After the voluntary Passion and Death on the Cross of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, the holy place of His suffering was long trampled on by pagans. When the Roman emperor Titus conquered Jerusalem in the year 70, he razed the city and destroyed the Temple of Solomon on Mount Moriah, leaving there not a stone upon a stone, as even the Savior foretold (Mt.13:1-2).
Later on the zealous pagan emperor Hadrian (117-138) built on the site of the Jerusalem destroyed by Titus a new city named Aelia Capitolina for him (Hadrian Aelius). It was forbidden to call the city by its former name.
He gave orders to cover the Holy Tomb of the Lord with earth and stones, and on that spot to set up an idol. On Golgotha, where the Savior was crucified, he constructed a pagan temple dedicated to the goddess Venus in 119. Before the statues they offered sacrifice to demons and performed pagan rites, accompanied by wanton acts.
In Bethlehem, at the place the Savior was born of the All-Pure Virgin, the impious emperor set up an idol of Adonis. He did all this intentionally, so that people would forget completely about Christ the Savior and that they would no loner remember the places where He lived, taught, suffered and arose in glory.
At the beinning of the reign of St Constantine the Great (306-337), the first of the Roman emperors to recognize the Christian religion, he and his pious mother the empress Helen decided to rebuild the city of Jerusalem. They also planned to build a church on the site of the Lord's suffering and Resurrection, in order to reconsecrate and purify the places connected with memory of the Savior from the taint of foul pagan cults.
The empress Helen journeyed to Jerusalem with a large quantity of gold, and St Constantine the Great wrote a letter to Patriarch Macarius I (313-323), requesting him to assist her in every possible way with her task of the renewing the Christian holy places.
After her arrival in Jerusalem, the holy empress Helen destroyed all the pagan temples and reconsecrated the places desecrated by the pagans. She was zealous to find the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, and she ordered the excavation of the place where the temple of Venus stood. There they discovered the Sepulchre of the Lord and Golgotha, and they also found three crosses and some nails.
The holy empress quickly began the construction of a large church which enclosed within its walls Golgotha, the place of the Crucifixion of the Savior, and the Sepulchre of the Lord, located near each other. The holy Apostle and Evangelist John wrote about this: "Now in the place where He was crucified, there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb, in which no one had yet been laid.
Therefore they laid Jesus there because of the Jewish preparation day, for the tomb was nearby" (John 19:41-42). The Church of the Resurrection was ten years in building, and the holy empress Helen did not survive to see its completion. She returned to Constantinople, and reposed in the year 327. After her arrival in Jerusalem, the holy empress built churches in Bethlehem, on the Mount of Olives, at Gethsemane and in many other places connected with the life of the Savior and events in the New Testament.
The construction of the church of the Resurrection, called "Martyrion" in memory of the sufferings of the Savior, was completed in the same year as the Council of Tyre, and in the thirtieth year of the reign of St Constantine the Great. Therefore, at the assembly of September 13, 335, the consecration of the temple was particularly solemn. Hierarchs of Christian Churches in many lands: Bythnia, Thrace, Cilicia, Cappadocia, Syria, Mesopotamia, Phoenicia, Arabia, Palestine, and Egypt, participated in the consecration of the church. The bishops who participated in the Council of Tyre, and many others, went to the consecration in Jerusalem. On this day all the city of Jerusalem was consecrated. The Fathers of the Church established September 13 as the commemoration of this remarkable event." (taken from: http://ocafs.oca.org/FeastSaintsViewer.asp?SID=4&ID=1&FSID=102593)
Eusebius on St. Constantine's Church of Holy Sepulchre
The following text is an excerpt from the Life of Constantine (Vita Constantini) written by the emperor's great admirer, the church historian Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 260-341). This is the principle textual source on the original, fourth-century form of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, parts of which can still be seen today.
This English translation is from the Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers Series, published in 1890. The notes are from that edition, and appear at the bottom of this page. The excerpt is from Book III of the Life of Constantine.
"XXV. How He Ordered the Erection of a Church at Jerusalem, in the Holy Place of Our Saviour's Resurrection.
After these things, the pious emperor addressed himself to another work truly worthy of record, in the province of Palestine. What then was this work? He judged it incumbent on him to render the blessed locality of our Saviour's resurrection an object of attraction and veneration to all. He issued immediate injunctions, therefore, for the erection in that spot of a house of prayer: and this he did, not on the mere natural impulse of his own mind, but being moved in spirit by the Saviour himself.
XXVI. That the Holy Sepulchre Had Been Covered with Rubbish and with Idols by the Ungodly. 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 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.
XXVII. How Constantine Commanded the Materials of the Idol Temple, and the Soil Itself, to Be Removed at a Distance.
Nor did the emperor's zeal stop here; but he gave further orders that the materials of what was thus destroyed, both stone and timber, should be removed and thrown as far from the spot as possible; and this command also was speedily executed. The emperor, however, was not satisfied with having proceeded thus far: once more, fired with holy ardor, he directed that the ground itself should be dug up to a considerable depth, and the soil which had been polluted by the foul impurities of demon worship transported to a far distant place.
XXVIII. Discovery of the Most Holy Sepulchre.40
This also was accomplished without delay. But as soon as the original surface of the ground, beneath the covering of earth, appeared, immediately, and contrary to all expectation, the venerable and hollowed monument of our Saviour's resurrection was discovered. Then indeed did this most holy cave present a faithful simili- tude of his return to life, in that, after lying buried in darkness, it again emerged to light, and afforded to all who came to witness the sight, a clear and visible proof of the wonders of which that spot had once been the scene, a testimony to the resurrection of the Saviour clearer than any voice could give.
XXIX. How He Wrote Concerning the Erection of a Church, Both to the Governors of the Provinces, and to the Bishop Macarius.
Immediately after the transactions I have recorded, the emperor sent forth injunctions which breathed a truly pious spirit, at the same time granting ample supplies of money, and commanding that a house of prayer worthy of the worship of God should be erected near the Saviour's tomb on a scale of rich and royal greatness. This object he had indeed for some time kept in view, and had foreseen, as if by the aid of a superior intelligence, that which should afterwards come to pass. He laid his commands, therefore, on the governors of the Eastern provinces, that by an abundant and unsparing expenditure they should secure the completion of the work on a scale of noble and ample magnificence. He also despatched the following letter to the bishop who at that time presided over the church at Jerusalem, in which he clearly asserted the saving doctrine of the faith, writing in these terms.
XXX. Constantine's Letter to Macarius Respecting the Building of the Church of Our Saviour.
"Victor Constantius, Maximus Augustus, to Macarius.
"Such is our Saviour's grace, that no power of language seems adequate to describe the wondrous circumstance to which I am about to refer. For, that the monument of his most holy Passion, so long ago buried beneath the ground, should have remained unknown for so long a series of years, until its reappearance to his servants now set free through the removal of him41 who was the common enemy of all, is a fact which truly surpasses all admiration. For if all who are accounted wise throughout the world were to unite in their endeavors to say somewhat worthy of this event, they would be unable to attain their object in the smallest degree. Indeed, the nature of this miracle as far transcends the capacity of human reason as heavenly things are superior to human affairs. For this cause it is ever my first, and indeed my only object, that, as the authority of the truth is evincing itself daily by fresh wonders, so our souls may all become more zealous, with all sobriety and earnest unanimity, for the honor of the Divine law. I desire, therefore, especially, that you should be persuaded of that which I suppose is evident to all beside, namely, that I have no greater care than how I may best adorn with a splendid structure that sacred spot, which, under Divine direction, I have disencumbered as it were of the heavy weight of foul idol worship; a spot which has been accounted holy from the beginning in God's judgment, but which now appears holier still, since it has brought to light a clear assurance of our Saviour's passion.
XXXI. That the Building Should Surpass All the Churches in the World in the Beauty of Its Walls, Its Columns, and Marbles.
"It will be well, therefore, for your sagacity to make such arrangements and provision of all things needful for the work, that not only the church itself as a whole may surpass all others whatsoever in beauty, but that the details of the building may be of such a kind that the fairest structures in any city of the empire may be excelled by this. And with respect to the erection and decoration of the walls, this is to inform you that our friend Dracilianus, the deputy of the Praetorian Praefects, and the governor of the province, have received a charge from us. For our pious directions to them are to the effect that artificers and laborers, and whatever they shall understand from your sagacity to be needful for the advancement of the work, shall forthwith be furnished by their care. And as to the columns and marbles, whatever you shall judge, after actual inspection of the plan, to be especially precious and serviceable, be diligent to send information to us in writing, in order that whatever quantity or sort of materials we shall esteem from your letter to be needful, may be procured from every quarter, as required, for it is fitting that the most marvelous place in the world should be worthily decorated.
"With respect to the ceiling42 of the church, I wish to know from you whether in your judgment it should be panel-ceiled,43 or finished with any other kind of workmanship. If the panel ceiling be adopted, it may also be ornamented with gold. For the rest, your Holiness will give information as early as possible to the before-mentioned magistrates how many laborers and artificers, and what expenditure of money is required. You will also be careful to send us a report without delay, not only respecting the marbles and columns, but the paneled ceiling also, should this appear to you to be the most beautiful form. God preserve you, beloved brother!"
XXXIII. How the Church of Our Saviour, the New Jerusalem Prophesied of in Scripture, Was Built.
This was the emperor's letter; and his directions were at once carried into effect. Accordingly, on the very spot which witnessed the Saviour's sufferings, a new Jerusalem was constructed, over against the one so celebrated of old, which, since the foul stain of guilt brought on it by the murder of the Lord, had experienced the last extremity of desolation, the effect of Divine judgment on its impious people. It was opposite this city that the emperor now began to rear a monument to the Saviour's victory over death, with rich and lavish magnificence. And it may be that this was that second and new Jerusalem spoken of in the predictions of the prophets,44 concerning which such abundant testimony is given in the divinely inspired records.
First of all, then, he adorned the sacred cave itself, as the chief part of the whole work, and the hallowed monument at which the angel radiant with light had once declared to all that regeneration which was first manifested in the Saviour's person." (taken from: http://www.sacred-destinations.com/israel/jerusalem-church-of-holy-sepulchre-eusebius.htm#28)
Thou hast shown the earthly beauty of the holy tabernacle of Thy glory to be like unto the splendour of the heavenly firmament, O Lord. Strengthen it for ever and ever, and accept our prayers which we unceasingly offer therein unto Thee, through the Theotokos, O Thou Who art the Life and Resurrection of all.
The Church is shown to be a many-lighted heaven that doth shine a guiding light upon all them that do believe; wherein while standing we cry aloud: Do Thou Thyself now establish this house, O Lord.