Rotunda of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

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Rotunda of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Consecrated 335, demolished 1009, rebuilt 1048, Architecture, Jerusalem, Israel, FredFroese / iStock

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Building Memory

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Jesus was crucified outside Jerusalem in the April of 30 or 33 CE. He was probably buried in a new kokhim-tomb, with horizontal shelves dug into the rock round a central chamber, each shelf and the chamber itself plugged with a stone.

Within decades, the Jews rebelled twice against the Roman Empire; both times they were defeated and large parts of Jerusalem were destroyed. After the second revolt, the Emperor Hadrian refounded Jerusalem, c.135 CE, as a pagan city. Within a newly walled western area, over a quarry, he built a platform for the city’s principal shrines; one tall shard of natural rock was allowed to rise prominently through its plaza’s pavement.

Two more centuries passed. In 325 Constantine, the first Christian Emperor, ordered Bishop Makarios of Jerusalem to clear these pagan temples from their platform. Makarios reported back: excavating the platform, his workmen had found the tomb of Jesus. Calvary itself was identified as that shard of rock, 20 yards to the south east. At some stage the Empress Helena discovered, as she believed, the cross of Jesus a further 20 yards east of the tomb. All three sites were united in a vast complex of buildings, one of the great churches of Christendom. A rotunda, an imperial mausoleum, was built around the empty tomb; the rock surrounding it was cut away, the tomb itself was enclosed in a central structure or aedicule (‘little house’).

Why should we care? The tomb only matters because Jesus is not there. But the resurrection of Jesus only matters in its turn because he truly lived, died, and was buried. Only two places had been able to contain the uncontainable: his mother’s womb, for nine months; and his grave, for two days. He had left the first, to live among us; he left the second, the cave that we can still visit, to assume God’s power over all creation.


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