X Marks The Spot: Archaeologists Dig For Exact Place Where Jesus Died

The traditional site of Golgotha, within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
The traditional site of Golgotha, within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Berthold Seewald

On November 1, under the nave of the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in Jerusalem, an archeological park called “Durch die Zeiten” (Through Time) opened. It provides the answer to a question that has long eluded researchers: just where Golgotha, the place where Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected, is really located.

Planned and built under the aegis of the German Evangelical Institute for the Archeology of the Holy Land (DEI) in Jerusalem, the park offers a tour of the history of the holy city complete with models, 3-D animation and light effects.

DEI director Dieter Vieweger says that findings resulting from the research phase preceding the creation of the park support the generally accepted belief that the site of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is where Golgotha or Calvary Hill were located.

Confusion about the issue cropped up in the 19th century, when biblical scholars pointed out that the place that John and other Evangelists described as the one where Jesus was crucified was not outside but inside Jerusalem city gates. This would also have gone against Jewish regulations according to which executions and burials had to take place outside city walls.

Then in 1893, archeologists unearthed a massive wall that even skeptics quickly accepted as the second wall of Jerusalem, as described by the historian Josephus. The wall was believed to date back to the time of King Herod the Great – and that appeared to validate the theory that Golgotha lay outside the walls that existed in Herod’s time (the city’s third wall was built later).

But this was thrown open to question in the 1960s when American researcher Kathleen Kenyon ascertained that the area surrounded by the so-called second wall was uninhabited at the time of Jesus’s crucifixion. This was followed in the 1970s by an even more dramatic discovery by then DEI director Ute Wagner-Lux: the second wall was on a site that had long been used as a stone quarry – which would fit the description of Golgotha. But what diggers found under the wall was a two-meter thick section of rubble from the city destroyed under military leader and later emperor Titus in 70 A.D.

That meant that the wall was built after Jesus’s death -- and later finds showed conclusively that the wall was not a city wall. So what was it?

“Godless” individuals

Something he read by Christian historian Eusebius of Caesarea gave current DEI director Vieweger an idea. Eusebius wrote that some “godless” individuals seeking to erase all memory of Jesus’s burial place had erected a temple dedicated to Aphrodite on the site. This happened after the Bar-Kokhba Revolt of 132 - 135 A.D. when the Romans totally destroyed Jerusalem, and Emperor Hadrian built the city of Aelia Capitolina in its place, where Jews were forbidden to live under penalty of death.

At the center of this significantly larger city Hadrian had a temple of Venus (Aphrodite) erected. Eusebius’s account thus points to the Romans not only systematically trying to erase all trace of Jewish holy places but also those of the “other Jews” – the Christians.

But then what -- if the wall is part of a temple to Aphrodite -- led Emperor Constantine nearly 200 years later to erect the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on this spot?

Vieweger refers to a Christian source who, shortly after the Roman temple was built, records that Christ was killed at the heart of the city Hadrian built. Historians Hans-Joachim Gehrke and Peter Funke add a historic and religious argument that supports the traditional local belief: "Would Constantine, wishing to build a church on the site of Christ’s resurrection, have chosen a major Roman temple to do so if he’d had any alternative?" Constantine was anything but an iconoclast: It was later Roman emperors and others who razed pagan temples. The historians view this as conclusive evidence that the memory of Golgotha had thus survived over the space of several centuries.

So Golgotha was not right by the city wall built by Herod but most probably in a stone quarry that was filled in under Hadrian so he could erect his new city’s main temple. Historian Gehrke states that all presently known information, data, and writings support the thesis that the place where Jesus was executed and buried is where Constantine’s church is located. That would make John and other Evangelists right: Jesus died outside city gates.

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Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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