|The Floor Plan of the |
|The Greek Orthodox altar|
at the site of Calvary
Calvaria, the Latin rendering of the name Golgotha. The two sites, are close enough to be included in the same complex. Constantine’s basilica was built in the traditional style of a Roman basilica though facing west. (Saint Peter’s in Rome and Saint John Lateran are also Constantinian Basilicas facing west. Saint Paul’s outside the Walls today faces east, but the original Constantinian basilica faced west. As far as I can determine, the fifth Constantinan church, the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem faces east.)
The Constantinian Basilica was built to the east of Christ’s tomb and to the north of the rock of Calvary. Calvary was covered by a chapel just to the left of the apse of the Basilica and behind the apse was an open courtyard. On the far side of the courtyard was a round shrine area or rotunda over the tomb of Christ called the anastasis.
It is debatable how much of the tomb of Christ remained even in Constantine’s time but supposedly Constantine had the hillside around the tomb cut away and the tomb itself enclosed in a marble aedicule or small building standing within the domed circular rotunda. Much of the Good Friday service was held in the open courtyard when the remaining piece of what was believed to be the Cross of Christ was brought down from the shrine at Calvary into the courtyard for veneration. Today in the Catholic Good Friday service the veneration of the Cross—now usually a plain wooden cross without the figure of Christ—is one of the principle parts of Liturgy.
The Constantinian basilica stood until the year 614 when it was destroyed by fire during the Persian invasion. The Byzantine Emperor Heraclius rebuilt it in 630. The city fell to the Arabs in 636, but the Caliph, ‘Umar, showed great respect to the Christian population and their shrine and the Church remained undisturbed for almost four centuries until the “Mad Caliph,” Al Hakim, ordered the Church and the tomb of Christ razed to the ground in 1009. Al Hamkim’s son, Ali az-zahir, permitted the rebuilding which was financed by the Greek Emperor and Patriarch in Constantinople even though the shrine was no longer under his control, but the project remained mostly unfinished when the Crusaders arrived and captured the city from the Turks in 1099. It was during the Crusader era that today’s main church to the east of the Tomb was rebuilt and the entire complex, church, Tomb, and Calvary united under one roof. At this time, the orientation of the basilica was changed so in the current basilica, the principle altar and the nave, which are entrusted to the Greek Orthodox, face to east and away from the Tomb.
Except for a brief period in the middle of the thirteenth century, Jerusalem was under Muslim Rule from 1187 until the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. Through most of this period the Church remained in the hands of the Latin (Catholic) Christians, but from the sixteenth century onwards when Jerusalem was part of the Ottoman Empire the Church was more frequently entrusted to the Greek Orthodox. In 1853 the Sultan, pressured by the French, issued a Status Quo, in this case a settlement which spelled out precisely which parts of the Church and at what times of day were under the control of the Greek Orthodox, the Roman Catholics, and the Armenian Church. The Copts were given some minor rights. Quarrels and even fights still break out among the clergy and faithful when any altering of the Status Quo is perceived, sometimes be it as small an issue as how many times the priest swings the censer in a particular place or what melody is used for a chant. The Church is in needs of serious repairs but as agreement among the various religious bodies is almost impossible to reach, the repairs go undone. The Dome over the Sepulcher was repaired in the 1990’s, but there is need for much further restoration.
In the 19th century a British adventurer, Charles George Gordan, developed an alternate site for Protestant to worship. It is called “The Garden Tomb” or “Gordan’s Calvary.” While historians and archeologists reject it as a possibility for the site of Christ’s death and resurrection, it “looks” far more like what we think Calvary and the Sepulcher should look. If you really want to just go and have a place to sit and quietly read the gospels and give thought to Christ’s saving death and Resurrection, I suggest the Garden Tomb rather than the shabby and noisy Church of the Holy Sepulcher.