AP — The tomb of Jesus has been resurrected to its former glory. Just in time for Easter, a Greek restoration team has completed a historic renovation of the Edicule, the shrine that tradition says houses the cave where Jesus was buried and rose to heaven.
Gone is the unsightly iron cage built around the shrine by British authorities in 1947 to shore up the walls. Gone is the black soot on the shrine’s stone façade from decades of pilgrims lighting candles. And gone are fears about the stability of the old shrine, which hadn’t been restored in more than 200 years.
“If this intervention hadn’t happened now, there is a very great risk that there could have been a collapse,” Bonnie Burnham of the World Monuments Fund said Monday. “This is a complete transformation of the monument.”
The fund provided an initial $1.4 million for the $4 million restoration, thanks to a donation by the widow of the founder of Atlantic Records. Jordan’s King Abdullah II and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas also chipped in about 150,000 euros each, along with other private and church donations, Burnham said.
The limestone and marble structure stands at the center of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, one of the world’s oldest churches — a 12th-century building standing on 4th-century remains. The shrine needed urgent attention after years of exposure to environmental factors like water, humidity and candle smoke.
Three main Christian denominations jealously guard separate sections of the church, but they put aside their longstanding religious rivalries to give their blessing for the restoration. In 2015, Israeli police briefly shut down the building after Israel’s Antiquities Authority deemed it unsafe, and repairs began in June 2016.
A restoration team from the National Technical University of Athens stripped the stone slabs from the shrine’s façade and patched up the internal masonry of the shrine, injecting it with tubes of grout for reinforcement. Each stone slab was cleaned of candle soot and pigeon droppings, then put back in place. Titanium bolts were inserted into the structure for reinforcement, and frescos and the shrine’s painted dome were given a face-lift.
The restorers also made some discoveries.
On October 26, the team entered the inner sanctum of the shrine, the burial chamber of Jesus, and temporarily slid open an old marble layer covering the bedrock where Jesus’ body is said to have been placed.
Below the outer marble layer was a white rose marble slab engraved with a cross, which the team dated to the late Crusader period of the 14th century. Beneath that marble slab was an even older, grey marble slab protecting the bedrock, and mortar on the slab dates to the 4th century, when Roman Emperor Constantine ordered the Church of the Holy Sepulchre built.
The restorers have cut a small window from the shrine’s marble walls for pilgrims to see — for the first time — the bare stone of the ancient burial cave.
“It seems we are in front of levels of history that are validated,” said Antonia Moropoulou, who supervised the renovation.
The team is dismantling its worksite ahead of a ceremony Wednesday to mark the completion of the renovation, in the presence of two representatives of dueling Christian denominations — Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, who is the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, and a representative of Pope Francis, the leader of the Catholic Church.
Concern for the church’s stability has brought Christian denominations together, and Moropoulou hopes it ushers in a “new era” of cooperation. She hopes the communities will make some changes in longstanding customs inside the church, like pilgrims smashing their lit candles onto the Edicule’s stone wall, so the structure is not compromised.
Now, money is being raised for another round of restorations — consolidating drainage and sewage pipes underground, around the tomb, to stabilize its foundations — so renovations won’t be needed for years to come.
“Here is a monument that has been worshipped through the centuries, and will be worshipped forever,” said Moropoulou.
In October, 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 dramatic discovery was reported by National Geographic, which has been partnering with the team of experts working at the church.
“When the marble cladding was first removed on the night of October 26, an initial inspection… showed only a layer of fill material underneath,” National Geographic reported. “However, as researchers continued their non-stop work over the course of 60 hours, another marble slab with a cross carved into its surface was exposed. By Friday night, just hours before the tomb was to be re-sealed, the original limestone burial bed was revealed intact.”
Martin Biddle, an expert on the history of the tomb, said scholars would now have to carefully examine the data that was collected when the burial bed and cave walls were exposed to definitively establish a connection to Jesus. “The surfaces of the rock must be looked at with the greatest care, I mean minutely, for traces of graffiti,” Biddle told National Geographic. “Why did [the 4th-century historian] Bishop Eusebius identify this tomb as the tomb of Christ? He doesn’t say, and we don’t know,” said Biddle. “I don’t myself think Eusebius got it wrong — he was a very good scholar — so there probably is evidence if only it is looked for.”
The Greek team said it collected considerable documentation at the site, and did indeed intend to conduct extensive tests on what it found there.
Historians long believed the original remnants of the tomb had been destroyed over the centuries. The original church that sat atop the traditional site of Jesus’s burial was demolished in 1009, nearly a century before the commencement of the First Crusade in 1099.
The Fatimid caliph of Egypt ordered the governor of Ramle to destroy the church, and a Christian chronicler from Antioch wrote that the Arabs “attempted to remove the Holy Sepulchre and to cause all trace of it to disappear… [and] broke and demolished the greater part of it.”
But to what the archaeologists said was their surprise, they established that remnants of the cave survived.
Moving aside the top marble slab above the tomb on Wednesday for the first time since the Edicule was built, they found a second slab, gray and featuring a small etching of a cross, said to date to the 12th century.
After removing the gray marble slab, they exposed part of the cave wall.
“This is the Holy Rock that has been revered for centuries, but only now can actually be seen,” Antonia Moropoulou, head of the conservation and restoration project, told the magazine.
“I’m absolutely amazed. My knees are shaking a little bit because I wasn’t expecting this,” added Fredrik Hiebert, National Geographic’s archaeologist-in-residence. “We can’t say 100 percent, but it appears to be visible proof that the location of the tomb has not shifted through time, something that scientists and historians have wondered for decades.”
The magazine noted that while it was impossible to establish with certainty whether the rock-hewn tomb was the burial site of Jesus, the discovery of at least six other rock-cut tombs around the church point to the area being a Jewish cemetery during the late Second Temple period — the time when Jesus the Jew from Nazareth lived.
Dan Bahat, former city archaeologist of Jerusalem, told National Geographic: “We may not be absolutely certain that the site of the Holy Sepulchre Church is the site of Jesus’ burial, but we certainly have no other site that can lay a claim nearly as weighty, and we really have no reason to reject the authenticity of the site.”
Ilan Ben Zion and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.