Modern Jerusalem is quite a sight. It is a city of three-quarters of a million people, covering 48 square miles of Judaean hills. Every year, nearly 10 million tourists and pilgrims come to the city, so the city sprawls over a much greater area than would be required by the population. The air is full of the sounds of construction, with new hotels and office buildings going up all over the place.
It is hard to imagine that in the time of Jesus, this city had a permanent population of probably no more than 80,000. Like today, pilgrimage often swelled the population to many times that number, but these were temporary visitors who stayed for a couple of weeks and then returned to their homes throughout the region. There were also soldiers, both Roman and local, who were permanently stationed in the city.
During the early phase of the great Jewish-Roman War (66-73 CE), perhaps as many as half a million Jewish rebellions took up positions behind the walls of the city. Their presence taxed the city to the point that there were rumors of cannibalism. Every Jew in the city was slaughtered by the conquering Romans. Josephus says 600,000 bodies were carried out of the city and burned. The city walls were overthrown. The Temple was torn apart, brick by brick.
The site remained empty for sixty years until the emperor Hadrian chose it as the site of his new trade city in southern Syria-Palaestina. He called his city Aelia Capitolina, and on the top of the temple mount, he constructed a shrine to the god Jupiter Capitolinus. To the north, he built a temple to Asclepius, near a pool reputed to have healing powers. To the west, at the corner of the two main roads and on the site of an old quarry from the days of Herod, Hadrian had a temple to Venus and Love constructed.
The temple to Asclepius was a sort of hospital that all Roman cities had. It was built on a site reputed for healing properties, but it had not real political significance.
The first temple to Jupiter was an insult to the Jews, who since their temple was destroyed had to pay a half shekel tax to the cult of Jupiter, known as the Fiscus Judaicus. It was built on the site of the temple, sitting on the massive platform and dwarfing the city. It was an idealized version of the Area Capitolina in Rome, the most important temple of Jupiter.
The third temple, the one to Venus, however, was an insult to a sect of Judaism which had broken off and was following the teaches of Jesus of Nazareth. They revered this site as the location of Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection.
Two centuries later, the emperor Constantine embraced the Christian faith. His biographer, Eusebius of Caesarea reports that local Christians were quite confident of the location of Jesus’ resurrection under the temple to Venus. When the site was excavated, Constantine’s engineers found a burial cave and a crucifixion site.
For it had been in time past the endeavor of impious men (or rather let me say of the whole race of evil spirits through their means), to consign to the darkness of oblivion that divine monument of immortality to which the radiant angel had descended from heaven, and rolled away the stone for those who still had stony hearts, and who supposed that the living One still lay among the dead; and had declared glad tidings to the women also, and removed their stony-hearted unbelief by the conviction that he whom they sought was alive.
This sacred cave, then, certain impious and godless persons had thought to remove entirely from the eyes of men, supposing in their folly that thus they should be able effectually to obscure the truth. Accordingly they brought a quantity of earth from a distance with much labor, and covered the entire spot; then, having raised this to a moderate height, they paved it with stone, concealing the holy cave beneath this massive mound. Then, as though their purpose had been effectually accomplished, they prepare on this foundation a truly dreadful sepulchre of souls, by 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.
Unhappy men! they were unable to comprehend how impossible it was that their attempt should remain unknown to him who had been crowned with victory over death, any more than the blazing sun, when he rises above the earth, and holds his wonted course through the midst of heaven, is unseen by the whole race of mankind. Indeed, his saving power, shining with still greater brightness, and illumining, not the bodies, but the souls of men, was already filling the world with the effulgence of its own light.
Nevertheless, these devices of impious and wicked men against the truth had prevailed for a long time, nor had any one of the governors, or military commanders, or even of the emperors themselves ever yet appeared, with ability to abolish these daring impieties, save only that one who enjoyed the favor of the King of kings.
And now, acting as he did under the guidance of the divine Spirit, he [Constantine] could not consent to see the sacred spot of which we have spoken, thus buried, through the devices of the adversaries, under every kind of impurity, and abandoned to forgetfulness and neglect; nor would he yield to the malice of those who had contracted this guilt, but calling on the divine aid, gave orders that the place should be thoroughly purified, thinking that the parts which had been most polluted by the enemy ought to receive special tokens, through his means, of the greatness of the divine favor. As soon, then, as his commands were issued, these engines of deceit were cast down from their proud eminence to the very ground, and the dwelling-places of error, with the statues and the evil spirits which they represented, were overthrown and utterly destroyed. (Vita Constantini, Book 3, Ch. 26)
Constantine’s engineers cleared the site and he ordered the bishop of Jerusalem, Marcarius, and a prefect named Dracalinius to construct a church on the site. He wrote, “It is fitting that the most marvelous place in the world should be worthily decorated.”
The burial cave had been filled in with rubble, which the engineers carried off site and disposed of. The overhanging limestone was cut away to provide open access to the burial place, and a great dome – the Anastasis or “Resurrection” – was constructed over it. This dome or rotunda was supported by twelve pillars, representative of the twelve apostles. Surrounding it was an open courtyard, with the site of the crucifixion nestled in a southern corner.
East of the courtyard rose a massive Roman basilica, probably similar to the Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine, which Constantine had completed in 312 CE. This was the standard building format for an imperial building, and it transferred well to the construction of a church. The difference was that while apse of the Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine housed a colossal statue of Constantine, the Basilica in Jerusalem would be a celebration of Christ.
Eusebius describes the new basilica in Jerusalem, called the Martyrium, in some detail. It was enormous compared to the current Church of the Holy Sepulcher, possibly as much as 400 feet long and 150 feet wide (60,000 sq ft), stretching to the main road.
You can see an excellent animation of the site on the site of the Franciscan Custodians of the Holy Sepulcher. It may not be entirely accurate (for example, Eusebius makes it pretty clear that the Anastasis was not enclosed), but it gives you a sense of scale.
This complex, with the Martyrium and Anastasis, became the holiest site of the Christian Church. Pilgrims would journey from far and wide to worship there, especially during Easter. In 614, however, it would be heavily damaged in one of the most tragic events you have probably never heard of.
But that’s a story for another day.