A historic action by three churches helps Christianity’s holiest site fight elements of time
When the Israeli Police ordered the shutting down of Christianity’s holiest site—the chamber housing what Christians around the world believe to be the tomb of Jesus Christ—on February 17, 2015, the decision caused an uproar among the Christian faithful.
The police claimed the structure, located in the Holy Sepulcher church in the Old City of Jerusalem, was unstable and had the potential to collapse, posing imminent danger to the lives of both tourists and pilgrims.
This move outraged both the Christian community and its leaders for two reasons. On the one hand, it was a violation of an ancient “status quo,” an informal decree set in 1852 by the Ottomans who then ruled the Holy Land, which gave a number of churches the joint responsibility of maintaining the chamber. The agreement also barred any party from introducing unilateral changes in the place.
On the other hand, the Christian community and particularly the three denominations co-running the Holy Sepulcher—the Greek Orthodox, the Roman Catholic (or Franciscans)and the Armenian churches—saw in the Israeli Police’s decision, a provocative intervention in the physical state of a Christian holy site.
“The closure was a violation of the status quo and the international laws which makes it Israel’s obligation to observe the status quo,” Father Athanasius, from the Franciscan church, tells Newsweek Middle East.
The Texas-born Franciscan monk, who has been working at the church for the past 18 years, insists that the “structure was stable.”
Standing inside the Holy Sepulcher, Father Athanasius explains that an earlier 2009 earthquake study by the University of Florence, showed that “there’s no danger of the structure collapsing.”
Luckily, four hours after issuing the order, the police withdrew it, seeing the built-up tension and anger it had caused. However, the churches saw the step as a warning and decided to take precautions for the future.
And for the first time in many years, the churches reached a consensus to start a restoration process of the tomb of Jesus, known as the Edicule, which is comprised of two chambers. The first one hosts the Angel’s Stone, a fragment of the stone which is believed to have sealed Jesus’s tomb. The second chamber is Christ’s tomb.
“In the past it was impossible to reach an agreement because everyone has different ideas,” says Jerusalem’s Greek Orthodox Patriarch, Theophilos III, who met with Newsweek Middle East at the patriarchate, in Jerusalem’s Old City.
“It was not easy, but… we reached a consensus that it was about time (to do restoration work),” he adds while sitting on a red velvety chair in the patriarchate’s meeting room.
According to Patriarch Theophilos III, the United Nations Educational & Scientific Cultural Organization (UNESCO), had earlier proposed contributing to the renovation process, but the three churches had refused.
“For us this is a place of worship… UNESCO looks at it as a heritage site and treats it that way. We’re unable to accept that,” he explains.
After all, the Holy Sepulcher “is the holiest place that testifies to the essence of Christianity, the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ and therefore it should be treated as a place of worship, not as a museum,” he adds.
Based on a study commissioned by the three churches, a team of experts from the National Technical University of Athens, led by architect Antonia Moropoulou, was entrusted to carry out the restoration and preservation work.
Actual work began on May 22, last year, after the churches were able to raise more than $3 million in funds. The operation is expected to cost even more, by the time it is completed around March 2017.
“The tomb needed renovation after more than 200 years of neglect,” Issa Musleh, a priest and spokesman for the Greek Orthodox Church tells Newsweek Middle East.
To reinforce the foundations of the chamber, experts will have to remove the slab covering it. The slab had deteriorated due to the tears, sweat and saliva from millions of pilgrims who pay their respect by kneeling down and kissing it when they visit the tomb.
Moropoulou and her team of 50 experts, including three architects, nine restorers and 40 scientific personnel, presented the churches with their first progress report on June 21, one month after commencement of the work.
Speaking to Newsweek Middle East, Moropoulou explains that her team used modern equipment and technology to study the stones in the Edicule. The team used ground penetrating radar and infrared thermographs to examine the stone, which revealed a high level of moisture, mainly from rainfall prior to patching the church’s ceiling, as well as from underground water canals built underneath the tomb chamber in the early years.
“We had to go underground to work on the canals. During the work, experts found irregular stones which cannot bear the vertical load and therefore the team has to work on either restoring or replacing these stones, whilst supporting them with mortar and iron bolts. We are going to consolidate the holy rock (the original tomb) by injecting grout and fill in mortar while readjusting the marble slabs,” she says.
Stones will be repaired or replaced by new ones brought from local quarries.
Smoke from candles placed on an iron grid, put there by the British during their mandate over the country, also caused a lot of damage to the chamber and will have to be removed.
“The end goal is to make the chamber quake stable,” says Moropoulou.
The experts work at night until the early morning hours, during the time when the church is closed in order not to disrupt daily visits of thousands of pilgrims.
The Holy Sepulcher, according to official data, is the most visited site in the Holy Land by tourists, pilgrims and local residents. A largely unpublicized fact is that the keys used to open and close the church, have been entrusted to two Muslim families from Jerusalem since the 13th century, this being a way to keep them in neutral hands.
After work on the Edicule ends in March 2017, there will remains one more step to complete, which is to redo the floor. This, church officials say, requires a new agreement between the three main churches and several other groups who have smaller prayer chambers inside the church.
The Holy Sepulcher was built in the year 325 by Emperor Constantine. It was destroyed by the Egyptian Caliph Hakim in 1009, but was rebuilt in 1048 and restored during the Crusaders’ rule 50 years later.
A major fire gutted the Edicule in 1808 but it was rebuilt two years later. Further restoration work was done in the 1960s and 70s, including work on the main marble pillars holding the dome. A $6 million decoration of church’s dome from the inside was completed in 1997. The dome also received a new exterior shell in 1980. No work has been done on the Edicule itself since it was restored after the fire 200 years ago.