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The Original Narthex of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher

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Exploring the Entrance of the Original Holy Sepulcher

Location – The Church of the Holy Sepulcher

Map Coordinates - 31.778645, 35.230879

The original Church of the Holy Sepulcher was built starting in the year 326 AD, having been commissioned by the Empress Helena one year earlier. When it was dedicated ten years later, this church was about three times larger than the current Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

Almost all of the remnants of this original church are gone, having been destroyed in 1009 AD by a mad Caliph from Egypt. But there is one part - a complete room that wasn’t destroyed - a room that is still preserved in its original state. It’s the Narthex or the original entry point or receiving room of the Byzantine Church. That room still exists, but it is a closed to the public.

However, between 2006 and 2008 AD I was given special access to this room, and from my research I can now thoroughly describe it to you.

The Narthex shares a common wall with a bakery on Beit HaBad Street (formerly the Cardo Maximus in the Roman makeover of the city). Through a vault in the back of this bakery one could, back then, enter the Narthex of the first Church ever commissioned in the Holy Land.

Clues from the Madaba Map.

The Madaba Map in the Church of Saint George in Madaba Jordan is the oldest map of the Holy Land ever discovered, It was made in the sixth century.

The central focus of the Madaba Map (above) is the city of Jerusalem, and at the very center of this city is this church, which was formerly called the Church of the Resurrection. Notice the Cardo running through the center, with the church of the Holy Sepulcher positioned in the center underneath it. Remarkably, this church is the only building on the map that is upside down. The reason for this is to show you which side of the street the church was facing.

In the photo below I’ve turned the Madaba image of the facade of the church upside down, and compared it to what I saw when I entered the original narthex.

The Madaba map shows four steps leading up to the church, with three doors allowing entry. Remarkably, in the actual narthex there are exactly four steps leading up to the entrance of the church, with three doors for entering. It’s also fascinating to see that the second stair on the map is slightly more yellowish than the other stairs. For comparison, look at the photograph below, and you will see that this is true in reality, where the stones in the second stair appear more yellowish in their natural coloration.

The stairs that enter the original narthex of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Note the yellowish color of the second stair, and compare that to the same stair in the mosaic from the Madaba Map above.

Entering the Narthex.

Upon going through the vault door in the bakery, we saw exactly what we saw on the Madaba map - three steps, and three arched doors leading into the Narthex. Imagine - this the way that literally everyone in the world entered the Church of the Holy Sepulcher between the years 336 AD and 1009 AD - a period of lasting almost seven centuries.

The pillars in the original church were not round, as you see today in the Crusaders reconstruction. In the Byzantine church the pillars were square, and that’s what you see here in the original narthex.

When I visited the narthex, believe it or not, it was being used as nothing more than a storage room for the bakery, and I suppose that easy access to this room could be created from the crypt of the Alexander Nevsky Russian Compound next door. But for now, this breathtaking peek into history is hidden from the public, and it is only a matter of time before the world will, once again, be allowed to see the narthex of the original Church of the Holy Sepulcher that is still intact.

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