After the Roman emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and made it the religion of Rome in a.d. 326, his mother, Queen Helena, made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and located what was believed to be the tomb from which Jesus rose. According to tradition, further excavation near the tomb uncovered the True Cross, revered as the most sacred relic of the Christian world until it was carried off by the Persians in a.d. 614. It was over this tomb that Constantine began the construction of the first Holy Sepulcher Church around a.d. 328, a complex of classical structures that was enlarged 200 years later by the Byzantine emperor, Justinian. Fire, earthquake, a 7th-century Persian invasion, and an 11th-century Muslim caliph destroyed much of the great, classical church, but the Crusaders rebuilt it in the 12th century—a mixture of Byzantine remnants and medieval Frankish reconstruction that was far less grand than the original. The church has been restored many times and is currently undergoing structural renovation. In 1997, the renovated interior of the great dome covering the sepulcher was unveiled. It is bright, fresh, and, to some visitors, a bit incompatible with the antiquity of the place. Its design motifs had to be neutral, avoiding incorporating any of the special artistic traditions of the six rival branches of Christianity that control different areas of the building.
The church is divided among the six oldest Christian sects: Roman Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Egyptian Coptic, Ethiopian, and Syrian Orthodox. Each denomination has its own space—right down to lines drawn down the middle of floors and pillars—and its own schedule of rights to be in other areas of the church at specific times. The decor, partitioned and changed every few feet, is a mixture of Byzantine and Frankish Crusader styles. As the Protestant Reformation developed more than a thousand years after the building of the church, there is no specifically Protestant section.
You can observe the final Stations of the Cross inside the church—the marble slab at the entrance is the Stone of Unction, where the body of Jesus was prepared for burial; the site of Calvary is on the second floor; and the early-19th-century marble tomb edifice encloses the actual cave of the sepulcher.
If you’re in Jerusalem during Easter Week, you can attend many of the fascinating services based on ancient Eastern church traditions that are held at the church. Most notable are the Service of the Holy Fire, the dramatic pageant called the Washing of the Feet, and the exotic midnight Ethiopian procession on the part of the church under Ethiopian jurisdiction—the roof. Modest dress is required. Admission inside the church at this time is by invitation only, but the ceremonies can be viewed outside on closed circuit TV.