Constantine the Great was the first Roman emperor to adopt Christianity;
he made it the official religion of the Roman Empire. Constantine started
his career as ruler of the western region of the Roman empire (306); after
defeating his three co-regents, he emerged in 324 as sole emperor,
retaining unrivalled power until his death in 337. He made Byzantium his
capital, rebuilt it and renamed it Constantinople.
In 326, involved with Christianity and ecclesiastical controversy, he
called a meeting of bishops of all the parts of the empire, including
Macarius, Bishop of Aelia Capitolina, as Jerusalem was still called. The
emperor's mother, Queen Helena, who had converted to Christianity, was
much impressed with the bishop's tale of the sad neglect of the sites
hallowed by the life and death of Jesus and, with her son's blessings,
authority and funds, left to visit the Holy Land.
In Jerusalem she identified the place of crucifixion (the rock held to be
Golgotha) and the nearby tomb known as Anastasis (Greek for resurrection).
The emperor decided to build an appropriate shrine on the site the
magnificent Church of the Holy Sepulcher, described in detail by Eusebius,
a contemporary historian and biographer.
The church was destroyed by the Persians in 614 and soon afterwards partly
reconstructed; in 1010 it was destroyed by the Caliph Hakim of Egypt and
rebuilt in 1048 by Byzantine emperor Constantine Monomachus; in 1144 the
Crusaders rebuilt the entire church, put it under a single roof, and made
many alterations and additions. Over the following centuries the church
fell into disrepair.
In the 1960s, as part of the proposed restoration of the Church of the
Holy Sepulcher, a comprehensive survey, including excavations beneath the
foundations of the present-day church, which largely follows the plan of
the Crusader church, was undertaken.
Based on the written sources, architectural evidence and discoveries made
during the survey, the plan of the large complex of the original church
was reconstructed. It was composed of four distinct elements: The entrance
from the main street - the Cardo - (today the main market street of the
Old City), led to the courtyard (the eastern atrium); from there to the
basilica (the martyrion); to an inner atrium (the Holy Garden); and to the
westernmost building, the rotunda (the anastasis) with the sepulcher.
Reconstruction of the original Byzantine church (after Corbo)
The Present-day Courtyard
This courtyard, outside the present-day Church of the Holy Sepulcher, is
partly supported by a large, vaulted cistern. The northern wall of this
cistern is very impressive, consisting of large blocks with dressed
margins, still standing several meters high. It has been suggested that
this early wall served as the retaining wall of the second century
Hadrianic raised platform (podium). This appears to support Eusebius'
statement that the Temple of Venus, which Hadrian erected on the site of
Jesus' tomb, stood here before the original church was built.
Early masonry below the catholicon of the Crusader period was exposed
during the excavations. This made possible the reconstruction of the
original design of the 4th century basilica. The position of the two
central rows of columns in the basilica (out of the four rows) may be
determined by the remains of their foundations, which can be seen along
the northern and southern sides of the chapel of St. Helena. In a small
underground space north of this chapel, a massive foundation wall of the
early basilica was exposed. On a large, smoothed stone which was
incorporated in this wall, a pilgrim to the original church left a drawing
of a merchant ship and the Latin inscription: "O Lord, we shall go."
Beneath the apse of the present-day catholicon, part of the apse that
marked the western end of the original church was exposed. Eusebius
described this apse as being surrounded by twelve columns, symbolizing the
The Rotunda and Sepulcher
The most important element of the complex is the rotunda which contains
the sepulcher itself. The sepulcher stands in an elaborate structure
within the rotunda, surrounded by columns supporting an ornamented, domed
Some masonry remains were revealed below the floor and around the
perimeter of the rotunda. Wherever bedrock was exposed, there were
indications of stone-quarrying in earlier periods. The quarrying operation
lowered the surface level around the sepulcher, which thus stood well
above its surroundings. An architectural survey of the outer wall of the
rotunda - 35 m. in diameter and in some sections preserved to a height of
10 m. - shows that it maintains its original 4th century shape. The
sepulcher itself is
surrounded by a circle of twelve columns - groups of three columns between
four pairs of square piers. It is possible that the columns for the 4th
century rotunda were removed from their original location on the facade of
the Roman temple. Renovation of the piers exposed evidence that the
columns had originally been much higher and that the Crusaders cut them in
half for use in the 12th century rotunda.
The renovation of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is still in progress,
but after generations of neglect, the building has already regained most
of its former beauty.
The survey and excavations were conducted by V. Corbo, Ch. Coüasnon, M.
Broshi and others, on behalf of the Christian communities which control
most of the Holy Sepulcher: the Roman Catholic; the Greek Orthodox; and
the Armenian Orthodox.