Places to go: Church of the Holy Sepulchre

After all that Jewish pride in the post about the Western Wall, I bet this isn’t what you were expecting next, huh?

In the Old City, the area the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the covers encompasses, in many Christian traditions, the area where Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected. It therefore holds great importance in Christianity. For non-Christians, even without that reverence, it is still a remarkable place to visit. It is an incredible mish-mash of architecture, with many sections having been built and rebuilt by different sects, and is often strikingly beautiful.

It is also a scene of utter chaos as many different groups hold different ceremonies in different areas. The Church is a politically fascinating place, where six different Christian denominations control different areas of the building, and still more have the right to conduct services there. I lost count of the number of sorts of monks I saw in my last visit.

The Church was built first around 300 BCE, after the Roman emperor Constantine sent his mother, Helene, to Jerusalem to identify locations important in the life of Jesus. She chose this spot. The truth is, there is no evidence beyond her say-so that these spots are correct, but if you are Christian, they are just as likely as any other. Who is to say that Helene wasn’t divinely inspired?

Arab rulers in the area either protected it or at least left the Church be until just after 1000 BCE, when an Arab caliph ordered its destruction (but who do you think got blamed for it back in Europe?) Over the next several hundred years, different Christian built and rebuilt different bits and its really confusing, but you can read about it in much more detail here or here or here.

The Old City is a hard place to navigate, with many tiny alleys and twists and turns. Both times I’ve visited the Church, we approached it from the Jewish quarter. There’s no sign it even exists, then you go through this little alley and it suddenly opens up into a courtyard. The first time I saw the church, I was struck by the lack of  ornamentation on the outside of the building. I expected something more grandiose. But what it lacks for on the outside, it makes up for on the inside. Here’s the courtyard:

Apparently, it is a Christian tradition to recreate the path Jesus took through Jerusalem dragging a cross (but for all Christian denominations? I don’t know, but I’m guessing not), so don’t be surprised to see regular-looking tourists, followed by other regular-looking tourists, dragging or carrying a big cross through the streets.

Equality, don’t be surprised to see solemn processions heading through the streets towards the Church.

Both times I’ve been in the Church, I’ve made sure to stick close to the tour guide, because it isn’t a place you want to get lost in, so I can’t really tell you where to find the important bits. Bring a map – or a tour guide. Below is a crowd around a stone where Jesus was supposed to have been laid after being taken off the cross.

The crowd around the structure in which Jesus’ tomb is encased is even more impressive. Below are people waiting to get into that area, which is on the right. For a while, the last time we were there, the crowds were large enough to block us from getting back outside, so we got to stand and watch the different processions of monks march circles around the tomb, swinging incense, while our tour guide figured out the best escape route.

I have to mention one other thing about the Church for the sake of any women who are going to visit. It has a bathroom that looks surprisingly modern as you line up for it, even though it is unisex. But once you going into a stall, you’ll see that there is no actual toilet, only a hole in the floor. Fortunately, the stall is small enough so that you can hang into the walls if you need to as you hover your old/fat/Westernized tush over the hole. Plus, I strongly recommend that you take to carrying kleenex around in your purse or backpack, because you can’t guarantee toilet paper everywhere. Oh, and while this bathroom had nice sanitary soap pumps and clean sinks, you might also want to carry sanitary wipes in your bag too, for times you aren’t so lucky.

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