by Maureen Littlejohn
Sometimes a symbol is more important than authenticity.
It is dark inside. The dim surroundings are a stark contrast to the glaring white sun outdoors. I have just entered the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and fluttering lamps illuminate some prostrate forms. Looking closer, I see they are people kissing an oblong of rock. It’s The Stone of Anointing, where I’ve read Jesus’ body was prepared for burial.
I continue into the heart of the church, a magnificent rotunda, and join a slow, snaking line of pilgrims waiting to see Jesus’ tomb. Finally I get up to the candle-lit doorway and a frowning priest with a black bushy beard waves me forward. He seems to have little patience for me or anybody else. Perhaps he is offended by our chattering or the constant camera flashes going off in his face.
I enter a boxy, two-room shrine called The Edicule of the Holy Sepulchre, or the Tomb of Christ. Candles flicker and I can see a fragment of stone known as The Angel’s Stone. This is said to be the rock that sealed the tomb after Jesus’ burial. There’s a faint scent of Frankincense in the air and I notice a slab of marble, where my guidebook says Jesus’ body lay.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built by Emperor Constantine I in 325 AD, is one of Jerusalem’s most holy Christian destinations. It’s the apex of the Via Dolorosa, the route Christ took to his crucifixion. Byzantine pilgrims mapped out the path, after Constantine’s mother, Saint Helena, verified the site. Reading up on the city, I learned that Constantine destroyed a temple of Venus that stood on the spot before the church was erected.
If I recall my Bible correctly, the crucifixion took place beyond the city walls. Today the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is inside the Old City of Jerusalem, but scholars have agreed the location of the Church was outside the walls in Jesus’ time. Wandering through the ancient stone structure, I pause in an enclosed, colonnaded atrium built around the Rock of Calvary or Golgotha, the place the ancients said looked like a skull.
I long for a spiritual feeling to wash over me, but the hustle of the crowd leaves me no time or space to reflect. Raised in the United Church of Canada, I am used to a faith that grapples with issues of the present such as homelessness or bottled drinking water, not mystical weavings of the past. Candles were lit in our church only at Easter and Christmas, incense was for hippies not worship, and communion consisted of a thimble of grape juice and a cube of white bread.
Here, Eastern Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic and Roman Catholic Churches share custody of the Church (rather contentiously—last year Armenian and Greek Orthodox monks got into a territorial fist fight over a procession in the Edicule). The Coptic Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox and Syriac Orthodox Churches have lesser roles, their shrines and structures are added haphazardly to the outside of the building. The agreement between the religious communities is called the status quo and was established in 1852 to smooth entitlement squabbles. Obviously, they still need to iron out some kinks.
I stroll about looking at the ornate and astounding displays, from the rotunda’s 12 columns and eight piers, to the glittering Greek Orthodox altar over the area known as Golgotha. The devotion to detail by religious painters and carvers is overwhelming and yet I don’t feel moved. The Church is packed with people. Maybe there are too many distractions for me to feel a spiritual lift.
Relieved to be outside, I wind my way through the narrow streets until I’m at the Damascus Gate in the Muslim Quarter. Arab men pass me wearing the traditional Keffiyeh, a protective headband and scarf, and the women’s heads are covered in brightly colored hijab. The Old City is divided into four quarters—Muslim, Christian, Jewish and Armenian. Seven of the city’s 11 gates are in operation. I exit the Old City and cross a busy street filled with produce vendors. I want to find another Christian site, the Garden Tomb, where some people say Jesus was really buried.
A wooden sign points me up a small lane and before I know it, I’m in a quiet sanctuary filled with trees and flowers. The air is filled with the clean, comforting smell of rosemary and lavender plants. This lesser known place is where some people believe Jesus may have been crucified, buried and resurrected.
“It was discovered in 1842 by Otto Thenius, a German theologian. The place matches biblical details, there’s an outcropping of rock they called Skull Hill or Golgotha,” Greg Wolfe, the Garden’s communications liaison tells me. We are taking a stroll through the property. He explains a British group called the Garden Tomb Association raised funds in 1894 to buy the land. General Charles Gordon, famous for his campaigns in China and northern Africa, came to visit and embraced the idea that this could be the real place Jesus was crucified. At the time, Greg explained, there was no proof that the location of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was originally outside Jerusalem’s walls. Gordon felt the Garden Tomb was more in keeping with Biblical description and the word of a great military man such as Gordon helped the site gain credibility.
“This place has a history of public execution,” Greg says as we walk past a sign that points to the Hill of the Skull. “They used to push people off the hill and hope their necks would break as they landed on the stones,” he explains. “We aren’t dogmatic. We don’t make any claims that this is the real spot Christ died. Most people come here to be reminded of the story,” he says. The site is still operated by the non-denominational Garden Tomb Association and it draws many Protestant groups, Greg tells me. We stand and look at a rocky outcropping from the edge of the garden. He points to two deep holes in the rock, “The eyes of the skull,” he says. Between the cliff and us is a bustling bus station. “Even in Christ’s time this area was busy.”
I’m drawn back into the garden, where I hear a chorus of voices singing a hymn. “It’s a Norwegian church group,” Greg explains. He says the site got 240,000 visitors last year, many of whom were Protestants who held outdoor services while they were there.
Other facts point to this being the true spot of Jesus’ death and resurrection. “The Bible says the place was a garden and it had a tomb. Excavations prove this was a vineyard in Jesus’ day, so it would have looked like a garden. Plus, there is a tomb here,” Greg says. We walk down some steps to a small opening in a stone wall. “This was a rich man’s property, and it could have been Joseph of Arimathea’s who the Gospels say buried Jesus in his own tomb.”
Greg shows me a track in front of the door, where a large stone, about the shape of a millstone, would have rolled to open and close the entrance. He says there is some argument between archeologists about the date of the tomb, since it could be from the First Temple period, before Christ’s life. “For us, it is a symbol of life and hope. We aren’t worried about authenticity,” Greg says with a shrug.
Outside, to the left of the door Greg points out a barely discernible cross carved in the rock. “It has a hook on the end, like the mariner’s cross. It was a sign for the hope to come home. This cross was pre-Constantine. He adopted it as a symbol of Christianity,” Greg explains.
We walk back to the Garden’s entrance and Greg shakes my hand. “I hope you’ve enjoyed it. For many people this place makes the experience of their faith more tangible.”
Before I head out into the city’s hubbub, I sit on a bench and warm my skin in the sunshine. The calming fragrance of lavender fills my lungs and the earlier tensions of the day slip away. It doesn’t really matter if this is where Jesus rose again or not. It is simply a beautiful spot to reflect and regroup my thoughts. A new energy takes hold of me as I exit. I notice my step is steady and my heart feels lighter. Right at that moment, for me, hope is in the air.
Maureen Littlejohn is a Toronto-based freelance writer and editor.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.