Destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was destroyed by Egyptian Shīՙite Fāṭimids but was later rebuilt by Byzantine emperors, inspiring the Christian conquest of the holy city of Jerusalem during the Crusades, which began in 1099.

Summary of Event

The Holy Sepulchre is the tomb in which the body of Jesus Christ was laid after his death. No historical mention of the tomb is found until the early 300’, but converts to Christianity probably visited the Holy Sepulchre soon after the Resurrection and taught their children to venerate it. [kw]Destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (1009) [kw]Holy Sepulchre, Destruction of the Church of the (1009) [kw]Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Destruction of the (1009) Church of the Holy Sepulchre Israel/Palestine;1009: Destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre[1480] Architecture;1009: Destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre[1480] Religion;1009: Destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre[1480] Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;1009: Destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre[1480] al-Ḥākim

Roman armies destroyed the city of Jerusalem in the year 70, and Christians who were in Jerusalem fled, but it was possible for them to go back in 73. No doubt there were many who knew the location of the tomb. In 135, however, Emperor Hadrian (r. 117-138) built a sanctuary of Venus (Aphrodite) at the site where the sepulchre of Christ had stood. Alexander of Jerusalem (d. 251) “visited the places for the investigation of the footsteps of Jesus and of His disciples,” and by the beginning of the fourth century, the custom of visiting Jerusalem for the sake of information and devotion had become so frequent that third-fourth century scholar Eusebius wrote that Christians “flocked together from all parts of the earth.” By the early 400’, two hundred hostels and monasteries had been built to accommodate pilgrims in and around Jerusalem Jerusalem;Christianity and .

According to legend, the emperor Constantine the Great (r. 306-337) Constantine I the Great sent his mother Helena to build a church on the spot. They looked for the cross of Christ but could not find it, so they decided to build on the place of the Passion and Resurrection. As they began to tear down the temple of Venus that had been built there, they found three crosses, a few nails, and Pilate’s inscription. In 335, Constantine dedicated the new basilica, and it is on this site that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre now stands.

Within the basilica, the Holy Sepulchre was in the center of a rotunda 65 feet (20 meters) in diameter. It extended eastward from this to a distance of 250 feet (76 meters). An atrium and vestibule gave a total length of 475 feet (145 meters). Beyond this was a second open court, where the rock of Calvary stood in the open air, rising some 12 feet (3.7 meters) above the ground. The tomb that had been the sepulchre of Christ was enclosed by a round domed building that became known as the Anastasis because it commemorated the place of the Resurrection.

After the church was built, many Christians began to visit the Holy City. Along with Jerome and Rufinus, ascetic women from Rome, such as Paula and Melania, traveled to Jerusalem and searched out as many biblical sites as possible. Melania settled on the Mount of Olives while Paula and Jerome, along with a group of women who traveled with them, went to Bethlehem. Both established monasteries for men and women, built with money the women had inherited.

The Constantinian buildings were destroyed by fire in 614 during the Persian invasion under Khosrow II Khosrow II (r. 590-628); in 878, the Egyptian ՙŪlūnids annexed Palestine. In 935, a mosque was built on the site of the exterior atrium. This regime did not last long, however, because the Egyptians were soon conquered by the Fāṭimids Fāṭimids[Fatimids] . This administration ruled all of the lands around the Mediterranean Sea, including Egypt.

Although the Fāṭimids were generally tolerant, it was a descendant of this dynasty, al-Ḥākim Ḥākim, al- , the sixth ruler (caliph) of the Egyptian Shīՙite Fāṭimid Dynasty, who came to power in Jerusalem. From 1004 until 1014, he went on a fiery rampage against churches in Syria and Palestine, burning and looting some thirty thousand before he finished. He built mosques on the roofs of those churches he did not burn. He was known for his cruelty and persecution of Christians, Jews, and even Sunni Muslims. He destroyed all dogs because their barking annoyed him, and he banned various kinds of shellfish and vegetables. It is said that al-Ḥākim took offense at the Holy Fire ceremony performed in the church annually at Easter. During famines, however, he distributed food and tried to stabilize prices. He also founded mosques and patronized scholars and poets. In 1017, he began to encourage the teachings of some Ismālī missionaries who held that he was the incarnation of the divinity. Christianity;persecution of

Some authors note that the persecution only stopped when al-Ḥākim became convinced that he himself was divine. After this he changed completely and began to provide money for the rebuilding of churches and to allow those who had been forcibly converted to Islam to return to Christianity.

An etching of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, based on an early twentieth century photograph.

(Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.)

Al-Ḥākim is known for having initiated Druzism Druzism , which developed out of Ismālī teachings and which has thousands of devotees in southern Lebanon and the Syrian district of Hawrān. This is a relatively small Middle Eastern religious sect with a very close-knit identity. They call themselves muwaḥḥidūn, or monotheists. They permit no conversion, either away from or to their religion, and no intermarriage. Their religious system is kept secret from the outside world. Only an elite of initiates participate fully in their religious services and have access to the sacred teachings of the Druze religious doctrine. According to this doctrine, in times of persecution, a Druze is allowed to deny his or her faith outwardly if his or her life is in danger. Al-Ḥākim mysteriously vanished while taking a walk on the night of February 13, 1021, and it is believed by some Druze people that he will again return in triumph to inaugurate a golden age.


After the devastation in 1009, very little can have remained of the tomb of Jesus. Al-Ḥākim’s successors showed more tolerance. The Byzantine emperor Michael IV Michael IV (r. 1034-1041) persuaded the Fāṭimid caliph in 1034 to allow the rebuilding of all the churches of the Holy Land. In 1048, Constantine IX Monomachus Constantine IX Monomachus (r. 1042-1055) was able to reconstruct the cave in masonry, obliterating, however, the last trace of the natural state of the tomb.

In 1099, the Crusaders Crusades found the basilica in ruins. They built a Romanesque church, which was consecrated on July 15, 1149. A rotunda at the western end rose over the Holy Sepulchre. They established Jerusalem as their capital, and the city prospered during the 1100’. Again, extensive building was undertaken, but Crusader occupation of Jerusalem meant persecution for local Muslims and Jews. The basilica built by the Crusaders was partially destroyed by fire in 1808, when the rotunda fell in on the sepulchre. A new church was built at the expense of Greeks and Armenians and was dedicated in 1810.

The modern church consists of two main sections: the chapel of Saint Helena with the cave of the Finding of the Holy Cross and the church proper with its many adjacent chapels. The sections are divided up among the Latins, the Greeks, the Armenians, the Syrians, and the Copts, but there are sections that are common to all. There are arguments as to whether the present church occupies the actual site of the original tomb. According to the Gospel, it was outside the walls of the city, whereas the present church is inside. Yet the walls have been in different places in different historical eras; it seems there is no archaeological evidence to suggest that any other site might be more accurate.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Biddle, Martin. The Tomb of Christ. Stroud, Gloucestershire, England: Sutton, 1999. A detailed, first-of-a-kind analysis by two archaeologists of the fragile tomb of Christ and its appearance, destructions, and rebuildings throughout its two-thousand-year history. A well-illustrated text with lengthy footnotes, a bibliography, and an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Biddle, Martin, et al. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre. New York: Rizzoli, 2000. A richly illustrated text on the church and its history, art, liturgy, and communities. Color photographs, maps, and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hawkins, Peter S. “Sacred Time Share: At the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.” Christian Century 113 (January 3, 1996): 4-5. The author describes how the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was again restored under the joint direction of six churches.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Idinopulos, Thomas A. Jerusalem Blessed, Jerusalem Cursed: Jews, Christians, and Muslims in the Holy City from David’s Time to Our Own. Chicago: I. R. Dee, 1991. A history of the city of Jerusalem. The fifth chapter, “God Wills It!” describes the particular era in which the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was destroyed by the Muslim rulers. Map, bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kochav, Sarah. “The Search for a Protestant Holy Sepulchre: The Garden Tomb in Nineteenth Century Jerusalem.” Journal of Ecclesiastical History 46 (April, 1995): 278-301. Protestants came too late to claim a stake in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. In 1893, therefore, a committee of Englishmen bought an ancient tomb and called it the “Garden Tomb,” the Protestant Holy Sepulchre.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Murphy-O’Connor, Jerome. The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide. 4th rev. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. A guide for the general reader to the sites of the Holy Land. Illustrations, maps, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Powell, James M., ed. Muslims Under Latin Rule, 1100-1300. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1990. Shortly after the destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Crusaders entered Jerusalem and began to rebuild the city. This book explores the Muslim minorities and how they fared under Christian rule. Bibliography, index.

Categories: History