Restoration project offers rare access to tomb of Christ

Last week, for a mere 60 hours – fleeting when set against the last 1,500 years  – the tomb of the crucified Jesus lay fully open for the first time within the sanctified confines of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.  

With the power to move Christians everywhere, more locally the site’s exposure served to bring a brief period of unity when the diverse custodians of the Holy Sepulchre – representing the Latin Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, Syrian Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox, and Coptic traditions – joined in eagerly viewing what lay beneath a protective marble slab that has hidden the most intensely personal area of the tomb since ancient times. In all, by the time of the resealing of the spot, it is estimated that just 50 persons gained sight of the very shelf on which the body of Christ lay after his removal from Calvary, a spot just metres away and also with the Holy Sepulchre.

Given the import of the event for Christians everywhere, it seems somewhat anti-climactic to learn that the very act of uncovering the limestone shelf within the carved tomb was, in fact, an afterthought on the part of those responsible for the opening.

Marble slab

The decision to move the marble slab shielding the limestone area below was reached by team members of the National Technical University of Athens who have been charged with a major restoration not of the tomb proper, but of the encasing structure – the edicule – dating from 1810 and into which thousands of pilgrims file daily to place themselves closer to the source of their faith. 

After years of wear and tear, and as many of resistance on the part of custodians to any ‘interference’ with the structure, restoration work was forced by Israel’s Israel Antiquities Authority in May following a threat of closure due to safety concerns. By way of illustrating the reluctance on the part of some to works within the Holy Sepulchre, one simply has to look to the ugly bracing framework surrounding the edicule like a corset of girders; said support for the ever weakening structure sitting over the most important tomb in Christendom was set in place in 1947 by the British authorities and untouched since!

With a record of expertise in high profile restoration work gained through projects at the Acropolis in Athens and Turkey’s revered Hag Sophia, the National Technical University was a logical choice to engage with the edicule and its needs for work that must endure for generations to come. With a budget of some €3.6million, the University team has been working methodically on those structural deficiencies brought by time. The bulk of that work takes place at night so as to avoid discommoding pilgrims.


Having removed the encasing cage, renovators quickly located points of weakness, finding that in addition to pilgrim footfall, the edicule was marked both by the results of earthquakes and the deleterious effects of water. 

It was this latter element which subsequently prompted focus to shift to the portion of the tomb hidden beneath the workers’ feet.

Conscious of the possibility that leaks could easily have reached as far as the limestone foundation, the decision was reached to ease aside the cracked marble covering for a fuller inspection, no easy feat given that threatening crack.

Thus, in a meticulously planned operation on November 2, the covering slab was eased clear to reveal, much to the surprise of all, that a second and earlier marble sheet lay below, bearing the imprint of a crucifix. Best estimations date this to 1555 when it is believed the tomb was last exposed.

Over the course of the remaining 60 hours, the last obstacle was removed to allow the first glimpse of the sculpted limestone shelf at the heart of all. (No feared signs of water damage were discovered.) With full access, researchers worked to gather non-destructive samples from the small enclosure – described as “dirt and other material” – and then began the reverse process to once again conceal the tomb.

Thus, an all too brief period of ‘exposition’ came safely to an end. Facts, photographs and findings, for future exhibition, are now jealously guarded by the National Geographic Society, which is working in partnership with the National Technical University to fully record the restoration, set to continue until Easter 2017.

In the meantime, Christians everywhere must settle for the knowledge that the focal point of their faith, which has survived invasion, vandalism, arson as well as the ravages of time, continues to endure.