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The Chapel of Saint Vartan

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Treasures in the Basement of the Holy Sepulcher

Location – Church of the Holy Sepulcher

Map Coordinates - 31.778460, 35.229556

While most groups never get to see this chapel, Octagon Tour groups never fail to gain access. This chapel is at the deepest part of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher – a room that is behind a mysterious door, leading to an ancient quarry that was only discovered in the 1970s.


The Entrance to the Chapel.


Throughout the centuries the wall next to the Altar of the Penitent Thief in the Chapel of Saint Helena was nothing more than that - a wall. So why is there an iron door here now? The Armenian Apostolic Church, which controls the chapel of Saint Helena, always wondered if there was a room behind this wall, or if it was just bedrock.

As you can see in this pre-1970 picture there is no iron door as there is today.

In the 1970’s they knocked a hole in this wall, and when they broke through they discovered archeological ruins that date back almost 27 hundred years.


The Quarry.


In this picture you can see me in the lower right inspecting the ancient quarry in the Chapel of Saint Vartan.

Back in the seventh or eighth century BC, the first room that we enter was part of the rock quarry that provided the building stones for Solomon’s Temple and other building projects in Jerusalem. These stones were quarried sometime around 800 - 100 BC. You can see the geometric lines in the wall that indicate that large building stones were cut from these rocks. There are also stairs that lead down into the lowest part of this quarry, which means that down here you are in the deepest part of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.


The clay vessels that were discovered here in the 1970s must have dated back to around 330 AD.  


The temple of Venus Wall.


The short wall containing the boat drawing was part of the foundation of the temple to the Greco/Roman goddess Venus, also called Aphrodite, that Hadrian had built on this site in 135 AD. The only remnants of this ancient Temple are in this chapel, and in the Russian Church of Alexander Nevsky next door.

According to the ancient scholars Eusebius and Jerome, Hadrian built this temple to erase the memory of Jesus. But in doing this, he actually marked the location of Calvary and the Holy Tomb. This Roman Temple was eventually torn down when the Empress Helena came to the Holy Land and started building the Church of the Holy Sepulcher on this spot in 325 AD.


The Byzantine Wall.


In the main chapel, every wall in this room (except the short wall that was part of the pagan temple) was part of the foundations of the Byzantine church that Empress Helena had commissioned in 325 AD. That means that in this room you have foundation stones for the pagan temple that Hadrian built in 135 AD, and foundation stones for the church that Helena built almost 200 years later.


The Vartan Mamikonian Altar.


Vartan Mamikonian

Who was Vartan Mamikonian? He was an Armenian military leader, a martyr and a saint of the Armenian Church. In the year 305 AD Armenia officially declared itself to be a Christian nation. But about 120 years later, the Persian Sasanian Empire was threatening to force Armenia to convert back to Zoroastrianism, which was a religion that worshiped many gods. Vartan Mamikonian was the general who led the Armenian army against the Persians at the Battle of Avarayr in 451 AD, and even though he was killed, this battle ultimately secured the Armenians' right to practice Christianity. That’s why Vartan Mamikonian is remembered by having this chapel named in his honor.


The Boat Engraving.


Sometime shortly after 325 AD, when Helena tore down the temple of Venus, but before the Church of the Holy Sepulcher was completed about eleven years later, there was a pilgrim who came to Jerusalem. We know that this person traveled by boat from the western Roman empire. And when he arrived at this spot he drew a picture of his boat on this wall. Inscribed on this picture, in Latin, are the words “Lord we go”. This was probably a reference to Psalm 122:1 which says, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord.’ Our feet are standing in your gates, O Jerusalem. This is the earliest drawing and the earliest known inscription by any Christian pilgrim discovered in the Holy Land. It means that this person was probably one of the very first to travel a long distance to visit this church, which was, at that time, called The Church of the Resurrection. And as soon as the church was built, this drawing was hidden, buried in the foundation of this church, until it was discovered by archeologists in the 1970s. 


The implications of this picture are enormous. You see, this drawing is etched into a wall that was built by the emperor Hadrian for the purpose of erasing Christianity.

Well, Hadrian and his Temple are gone. But like the graffiti artists who wrote on the Berlin wall as it was being torn down, this pilgrim expressed his joy by writing a portion of Psalm 122:1 on this wall that Hadrian built.

Christians are still flocking to the Holy Land 1700 years later to visit the tomb of Jesus that Hadrian tried so hard to cover up. Every year millions of travelers continue to follow in the footsteps of this early pilgrim. Today Hadrian is just a name in a dusty old history book. In contrast, the name of Jesus is on the lips of people all over the world literally every second of every day.

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