In the vast Church of the Holy Sepulchre there are more than 30 chapels and places of worship, each dedicated to a specific Biblical event or holy person. Here is an overview of the most important chapels; they are listed in order as you move anticlockwise around the church from the main entrance.
Chapels at the Entrance to the Church
Chapel of the Franks
Before you even enter the Church of the Holy Sepulchre you can see the exterior of this 12th century Crusader chapel. It is located to the right of the main entrance and features a small dome. During the Middle Ages the chapel gave direct access to Calvary via the stairs which now lead up to a closed window. Medieval pilgrims could visit Calvary even when the church was closed or they couldn’t afford the entrance fee. The chapel is also called the Chapel of the Torment, Chapel of the Seven Sorrows of the Blessed Virgin Mary or Our Lady Sorrows. From within the church you can look through a window into the Chapel of the Franks from Calvary. The space is believed to be the 10th Station of the Cross along the Via Dolorosa. Here Jesus was stripped of his robes.
Beneath the Chapel of Franks is the Chapel of St. Mary of Egypt. She was a prostitute who converted to Christianity in this courtyard in the 4th century and spent the rest of her life as a hermit.
On entering the church on your immediate right are steps up to Golgotha (also called Calvary) the mount where Jesus was crucified. The elevated area is divided into the Chapel of the Crucifixion ( also called the Chapel of the Nailing of the Cross and the 11th station on the Via Dolorosa) on the right and the Chapel of Calvary (station 12 on the Via Dolorosa) to the left. The Chapel of the Agony of the Virgin on Our Lady of Sorrow can be seen through a window in the south wall. Calvary is above the Chapel of Adam.
The Chapel of the Nailing of the Cross has mosaics on the walls and a 12th century mosaic behind the altar which depict Jesus being nailed to the cross. There is a 17th century Medici altar which was brought from Florence, Italy. The altar is covered with silver panels depicting Jesus’ journey along the Via Dolorosa.
The Greek Orthodox Calvary holds the Rock of Calvary which formed the anchor point around which the church was built. Parts of the rock are visible through glass enclosures on either side of the altar. Beneath the altar is a place where you can touch the rock. This is the place where Jesus is believed to have been crucified. The chapel drips with beautiful lamps and is decorated with many icons. Behind the altar is an ornate life-size statue of Christ on the cross flanked by his mother and John the Baptist. Beneath the altar is a hole in the Calvary Rock where the cross is believed to have been inserted. It is possible to touch the rock. A crack in the rock is thought to run from Calvary all the way down to the Chapel of Adam below.
Along the semi-circular eastern ambulatory, turning right as you enter the church are several chapels: (in order) the Chapel of Adam, Chapel of Derision, Chapel of the Division of the Holy Robes, Chapel of St. Longinus and finally the Chapel of the Prison of Christ.
Chapel of Adam
video by tour guide Zahi Shaked
A small Greek Orthodox altar stands under Calvary near to the Stone of Unction. This is the traditional burial site of Adam. 2nd century writings claim that Christ was crucified over the place where Adam’s scull was buried. On the back wall of the chapel a section of the rock has been covered over with glass. Behind the glass you can see a piece of cracked rock (Golgotha Rock or Rock of Calvary). This is thought to have been caused by an earthquake following the crucifixion: “Jesus, when he had cried again…and the earth did quake and the rocks rent.” From the chapel there is a door leading to the Greek Treasury which is usually off-limits to visitors. The treasury holds holy relics.
Derision Chapel (Chapel of Crowning of Thorns)
The Greeks govern this chapel on the eastern side of the church at the base of Golgotha. It marks the place where Jesus was mocked and ridiculed by the Roman soldiers. John 19:2 tells of the abuse Jesus suffered at the hands of the soldiers and how they placed a purple robe on his shoulders and a crown of thorns on his head. Beneath the chapel altar is a part of the Column of Derision. It is believed that Jesus was tied to this column while being abused by the crowds.
Chapel of the Dividing of the Robes
This is an Armenian chapel located on the eastern side of the church near the steps leading beneath ground level to the Chapel of St. Helena. The chapel marks the place where the Roman soldiers cast lots to divide Christ’s clothing between them. (John 19:23). “Then the soldiers, when they had crucified Jesus, took his garments, and made four parts, to every soldier a part, and also his coat…”
Chapel of St. Longinus
This Greek Orthodox chapel is located on the north-eastern side of the church together with the Holy Robe Chapel and Derision Chapel. The chapel marks the place where a Roman centurion called Longinus witnessed Jesus’ final moments on the cross. Longinus was in charge of the soldiers on duty at Golgotha, he was also the one who pierced Jesus with his spear. Longinus had very bad eye sight and when some of Jesus’ blood fell into the soldier’s eyes he was cured. This caused him to proclaim Jesus as the Son of God. The soldier was so shaken from the experience that he confessed saying “Now when the centurion, and they that were with him, watching Jesus, saw the earthquake, and those things that were done, they feared greatly, saying, Truly this was the Son of God.” (Matthew 27:54) Longinus went on to become a monk in Cappadocia and a martyr who fought idolatry until he was tortured to death. The chapel is in a semi-circular conch with beautiful ornate panels bearing paintings of the crucifixion scene. Under the pictures is a simple white marble altar.
Chapel of the Prison of Jesus
This Greek Orthodox chapel is located at the east end of the north side of the church. According to 12th century tradition Jesus and the two thieves who were crucified with him were kept here on the night before the crucifixion. As you enter the chapel there is a floor mosaic of the double headed eagle which was the symbol of the Byzantine Empire and the Greek Orthodox Church. At the entrance to the Prison of Jesus is a small altar or chapel called the Chapel of the Handcuffs of Jesus. Beneath the altar are two holes in the stone floor which are thought to be the imprints of Christ’s feet. It is traditional for pilgrims to leave prayer notes under the altar. Within the chapel the stone walls and arched walkways are black with soot from the candles lit on the altar.
There are alternative sites for the Prison of Christ: near the Church of Ecce Homo at the first station along the Via Dolorosa; at the Monastery of the Flagellation near the second station along the Via Dolorosa and near a cistern by the Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu.
Between the Chapel of Derision and the Chapel of the Division of Robes is the entrance to the Chapel of St. Helena, Chapel of St. Vartan and the Chapel of the Finding of the Cross. All of these chapels are below ground level.
Chapel of St. Helena
Descending the 29 steps on the eastern side of the church we enter a chapel referred to as the Chapel of St. Gregory by the Armenian and the Chapel of St. Helena by the Greek Orthodox. The chapel is dedicated to the mother of Emperor Constantine. Helena was responsible for many Christian discoveries in the Holy land and for the establishment of several churches. She discovered the cross and vault when visiting in 326AD. As you walk down the wide flight of stairs you can see medieval graffiti where pilgrims scratched crosses into the stone. Byzantine columns can be seen supporting the arched roof structure. At the foot of the stairs a well preserved mosaic from the original church which stood here can be seen covering most of the floor. A painting to one side depicts the discovery of the cross. The chapel has three aisles and two apses. The main altar is dedicated to Helena and to the north is an apse dedicated to St. Dimas, one of the thieves crucified alongside Jesus. Luke 23:42 tells how Dimas repented for his sins and asked Jesus to remember him in his kingdom.
Chapel of the Finding of the Cross
Continuing down another 13 steps below the Chapel of St. Helena is this cave-like chapel. It is believed to be where Helena found the fragments of the true cross. The left side belongs to the Catholics and has an altar within a semi-circular niche. On the wall behind the altar is a statue of Helena holding the cross. An inscription on the altar tells us that is was a gift from Austro-Hungarian Prince Maximilian in 1857.
The right side of the space belongs to the Greeks and the natural rock has been left with a place on the floor for lighting candles which have blackened the rock. According to tradition Helena found three crosses and brought a sick man to touch each of the crosses to determine which one would heal him, thus revealing which cross was Christ’s.
Chapel of St. Vartan
This Armenian chapel is usually closed to the public. It was only uncovered in the 1970s but is believed to date back to the 2nd century. On one of the ancient walls there is an etched image of a ship with the inscription: ” Lord, we shall go.”
Returning to ground level and continuing around the eastern ambulatory passed the Prison of Jesus you will come to the Chapel of Mary Magdalene.
Chapel of St. Mary Magdalene
The Chapel of St. Mary Magdalene is a Franciscan chapel in the Catholic part of the church located north of the Rotunda (Tomb of Jesus or Aedicule). Mary accompanied Jesus on his way to his crucifixion and remained close by until the end. This is the site believed to be where Mary Magdalene stood and watched Jesus’ burial (Mark 15:47). ” …and Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Jesus beheld where he was laid.” It is also thought to be where she met Christ after his resurrection. The Bible tells that she was the first person to see Jesus after his resurrection.
Mary Magdalene is considered one of the most important women in the New Testament. She was a follower of Jesus and present at both his crucifixion and resurrection when she stood where the present day Chapel of Mary Magdalene stands. She is considered a brave, courageous and faithful Christian figure.
The chapel has a plain altar and hanging above it is a bronze relief depicting Magdalene with Jesus. The bronze was made by Andrea Martini, a Franciscan artist. Opposite the altar is an organ which is used in services conducted by the Latin friars. The chapel floor is paved in black and white stone patterns in two circular sections. The circles indicate where Mary encountered Jesus and the stone pattern is a copy of the original 11th century paving.
Within the Rotunda
In front of the Chapel of Mary Magdalena is the entrance to the Rotunda a high dome soars above a large open round area with the Holy Tomb of Jesus at its center. The Jacobite Chapel and Coptic Chapel are both towards the back of the Holy Tomb.
Situated behind the Tomb of Jesus on the western side of the church is the cage-like iron entrance to the Coptic Chapel. The Coptic Chapel is attached to the back of the Aedicule (Jesus’ Tomb). Under the altar you can see an exposed piece of the same bed of rock excavated to create Jesus’ Tomb. The Copts have had an altar here since 1573 and they hold services inside the chapel.
Jacobite Chapel (Syrian Chapel)
Located on the western side of the Rotunda is the Syrian Orthodox chapel hewed from the 4th century Constantine church walls. The chapel suffered fire damage and the stone have been turned black. The plain looking chapel stands alongside ancient Jewish burial tombs thought to belong to Joseph of Arimathea and Nikodemus. According to Luke 23:50-56 these two Jews lowered Jesus from the cross and buried his body. This chapel is the site of Syrian Orthodox Sunday liturgy celebrations.
Within the Holy Tomb of Jesus
Chapel of the Angel
A narrow entrance on the eastern side of the Tomb takes you into the inner chamber and the Chapel of the Angel. The chapel is named after the angel who the Bible tells us moved the stone (Matthew 28 2-3). Women arriving at the cave saw a young man dressed in white sitting at the entrance. This was the angel who went on to announce the resurrection. The chapel is small and decorated with white marble panels divided by columns. In the middle of the room is an ornate marble table-like box holding a piece of the stone that was used to block the cave where Jesus was buried. From the Chapel of the Angel there is a small door leading to the room where Jesus was laid to rest on a marble slab.