place prior to the millennial celebrations of at the end of 1999.
Christ's grave was discovered underneath the Temple of Aphrodite of the Aelia Capitolina, the Roman city built on top of Jewish Jerusalem and has came to be recognized as the holy sanctuary of Jesus. The Empress Helena, who was the mother of the first Christian Emperor, Constantine, traveled to Palestine where she supervised part of the building's construction and inaugurated it in 335. At around the same time she founded the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem and the Eleona church on Mount Olives.
The building's early phase from the 4th century comprises of two main buildings connected and preceded by an atrium. The first was a basilica with a nave and two aisles along each side. The church's apse faced west, atypically for later basilicas. The second building was a domed rotunda, known as the Rotunda of the Anastasis (the resurrection), surrounding a small building (Edicule) over the tomb.
The church didn't suffer much destruction until the year of 1009, when it was almost entirely demolished under the orders of Caliph al-Hakim, the Fatimid ruler of Egypt at that time. This demolition was one of the reasons given for the initiation of the Crusades. Soon after the church was desecrated rebuilding was initiated under the authorization of the new Caliph. About 30 years later the Crusaders captured Jerusalem and the church was further restored and rebuilt and dedicated in 1149. In 1187, when Jerusalem surrendered to Saladin the church was left intact. The church suffered two further catastrophes, the first by fire and the next by earthquake at the beginning of the 19th century and 1927 respectively. The church today still exudes its Crusader nature.
Biddle, Martin, Gideon Avni, Seligman, Jon and Winter Tamar. 2000. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher. New York: Rizzoli.
Hoppe, Leslie J. 1994. The Synagogues and Churches of Ancient Palestine. Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 108-112.
Crowfoot, J.W. 1937. Early Churches in Palestine. London: Oxford University Press, 9-21.