For the first time in centuries, a restoration team has peeled away a marble layer in the innermost chamber of the site said to be the tomb of Jesus. This was done in an effort to reach what the team believes is the original rock surface where Jesus’ body was laid.
The original cave that was identified as Jesus’ tomb a few centuries after his death, is believed to have been obliterated ages ago.
The archaeologist accompanying the restoration team however noted that ground penetrating radar tests determined that the cave walls are in fact still standing. The walls are at a height of six feet and connected to bedrock, and are situated behind the marbled panels of the chamber at the center of Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
National Geographic archaeologist Fredrik Hiebert is astonished by the find. Although he normally spends his time at the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun’s burial site, he believes this discovery is more important.
The Edicule is the chamber housing the cave where Jesus is said to have been entombed and resurrected. It is one of Christianity’s most important shrines and the centerpiece of one of its oldest churches. The project is part of a historic renovation project to reinforce and preserve the Edicule and the work is documented by Greek restoration experts in partnership with National Geographic.
The Church of the Holy Sepluchre is a 12th century building sitting on 4th century remains. Six Christian denominations use the church to practice their religion, making this the only site in the world where this happens.
The Edicule was last restored in 1810 after a fire. It is in need of reinforcement after years of exposure to candle smoke and humidity. British authorities built a huge iron cage around the Edicule for support in 1947. Although the cage still stands, it is not enough. It is notoriously hard to secure the mutual agreement required by the church’s custodians before any renovations can be undertaken. Each denominations jealously guards their part of the site and often object to even the slightest of changes.
Israeli police briefly closed the building last year after Israel’s Antiquities Authority deemed it unsafe. This prompted the Christian denominations to give the approvals for the repairs, which started in June.
Throughout the day, pilgrims line up for the opportunity to crouch in the Edicule’s small room. They kneel before a white marble encasing. It is believed that the encasing covers a surface hewn from the side of the limestone cave where Jesus’ body was laid before his resurrection.
On Wednesday evening, church officials closed the Edicule to pilgrims and workers slid open the marble slab with a pulley. Hiebert notes that the slab hadn’t been removed since 1550.
A layer of debris was found underneath the marble. Workers completed removing the debris by Thursday afternoon and revealed something unexpected – another marble slab.
The second slab is cracked down the middle and underneath it is a whitish layer. The slab is grey and features a small etching of a cross, and Hiebert believes it dates to the 12th century. He adds that it is unlikely to be the original rock and thinks they still have more to go.
As the main Christian communities that govern the church have only allowed the team 60 hours to excavate the inner sanctum, experts are working night and day to reach the tomb’s core so that they can analyze it.
Antonia Moropoulou, an architect at the National Technical University of Athens is supervising the renovation. She explained that the tomb would be closed after it has been documented.
The restoration team wants to seal the core of the tomb tightly before injecting parts of the shrine with cement for reinforcement. This will be done to prevent the material from seeping into what is considered to be the holy rock.
A part of the tomb will however remain exposed so pilgrims will be able to glimpse a section of the limestone wall thought to be the tomb of Jesus for the first time. To achieve this, experts cut a rectangular window in one of the Edicule’s marble walls.