Although most people today would mostly think of modern struggles in Israel or possibly as far back as the Crusades, Jerusalem has been in a state of upheaval most of its life. During the time of the early Christian Church, the city saw one of its most chaotic time in its long history. Beginning with the sack of Jerusalem by Rome in 70 AD, it was not really safe to call yourself a Christian until the time of Constantine in the 4th century. A short time after that, Muslim invasion and attack made life difficult for the Jerusalem Church. Jews were banned from the city, welcomed back, and banned again, over and over throughout the centuries. From the early 7th through the end of the 11th centuries, periods of calm and tribulation became the norm for any claiming to be Christians. After that, the Crusader era of Jerusalem only lasted from 1099 until 1187 when Saladin recaptured the city. Although the Holy Land was now firmly in Muslim hands, Saladin allowed the continued worship of all religions. It truth, it may seem nearly impossible to think of Jerusalem as the center of the Christian world, but that has always been the case. Even with Rome as the official seat of power, the city of Jerusalem has always been the beating heart of the faith.
Despite all the wars and unrest, this time saw an unmatched period of relic hunting and veneration. To match, there was born a new type of traveller throughout the Holy Land — the pilgrim. With the increase in churches built on holy sites and holy relics being discovered at every turn, there came a flood of people who were interested in seeing them. Of all the sites of pilgrimage in the Holy Land, there was no place like the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. There in one building were the sites where Jesus was crucified, where His body was prepared for the tomb, the tomb itself, and the location where Empress Helena had discovered the pieces of the True Cross. In addition to these sacred sites, there were several relics on display that might be venerated by visiting pilgrims.
Although history is very harsh on the many "relics" that could be found throughout Europe in the Middle Ages, this was a very different situation. This was a relatively short time after Constantine not only enabled, but sanctioned the faith of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire, making it safe to worship openly and to gather at places of religious significance. There had yet to be hundreds of years of falsification and money to be made from the pilgrim trade. It was very much a new but growing phenomenon. Entire studies have been made, and several books written about accounts written in these early centuries by pilgrims to the Holy Land, recording all that they saw, all the relics that were available, and in some cases their exact descriptions and locations.
This image shows the Church of the Holy Sepulchre from its original ground layout, through the excavations undertaken in the time of Helena, the first larger Church build by Constantine and the later addition of the dome over the site of Christ's tomb. (Taken from The Original Buildings at the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, by Kenneth John Conant.)
In their 2015 book, (the english version), Kings of the Grail, authors Margarita Torres Sevilla and José Miguel Ortega del Rîo outline several pilgrim accounts from the early centuries of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. It is interesting to note the clarity with which they outline the sights they see on their journeys, almost as if they are "taking pictures" of the sights. The first pilgrim account they mention is one written around 333 AD by an anonymous writer called the "Pilgrim of Bordeaux". This pilgrim paints a vivid picture of the new church over the site of Christ's tomb.
- "On the left-hand side is the mount of Golgotha, where the Lord was crucified. A stone's throw away lies a crypt where the body was kept, and where he was revived on the third day. There (…) by order of the Emperor Constantine, a basilica has been built; a church, indeed, of outstanding beauty."
Another pilgrim account providing even more detail is that of a female traveller named Egeria, a native of Gallaecia in Spain. From the imperial house of Theodosius I, she is thought to have completed her pilgrimage to the Holy Land some time between 381 and 384 AD.
- "At the sixth hour, they move to stand before the Cross, come rain or shine, even though this place is in the open air. It is a sort of atrium of ample width and great beauty, located between the Cross and the Anastasis."
The study of the Holy Grail finds an interesting note regarding the Church in Jerusalem some centuries later. The Jerusalem Breviary, covering a time span from 400 to the early 6th century AD, provides the first glimpse of a Holy Chalice that is housed at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
- "To the west of the site you enter via the Holy Resurrection, which contains the Lord's Tomb. From there you go into the sanctuary of the Basilica of Saint Constantine. There is a chamber there which contains the reed and the sponge, and the Cup that the Lord blessed and gave to his disciples to drink, saying: 'This is my body and my blood'."
This account is corroborated by the account of the pilgrim of Piacenza, written around 570 AD.
- "In the central courtyard of the Basilica there is a little room where the wood of the Cross is kept… In this place there is also the sponge and the reed that are referred to in the Gospel and also the onyx Cup, which was blessed by Him at the Supper."
This is possibly the most important account we have in relation to the search for the Holy Grail. Here, the pilgrim of Piacenza specifically says the cup is made of onyx — a semi precious stone of the same kind as alabaster and agate. Some time later in the early 7th century, we have a curious account from Sophronius of Jerusalem who writes of seeing this place of great veneration after the invasion of Jerusalem by Shahrbaraz, the son of the Sassinid Emperor Khosros II.
- "And I ascend, My heart fills with great fear, And I see the upper chamber, The reed, the sponge, and the lance."
The authors themselves find it odd that although the other effects of the crucifixion are mentioned in some detail, the cup, once mentioned in immediate conjunction with these other relics, is curiously not mentioned at all. Then in 625, a few years after the account by Sophronius, we hear the records of another pilgrim's visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. In the Armenian Guide, a pilgrim again sees the cup in its previous place of honor, but with a conspicuous difference.
- "Christ our Saviour's tomb is hewn into the rock, and is the length of a man. It is several yards from the centre of the dome to the Saviour's sacred tomb. And on top of the church's columns a dome has been built, one hundred cubits high and one hundred cubits wide: on each side there are twelve lower columns, and twelve more on the upper level. This gallery contains the lance, the sponge and the gold-covered Cup of Christ."
In this account, the Cup of Christ seems to have undergone some alterations. Now it is said to be made of gold, or at least gold covered. It could be said that Sophronius merely failed to mention the cup in his account, but as it usually seems to be the centerpiece of this set of holy relics, it would seem unlikely. This would lead one to believe that the cup had been removed, possibly before the invasion of Shahrbaraz and the coming of Khosros II to Jerusalem.
Possibly the best pilgrim account we have, giving not only the most detail, but some interesting facts about the Cup, comes from the book, De Locis Sanctis written by an Irish monk named Adomnan in 683. In this book, Adomnan provides an account of bishop Arculf who visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and also saw the Lord's Cup on display.
- "There is another chapel between the Church of Calvary and the Basilica of Constantine, in which the Lord's Cup is kept, and the sponge from which he ingested the vinegar, when he was hung in the tree. This is a chapel located between the Church of Golgotha and the Martyrium and which holds the Lord's Cup, which he blessed and offered with his own hands during the meal that he shared with his disciples on the eve of the Passion. It is a silver cup, which also acts as a sextarius, and is designed with a handle on each side. Inside the cup there is a sponge that his torturers offered to him after soaking it in vinegar on a hyssop branch when they crucified him. It is said that it was from this very chalice that the Lord drank when he ate with his disciples following his resurrection. Saint Arculf saw it, venerated it and touched it with his own hands through a hole in the carved screen door of the reliquary where it is kept. Every past person in the city makes the pilgrimage to this cup with the greatest of reverence."
Illustration of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre as recorded by Arculf/Adomnan in 683 AD. Not the Chapel of the Lord's Cup in the right center of the image, marked by image of a cup.
(Reproduced from Kings of the Grail)
Here we see that Bishop Arculf not only saw a metal chalice, this time made of silver, but one which included two round handles on either side. This is clearly not the onyx cup mentioned by the Pilgrim of Piacenza in 570 AD. The last account we have is that from the Commemoratium written by an anonymous author some time between 909 and 1171 AD in which the Cup is mentioned, stating that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre has on staff:
- …two [priests that guard] the Lord's Chalice…
After this mention, accounts of the Cup in Jerusalem falls silent. There is one other note worthy reference to a cup in Jerusalem, but not in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
- "The Cup of the Apostles is there, which they used to celebrate Mass after the resurrection of the Lord."
This reference, again made by the Pilgrim of Piacenza in 570 AD, speaks of the "Cup of the Apostles", a different cup than the Lord's Cup which had been seen in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The Pilgrim clearly states that this chalice was seen in the Church of Zion. As you recall from previous sections, the Church of Zion was the Church that was once adjacent to the Upper Room of the Last Supper, called the Cenacle.
Was this cup in Jerusalem, either of them, the Holy Grail of legend? If so, what became of it? More on this in a later section when I deal with the relic from Leon Spain known as the Cup of Doña Urraca.