Of all the churches that you might consider visiting in Jerusalem, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is the big one. Regardless of your faith, no matter what your domination or religious affiliation, it’s something you should see, and an appropriate place to tour with kids. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is a short walk from the Western Wall, and other Old City sites and no tour of Jerusalem would be truly complete without a visit.
There’s so much to see here, so much history, that if history and religion are your thing, you could probably spend an entire day just in this one place. Spending a dedicated day here, exploring all the nooks and crannies with a knowledgable tour guide is on my bucket list. In the meantime, I was so grateful to my tour guide Dorit, of Yerushalmit Tours for providing such an excellent overview of the Church during my last visit. I’ve included this video for the curious, but I’m not sure I’ve done the experience justice!
On a personal note, I’ve always been fascinated by this church, ever since I happened to meet members of the family of the key keepers, many many years ago, and enjoyed a cup of tea with them, on a rooftop in the Christian Quarter on a warm sunlit summer evening. This was my introduction to the many dramatic episodes of history, conflict, death, destruction and rebirth that have converged in this one small physical spot over the centuries.
The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is full of stories and mysteries, much more than you can scratch the surface of in a single visit. It’s why I keep coming back, every time I visit Israel. And each time I notice something new.
I made two quick stops on my recent trip to Israel and as usual, the church was crowded with pilgrims from around the world. There were crowds and cameras and selfie sticks. On the large open plaza, where many tour guides do most of their explaining (it’s more difficult inside) there were a dozen or more tour guides waving sticks and flags and umbrella, each trying to speak louder than the the next. This results in a cacophonous hum, a mixture of languages from Korean, to Japanese, German and Portugese, English and French. I could close my eyes and imagine the tower of Babel.
Narrowing my field of vision to the exterior stones etched with thousands of tiny crosses, I could imagine myself traveling through time. It could be now, or 50 years ago, or hundreds of years.
Jerusalem is famous for that sort of mind bending time-travel effect. Careful that you stay rooted in the here and now, or you might become a victim of “Jerusalem Syndrome” which is a real thing that affects many travelers each year. Thankfully I have my cell phone to keep myself in check and in the present.
I snapped this photo, an image that reminds me of the kaleidoscope of time and nations that converge in this church.
Touring the church with most tour groups is a bit like a log flume ride. There’s a big build up and slow ascent and then a sudden rush and then sploosh, you are forced out, damper and cooler than when you entered, a little bemused and squinting. There’s a lot going on inside the church, and also outside around the church, so I thought I’d write up a primer for families (of all religions) who might be visiting with kids. It’s a good idea to read up in advance so you can make the most of what will likely be a quick and crowded, but also very moving visit to this cultural landmark.
Quick facts about the Church of the Holy Sepulcher
- The church is believed, by many sects to house the two of the holiest sites in Christendom: the site of Jesus’ crucifixion (the Rock of Calvary or “Golgotha”) and the empty tomb of Christ. Additionally, just inside the entrance, lies the stone of annointing where Jesus’s body was believed to have been laid out.
- The last five stations of the cross are contained within the church grounds.
- The church has always been occupied by a variety of Christian Sects, and the many chambers and areas are divided between the sects. Presently you will find Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, and Roman Catholic within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, with the Greek Orthodox Church having the lion’s share. Also present since the 19th century, the Coptic Orthodox, the Ethiopian Orthodox and the Syriac Orthodox acquired lesser responsibilities, which include shrines and other structures within and around the building.
- The keys to the church belong to no sect and have been held by a local Palestinian family since the 7th century.
- Much of the overhead present structure dates back to the 1800s, as the church has been destroyed many times over the centuries, however there are parts that remain preserved from assorted eras, dating back to the time of Christ.
- In the third century the site was a temple to Aphrodite, allegedly built to intentionally cover the tomb.
- The site also contains Jewish tombs, a clear sign that this area was outside the city walls at the time of Christ (Jews did not bury their dead within the city.)
- Much of the modern Church you will see today is surprisingly the result of “girl power” (watch the video to learn more or read about Helena and Melisende)
- Mosaics abound – look up and down and all around…
What to wear when visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre
It’s a good idea to dress modestly when touring holy sites in the Old City of Jerusalem. As a rule of thumb, for women this means no cleavage, and covering up to the elbows and the knees. If you are visiting during the warmer summer months, you can accomplish modesty without heatstroke by wearing a knee length or longer lightweight dress and carrying a lightweight scarf or shawl to cover bare shoulders/arms when touring religious areas. Men should plan to wear lightweight long pants and avoid sleeveless shirts. Comfortable walking shoes are advised for all visitors as you will be walking over uneven, often slippery stones and steep stairways in crowded conditions.
What to expect to see inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre
Inside the church you will likely be herded towards some very specific areas. These include:
- The Aedicule – a structure built around the actual tomb. Expect long lines to enter.
- The Alter of Crucifixion – here is where you can see the Rock of Calvary
- The Stone of Annointing – a marble slab just inside the entrance
- The Catholicon
If you have more time to explore you can also see various chapels and antechambers, including the Chapel of Helena which houses the remnants of the True Cross.
What do tourists & pilgrims do in the Church of The Holy Sepulchre?
Aside from being herded through like cattle (which is sadly often the case), and waiting in line to enter the tomb and see the rock at the Altar of Crucifixion, tourists are welcome to pause and pray in the church both in a moment of quiet reflection or during services at set times. You may need to do some additional research and make arrangements if you would like to attend a mass.
What cool historical and religious things can you see, even in a fast and/or crowded visit to the Church?
- There are several opportunities for visitors of any background or belief to light a candle and say a prayer within the church, at the Alter of the Crucifixion and at the Tomb.
- Children will be fascinated to see evidence of crusader graffiti within the church – noticeable on the stairway en route to the Chapel of Helena. Bring a crayon and small bit of paper to do a quick rubbing for a special souvenir.
- Also notable are the pillars etched with pilgrim graffiti outside the church
- Many people leave notes of prayer in the facade of the church, similar to the western wall.
- Look for the “immovable ladder” on the balcony above the Church entrance. It is a sign of peace between the resident sects and has not budged an inch in over a century and a half.
- Look for the Tomb of the Knight Philip Daubeny
- Rub your pre-purchased souvenirs on the Stone of Annointing, for an extra dose of Jerusalem holiness. I cannot vouch for this method of supercharging your olive wood rosaries and crucifixes, but it is a popular practice amongst many tourists and who am I to judge!?
What is the area around the Church like?
The church is located in the Christian Quarter of the Old City.
You will wind your way to the plaza through narrow stone streets lined with shops selling souvenirs and fresh pressed juices and spices. Outside the plaza, just a few steps away there are some open areas with cafes. Make sure to try some pomegranate juice and a sesame seed crusted “Jerusalem bagel”
It is generally safe to shop and eat in this area but like in any international destination you should keep your wits about you, avoid flashing cash or seeming too tourist-y as you will make yourself a mark for hucksters and possibly worse. Crime is not a big problem here, but hard sell salesmen may harass you if you are not firm and intentional.
Suggested purchases here include olive wood items, small leather goods, local pottery, fresh pressed pomegranate juice, humous & pita, olives. Poke around in the shops and you may also find some antique/vintage items, textiles, clothing and jewelry that you can’t resist.
Special times to visit the Church of The Holy Sepulchre
Easter is a very popular time to visit the church, and when many pilgrims walk the path of the Via Dolorosa, with or without a wooden cross.
Tour guides who will bring you the Church of the Holy Sepulchre as part of an Old City Tour
I can’t say enough nice things about the very knowledgable Dorit Gravier of Yerushalmit Tours who is a wonderful, fun and friendly Jerusalem tour guide. Her tasting tour of Mahane Yehuda market is also on my list of “must dos” for visitors to Jerusalem. I accompanied Dorit on the Market Tour and Old City Tour in one day, over the course of around 4 hours.
Thanks also to the Ministry of Israel Tourism, who made this trip possible. Check out all the amazing things to see on the go Israel Page.
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