For much of this summer and autumn, pilgrims coming to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher have seen the Edicule, the shrine which marks the traditional spot of Jesus’ tomb in the middle of the church, shielded by white barriers as a team of Greek specialists repair and restore the structure that has been in danger of collapsing for almost a century.
Girding put up by the British in 1947 to control damage from a 1927 earthquake has been shoring up the 18th-century structure until now.
Experts from the National Technical University of Athens have been conducting the restoration work of Christianity’s holiest site, and at the end of October they undertook perhaps the most stunning mission of all: in order to study and repair structural damage, they removed for the first time in two centuries the marble slab that has been covering the rock-carved burial shelf since at least 1555. The last time the marble slab was removed was 1810, but at the time only Greek Orthodox clergy witnessed the event.
Franciscans and members of the other churches with a presence at the Holy Sepulcher haven’t viewed the rock on which tradition holds Jesus was laid after his crucifixion since 1557, said Father Eugenio Alliata, an archaeologist of the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum.
As the excavation work was carried out, Theophilos III, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, told National Geographic Magazine, “I’m glad that the atmosphere is special, there is a hidden joy. Here we have Franciscans, Armenians, Greeks, Muslim guards, and Jewish police officers. We hope and we pray that this will be a real message that the impossible can become the possible. We all need peace and mutual respect.”
Theophilos, along with Custodial Vicar Father Dobromir Jasztal, Father Alliata, and other Franciscan representatives, as well as Armenian and Copt delegations, witnessed the removal of the marble by the experts from inside the Edicule.
Underneath the top slab of marble the excavators found first some rubble fill and, continuing down, they found another slab of damaged marble with an engraved cross before coming to the original rock below.
At the moment, said Father Alliata, he was eager to see the existence and extension of the rock. His interest was split between his professional curiosity and his spiritual expectations, he said. He noted that the engraved cross was in the typical style of the cross of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, the Catholic diocese that encompasses the Holy Land. It is believed that the bottom marble slab is from the time of the Crusades.
He said the original rock of the tomb is about one foot below the modern floor.
“At the time I was looking at it, the ‘archaeologist’ was in charge,” said Father Alliata. “The stone is something very real, but it can’t say anything of the spirit of faith. It is more than that. We are experiencing what it was like for those first who came here to find an empty tomb.”
History and faith
Not all pilgrims and faithful, or even clergy, will respond to restoration in the same manner. While some may view it from a historical point of view, others may experience a deep spiritual mystery.
Father Koryoun Baghdasaryan, chancellor of the Armenian Patriarchate, said the opportunity for Armenian clergy to view the rock for the first time in 500 years was “very significant spiritually.”
“This is where Jesus lay for three days and after three days he was raised from the dead. It is very significant for us. It is a very mysterious place,” said Father Baghdasaryan, who was among the Armenian delegation.
According to the Gospels, the tomb shelf was carved inside a small cave, following the Jewish tradition of the time, Alliata said. Before removing the marble, the technicians used a ground-penetrating radar to try to understand the extension of the rock in relation to the bench, he said.
“We know from books and literature about the existence of the rock,” said Father Alliata. “We saw the rock in a small part it was not opened completely. It was important to know that the rock exists. But the extension is not important so there will not be extensive analysis (for that).”
Only a small part of the rock was exposed during the work, and following repair work the slabs were replaced. Samples were also taken for further analysis and studies.
The pilgrim experience
When most pilgrims enter the Edicule for the precious few seconds permitted, they focus their attention on the marble bench on the right, but now researchers have shown that the rock façade of the cave also extends to the left, south side. It is here where a window has been installed so that pilgrims will now be able to view the rock underneath the Edicule, Father Alliata said, allowing them to feel the entire space of the tomb.
“People inside praying are usually not interested in looking around, but here now they have the possibility of feeling like they are inside the chamber excavated (inside the cave). This is important; we have the chance to (feel the chamber) excavated in rock as it is written in the Gospels,” said Father Alliata. The full structure of the rock cave was destroyed in antiquity, he added.
“The chamber is very small,” he said, as is described in the Gospels. “We don’t know exactly (much) about the original cave or how many chambers there were, but all witnesses spoke of a small chamber, which was probably not part of a large family complex.”
It may have been because of this that the cave was recognized by Emperor Constantine in the year 325 as Jesus’ burial cave, he said.
Marie-Armelle Beaulieu, editor of the Holy Land Review in French, said she was struggling with the two parts of her brain — the spiritual and the logical — at the moment she entered the tomb.
“I was like floating. My two brains were fighting each other. I felt like I was in another dimension, and I went up. I recovered my spiritual brain after one week,” she said. “It was an impressive spiritual experience.”
And though it is exciting to have the technological tools available now to carry out extensive analysis on samples, the question of whether this is the true tomb is less important for her, she said. The question is to believe in the Resurrection.
“This rock may not be the true rock; there is no scientific way of proving it. But we are sure that it was a tomb at the time of Jesus. We know how tombs were excavated at the time of Jesus. Is this the tomb of Jesus? We don’t care. This place is an empty place. We adore the fact that it is empty and that Christ has really arisen.”
Judith Sudilovsky writes from Jerusalem.