As the supposed site where Jesus Christ died, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre has a huge spiritual significance for Christians. However, not only is it the alleged site of his death, but it is also the supposed spot where Jesus was buried. Located in Jerusalem with a raised chapel called "Calvary" or "Golgotha", which translates to "place of the skull," it's believed that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre sits atop the skull-shaped hill were Christ was crucified.
Christians flock to the Church in droves each year, hoping to catch a glimpse of Golgotha as well as Jesus's empty tomb. As a result, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is one of the most important physical sites in Christianity. Visitors take pictures of the tomb where Jesus was buried from the outside but when researchers opened Jesus's tomb in 2016, they were in awe of what they found. Much like the spiritual and historic past of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, its present has turned out to be just as exciting.
With the continuous presence of pilgrims at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, many of whom have tried to take a piece of the tomb with them, it became necessary to keep the tomb safe. It was placed in a shrine called the Aedicule or "little house." Made out of marble and decorated with elaborate carvings, the present Aedicule was built during the 16th century by Franciscans, with repairs performed in the 19th century after it was damaged by fire.
In 2016, the marble from on top of the tomb was removed for the first time since the 16th century. Repairs were needed but researchers were surprised by what they found. Once they removed the marble covering, they found debris, presumably from the original limestone bed. They then found another marble slab below, however, possibly from the 12th century.
Researchers from the National Technical University of Athens had only 60 hours to work within the Aedicule. Despite initial investigations confirming debris under 16th century marble cladding, researchers unearthed something much more exciting: they found a slab of marble with a cross engraved into it, dating back to the time of the Crusades.
National Geographic's archaeologist-in-residence, Fredrik Hiebert told the magazine that he was "absolutely amazed. My knees are shaking a little bit because I wasn't expecting this...we can't say 100%, but it appears to be visible proof that the location of the tomb has not shifted through time, something that scientists and historians have wondered for decades." The team photographed and filmed their discovery, offering visual documentation of the layers of the tomb for the first time ever.
Researchers also confirmed the presence of the original limestone from the cave walls where Jesus was entombed within the Aedicule. They cut a window in the wall of the shrine, making the cave walls visible for the first time in centuries.
Around the year 135 CE, Roman Emperor Hadrian (d. 138) supposedly built a pagan temple dedicated to the Roman goddess Venus over the top of Jesus's tomb. Whether or not Hadrian did this to try to eliminate the significance of Jesus has been disputed by scholars. According to fourth century historian Eusebius of Caesarea, Hadrian and pagans in the Empire did this intentionally:
"building a gloomy shrine of lifeless idols to the impure spirit whom they call Venus, and offering detestable oblations therein on profane and accursed altars. For they supposed that their object could not otherwise be fully attained, than by thus burying the sacred cave beneath these foul pollutions."
Eusebius, however, was writing about Constantine, the fourth century Roman Emperor, and was biased in his presentation of Constantine's treatment of the site.
Constantine ordered the pagan temple of Hadrian be destroyed, revealing the rock tomb beneath. According to Christian scholars, Constantine's mother, Helena, was the one that rediscovered the tomb. After the tomb was unearthed, they:
"found three crosses in the sepulcher: one of these was that blessed cross on which Christ had hung, the other two were those on which the two thieves that were crucified with him had died. With these was also found the tablet of Pilate, on which he had inscribed in various characters, that the Christ who was crucified was king of the Jews."
They found the True Cross by healing a dying woman with it and "the emperor’s mother erected over the place of the sepulchre a magnificent church." Constantine provided all of the resources needed and built churches over site of Jesus's burial as well as where he had been crucified on Golgotha.