Panorama of Jerusalem - view from the Mount of Olives, c. 186-? probably part of G.V. Yudin collection - Library of Congress

What city is more sacred than Jerusalem? For the world's Jews, Moslems and Christians it is a holy city. Christians reverence it because Jesus celebrated the Holy Days of Judaism here, and here he suffered, died and rose again. The gospels, in fact, describe his life as a journey to Jerusalem.

JerusalemYet traces of him are hard to find here today. The reason is the almost complete devastation of Jerusalem in 70 AD, when the Roman commander Titus besieged the city and leveled its walls and buildings to crush the Jewish revolt. The city Jesus knew was almost totally destroyed; indeed some of the worst fighting took place around the traditional place of Calvary. right: south of Jerusalem, seen from the Cremisan Valley - photo credit: Albeiro Rodas

After a second Jewish revolt in 135 AD the Emperor Hadrian, using a standard Roman plan for colonial cities, built a new city on the site of ancient Jerusalem, which he called Aelia Capitolina. Today the streets of Jerusalem's Old City follow Hadrian's 2nd century city plan.

After the Romans, Persian, Moslem and Crusader armies stormed through the Holy Land, destroying or rebuilding the sacred sites. For almost two thousand years the land has suffered more than its share of wars, earthquakes and other natural disasters. Amazingly though, its stones still have stories to tell.

Herod's Temple

StoneAbout twenty years before Jesus was born, Herod the Great began extensive building in Jerusalem; a new temple, larger and more beautiful than Solomon's, was to be its crowning glory. Herod's temple, still incomplete, was what Jesus saw in his lifetime.

It was destroyed in August of 70 AD, but in 1967 excavations at the southern side of the remaining temple platform brought to light parts of the original great staircase leading to the southern entrances of temple. Since this was the main entrance for pilgrims, it is likely that Jesus and his disciples walked these steps. The stones were allowed to speak again. above: a stone from the Soreg, a giant stone structure separating the public area from the area where only Jews could enter. Within the soreg was the temple itself. This stone has a Greek language inscription from late 1st century BCE. It warns gentiles to refrain from entering the Temple enclosure, on pain of death.

The Last Hours of Jesus

Where did Pilate judge Jesus? Many modern scholars believe it was outside Herod's Palace in the Upper City, where the Citadel stands today. The Roman Procurator likely resided there during the Jewish holy days and other key times of the year in order to maintain order in the city. His usual residence was at Caesarea Maritima, the Roman administrative center on the Mediterranean coast.

After condemning Jesus to death, Pilate would have given him to the soldiers who brought him to their barracks, probably north of the palace. They scourged him and then led away through the nearby gate to Calvary.


Where is Calvary? The site is also likely linked with Herod the Great's vast building program, which demanded great quantities of large cut stones. His builders naturally chose to quarry the big stones as near the city as possible, where limestone was plentiful. In one of their quarries, however, they came upon flawed stone, so they simply cut around it and left it. The quarry, just outside the city gates, began to be used for burials. During the reign of Herod Antipas, Herod the Great's successor, the section of flawed stone, which looked like a skull, became a place for execution. A permanent upright was probably fixed onto the top of the rocky outcropping, and the condemned were forced to carry the crossbeam to the place. Here Jesus was crucified.

Today the Church of the Holy Sepulcher stands on the old quarry, and noisy, crowded markets of the Old City push against its walls. It is a scarred, dark hulk of a building, an aged relic of a larger 4th century church built by Constantine on the place designated from earliest Christian times as the site of Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection. A number of Christian churches are in charge of the building and they jealously guard their ancient rights, managing only with difficulty to administer the building together. In one sense, the worn old church seems to hide, rather than reveal, the things that happened here. above: Church of the Holy Sepulcher, 1885. Apart from some restoration work, the church looks essentially the same today.

Yet like the women in the gospel, thousands come looking for the place where they laid him. Recent excavations, that have uncovered a number of 1st century tombs in the area of the church, confirm that this was a burial place from Jesus' time. Almost certainly the empty tomb honored here is the tomb of the Lord's resurrection.

The Edicule of the Holy Sepulchre (The Tomb of Christ) with the dome of the rotunda visible above
photo credit: Wayne McLean

About seventy feet away from his tomb is a flight of stairs leading up to Calvary, where they crucified him. Beneath lavish, conflicting pieces of religious decoration, one sees sections of the simple flawed limestone rock from of the Place of the Skull. A pilgrim touching this stone reaches back two thousand years to a mystery at the heart of Christian faith:

"The stone which the builders rejected, has become the cornerstone. This is the work of the Lord, a marvel in our eyes." (Psalm 118)

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