Restoring Christianity’s Holy of Holies in Israel

When the most revered site in Christendom is at the point of life-threatening collapse, who do you call?

Worshipers hold candles as they take part in the Christian Orthodox Holy Fire ceremony at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem’s Old City in April 2015 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Worshipers hold candles as they take part in the Christian Orthodox Holy Fire ceremony at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem’s Old City in April 2015
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Nearly two years ago, police temporarily barred pilgrims from entering the Aedicule in Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre, upon determining that the structure – the traditional site of Jesus’s tomb – was near collapse.
The site’s closure angered worshipers who had come from around the world to see the holy place, and prodded the sometimes warring Christian factions that control the church (and have been known to come to fisticuffs inside the Aedicule) into joint action. In 2015, a carefully negotiated agreement between the church’s main Christian communities – the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, the Franciscan Order and the Armenian Patriarchate – paved the way for restoration that will cost millions and take well over a year.
Earlier this year, Rev. Samuel Aghoyan, a leader of the Armenian Patriarchate, was interviewed by The New York Times and acknowledged the Israeli influence on getting the wheel rolling, saying, “Somebody had to push us... If the Israeli government didn’t get involved, nobody would have done anything.”
Another factor that held up restoration in years past was a lack of funding. But eventually, money poured in for this project from disparate places: Greece’s Aegean Airlines, the World Monuments Fund in New York, and King Abdullah II of Jordan, were among the biggest donors.
History in brief
The church of the Holy Sepulchre is considered by many historians and archeologists to be the historical site of Jesus’s crucifixion and burial. Regarding a resurrection thought by believers to also have taken place at this location, there is not as broad an agreement among experts.
The area upon which the church was built was located outside the city walls of Jerusalem during the time of Jesus, and dozens of stone-cut tombs have been found in and around the church, pointing to the site’s one-time function as a Jewish graveyard during the Second Temple period.
In the second century, with the polytheistic Romans on the warpath against Judaism and the fledgling religion known as Christianity, Eusebius, the bishop of Caesarea, claimed that the emperor Hadrian had built a temple in honor of the goddess Aphrodite atop the cave where Jesus had been buried to dissuade his followers from visiting the site.
In about 325 CE, the first Christian emperor of Rome, Constantine, had Hadrian’s temple demolished and in its place built the first incarnation of the church. The emperor had the stone ledge around the burial cave removed, isolating the tomb and constructing a structure around it. Legend has it that his mother, Helena, found the “true cross” in the depths of the church, where there is now a chapel dedicated to her.
In 638, the Rashidun Caliphate took over the city and in 1009, the Fatimid Caliph al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah, known as the Mad Caliph, destroyed the church.
Less than a century later, the church was rebuilt and then renovated by the Crusaders in the 12th century.
CLOSER TO our time, in 1808, a devastating fire ripped through the church, causing the ceiling of the Rotunda to collapse onto the Aedicule, which destroyed much of the exterior. The interior was left mostly intact (most of the marble decoration inside the structure dates back to a 1555 restoration carried out by the Franciscan order). In 1810, Greek architect Nikolaos Komnenos rebuilt the exterior of the Aedicule and most of the outside of the structure seen today is from his restoration.
After a 1927 earthquake damaged the Aedicule, British authorities constructed a “cage” of iron girders to support it.
Once the current restorations are finished, the holy site should finally be sturdy enough to survive without the iron beams and they will be removed, one of the many repairs making for a more aesthetically pleasing experience.
In addition to years of rainwater from the leaky roof of the Rotunda which houses the Aedicule, moisture has seeped into the foundation from the aging, slapdash sewage systems that run in channels below the church, causing deterioration to the tomb from both above and below.
 From left: Chief Scientific Supervisor Antonia Moropoulou shows the exposed tomb to Armenian Patriarch Nourhan Manougian, Franciscan Custos Fr. Francesco Patton and Theophilos III, the Greek Patriarch of Jerusalem. (Elisavet Tsilimantou, Jerusalem Patriarchate - National Technical University of Athens)
From left: Chief Scientific Supervisor Antonia Moropoulou shows the exposed tomb to Armenian Patriarch Nourhan Manougian, Franciscan Custos Fr. Francesco Patton and Theophilos III, the Greek Patriarch of Jerusalem. (Elisavet Tsilimantou, Jerusalem Patriarchate - National Technical University of Athens)
A safe bet
So who do you choose for such a restoration, when the stakes are so high? Whom do you call when the site in question is the holiest site on the planet for millions of Christians?
Prof. Antonia Moropoulou of the National Technical University of Athens was tapped to the head the project. Given that Moropoulou has led restorations at Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia, Egypt’s Temple of Luxor and dozens of Greek sites around the Mediterranean, has taught at Princeton, and her home university is world-renowned for engineering (in her words, “a center of excellence for cultural heritage protection”), it seems that Moropoulou’s appointment was a safe bet.
“The masonry was swollen from the water, and could not be weightbearing,” she says of the humidity coming from the depths. “It is endangering the outcome of this intervention. We suggest that the three Christian communities undertake... the proper installation of a sewage system and a water disposal system and proper support for this pavement from underground, because everything seems to be deteriorating.”
In order to sustain the stability of the structure, the team is installing titanium rods for support under the 19th-century marble slabs that adorn the outside of the Aedicule.
The Aedicule itself is comprised of two rooms, the first containing a piece of the “Angel Stone,” the rock that was rolled over the cave to seal it after Jesus was said to have been placed inside, and the second room containing the sepulchre, or tomb, itself.
One of the most anticipated steps of the restoration was the removal of marble cladding placed over the tomb to prevent pilgrims from damaging the actual rock where Jesus’s body was placed. The pastel-orange marble slab has rested atop the tomb since at least the restoration of 1555.
On October 26, the marble slab was painstakingly removed so as not to crack a natural fault in the middle of the rock. For 60 hours, the tomb of Jesus was open. Only a handful of priests, scientists and engineers were able to peer inside before it was resealed. No one living had ever set eyes upon it before, and there is a very good chance that everyone now on the planet will be dead the next time the tomb is opened. Inside the Aedicule, standing just next to the aforementioned sheet of marble, Prof. Moropoulou spoke with the Magazine about what her team discovered.
“We found another slab as well under this marble slab – a gray slab with a Crusader’s cross engraved [on it], which is why we suppose it is from the Crusader’s period. Underneath [the Crusader’s slab], we found fill material, and when we removed it, after being [granted] permission from the leaders of the Christian communities, we discovered the bedrock of the tomb of Christ.”
The last part of this very dramatic quote is very nearly lost in the recording of Moropoulou’s interview, her gentle voice competing with the deafening whirl of drills.
One of the most stunning discoveries inside the tomb were two revelations at the bedrock level. First, under the fill material, under the Crusader slab, in the rock of the original cave where Jesus was buried, a circular carved area and engraved channels were found. Typical for burial places of this era, Moropoulou speculates that the carved area functioned as a headrest and the channels were for the collection of the bodily fluids of the deceased.
And second, during the analysis, Moropoulou found traces of perfumes and oils that had been rubbed into the bedrock by pilgrims and priests centuries ago.
The engineers removed the fill material and stored it to be analyzed later, injected grout into the area to stabilize it, and “we just took one small piece of the bedrock in order to characterize the material,” Moropoulou says.
A window cut into the interior of the Aedicule exposes the bedrock of Jesus’s tomb. (Ben Fisher)
A window cut into the interior of the Aedicule exposes the bedrock of Jesus’s tomb. (Ben Fisher)
What to look out for
Visitors already familiar with the tomb will notice two differences to the Sepulchre once the restoration is finished. The first is that Moropoulou and her team have cut a rectangular window into an interior wall so that visitors to the tomb can see the bedrock in which Jesus’s body was laid.
The second is a discovery in the ceiling’s upper reaches of the tomb that visitors will have to crane their necks a bit to see.
“We have discovered frescoes that were blackened [by centuries of candle smoke]... we cleaned them and we protected them,” Moropoulou says. The medieval frescoes show the angels Michael and Gabriel, the three women present at the crucifixion according to the Gospel of John – Mary Magdalene, Mary of Clopas and Jesus’s mother, Mary – as well as other female followers. The frescoes are now gorgeous and once again vibrant, arranged in a circle high above the burial site.
The work is being done by an interdisciplinary team of 50 people when the church is closed, from 7 p.m. until 6 a.m., so as to not interrupt the daily flow of thousands of tourists. While scaffolding and temporary walls have been put up in the vicinity of the Aedicule, making the church a bit more crowded than usual, pilgrims are able to visit the site without being impeded by the restoration.
In the Latin Gallery of the church, located on one of the upper levels of the Church’s rotunda, administered by the Franciscans and generally closed to the public, the Greek team has set up a lab to clean and restore the stones they remove from the Aedicule. And, in a room off the Rotunda, they have set up a second lab with radar and thermographic imaging equipment that they used before starting the actual work in order to diagnose the problems
When she spoke with the Magazine in December, Moropoulou said that the work is “65% finished. But the 35% remaining is very important.” She is looking forward to the finished product when “the architectural and religious value of this monument, which was hidden, is revealed.”
Every so often Moropoulou would, in the middle of a sentence, have to run off and scold one of the dozen or so Korean pilgrims for going into a room they weren’t supposed to, because apparently there is a program for the pious to be locked in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre overnight.
She also has stern words for both the Christian communities that administer the church and the pilgrims who light candles for spiritual purposes. For hundreds of years, they have been placing lit candles on a small ledge, far too close to the Aedicule. The problem it causes is twofold, she explains; first because the smoke blackens the decorative touches of the tomb, which the team will clean, but also because over time, the heat from the candles damages the masonry.
“It’s going to be protected by us but it will be the responsibility of the three Christian communities... to protect it during the liturgical [services] and pilgrims’ visits. And the pilgrims’ attitudes have to change – otherwise it will be structurally intact but it will get dirty again.”
Fire and water have severely damaged the holy place, and Moropoulou doesn’t want to think about what would have happened to the tomb had they not intervened.
“The renovation happened just at the proper moment,” she said.
When asked if she thought that the pilgrims would change their ways and refrain from excessive candle lighting to preserve the work she’s done on the holy place for future generations to revere and enjoy, she laughed and responded, “I don’t think anything, it’s up to them.”