Sometimes the good news can be hard to find in the Middle East. However, for Christian faithful, there’s finally something to rejoice about — Churches are putting aside hundreds of years of differences to restore the tomb of Jesus Christ to glory.
A team of experts began a historic renovation on Monday at the spot where Christians believe Jesus was buried, overcoming longstanding religious rivalries to carry out the first repairs at the site in more than 200 years.
The project is focused on reinforcing and preserving the Edicule — the ancient chamber housing Jesus’ tomb in Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre. It is the first such work at the tomb since 1810, when the shrine was restored and given its current shape following a fire.
An ornate structure with hanging oil lamps, columns and oversize candlesticks, the Edicule was erected above the spot where Christian tradition says Jesus’ body was anointed, wrapped in cloth and buried before his resurrection. It stands a few hundred yards (meters) from the site of Jesus’ crucifixion.
With its stone staircases, gilded ornamentation and many dark chambers, the church is one of Christianity’s holiest shrines. But that hasn’t stopped clerics from engaging in turf rivalries over the years.
The Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian churches are responsible for maintaining separate sections, and each denomination jealously guards its domain. While the clergymen who work and pray at the church generally get along, tensions can rise to the surface. In 2008, an argument between Greek Orthodox and Armenian monks erupted into a brawl.
This time, the clergymen put aside their differences — a reflection of the dire need for the repairs. Last year, Israeli police briefly shut down the building after Israel’s Antiquities Authority deemed it unsafe, prompting the Christian denominations to join forces.
“We equally decided the required renovation was necessary to be done, so we agreed upon it”, said the Rev. Samuel Aghoyan, the top Armenian official at the church.
An Associated Press team had exclusive access to the site as the work began late Monday, carried out by a team of nine Greek experts who have done similar restoration work on the Acropolis as well as to Byzantine churches throughout the Mediterranean.
While a group of nuns looked on, the sound of clanking tools filled the vast arched space where conservators and restoration experts began chipping away at mortar between marble slabs. Using cotton swabs dipped into a solution of liquid soap and water, one expert scrubbed away centuries-old layers of wax and carbon dioxide. Another airbrushed the dirt as the work progressed.
Antonia Moropoulou, an architect at the National Technical University of Athens, which is supervising the renovation, noted the intricacy of the historic effort.
“Nobody envies this responsibility and challenge,” she said. “Because, it is a challenge to work here in this ambient of an open monument visited by thousands of people daily.”
Moropoulou said the tomb is stable, but needs urgent attention after years of exposure to environmental factors like water, humidity and candle smoke.
“The marble and stone slabs have developed, due to the stresses, some deformations,” she said. In addition, the structure needs to be protected from the risk of earthquake damage.
Even an iron cage erected around the Edicule by British authorities in 1947 cannot bear the stress. “So another solution is needed,” Moropoulou said.
The project will bolster the structure by, among other things, replacing the mortars and strengthening the columns. It is expected to take eight to 12 months, during which time pilgrims will be able to continue visiting the site.
Some of the work will be done in the early morning hours or late at night, when the church is closed. This quiet atmosphere will make it easier for experts to concentrate on the delicate task and help avoid disruptions for the thousands of pilgrims and tourists who visit each day.
The project will cost about $3.3 million (3 million euros), said Theophilos III, the Greek-Orthodox patriarch of Jerusalem. Each church is contributing funds. In addition, Jordan’s King Abdullah made a personal donation. Jordan controlled Jerusalem’s Old City until the 1967 Mideast war, and the kingdom continues to play a role safeguarding Muslim and Christian holy sites.
Despite the sometimes tense relations between the denominations, the tomb served as a potent symbol of Christian unity when Pope Francis and the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, prayed together there in May 2014.
Likewise, today’s restoration is bridging centuries-old divisions by being carried out in the name of all three major denominations that share possession.
In a show of unity, on May 20 clerics from the three denominations posed and shook hands in front of the scaffolding erected around the tomb ahead of the work.
“What has happened is a very good sign, a sign of togetherness,” said Theophilos III.
The church, one of the world’s oldest, was built in 325 A.D. by the Roman Emperor Constantine. That structure was destroyed in 1009 by Muslim Caliph al-Hakim. A 12th-century restoration by the Crusaders gave the Holy Sepulchre its current appearance, while in 1808 a fire all but destroyed the Edicule.
In 1852, the Ottoman authorities then governing the Holy Land provided a framework for resolving disputes inside the church. They put into effect the “status quo,” a set of historic laws and power-sharing arrangements that rigidly regulates the denominations’ activities inside the Holy Sepulchre.
The Rev. Athanasius Macora, a Franciscan monk who represents the Catholics at the inter-church commission that negotiates disputes at the Holy Sepulchre, said the renovation might have been more ambitious if not for the status quo rules.
“I personally would have liked to maybe contemplate some alternative to simply restoring the current structure. But because the status quo is so conservative in its nature . we had to more or less accept the fact that there would be no change whatsoever to the current structure, and it would be restored as it is now,” he said.
Still, for pilgrims like Italian Claudio Pardini, the restoration is “an important sign” that all of the Christian churches are getting together to preserve their faith’s traditions.
“It’s good to take care of our churches so that we can leave the next generations a sign, something to visit,” he said. “Because Christ isn’t an idea. He’s a story.”
Main Street says
Terrible as to how Christians are being persecuted in the middle east while the world powers just stand by and watch. Even our churches don’t do enough to help these persecuted people. I give to the Catholic Near East Welfare Assoc.. They don’t get enough support from the larger Archdioceses here in the U.S..
Denise A says
Guess what? Yeshua, is not there! No one is even sure if it’s the right tomb, besides, His tomb is empty! This is probably the very same reason that GOD hid the body of Moses. Unity is wonderful, however, why don’t we all just unite around Israel? That would be practical and productive!
Main Street says
Denise: Billions of U.S. tax dollars in the form of foreign aid DO go to Israel every year.
I wonder what Jesus thinks of this disgusting display. My Jesus would say to feed the poor, help the poor Christian brethren who are CONSISTENTLY being raped and murdered. Certainly the money spent on this project could be better spent. Jesus, after all, was all about the simple truth, loving and caring for anyone who wanted and needed him. What a disgusting display of indifference. He wouldn’t like or agree with this, but He would love them anyway,
Main Street says
Gere: Why is it disgusting? They are cleaning up and restoring a site of religious significance. Many of these Nuns are in the front lines in feeding and caring for the persecuted Christians in the Middle east.
Evidently you need to reread the Bible.
Jesus said, “The poor will be with you always. But my time with you is limited.”
You could seize the wealth of the world and distribute it equally with all people
and in ten minutes some fool would start a crap game or poker game and in
short order there would be rich and poor again.
But this church has stood for 1691 year, or near, and has served generations
of poor who have come and gone in that time. And will serve billions more.
If we haven’t managed to nuke ourselves into oblivion by then.
Found in FLA says
Been there – seen that. Both this church’s tomb and crucifixion spot are within the city walls. Wrong place(s).
Ann Piatt says
It’s going to be a place people will be worshipping. I guess they should fix it. The dressing it up part they could leave simple. Besides as was said. . . He’s not there. It’s empty.
Paul Decker says
I went to the HOLY LAND in 2012. While there I visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Garden Tomb. This is not the grave of Jesus! The location here is the result of a women having a vision that this was the location! It does not meet the Biblical description. It is not in a garden, it is not hewn out of rock in a hill, it is not outside the city limits, it is not near Golgotha! It is nothing but a symbol of the Catholic Church. Then you go to the Garden Tomb, and it meets all the above criteria! As far as we know the Garden Tomb appears to be the real tomb although it can not be proven. If we know for certain the location of the tomb, people would worship the place (as is done at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre) in stead of the Savior! It is not about the place, it is about the LORD JESUS CHRIST! We don’t need to look for the tomb, we need to seek out the Savior!
Born again says
The word tomb suggest he is dead. He is not, he is alive.
Temporarily, it was a tomb.