At Jesus’s Jerusalem tomb, a race to reach original rock ‘where his body was laid’
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'To be able to dig here... it's overwhelming joy'

At Jesus’s Jerusalem tomb, a race to reach original rock ‘where his body was laid’

Given just 60 hours to work, team restoring site at Church of Holy Sepulchre removes marble layers, exposes new slabs, for first time in centuries

This Wednesday Oct. 26, 2016 photo shows the moment workers remove the top marble layer of the tomb said to be of Jesus, in the Church of Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. A restoration team has peeled away a marble layer for the first time in centuries in an effort to reach what it believes is the original rock surface where Jesus' body was laid. (Dusan Vranic/National Geographic via AP)
This Wednesday Oct. 26, 2016 photo shows the moment workers remove the top marble layer of the tomb said to be of Jesus, in the Church of Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. A restoration team has peeled away a marble layer for the first time in centuries in an effort to reach what it believes is the original rock surface where Jesus' body was laid. (Dusan Vranic/National Geographic via AP)

For the first time in centuries, scientists have exposed the original surface of what Christians traditionally believe to be Jesus’s tomb in Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre, as part of a restoration project.

According to National Geographic, the tomb has been covered by marble at least since 1555 CE, and perhaps for hundreds of years more.

Fredrik Hiebert, National Geographic Society’s archaeologist-in-residence and a collaborator on the project to restore the tomb, told NG that the team hoped to “finally be able to see the original rock surface on which, according to tradition, the body of Christ was laid.”

NG said that the tomb and the surrounding small structure, known as the Edicule, were being restored by a team of scientists from the National Technical University of Athens, under the auspices of Chief Scientific Supervisor Professor Antonia Moropoulou.

The restoration project provided the scientists with an opportunity to examine the original surface of the tomb, and possibly formulate a more accurate image of the chamber as it was when it was created some 2,000 years ago.

The Entombment of Christ by Pedro Roldán (Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 3.0)
The Entombment of Christ by Pedro Roldán (Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 3.0)

The scientists were also hoping to trace the site’s evolution into “the focal point of veneration since it was first identified by Helena, mother of the Roman emperor Constantine,” in 326 CE.

“We are at the critical moment for rehabilitating the Edicule,” NG quoted Moropoulou as saying. “The techniques we’re using to document this unique monument will enable the world to study our findings as if they themselves were in the tomb of Christ.”

Christian pilgrims wait in line to visit the tomb of Jesus in the Church of Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem Friday, May 20, 2016. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)
Christian pilgrims wait in line to visit the tomb of Jesus in the Church of Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem Friday, May 20, 2016. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

The restoration team, working in the innermost chamber of the site said to be Jesus’s tomb, has peeled away a marble layer in an effort to reach what it believes is the original rock surface where Jesus’s body was laid.

Many historians have long believed that the original cave, identified a few centuries after Jesus’ death as his tomb, was obliterated ages ago.

But Hiebert said ground penetrating radar tests determined that cave walls are in fact standing — at a height of six feet and connected to bedrock — behind the marbled panels of the chamber at the center of the church.

“What was found,” he said, “is astonishing.”

“I usually spend my time in Tut’s tomb,” said Hiebert about the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun’s burial site, “but this is more important.”

A 12th-century building sitting on 4th-century remains, the Church of the Holy Sepluchre is the only place where six Christian denominations practice their faith at the same site.

The Edicule was last restored in 1810 following a fire, and is in need of reinforcement after years of exposure to humidity and candle smoke. A hulking iron cage built around the Edicule by British authorities in 1947 for support still stands, but is not enough.

Pope Francis and Bartholomew I kiss the Stone of Unction in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in 2014 (screen capture: GPO)
Pope Francis and Bartholomew I kiss the Stone of Unction in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in 2014 (screen capture: GPO)

Renovations at this holiest of spots require mutual agreement by the church’s various custodians, and that is notoriously hard to secure. The denominations jealously guard different parts of the site and often object to even the slightest of changes.

Last year, Israeli police briefly shut down the building after Israel’s Antiquities Authority deemed it unsafe. It prompted the Christian denominations to green light the repairs, which began in June.

Pilgrims line up throughout the day for the chance to crouch in the Edicule’s tiny room. They kneel before a white marble encasing, said to cover a surface hewn from the side of the limestone cave where Jesus’ body was laid before his resurrection.

Church officials closed the Edicule to pilgrims beginning Wednesday evening, and workers used a pulley to slide open the marble slab, in hopes of reaching the burial surface.

Underneath the marble was a layer of debris. By Thursday afternoon, workers had finished removing the debris, revealing something unexpected: another marble slab.

Hiebert said he thinks the second slab, which is grey and features a small etching of a cross, dates to the 12th century. It is cracked down the middle, and underneath it is a whitish layer.

“I don’t believe … that is the original rock,” Hiebert said. “We still have more to go.”

The entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
The entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

The main Christian communities that govern the church have allowed the work crew only 60 hours to excavate the inner sanctum, Hiebert said. Experts are working day and night to reach the tomb’s core and to analyze it.

“We will close the tomb after we document it,” said Antonia Moropoulou, an architect at the National Technical University of Athens, which is supervising the renovation.

The restoration team wants to tightly seal the core of the tomb before injecting parts of the shrine with mortar for reinforcement, so the material doesn’t seep inside what is considered to be the holy rock.

One part of the tomb will remain exposed. Experts on Thursday cut a rectangular window in one of the Edicule’s marble walls, so pilgrims will be able to glimpse, for the first time, a part of the limestone wall thought to be the tomb of Jesus.

Catholic worshippers take part at a Easter Sunday mass procession in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in Jerusalem's Old City on March 27, 2016. (Corinna Kern/Flash90)
Catholic worshippers take part at a Easter Sunday mass procession in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in Jerusalem’s Old City on March 27, 2016. (Corinna Kern/Flash90)

David Grenier, secretary of a group that oversees Roman Catholic church properties in the Holy Land, stood with a few other Franciscan friars, watching the work crew in awe.

“What happened here 2,000 years ago completely changed the history of the world,” he said. “To be able to dig, let’s say, to the rock where the body of Jesus was laid … it’s overwhelming joy.”

At one point, a National Geographic film crew documented the site as clergy burned incense around them in a daily church rite.

After the film crew cleared out, a pair of clergymen in brown frocks, and an Israeli policeman stationed at the church to help keep the peace, clambered over a pile of work tools, electrical wires and a yellow hard hat on the Edicule floor to lean into the inner chamber and snap cell phone photos of the exposed tomb.

“It’s a historic moment, huh?” the policeman said.

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