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Archaeology

Researchers rediscover original medieval altar of Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Experts say shrine was used by Catholic clergy until Muslims retook Jerusalem in 1244, after which it was used by Greek Orthodox church until 1808 when it was damaged in a fire

The stone slab, once a Crusader-era altar, in Jerusalem’s Holy Sepulchre Church, April 11, 2022. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/TOI)
The stone slab, once a Crusader-era altar, in Jerusalem’s Holy Sepulchre Church, April 11, 2022. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/TOI)

Researchers excavating Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre said on Wednesday they have rediscovered the main section of the medieval high altar that stood in the church’s Crusader-era apex, according to a Reuters report.

The heavily graffitied 2.5 x 1.5 meter stone slab was uncovered as part of renovation works at the Christian holy site. The church is built on the spot where Christians believe Jesus was crucified, buried and rose again, the central event of the faith celebrated every spring on Easter, which falls this year on April 17.

“Works from people of art, people of archaeology, contribute to us, contribute to the belief of the church, to the conviction of the church, that this is the place… on which Jesus Christ was crucified… buried and from which he came to resurrection,” Archbishop Aristarchos of Constantina, the chief secretary of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem told Reuters.

Researchers at the Jerusalem basilica believe that decorative ornaments found on the backside of the slab correspond to an altar described by pilgrims’ accounts of the church founding by the Crusaders in 1149, as well as with past archeological findings. The research is set to be published by the Israel Exploration Society in 2022.

“It is a fascinating case,” Amit Re’em, Jerusalem regional archaeologist for the Israel Antiquities Authority, told The Times of Israel this week.

“You cannot see it now, but originally it was inlaid with pieces of precious marble, pieces of glass, pieces of small, finely made marble,” Re’em told Reuters, which first published news of the stone slab. “It was shining and this was a really amazing artifact.”

Re’em is conducting the excavation together with Ilya Berkovich of the Austrian Academy of Sciences.

Researchers identified the decorations as belonging to the “Cosmatesque” method, which combines Classical, Byzantine and early Islamic art motives.

They said altars of a similar style have been discovered inside churches in Rome dating to the 12th and 13th centuries.

“It stood at the apex, at the sanctuary of the Church (of the Holy Sepulchre),” Re’em said, where all pilgrims and worshippers would have seen it as the priests conducted mass.

Jerusalem’s Holy Sepulchre Church, April 11, 2022. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/TOI)

Re’em said that the altar was used by Catholic clergy until Jerusalem was retaken by the Muslims in 1244, after which it was used by the Greek Orthodox church until 1808 when it was damaged in a fire.

“It was forgotten in the mist of time for decades until we rediscovered it a few years ago,” said Re’em in a Reuters video.

Re’em explained that the stone slab’s purpose was forgotten because it was situated in a dark church corner, lying upside down with its flat, graffiti-covered surface pointing up. He said it became a tradition among pilgrims to sign the smooth stone surface.

The stone was recently turned over during the ongoing church renovations and archaeologists were astonished by the colorful inlaid stones, said Re’em.

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