The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, also known as the Tomb of Christ, is one of the most holy of holy sites in the world. It is recognized by most religions, though argued over, as the site where Jesus was crucified and buried.
It is “owned” by four religions which maintain the structure as best they can, world economics and religious fanatics making one group more wealthy and powerful than another over time. The current curators are the Coptics, Latin (Catholic), Greek Orthodox, and Armenian.
It is also a fascinating structure. It is actually many buildings all brought together under one roof. And it has not always been “this” building but rebuilt many times.
Here is just a very brief look at the history of the building. One of the best resources for information about the Sepulchre or Tomb itself comes from The Tomb of Christ by Martin Biddle, a historical and anthropological thesis that looks at the history, development, design, and politics surrounding the Sepulchre.
According to the current day calendar, Jesus was executed outside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem in 30 or 33 AD/CE. When the city expanded about 10 years later, this area was supposedly incorporated into the walls of what eventually became the Old City of Jerusalem as we know it today. In order to deal with the expansion of the city, the Romans brought in massive piles of rubble to fill in and level off the rocky hills that made up the city’s landscape, creating massive marketplaces and roads. Still, over time the area, called Golgotha, “the place of crucifixion”, was vaguely remembered inside of the city. According to Biddle:
It served as a landmark for excavations which discovered several rock-cut tombs under the rubble. For reasons never stated, one of these tombs was immediately hailed as the Tomb of Christ. The emperor Constantine ordered that Golgotha and the tomb should be preserved and embellished, and that a great church should be erected beside them. This basilica, known as the Martyrion, “The Testimony” or “The Witness”, was dedicated on 17 September 335 inside the walls of the Roman veteran colony of Aelia Capitolina, soon again to be known by the ancient name of Jerusalem.
Another good, but old book, on the Old City of Jerusalem is Baedeker’s Jerusalem and Surrounds from 1876. While Baedeker’s Jerusalem depicts archaeological, historical, geology, and stories from the late 1800s, it is a colorful, and highly accurate but filled with assumptions, account of the life and history of Jerusalem and its monuments and holy sites.
Even though this guidebook comes from 1876, and Jerusalem has changed hands at least four times in the following 120 years, a lot has changed and yet so much has stayed the same. This antique guidebook helped us learn even more about the life, history, culture, and reasons behind what makes Jerusalem one of the most fascinating and unusual cities in the world.
Baedeker’s thoughts on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre are fascinating, digging deep into the past, trying to separate fact from fiction even then.
The tradition [of the Sepulchre] itself is unsatisfactory. There is no evidence that the spot was revered, or even known, in the early centuries of the Christian era. Old authors do not agree as to the kind of building erected by Hadrian on the place called Golgotha, some asserting that it was a temple of Venus, others a temple of Jupiter. Moreover, the whole story of finding the holy spot in the reign of Constantine, with its alleged miracles and other circumstances, affords a very strong probability that no tradition on the subject was then in existence. On the other hand it is natural, that, when Christianity had become the Roman state religion, inquiry should have been made regarding the site of the Sepulchre of Christ.
Bishop Eusebius (born at Caesarea about 264), the earliest historian who gives us information on the subject, records that during the excavations in the reign of Constantine, the sacred grotto of the Saviour, apparently hewn in the rock, or a solitary rock rising above the ground with a cavity in it, was discovered. Later historians add that Helena, Constantine’s mother, prompted by a divine vision, undertook a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and that she there discovered not only the Holy Sepulchre, but also the Cross of Christ.
For the next 17 centuries, after period destruction and rebuilding including most recently a fire that destroyed most of the facilities in 1810, the complex of buildings around, and eventually covering, the tomb are now called the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
The tomb was enshrined in an enclosure called an edicule, as ordered by Constantine, which sat out in a courtyard surrounded by churches and other shrines commemorating different points in the story of Jesus’ famous walk carrying the cross through Jerusalem. The path of his walk is called the Via Dolorosa and ends at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
In the courtyard before you enter the building that stands there today, to the right is a small chapel atop a steep set of stairs. This leads to the chapel honoring the auction of Jesus’ clothing. We’ll continue with a tour around the outside of the church to its roof later, a must see on your explorations through the Old City of Jerusalem.
The Entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre
Bring a camera with a zoom and wide angle lens in order to maximize your options. Many of the chapels and rooms are very small and close quarters, so only an extreme wide angle lens can capture the entire perspective of the room. The zoom lens will help you target the details and areas viewable but inaccessible to the public.
A flash is required and a reflector (gold, silver, and/or white) is highly recommended. The flash should be removable from your camera and hooked wirelessly or with a sync cord. Many of the altars feature highly reflective gold and silver materials which will bounce back flash as white blobs in your photographs. Bounce the light off the reflectors, walls or low ceilings at an angle to provide illumination but less reflections.
A tripod is highly recommended and essential for ambient light images. The church and its chapels are extremely dark, lit by low light electrical bulbs and candles. Take advantage of the candle lights to easily add warm, golden light to the scenes. Expect half to 2 or more second exposures in the low lit areas.
If there are few people in the church, consider laying down on the floor with a wide angle lens to capture a wide perspective of some of the chapels and the large facade of the Sepulchre. Hold the camera overhead with the flash to shoot over the heads of people praying at the different altars. Move around in different positions besides the typical front on position to find more interesting perspectives. Even with a tripod, you can combine flash with ambient light to photograph people praying or visiting the shrines while letting the candle light on the shrines illuminate themselves.
Look everywhere in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. There are many architectural details, relics, and archaeological remains to photograph that add to the history and culture of Jerusalem and Christianity.
There are no public bathrooms within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
It can be very chilly even during the extreme heat of summer, so bring a sweater just in case if you are going to spend time inside of the church. Always wear respectable clothing when visiting all holy places in Israel, though I’ve seen many girls in shorts and tank tops inside of the church over the years. If it is extremely hot, then carry a large and light scarf or shawl to at least drape over your arms and shoulders if not tie around your waist like a skirt. You are not required to cover your head, but some rude religious folks occasionally will complain to you about your naked head. Thank them for the advice and ignore them. Other than appropriate clothing, no church’s rules are totally in charge here. It is open to everyone.
As with travel and exploration all over Israel, carry water and extra water with you everywhere you go. Also bring extra batteries, for your flash and your camera, as well as extra digital storage cards and media and film. You can buy film in the Old City, but the odds are that it will be old, sitting in the sun for a long time, and not a known brand (often a fake popular brand). Slide film is rarely found within the Old City markets, only print film.
Before you enter the building, take a look around at the open courtyard outside of the entrance. It is often filled with all types of people, many dressed up like they are going to a festival in their traditional religious outfits. You will often also see rows upon rows of Israeli soldiers standing or sitting around the square smoking, talking on cell phones, and loudly chatting and laughing with friends. They are required to go on guided tours of all holy and sacred places throughout Israel, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Via Dolorosa, Western (Wailing) Wall, Yad Vashem, and the major churches and monuments. It’s part of the history of Israel, and they are taught that if you are familiar and have a sense of patriotism and ownership of these places, you will be more willing to die in defense of them, no matter their affiliation with your religion or not.
Now, look at the door leading into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This is often overlooked by many visitors anxious to get inside the church. If the weather is warm, both doors will be open, but a netting will hang down over the opening to discourage mourning doves from flying into the church. If the weather is cooler, only one large wooden door on the left will be open. It is this door that fascinates me.
Next to the left door is a column cracked by an earthquake, one of many as Jerusalem exists alongside the African Rift. Some religions believe this is a sign from God or represents some symbolism in their faith, so they will touch it, kiss it, and rub their hands all over it. It is black with oils from touching, and pockmarked from the saliva.
The door itself is incredibly solid and thick wood reaching high above your head. Hand-wrought metal hinges and handles, as well as braces to bolt the door against attacking forces. Over the years, the wooden door has seen many hands push against it, so it is weathered as well as worn in places. The locking mechanism is ancient and includes a bolt that slams into a hole in the stone floor running the height of the door. Over the years, this bolt has worn a quarter circle in the stone floor as it scrapped across the surface.
There are several ways to photograph the door, but my favorite is to enter the building and turn to the right along the way. Using a tripod (during low traffic days – not weekends or holy days) or brace, photograph the open door with sidelight coming in from the outside across its surface. This accentuates the cracks and texture on the wood and metal ornaments.
When you enter the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, remember again that this is now one building but is actually part of many buildings. There are reminders everywhere, but few people notice the details.
To the right are small rooms that serve now as offices and prep rooms for some of the church officials. Notice how the locked doors that remain on the wall near the entrance are actually way above the floor. After Israel took over Jerusalem from Jordan in 1967, the archaeological and restoration societies worked overtime for years to help restore and preserve this ancient monuments, even digging down through rubble and garbage to restore ancient floors and mosaics. You will see many examples of these preservation and protection efforts ongoing even today throughout the city.
To the right is a sweeping marble staircase that travels steeply up to the second floor where you will find “chapels” honoring different moments in the final moments of the life of Jesus. These, too, were another building and the staircase is made of a creamy marble that glows in the low light and candles of the church.
In front of you is a slab of stone with candles hanging in glass housing above it, and beyond that is a huge wall mosaic recently installed depicting the story of Jesus’ last days. The slab in front of you is usually a green and red marble, representative of the slab Jesus was laid upon in preparation for burial. I say usually because it is not the original by any means.
Over the five years of our life in Israel, we watched as the stone was worn away by pilgrims and visitors who prostrate themselves across the stone, kissing, sucking, and smearing saliva across the smoothly polished surface. As the saliva and oils from their hands and faces eats away at the surface, it becomes pockmarked and etched. When there is money available, and the stone gets too bad, it is ground down and polished or replaced every few years.
The pockmarked, grease stained spots around the church where people show their devotion is yucky stuff, but it is also part of the story of the church. What is less seen, though in evidence if you know where to look, is how bits and pieces of the church have been cleaned out and removed by pilgrims over the centuries. Biddle explains:
When the pilgrims went home, they took with them remembrances of the Tomb of Christ: oil from lamps burning above it, strips of cloth or paper showing its exact length, scraps of the rock, if they could get some. Others made notes, took careful measurements, made drawings, even bringing artisans with them to do so. They purchased models of stone or wood. And after their return some wrote accounts of what they had seen and some built replicas of the interior of the tomb, as in the Jeruzalemkerk in Bruges or in the crypt of the chapel of La Hougue Bie on Jersey…
This taking of “remembrances” has left little original of just about everything. Combined with the destruction and rebuilding over the centuries, most people are either captivated by the mythology “this is the real” and that “Jesus walked here”, while others treat the whole experience as rarefied, unconcerned if this is indeed the actual physical spot or not. I’ve often heard it referred to as “breathing the holy air”, good enough for most people.
From the main entrance, you can go to the right or left to explore more of the church, but most people turn to the left towards the Sepulchre or edicule.
The Holy Sepulchre
When you come around the corner into the Rotunda and see the Holy Sepulchre or edicule itself, unless you are seriously religious and your mere presence in this most holy spot incites your imagination, you may be amused or shocked. The outside of the Sepulchre, the construction that encases what may have been a burial chamber, has been built and rebuilt many times and stands old and weakened by its own poor construction. Around the outside is scaffolding bolted to the walls which not only keep them upright, but also keep them from collapsing in on themselves. The Sepulchre has been repeatedly shaken by earthquakes, including several during our time there, but the last worst one was in 1927, leading the Mandate Government to strap it together in 1947 to keep it from collapsing. The exterior is darkened from age and too much candle smoke. Along one of the scaffolds, people can light candles and stick them in sand now there for the purpose of holding the candles.
The Sepulchre was exposed to the air and weather for many years after the roof of the building over it was destroyed. In 1997, the new dome covering the Sepulchre was finally finished, thanks to the generous donation of a wealthy US citizen.
Again, much of the whole Sepulchre and surrounding church areas were left in a horrible state of disarray and disrepair until after 1967 when the Israel government moved in to help with massive restoration. The Sepulchre, the most fragile and sacred spot for many, is the last of the most visible parts of the church that needs restoration. It’s fragile nature is part of the delay, with many wanting to dig down through the artificial layers added over the centuries to the original, and others fearing that whatever is left of the original will be destroyed in the process. It is a long debate.
Stand in front of the Sepulchre and you will then see the elaborate gold and glitter so associated with 17th and 18th centuries. Hanging lanterns, now featuring dim electric lights, decorate the facade of the small structure. You stand with others, if there is a crowd, and wait your turn to enter the tiny two roomed structure.
The Sepulchre is divided into two rooms. The first one is today called the Chapel of the Angel. This is supposedly the spot where the angel announced that Christ had risen from the dead. The second, smaller, chamber is Tomb of Christ, the naturally or man made cave or tomb where the body of Jesus was laid (buried).
Inside of the Tomb of Christ is a stone said to represent the slab on which Jesus’ body was laid. In the Chapel of the Angel is a glass enclosed box on a pedestal said to be the remains of the actual stone. Tour guides may tell you that this is all that remains of the slab after the pilgrims chipped away at it for souvenirs, but in fact, this stone has been replaced over the centuries until it was finally encased. The case itself shows little as it has been kissed and touched so often, the surface of the glass or hard plastic is etched deeply. From time to time it is replaced, but not during the five years of our time there.
Photographically, the Sepulchre offers a lot of challenges. While you can use flash, tripods are not permitted inside of the Sepulchre, though you can slip through if the crowds are gone and the “guarding priest” doesn’t care. During the slow times of the year, they ignore just about everything.
Inside of the Sepulchre, use a wide angle lens to capture as much of the enclosure as possible. Or focus on a specific detail like a candle, a person kneeling, or something that is part of the story.
Outside of the Sepulchre, other than the front and the rear small Coptic chapel, there is little to photograph. Using a wide angle lens, you can take in the whole front of the Sepulchre. Using an extreme wide angle lens, you might be able to get low enough to also showcase the facade against the new, modernly clean domed roof for contrast.
Take care not to interfere with the pilgrims or priests as you photograph. They are wonderful people but tend to get surly after years of constant surveillance and policing the church. Many do not speak English, but are usually fluent in many other languages, so experiment with your language skills if they are willing to practice, as well as to learn more from them about how the church works and exists today. This is in sharp contrast to the lively description from the 1876 Baedeker’s guide book, relating a time before British rule when Jerusalem and all of what is now known as Israel, Jordan, and much of the rest of the Middle East, was under the control of the Turks.
It is a humiliating fact that Muslim custodians, appointed by the Turkish government, sit in the vestibule for the purpose of keeping order, particularly during the Easter solemnities, among Christian pilgrims from all parts of the world; and yet the presence of such a guard is absolutely necessary: so completely do jealousy and fanaticism usurp the place of true religion inn the minds of many of these visitors to the Holy City.
Before the dome was installed covering the Sepulchre, the open courtyard attracted many vendors as well as pilgrims, adding a sense of the exotic as well as grime so often found throughout the world in popular and ancient tourist attractions, so describes Baedekers:
The chief facade of the church is now on the south side, but the principal entrance was formerly from the east. The open space in front of the present portal dates from the period of the Crusades. It is paved with large yellowish slabs of stone, and is always occupied by vendors of relics, charms, and other articles, and by beggars.
Turn around from the Sepulchre and look into the church called the Catholicon. The entrance was called the Arch of the Emperors and often it is roped off from the public to protect the marble floor and restored gilding and paintings. Baedekers describes this large central chapel with its huge mural painted dome:
According to tradition, this building was erected in the garden of Joseph of Arimathea; in the middle ages it formed the choir of the canons. Between the entrance and the choir is shown the fragment of a column which is said to occupy the Center of the World, a fable of very early origin. On each side of the chapel is an episcopal throne. One seat for the patriarch of Jerusalem…This choir with the high altar is shut off by a wall in the Greek fashion, and a so-called Iconoclaustrum thus formed.
Though rarely accessible, if you get a chance to go into this main chapel, be sure and photograph the dome ceiling and details of the walls and architecture, as well as the floor. The patterns are delightful.
Hidden Treasures Inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre
There is so much to see throughout the entire enclosure now known as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. As you move through the church and chapels, pay close attention to the changes in architecture, representing not only the time period of construction, but the religion and culture behind the architecture. For example, the Chapel of the Apparition, off to the right of the facade of the Sepulchre, has been totally cleaned up and redone in the form of a modern chapel with unadorned smooth wooden pews and a simple metal and wood series of sculptures depicting the final walk of Jesus carrying the cross set upon a mantle running the length of the chapel towards the bright modern sunburst style cross in a small altar. Contrast this with the Prison of Christ Chapel at the end of a long corridor littered with remains of ancient columns, signs, and sculptures of the original church. This dark and dank little alcove has lost favor in recent years. It is said that the Greeks preserve this spot in the chapel because of two impressions on the stone said to be the footprints of Jesus indicating that this is the spot where he was “bound while his cross was being prepared”, though this legend has only been traced back as far as the 15th century.
The many chapels that remain in various states of repair and decay are intriguing, but quickly dismissed if you are in a hurry. If you have time, and are using a powerful flash or tripod, you can photograph some of the different monuments and decorations around the entire Catholic. The chapels signify different events around the last moments of the life of Jesus, and are hosted by the different religions laying claim to the church.
The areas of particular interest to the tourist, pilgrim, and photographer are the top floor where the nailing to the cross and crucification are honored, downstairs in the Chapel of the Empress Helena and Chapel of the Finding of the Cross. Then I’ll treat you to a special spot in the church not seen by most visitors.
The two chapel areas on the top floor where the nailing to the cross and crucification are honored are known as the Chapel of the Nailing to the Cross, Chapel of the Raising of the Cross, and the Hole of the Cross, though they are now actually in one room slightly divided into two. For modern religionists, this is also called Calvary.
As you come up the top of the stairs, to the far right is the Chapel of the Nailing to the Cross. A small window to your immediate right looks down into the Chapel that honors the auctioning off of Jesus’ clothes.
The altar for the nailing to the cross is incredibly ornate, as is the altar honoring the crucification. The background wall is covered in a gold gilded mosaic of Jesus being nailed to the cross. Take care using flash here as the gold and silver is highly reflective. I’ve returned with many photographs using flash featuring huge white balls of reflection and little detail. If possible, use a tripod or off camera flash to angle the flash away from the lens, bouncing it off the walls or ceiling, or at least at an angle. The many candles usually on display add a warm orange glow to the lighting, so I seriously recommend using a tripod and slow shutter speed.
Again, you can go for the overall picture with a wide angle lens, or zoom in on some details. These two chapels are extraordinarily ornate and overwhelming to the new visitor. Take time to absorb all the details before aiming your camera. There is a lot to see.
Moving to the left, you will now be in the Chapel of the Raising of the Cross and the Hole of the Cross. There is a lot going on here, so take your time to absorb it all before taking pictures.
In the immediate foreground of the altar is a high table of silver. People bend over and crawl underneath to put their hand through a hole in the altar to touch the top of the stone below said to be the spot where the cross was placed in the ground. It is also said to be the spot where Abraham tried to sacrifice Isaac.
The altar itself features a sculpture of Jesus on the cross with a crown of thorns. The walls beyond it area also gold gilded and glittering. Take care using flash. The ceiling is very low here, so if you lie down on the floor or drop to one knee, you may be able to bounce some flash light off the ceiling for reflective light, but again, a tripod captures a more intense and emotional image with the candlelight.
Everywhere you look there is something interesting to see. If you are into details, the benches, wall and ceiling ornamentations are beautifully patterned. Even the people praying and standing around looking are fascinating, representative of all the cultures in the world.
If you move towards the left and back by the stairs, you can look over and up into the Catholic. Notice the detailed sculptured facade over the entrance area, a fine oriental looking carved white arching pattern. Look up into the dome to see the recently restored murals on the ceiling. A longer lens can zoom in on some of these details.
Walking back downstairs, move to the right of the main entrance, past the chapel below the crucification spot, showing the cracked rocks below as “proof” that this is the spot. According to the bible, “On the whole world there pressed a most fearful darkness; and the rocks were rent by an earthquake, and many places in Judea and other districts were thrown down.” Those in favor of verifying this as the “spot” claim that the cracks here in the rock were made at the same time of the crucifixion, and legend persists that these cracks “reach to the center of the earth”. Move on past other small chapels to a wide stairway.
Stepping down the dimly lit staircase, note the etched Crusaders crosses in the walls. They are of various sizes, and all hand-carved into the stone walls. If you are using flash, step back from the wall and try to use reflective flash, moving the flash off camera or using a white card to bounce the tilted flash onto the wall. Or use a difussion cloth over the flash head to soften the light. Sidelight, if possible, works best. Or use a tripod and let the natural light from the chapel below add a little sidelight.
If you go down the staircase in winter, early in the morning or late in the afternoon, consider bringing a flashlight as it can get fairly dark down here if the lights aren’t on.
At the bottom of the main staircase is the Chapel of St. Helena, mother of Constantine. Baedekers describes it thus:
…here once stood Constantine’s basilica. In the seventh century, a small sanctuary in the Byzantine style was erected here by Modestus, and the existing substructions date from this period. To the east are three apses, and in the center four cylindrical columns which bear a dome. The latter has six side-windows, which look to the quadrangle of the Abyssinian monastery. The shafts of the columns are antique monoliths of reddish colour; their thickness, however, as well as the disproportionate size of the cubic capitals, give the whole a heavy appearance. The pointed vaulting dates from the time of the Crusaders (12th century). The chapel belongs to the Abyssinians, by whom it is let to the Armenians. From the statements of medieval pilgrims, we learn that this chapel was regarded as the place where the cross was found…the altar in the middle is dedicated to the Empress Helena. To the right of the altar is shown a seat in which the empress is said to have sat while the cross was being sought for; this tradition, however, is not older than the 15th century. In the 17th century, the Armenian patriarch, who used to occupy this seat, complains of the way in which it was mutilated by pilgrims, and speaks of having been frequently obliged to renew it. Down to the time of Chateaubriand (1806) the old tradition was kept up that the columns of this chapel shed tears.
The recently uncovered and restored floor of the Chapel of St. Helena reveals an intricate and rough mosaic representing Empress Helena and the finding of the cross. This is usually roped off except for special occasions. A wide angle lens will catch the overall floor, but a zoom lens will capture little details of the workmanship. There is usually enough light in the middle of the day coming in through the windows in the dome.
Moving past the chapel to the right, descend down another set of stairs to what is known as the Chapel of the Finding of the Cross. Notice how the walls become rough hewn on the way down. This is the oldest part of the original church.
There is little to see here now, as the ancient paintings on the walls are now covered with scratched and old plastic protective plates, and the cave-like room is rarely lit. Hang around long enough and you are likely to see a priest pass through and open a small railed gate that protects a ladder-like staircase that descends down even further. I was never able to find out where it led or what was down there, one of the many mysteries of the church.
This small ancient chapel was only uncovered in the 1800s and the first mass was said here, according to Baedeker, in 1857. Still, the ancient feel of the rock, and the fact that you are several floors below the church gives you a rare insight into what is “real” and what is not in Jerusalem.
Remember that when Helena “discovered” this area, it was covered by 300 years of fill and rubble. After wars, earthquakes, fires, and general lack of maintenance and care, the original churches and monuments were destroyed and rebuilt and destroyed and rebuilt, one on top of the other. What you are seeing here more closely resembles the original chapel and location than what you saw up above.
Now, I promised you a treat, a little rarely seen treasure in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Returning back up the stairs, going back to the Sepulchre, walk around behind it to the Coptic Chapel in the back. Turn away from the Sepulchre and walk towards the arches along the wall. If it remains open, there is one entrance that isn’t closed. This room has been a chapel and an office over the years. Now it is abandoned but it holds great treasures.
Called the Chapel of the Syrians or Jacobites, over the five years of lack of tourists and pilgrims during our time there, tour guides began to add this little treat to their itinerary, since they had more time leading 3-10 people instead of the more common groups of 30-50. So over time, the room has been cleaned up a bit from the stinking urine stained and litter filled room I first stumbled upon in 1999. They even added a light bulb, though the first version hung from a worn and overworked wire cord naked into the room.
To the left of the entrance into the room remains a giant throne-like chair with an aged painting above it. Both are scared from fire, possibly from the fire in the 1800s, or just from neglect, mold, and mildew. The main draw to this ugly room is directly across from the doorway. It is a narrow passageway carved into the wall that opens up to little tomb caves.
Once again, Baedeker describes these from the 1876 guide:
…through a short and narrow passage, and down one step into a rocky chamber to which candles should be brought. By the walls are first observed two “sunken tombs”, one of which is about 2 feet and the other 3 1/2 feet long, and both 3 feet deep, having been obviously destine for children. In the rock to the south are traces of “shaft tombs”, 5 1/2 feet long, 1 1/2 feet wide, and 2 1/2 feet high. Since the 16th century, tradition has placed the tombs of Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus here.
Bend low to duck down through the opening to the burial tombs. With a flashlight or candles, you can scoot around the slight bend in the small corridor to see deeper into the tombs. Candles are usually left burning from previous visitors to help illuminate the tiny space.
While modern tradition holds that Jesus was buried in a cave tomb, it is here you actually see what the “burial tombs” more closely resembled in those days than the modern grotto mythology. Small caves were carved into the limestone walls of homes and “basements” to bury dead bodies. Like long tubes in the walls, they were sealed up after burial. The ornate remains of the Sepulchre are not even close to what is probably the truth. Don’t forget, Jesus was considered a criminal, even though the story goes that Joseph of Arimathea buried him on his estate (and how close was that estate to the crucification location? Talk about location, location, location! Quite a view for a rich man.). The story of his burial being in a huge grotto is attributed to recent legends. It is more likely that he was buried in a carved tomb similar to these.
You can see similar burial tombs carved into the walls of Mary’s family home, where her parents were buried, near the start of Via Dolorosa at Stephen’s or Lions Gate.
I like these burial caves as they are a step back into the reality of the past and not the Kodak-moment show. There is no glitz, glamor, or monumental monuments here. Just tiny little caves where small bodies may have rested in peace at one time or another.
To photograph the burial chamber, take advantage of the candlelight (you can bring your own or get some candles (donation requested) from the altars throughout the church) and use a tripod or set the camera on the floor or a low support with a wide angle lens in the tiny space. The candlelight provides a warm orange glow to the tiny caves, and if you can get the candles in the picture, it is even more historical and haunting.
There is much to see inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, though most people’s visit concentrates on the holiest of locations, following the end of the path of the Via Dolorosa. Take your time with the camera and think about the story you want to tell with your photographs. Is it the story of Jesus, of pilgrims and religions honoring religious convictions, or the history and architecture? Think about the story you want to share with your friends, family, and fans when you get home, and take those pictures. Or go bonkers and photograph everything that catches your eye during this once in a life time trip.
Outside the Holy Sepulchre
Below, tucked next to the wall in the corner of the Chapel of Agony, where soldiers fought over the clothing of Jesus, is a small door that leads to one of the Coptic chapels. Enter there, pay a small donation if you like, and enter a very dark tiny chapel. Move to the left and go up the stairs and you will be on the roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Here you will see the little huts the Coptic priests live in year around. They now cannot afford to contribute much financially to the church, as their African countries are devastated by war and famine, so they live on the church’s roof to ensure continued “ownership rights”.
Pass through the small buildings along the roof to the left of the small dome and into a wide alley. Ahead lies a fascinating little chapel and steps down to see one of the ancient cisterns (pay a small fee) that still exist under and within the Old City of Jerusalem.
Move down the corridor and twist around a wide set of stairs and you will descend into the middle of the Arab marketplace. From here, you can explore the markets or turn to your right, and keep to your right, and circle back around to the German Lutheran Church and the entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre off the ancient Roman Cardo and tourist market area.
When to Visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre
Anytime is a good time to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, but for the photographer, middle of the day brings the most “natural” lighting into the various parts of the building through the few windows in or near the ceilings and domes.
If you will be taking your time and working with a tripod, then go early in the morning or at least in the middle of non-holiday weeks when the crowds are fewer. Many tour groups begin their tours on Saturday, Sunday, or Monday, and if they begin with Jerusalem, which many do since many stay within the new areas of Jerusalem in the many nice hotels, they will be all over the Old City and the holy areas on those days. Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday are the quietest. Some religions go to church, and thus visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, so avoid it during those times, though it can be quiet when the tourists are not in season on a Saturday.
For the most part, few services in the traditional format are held within the grounds of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre proper, except for special and holiday occasions. Easter is one of the most popular times of the year for the church as many pilgrims arrive to make the journey, dragging a cross, in a parade along Via Dolorosa to the church. Be aware that entrance into the church during religious holidays is on a first come, first serve basis, and visitors are thoroughly checked by security. If you are determined to attend one of the church’s special functions, be warned that many require entry into the church the night before the event and then the church is locked down for the night in prayer vigils, until the event. This is for security reasons as well as crowd control. Only the seriously determined get best seating.
During these special events, the church is cleaned and prettied for special guests and visitors. Many events feature the religious figures in their traditional costumes, too.
If you are into the low key affairs or unable to plan your trip around one of these festivities, you can still catch some of the excitement at about 4PM every day.
The four religions laying claim to the church begin a “round” of the church, singing traditional songs of praise and prayer and swinging incense burners along the “path of Christ”, pausing at each sacred spot. The sound of the young priests or religious students in the various groups caroling, one on one side of the church and another on the other side of the church, and another high above in the Calvary area, echoes and rebounds around the church. It’s haunting and magical, even if you are not religious.