Photo by Josh Spradling

Christendom's most important church huddles amidst souqs on the edge of the Christian and Muslim Quarters. For the past 16 centuries Christian pilgrims have arrived at this spot from every corner of the globe, and while the church building itself may not look particularly regal or attractive, the tears, laments and prayers of the pilgrims have done much to sanctify it. Be aware that the church can be hard to locate – the easiest access is via Christian Quarter Rd.

Built on a site considered by Christians to be the biblical Calvary or Golgotha where Jesus was nailed to the cross, died and was resurrected, the church incorporates the final five Stations of the Cross and is perennially packed with tourists and pilgrims. Those hoping to enjoy a period of quiet contemplation or worship will be sorely disappointed.

The decision to erect a church here is said to have been the result of lobbying on the part of Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine, 300 years after the Crucifixion. While on pilgrimage in the Holy City, she took note of Hadrian’s pagan temple and shrine to Venus (built in 135 CE), and believed it had been placed here to thwart early Christians who had worshipped at the site. She joined the Bishop of Jerusalem, Macarius, in petitioning the emperor to demolish the temple, excavate the tomb of Christ and build a church to house the tomb.

Excavations revealed three crosses, leading Helena to declare the site as Calvary. Work on Constantine’s church commenced in 326 CE and it was dedicated nine years later. If you are a little confused as to why Jesus is said to have been crucified in the middle of the city, bear in mind that 2000 years ago this was an empty plot of land outside the former city walls. Shrines and churches were built on the site from the 4th century, occasionally destroyed by invading armies and rebuilt.

When his armies took the city in 638 CE, Caliph Omar was invited to pray in the church but he refused, generously noting that if he did his fellow Muslims would have turned it into a mosque. Instead, in 1009 the church was destroyed by the mad Caliph Hakim.

Restoration began in 1010 but proceeded slowly due to lack of funds. Eventually, the Byzantine Imperial Treasury provided a subsidy 20-odd years later. It wasn’t enough to pay for a complete reconstruction of the original church, so a large part of the building was abandoned, but an upper gallery was introduced into the rotunda and an apse added to its eastern side as a sort of compensation. This was the church that the Crusaders entered on 15 July 1099 as the new rulers of the city. They made significant alterations and so the church as it exists today is more or less a Crusader structure of Byzantine origins. At this time the main entrance had two access points: the current entry door and another at the head of the Crusader-era staircase on the exterior, which led into a small chapel built to provide a ceremonial entrance to the site of Calvary. This chapel was walled up after the Crusaders' defeat in 1187; its carved lintel is now exhibited in the Rockefeller Museum.

A fire in 1808 and an earthquake in 1927 caused extensive damage, and serial disagreements between the different Christian factions who share ownership (Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Syrians, Copts and Ethiopians) meant that it took until 1959 for a major repair program to be agreed upon. Due to the rivalries, the keys to the church have been in the possession of a local Muslim family, the Nusseibehs, since the days of Saladin and it’s still their job to unlock the doors each morning and secure them again at night.

The church has always been home to relics, many of which have been coveted by pilgrims. The cross discovered by Helena was originally put on display, but when pilgrims bent over to kiss it so many took a bite out of the wood to take home as a memento that there was eventually nothing left. These days, pilgrims limit themselves to pouring oil on the Stone of Unction and then rubbing this off on a handkerchief to take home as a relic.

Visitors here should dress modestly – the guards are very strict and refuse entry to those with bare legs, shoulders or backs. The main entrance is via Christian Quarter Rd, but there are also entry points via Dabbaga Rd (accessed from Souq Khan al-Zeit St or Mauristan Rd) or via the rooftop Ethiopian Monastery.