Round-the-clock excavations at Church of Holy Sepulchre yield historical treasures

Continued work on a two-year, $11 million cooperative restoration project reveals fascinating details from centuries of patchwork building at one of Christianity’s holiest sites

Christian pilgrims hold candles as they gather during the ceremony of the Holy Fire at Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where many Christians believe Jesus was crucified, buried and rose from the dead, in the Old City of Jerusalem, on April 23, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Christian pilgrims hold candles as they gather during the ceremony of the Holy Fire at Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where many Christians believe Jesus was crucified, buried and rose from the dead, in the Old City of Jerusalem, on April 23, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Experts from Rome have wrapped up weeks of careful archaeological work in one of the most sensitive parts of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, according to the Custodia Terrae Sanctae, which oversees Christian holy sites in Israel. Archaeologists from the Department of Antiquities of the University of Rome Sapienza excavated the area around the Holy Edicule, or main tabernacle, as part of an NIS 41 million ($11 million), two-year renovation and archaeological excavation.

Christian tradition holds that Jesus was crucified by the Romans just outside the city’s walls as they existed 2,000 years ago, and was buried in a cave tomb nearby.

Archaeologists worked around the clock for seven days and seven nights, from June 20 to 27, to excavate the area in front of the Edicule. The compressed schedule was intended to minimize disruptions to visitors, as the excavation required closing the Edicule to the public. The Edicule is built on the site of the cave where Jesus is believed to have been buried.

The most recent excavation revealed more information about the early Christian layout of the Edicule, parts of which date to the 4th century. Under one of the floor slabs, archaeologists discovered a coin hoard that included coins minted up until the time of Roman Emperor Valens (364-378).

Other interesting discoveries include a fragment of wall cladding, or the exterior of the wall, from the main Edicule, covered with graffiti from the 18th century in various languages, including Greek, Latin and Armenian.

Earlier this summer, archaeologists worked on the restoration of other parts of the basilica floor, assisted by a conservation group from Turin, Italy, and the Franciscan Faculty of Biblical Sciences and Archaeology in Jerusalem. They uncovered an ancient drainage system and explored the different masonry techniques and types of cement used.

Part of the cladding of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem’s Holy Edicule contained 18th-century graffiti. (Courtesy Gianfranco Pinto Ostuni/Custodia CTS)

History of a church

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was built around the year 330 CE, after Emperor Constantine embraced Christianity and his mother, Helena, traveled to the Holy Land to identify sites linked to Jesus. She commissioned monumental churches, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, considered the traditional location of Christ’s crucifixion and burial.

Prior to that, it was likely a pilgrimage site for early Christians. Archaeologists have also discovered Latin inscriptions on the site dating to before the church’s construction, further indicating that it may have already been a site of religious significance for Christians.

But before the church was built starting in 330 CE, it was a pagan temple. The Romans persecuted the early Christian community, and Emperor Hadrian decided that the site would be ideally suited for a temple to Jupiter or Venus.

A partially excavated floor in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem in June 2023 reveals the different types of construction and masonry used throughout the centuries. (courtesy Archivio Università La Sapienza, Roma)

Persian invaders torched the church in 614, and it was destroyed again in 1009 by the pathological caliph al-Hakim, who persecuted Jews, Christians and even fellow Muslims. The Crusaders restored the church in the 12th century and gave the Church of the Holy Sepulchre its current appearance.

Since 1852, the site has been governed by a rigid power-sharing arrangement among the different Christian denominations known as the “status quo.” A Muslim family has been entrusted with the keys to the church for at least 800 years.

Under the arrangement, the various denominations have undertaken smaller renovations of the chapels under their control, but collective action to maintain shared areas often proved elusive. A wake-up call came in 2015, when Israeli authorities briefly closed the Edicule, deeming it unsafe.

The limestone and marble structure of the Edicule needed urgent attention after years of exposure to environmental factors such as water, humidity and candle smoke.

A church that renovates together stays together

The different streams of Christianity came together in 2016 to restore the Holy Edicule, the first large-scale renovation since the clean-up after an 1808 fire. In October 2016, when the restoration work was in full swing, conservationists claimed to have found the original limestone bed on which Jesus was laid to rest. The newly restored Edicule opened to the public a year later.

Christian community leaders visit archaeological excavations at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem in June, 2023. (courtesy Archivio Università La Sapienza, Roma)

But as renovations tend to do, that of the Edicule highlighted the need for further repairs, including urgent work on the floor of the basilica. Like much of the church, the floor is a hodgepodge of building methods from various periods and includes stones from the Crusader era in the 12th century, recent additions from the 19th century and splotches of concrete and mortar that were part of earlier, cruder renovations.

The renovation offers an opportunity for archaeological examination as well as repairing sewage and electricity lines running beneath the church, which is nestled in the heart of Jerusalem’s densely populated Old City.

The church carried out a preliminary study between 2020 and 2022 when it was largely empty due to the coronavirus pandemic. Work began on the renovations and archaeological excavations in March 2022.

The 1,200-square-meter (13,000-square-foot) floor will be repaired in phases to allow liturgical services and visits to continue. The renovation will be funded through donations and is expected to be completed in May 2024, depending on what the archaeologists find.

“The cooperation among the three communities is the most important thing,” said Rev. Francesco Patton, the head of the Catholic Franciscan order devoted to preserving Christian sites in the Holy Land, said last year when the excavations began. “It shows to the entire world that it is possible among Christians of different churches and communities to have a fraternal relationship.”

Part of the Italian team excavating the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem in June, 2023. (courtesy Gianfranco Pinto Ostuni/Custodia CTS)

The restoration work itself seems to have helped the various churches to patch up their differences.

“Dialogue is really facilitated when you are doing something together with the others,” Patton said last year. “Working together is something that helps people to know each other and to start a process of trusting.”

AP contributed to this report.

Most Popular
read more: