Tomb Of Jesus Is Restored In Jerusalem

16 hours ago
Originally published on March 21, 2017 10:59 am

A restoration team Monday announced the completion of a historic renovation of one of Christianity's holiest sites — the shrine that, according to tradition, houses the tomb of Jesus.

The ornate shrine, called the Edicule, sits in the center of Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulchre, one of the world's oldest churches, a 12th century building sitting on fourth century remains in Jerusalem's Old City.

According to Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christian belief, the Edicule encases the ancient cave where Jesus' body was entombed and resurrected.

The Edicule shrine is built around the original cave; visitors can kneel before a marble niche that covers what is believed to be the bench where Jesus' body was placed.

The shrine, almost completely destroyed in an 1808 fire and restored in 1810, had not been maintained since, and its stone walls were buckling outward. Water, humidity and candle smoke all wore down the structure.

"I would venture to say that if this intervention hadn't happened now, there was a very great risk that there could have been a collapse," said Bonnie Burnham of the World Monuments Fund, a nonprofit in New York that helped raise funds for the $4 million project.

King Abdullah of Jordan and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas also donated about $165,000 each for the renovation efforts, she said.

Starting last May, a Greek restoration team from Athens spent nearly a year removing parts of the Edicule shrine and putting them back together. Stone slabs were removed from the walls; decades of black candle soot and pigeon droppings were scrubbed off; and while the stone slabs of the facade were removed, titanium mesh and grout were inserted to strengthen the building's core.

Most strikingly, the hulking and unsightly iron cage built around the shrine in 1947 to reinforce it, approximately 30 feet high, was removed.

"This monument today is free. It is emancipated from the iron grids," said Antonia Moropolou, who supervised the renovations.

The most dramatic moment of the restoration took place in late October, when Moropolou's team entered the inner sanctum of the Edicule — which is open to visitors — and slid back layer after marble layer covering the rock-hewn bench where believers say Jesus' body was placed after he died on the cross.

There was a layer from the late-Crusader era of the 14th century, and an earlier layer from the fourth century, when the emperor Constantine built the original church. Underneath that was the exposed rock bench.

"It was really important to see the bench, very flat and almost complete, from the right to the left, almost for the shape of one man [who] can stay on it," said Eugenio Alliata, an Italian archaeologist in Jerusalem who is a member of a Franciscan group that looks after Christian sites in the Holy Land. "This was really something very important. And it was the first time it has been documented as it is."

The marble layers were put back in place, but one change was made in the shrine's inner sanctum: A small window was cut into one of the walls. Now, for the first time, visitors can get a glimpse of what's behind: the original rock wall of what tradition says is Jesus' tomb.

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Now a look at a historic renovation at one of the holiest places in Christianity, the building that tradition says houses the tomb of Jesus. It hadn't been restored in more than 200 years, and it was at risk of collapse. A team has just finished months of careful work. Here's NPR's Daniel Estrin in Jerusalem.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem is one of the world's oldest churches. In a center of the church is a large, ornate monument called the Edicule. According to Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christian belief, that monument houses the ancient cave were Jesus' body was entombed and then resurrected. The walls of the monument have been buckling outwards.

BONNIE BURNHAM: I would venture to say that if this intervention hadn't happened now, there was a very great risk that there could have been a collapse.

ESTRIN: Bonnie Burnham represents the World Monuments Fund which helped with fundraising for the $4 million project. A Greek restoration team from Athens spent almost a year removing parts of the tomb and putting them back together. Stone slabs were removed from the walls. Black candle soot and pigeon droppings were scrubbed off. Titanium mesh and grout were inserted in the building's core. And the hulking, unsightly iron cage built around the shrine in 1947 to reinforce it was removed.

ANTONIA MOROPOULOU: This monument today is free. It's emancipated from the iron grids. It is emancipated from what was keeping it in a jailed protection.

ESTRIN: That's the head of the Greek restoration team, Antonia Moropoulou. She described probably the most dramatic moment of the restorations last fall. Her team slid back all the marble layers covering the rock-hewn bench where believers say Jesus' body was placed. There is a layer from the late crusader era of the 14th century and an earlier layer from the fourth century when Constantine built the original church. Father Euginio Alliata got a peek at what was under all of that.

EUGINIO ALLIATA: It was really important to see the bench - very flat and almost complete from the right to the left, almost for the shape that one man can stay on it. So this was really something very important. And this - it is the first time that it has been documented as it is.

ESTRIN: The marble layers were put back in place, but one change was made in the shrine's inner sanctum. A small window was cut into one of the shrine's walls. So for the first time, visitors get a glimpse of what's behind the original rock wall of what tradition says is Jesus' tomb. Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Jerusalem.

(SOUNDBITE OF SYRIANA SONG, "BLACK ZIL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.