At the holiest spot in Christendom, delving for Jesus’s resting place
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At the holiest spot in Christendom, delving for Jesus’s resting place

Intra-religious tensions mean nothing is allowed to change at the Church of Holy Sepulchre. Except this week, when a team of workmen arrived and began lifting marble slabs

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Visitors outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, October 28, 2016. The Immovable Ladder is seen at top left (Times of Israel staff)
Visitors outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, October 28, 2016. The Immovable Ladder is seen at top left (Times of Israel staff)

High up on the facade at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem’s Old City, a small wooden ladder rests below an arched window. Made of cedar wood, possibly left behind by a stonemason who was doing restoration work here in the early 1700s, it is said to have remained in precisely the same spot for 250 or more years, with just two temporary relocations. As such, the “Immovable Ladder,” as it is understandably known, emblemizes the extraordinarily complex fabric of relations between the six ecumenical Christian orders that together oversee the church.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre contains the two holiest spots in Christianity — the site where Jesus was crucified, it is believed in 30-33 CE, and the tomb nearby where he was said to have been laid to rest and resurrected. Unsurprisingly, nothing in so hallowed a place, so tenaciously protected by its various religious custodians, is easily changed, developed or even moved.

It is beyond remarkable, therefore, that, beginning on Wednesday, and ending on Saturday, a restoration team several dozens strong has been hard at work lifting marble slabs, removing debris, and generally doing what workmen do, at the very heart of the church — the innermost chamber of the Edicule, which houses the cave in which Jesus was buried.

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)

On Friday, as hundreds of tourists — the faithful and the curious — milled through the various sections of the church, members of clergy stood guard at the entrance to the Edicule, politely rebuffing requests from visitors to gain access to the holy work site.

This reporter was allowed to peek into that most sacred chamber, and a photographer working for one of the church’s religious authorities kindly took several photographs of parts of the work scene.

Clergymen outside the Edicule, which houses Jesus's tomb, at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, October 28, 2016 (Times of Israel staff)
Clergymen outside the Edicule, which houses Jesus’s tomb, at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, October 28, 2016 (Times of Israel staff)

This most sensitive of work is being carried out as part of the wider restoration of the entire Edicule — a $4 million project, part-funded by Jordan’s King Abdullah II, that has been going on since the spring. Astoundingly, one of the clergymen on guard duty said, agreement between the six Christian sects on the nature of the work had been reached “quite quickly, actually.”

It was apparently a necessary consensus: There had been acute concerns for the Edicule’s structural stability — what with a 1927 earthquake, some fairly crude British restoration 20 years later, and the endless daily rigors of candle smoke, humidity and people.

Temporary protective walls during restoration work surround the Edicule, which houses Jesus's tomb, at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, October 28, 2016 (ToI staff)
Temporary protective walls during restoration work surround the Edicule, which houses Jesus’s tomb, at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, October 28, 2016 (Times of Israel staff)

The church itself dates originally from the 4th century, and much of today’s edifice was constructed in the 12th, with the Edicule built in the early 1800s.

The entrance to the room above the traditional burial place of Jesus, Church of the Holy Sepulchre, October 28, 2016 (ToI staff)
The entrance to the room above the traditional burial place of Jesus, Church of the Holy Sepulchre, October 28, 2016 (Times of Israel staff)

The new restoration team on Wednesday moved aside the top marble slab above the tomb for the first time since the Edicule was built, if not hundreds of years earlier.

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)

Below this uppermost slab, they found a second slab, grey and featuring a small etching of a cross, said to date to the 12th century, the Associated Press’s Daniel Estrin reported on Thursday. “It is cracked down the middle, and underneath it is a whitish layer,” Estrin wrote, quoting archaeologist Fredrik Hiebert, a member of a team from National Geographic that has partnered with Greek restoration experts to document the project.

Inside the room above the traditional burial place of Jesus, Church of the Holy Sepulchre, October 28, 2016 (ToI staff)
Inside the room above the traditional burial place of Jesus, Church of the Holy Sepulchre, October 28, 2016 (Times of Israel staff)

Beneath the whitish layer, the team was hoping to reach the original cave walls and bedrock, where some tradition suggests a bench, with carvings, may have formed Jesus’s resting place.

View of excavation cavity into the traditional burial place of Jesus, Church of the Holy Sepulchre, October 28, 2016 (ToI staff)
View of excavation cavity into the traditional burial place of Jesus, Church of the Holy Sepulchre, October 28, 2016 (Times of Israel staff)

At the site on Friday, another of the officials on duty said the work would be finished on Saturday, and that a new window would give some additional visibility to the chamber.

Inside the room above the traditional burial place of Jesus, Church of the Holy Sepulchre, October 28, 2016 (ToI staff)
Inside the room above the traditional burial place of Jesus, Church of the Holy Sepulchre, October 28, 2016 (Times of Israel staff)

I was shown what were described as “injection holes” for mortar, drilled as part of the work to reinforce and protect the overall structure.

Inside the room above the traditional burial place of Jesus, Church of the Holy Sepulchre, October 28, 2016 (ToI staff)
Inside the room above the traditional burial place of Jesus, Church of the Holy Sepulchre, October 28, 2016 (Times of Israel staff)

Around the Edicule, large pieces of stonework stood upright and lay in piles, testament to the dramatic scale of the restoration work.

High up on the church’s outside wall, the “Immovable Ladder” still leant in its immovable spot. But here, on the most hallowed ground, the workers were laboring in the traditional final earthly resting place of Jesus. Necessity, combined with a rare opportunity for a little more knowledge, had proved that — albeit for the first time in a few centuries — the immovable can sometimes be shifted, after all.

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)

 

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