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The Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Fire has licked, distressed and destroyed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre regularly across the millennia. In 1808 the dome of the rotunda imploded spectacularly, its disappearance effected the equally spectacular Ottoman Baroque restoration of 1810. Like wonders, improvements never cease at the Church, but its appearance hasn’t really changed since 1854. Today’s 1870s dome was restored between 1994 and 1997.

No crusading Knight’s 12th-century ‘armed pilgrimage’ was considered complete until he had knelt down to pray at the Holy Sepulchre. This was because in 1149, all traces of Jesus Christ’s execution, entombment and resurrection were united under one glorious roof. Following structural improvements in 1555, management of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre alternated between Franciscans and Orthodox. After many jurisdictional clashes, they were granted permanent shared control in 1853.

This land of Golgotha — of the Hill of Calvary — where Jesus was crucified, entombed in a sepulchre and then rose again, was adulated as holy. But in 135 AD, seething with anti-Christian rage, Roman Emperor Hadrian blotted this landscape with a temple to Venus and her Greek equivalent, Aphrodite. He also dumped his volatile province’s ‘Judaea’ name, re-branding it as ‘Syria Palaestina’. Around 325 AD, 1st Emperor Constantine sponsored his mother, St. Helena, to destroy Hadrian’s blasphemous temple. And out of its foundations grew a monumental basilica that honoured the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.

Christian pilgrims have thronged to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, especially since its first dome was completed at the end of the 4th century. The Church endured its first real fire in 614, the second in 966. In 1009, Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah, in an orgy of hate for everything Christian, ordered the Church’s wholesale destruction. Almost all except 4th century pillar-work was flattened. This sacrilege caused shockwaves in Europe, anti-Semitic banishment and worse. It was also flammable enough to ignite the First Crusades.

The Church’s ruins were plundered, and sheep-grazed here until 1027. But along came Caliph Ali az-Zahir (Al-Hakim’s son) to the rescue. Ali az-Zahir, the Fatimids and the Byzantines wanted a new Church to be built — and lavishly. Emperor Constantine IX and the Nicephorus of Constantinople picked up the tab, and in 1048 a new Church of the Holy Sepulchre stood resplendent. Struggles for control of it stopped abruptly in 1099. The Knights of the First Crusade arrived at the Church and — thinking it would amplify their prayers — they seized it for themselves.

The site of the Birth of Jesus of Nazareth

Above Jesus of Nazareth’s cavernous birthplace stands the oldest surviving basilica in the Holy Land, and one of the longest continuously working churches in the world. A combination of two basilicas, the Church of the Nativity shelters the Grotto of the Nativity — the subterranean cave beneath the basilica. Here it is believed that the baby Jesus was born. Above the earthen floor — on the cave’s rooftop where you will stand — a 14-point silver star lies inlaid on a marble floor; this is the divine X that marks the spot. Above this stands a denominationally neutral altarpiece. Nearby, a Roman Catholic altar shows where Mary laid Jesus in his long rotted-away manger.

Christian apologist Justin Martyr (100 to 165 AD) inscribed that Joseph and Mary quartered in a cave. Mary brought-forth Christ and placed Him in a manger, and the Magi from Arabia found Him there. Origen of Alexandria (185 to 254 AD) scribed that in the village of Bethlehem a cave is signed. This is where He was born. The manger within is where He was wrapped in swaddling clothes.

The first basilica was erected here by St. Helena, mother of 1st Emperor Constantine. After six years in the making, it was completed in 333. However, disaster struck during the Samaritan Revolt of 529, and it was destroyed by fire. Built again in 565, Emperor Justinian I’s Church largely stands before us today as it did then.

Invading Bethlehem in 614 AD, Persian hordes admired the Church of Nativity’s ‘Magi icons’ (‘Persia favouring graphics’) enough to spare it from destruction. The Byzantine Emperor paid First Crusaders to repair and extend the basilica, and the first King of Jerusalem was crowned in all its magnificence.

Today, Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic monastic communities reside and administer the Church of Nativity. Its adjoining Roman Catholic Church of St Catherine has a Gothic Revival façade, has been modernised according to Vatican liturgical trends. This is where, every Christmas Eve, Midnight Mass is chorused in by the congregation of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem.

The Western Wall

The Western Wall, or ‘Haram esh-Sharif’ as it is known in 4,000 year-old Jerusalem, is the citys’ most preserved edifice since the lifetime of King Herod Antipater and his tortured contemporary, Jesus of Nazareth. Some believe that the wall derives from what was originally Fort Antonia, an early Roman fortress that was named after General Marcus Antonius (of Antony-and-Cleopatra fame). However, for millennia, the origins and history of such holy places have been fiercely contested.  Hence, the Western Wall (Hakotel Hama’aravi) is alternatively believed by some to be what is left of the perimeter of King Herod the Great’s long-destroyed Temple Mount.
It was the Christians of the 1660s who christened the site “The Wailing Wall”. Forty years after King Herod Antipater crucified Jesus, Fort Antonia was used to house the Roman Tenth Legion. In 273 AD the soldiers were ordered out of Jerusalem and told to “move south to Eilat”.