OF ALL THE SHRINES and cathedrals throughout the Christian world there is nothing to equal the Anastasis, the Church of the Resurrection, in Jerusalem, known in the West as the Holy Sepulchre. The church complex includes the hill of Calvary, the place of Christ’s death, and the tomb in which He was buried and from which He rose on the third day. Its dedication on September 13, 335 is remembered every year on this date on the Byzantine calendar.
While the present form of the Anastasis dates from the mid-nineteenth century, its origins may be found at the beginning of the Christian Roman Empire, with the Equals to the Apostles, Ss Constantine and Helen. During the Roman persecution of Christians a pagan temple had been built on the site to bury the memory of Christ’s tomb. The first Christian emperor, St Constantine, mounted an expedition, led by his mother St Helena, to restore and adorn the places associated with Christ’s life. The pagan temple was demolished and the Anastasis built on the site of Calvary and the tomb.
The Anastasis is actually a complex of chapels and churches with the tomb of Christ at its center. According to the Gospel, “Now in the place where He was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb … hewn out of the rock” (John 19:41; Matthew 27:60). The rock and earth around the tomb was removed and a kouvouklion or shrine built around it. Over the centuries it has been adorned with marble, hanging lamps, icons and other ornaments so that it bears little resemblance to the garden tomb in which Jesus was laid. The site, however, had been cherished by local Christians long before Constantine as the actual places where the Lord suffered His Passion.
A rotunda, or circular enclosure, was build around the tomb to accommodate worshippers. At first it was open to the sky, but by the end of the fourth century a dome was constructed, enclosing the entire area.
Besides the tomb of Christ the Anastasis also contained a great basilica, called the martyrion, and a covered atrium over the rock of Calvary. These three separate structures were joined together in later years and several more chapels added, giving us the form we know today.
Surviving the Centuries
The Anastasis survived centuries of natural disasters as well as invasion and occupation by hostile forces. The church was almost destroyed by a fire in 614 during the Persian occupation of Jerusalem but restored after the Persians were driven out in 630. During Arab rule the church was damaged and then completely destroyed in ad 1009 by the so-called “Mad Caliph,” al-Hakim. The shrine enclosing the tomb was buried in rubble which protected it from further damage.
Rebuilding the Anastasis was negotiated in a peace treaty between the Arabs and the Byzantine Empire. It took twenty years of work to rebuild the church. Several small chapels surrounding the principal shrines were added at that time. The Anastasis was often damaged and restored in centuries that followed. The most extensive damage resulted from a fire in 1808. The great dome collapsed, damaging the kouvouklion somewhat. Two earthquakes in the 1830s caused further damage. The reconstruction that followed was completed in 1870. Further restoration was needed after an earthquake in 1927 and extensive repairs were begun in 1958 and are still continuing.
The Anastasis Today
The number of Christian groups seeking use of the church caused frequent squabbles until 1852, when the Ottomans decreed an arrangement called the status quo which is still in force. It placed the administration of the church in the hands of the three oldest and largest Christian groups in Jerusalem, the Armenian, Greek and Latin Churches. The Coptic Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox and Syriac Orthodox Churches also have certain sections allotted to their use. The Greek Catholic patriarchate is nearby, but not part of the Anastasis complex.
Entrance to the Anastasis is through an open courtyard flanked by a Roman Catholic chapel to Our Lady of Sorrows and a Greek Orthodox chapel of St Mary the Egyptian who experienced her conversion at the door of the Anastasis. A Greek Orthodox monastery, the Gethsemane Metochion, is also accessed from this courtyard.
The rotunda enclosing the Lord’s tomb occupies approximately one-third of the church’s main floor. Each day three Liturgies (Armenian, Greek and Latin) are offered in the tomb. The rotunda also contains a Coptic Orthodox chapel and a Syriac Orthodox. Five smaller chapels face the kouvouklion from the north and south.
Opposite the rotunda is the catholicon or cathedral of the Greek Patriarchate of Jerusalem. Greek and Armenian chapels line the aisle in the apse of the catholicon.
Descending a staircase brings us to three more chapels, Armenian, Greek, and Latin respectively. Ascending another staircase leads us to the Golgotha, shrine of the crucifixion. The Greek and Latin chapels here recall the death of Christ.
The “Garden Tomb”
American and European Protestants began coming to Jerusalem in the nineteenth century but did not feel comfortable with Eastern liturgy or the ornamentation of the holy sites. The ornamentation of the tomb, however, had begun as soon as the Anastasis was constructed. The pilgrim-nun Egeria saw it this way: “You see there nothing but gold and gems and silk. For if you look at the veils, they are wholly made of silk striped with gold, and if you look at the curtains they too are made wholly of silk striped with gold… And what shall I say of the decoration of the building itself which Constantine – at his mother’s instigation – decorated with gold, mosaic and costly marbles, as far as the resources of his kingdom allowed him…”
Some Protestant writers, believing that Jerusalem in the first century was the same size as the present city, derided the Anastasis as “mere delusion, a monkish juggle” (Edward Clarke, 1812). British theorists proposed another site, “Gordon’s Calvary” as the place of Christ’s death and burial. The unadorned “Garden Tomb” developed there is the favored location for Protestant worship, although it is now realized that the site of the Anastasis was outside the city walls in Christ’s day.
In about 380 a Spanish nun visited the Holy Places. She described Sunday worship at the Anastasis as moving from the courtyard to the tomb, then to the Cross and the basilica:
“On the seventh day, that is, on the Lord’s Day, the whole multitude assembles before cockcrow … in the basilica which is near the Anastasis, but outside the doors… As soon as the first cock has crowed, the bishop arrives and enters the cave at the Anastasis; all the doors are opened and the whole multitude enters the Anastasis where countless lamps are already lit… After three psalms and three prayers are ended, censers are brought into the cave of the Anastasis so that the whole basilica of the Anastasis is filled with odors. And then the bishop, standing within the rails, takes the book of the Gospel, and proceeding to the door, himself reads the Resurrection (narrative) … After the reading of the Gospel the bishop goes out to the Cross, accompanied by all the people with hymns. There again a psalm is said and prayer is made, after which he blesses the faithful and the dismissal takes place… At daybreak because it is the Lord’s Day every one proceeds to the greater church, built by Constantine, which is situated in Golgotha behind the Cross, where all things are done which are customary everywhere on the Lord’s Day …