Jerusalem: The Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre

Golgotha and the Tomb: What the Gospel Says

"And when they came to a place called Golgotha (which means Place of the Skull)"

(Mt 27: 33).

"They brought him to the place of Golgotha"

(Mk 15: 22).

"When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him"

(Lk 23: 33).

"And carrying the cross himself he went out to what is called

the Place of the Skull, in Hebrew, Golgotha"

(Jn 19: 17).

"The place where Jesus was crucified was near the city"

(Jn 19: 20).

"Standing by the cross of Jesus was his mother"

(Jn 19: 25).

"Now in the place where he had been crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb"

(Jn 19: 41 cf. Mt 27: 59 and Lk 23: 33).


The 1927 earthquake caused serious damage to the Shrine and the restoration, started in 1960, gave us an opportunity to deepen our knowledge about the history and the topography of Jerusalem at the time of Christ.

Various archeological trenches were opened in several places inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Thanks to these trenches we know that the land around the Garden of Golgotha served as a stone quarry from the 8th to the 1st century B.C.

"Archeological data show that Jesus' tomb was excavated in a pilaster (a rock pillar) isolated from that quarry. The owner (Joseph of Arimathea at the time of the Crucifixion) had started to prepare a family tomb in the rock. This new tomb had a low entryway (people almost had to kneel to enter), which was closed by a large slab of rock. Beyond that narrow passage was a vestibule leading to the burial chamber. Here a single bench had been carved out, on the north side of the chamber (on the right hand side of a person entering the room).

It is likely that Joseph of Arimathea intended to enlarge the family tomb by digging two other benches on the west and south sides. But the events of Holy Week disrupted all his projects. The body of our Lord Jesus was laid down on that bench in this burial chamber. From that tomb and behind that "large stone, victory was proclaimed over death, by the Resurrection of Jesus. Today the ancient tomb is entirely covered with marble."

When Emperor Constantine ordered the construction of a "house of prayer," the site had to be leveled and the tomb of Jesus now stands isolated.

From the first century until the time of Constantine

After the rebellion of Bar-Cochba, Jerusalem was completely razed to the ground. To prevent any resistance from the Jewish nation, Hadrian decided to build a new city, in which no vestige of the past would remain. He called this new city "Elia Capitolina": "Elia" in his own honor and "Capitolina" because it was designed to have a "capitol," i.e. a hill surmounted by a temple to the Roman gods. Our best source of information about the efforts to conceal the city's religious past in what concerns the Holy Sepulcher, comes from the Christian historian Eusebius of Caesarea (265-340):

"Behold this sacred cave that certain atheists and enemies had wanted to remove entirely from the eyes of men, foolishly believing that in this way they could hide the truth. So with great efforts, they dumped a huge quantity of earth from outside, and covered the whole place; then, having raised the land to a moderate height, they paved it with stone, concealing the holy cave beneath this massive mound. Then, as if this were not enough, they built a gloomy shrine fatal to good souls over the tomb. This truly dreadful shelter was for the impure spirit called Venus, where they offered detestable libations on unclean and accursed altars. They thought that only thus, and not otherwise, they would have fully attained their project-of hiding the Grotto of Salvation beneath this execrable dirt."

(The Life of Constantine, by Eusebius of Caesarea, Book III, Chapter XXVI).

But a Christian community, composed only of pagano-Christian (i.e. non-Jews) continued to live in Jerusalem. They provided a real continuity in regards to the identification of the holy places. The first bishop of this community was a certain Mark. These Christians were able to identify the Holy Places, but couldn't prevent the edification of pagan temples over their ruins.

At the time of Constantine

In 325, during the Council of Nicaea, Bishop Macarius asked the Emperor Constantine to destroy the pagan temples that had been built over the Holy Places in the Holy City. The Emperor accepted. This is what Eusebius of Caesarea wrote:

The Emperor Constantine directed to make a deep excavation of the land, and the soil which had been polluted by the sacrifices offered to demons transported to a distant and remote place...

When everything had been removed, object after object, the original surface of the ground, beneath the covering of earth, appeared. Unbelievably, the venerable and hollowed Shrine of our Savior's Resurrection was discovered. The most holy Grotto of all presented a faithful similitude, which it had at the Resurrection of the Savior, after lying buried in darkness, it returned to the light, and all those who came to witness the sight could clearly see the wonders of history made here, as a testimony to the Resurrection of the Savior clearer than any voice could give...

Constantine had wanted the inside of the Lord's Tomb to remain without decoration, since no human decoration could ever embellish this rock that had been the witness of the Resurrection of Christ.

However the outside of the Tomb was covered with precious ornaments. The tomb was lit by the openings in the magnificent and very large dome which was built to contain it.

(Church History, by Eusebius of Caesarea, Book III, Chapters XXV-XXVIII)

Until Today

Of the original Constantinian basilica composed of three parts, (Martyrion, Triport and Anastasis) only the Rotunda of the Anastasis ("Resurrection") remains today. It was renovated several times. The rest of the building (which included the southern entrance, the Catholicon in the center, the ambulatory and the underground Chapel of Saint Helena) dates back to the Crusades (1141).

Sultans—those of Cairo and, from 1517, those of Constantinople—had the rights of opening the door of the Saint Sepulchre when they wished, and they charged a fee to all religious groups including the Franciscans, (until a permanent arrangement was established in 1832), the status quo, which strictly regulated the time and place of worship of the diverse religious communities.

The Franciscans, the Greek-Orthodox and the Coptic-Orthodox each have their own areas. The Ethiopian Coptic convent has a replica of an African earthen hut village, on the roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. They still pay two Muslim families who, every morning and every night, open the door. Sadly enough there has always been much division among the different communities.

On January 4, 1964, Pope Paul VI visited the Shrine and spoke with Greek Orthodox Patriarch Benedictos:

"The fact that, in spite of the weight of history and numerous difficulties, Christians, unfortunately divided, are working together to restore this Shrine which they themselves built when they were still united, while their divisions have led to its decline, is symbolic."

"God rose him up, delivering him from the throes of death; He couldn't possibly be held in its power"

(Acts 2: 24).

"Through Baptism we were buried with him in death, so that, as Christ rose from the dead for the glory of the Father, we too may live in a new life"

(Rom 6:4).