JERUSALEM — At times, the sounds of hammers and chisels nearly drown out the sounds of prayer at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem’s Old City, where the structure known as the Edicule, or Jesus’ Tomb, is undergoing urgent repairs.
Those sounds were hushed briefly this week after the excavation team uncovered the original surface of the tomb for the first time in centuries, in the presence of leaders from the Catholic Church, as well as other churches.
“The marble covering of the tomb has been pulled back, and we were surprised by the amount of fill material beneath it,” said Fredrik Hiebert, archaeologist in residence at the National Geographic Society, a partner in the restoration project, according to an article published by the society. “It will be a long scientific analysis, but we will finally be able to see the original rock surface on which, according to Tradition, the body of Christ was laid.”
The uncovering of the tomb was the most dramatic part so far of a yearlong project to repair and restore the structure built around the tomb.
Although the Edicule — an ancient chamber built atop the traditional site where the body of Jesus was anointed, wrapped in cloth and buried, three days before his resurrection — had been showing signs of wear and tear for many years, turf battles between the Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic Churches that maintain the fourth-century church meant the vital work was postponed.
The chamber lies in the same church as the site of Calvary, the site of Jesus’ crucifixion.
Church authorities “have been aware of the problems for many years,” said Lisa Ackerman, executive vice president of World Monuments Fund, which is funding much of the repair work.
The work is being carried out by specialists from the National Technical University of Athens, Greece (NTUA).
“Fortunately, in this last year, the primary religious groups agreed on a way forward and the means to support the project,” Ackerman told the Register.
Ackerman said the Greek Patriarchate of Jerusalem, in coordination with the Catholic and Armenian stewards of the site, agreed that work on the Edicule had become urgent, based on the findings of a 2015 interdisciplinary study by a team from NTUA that was commissioned by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem.
The churches also received a push when, in February 2015, the Israeli police closed down the church for four hours over concerns for parishioners’ safety. Within a month, the officials signed the repair contract.
Ackerman said that “many very good but temporary” measures were taken over the years to protect the Edicule, “but even the best short-term solutions must eventually be turned over to long-term ways to assure a stable and safe environment.”
The current Edicule is the fourth structure to have covered the tomb since the construction of the church by Emperor Constantine in the fourth century. Previous structures had been destroyed by earthquakes, fires and an Islamic caliphate’s takeover of Jerusalem in 1009. Since 1947, it has been shored up by metal scaffolding to prevent more of the stone exterior from detaching, a problem first identified in the 1920s.
Ackerman said the 2015 study recommended “a suite of necessary interventions,” which are currently being implemented.
In 2016, the World Monuments Fund donated what it called “major funding” for the project through a gift from its trustee Mica Ertegun. The three churches, as well as Jordanian King Abdullah, are also funding the $3.4-million repair and restoration. Jordan rules over East Jerusalem, including the Old City, where the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is located, and continues to administer the Temple Mount, or Haram al Sharif, while Israel rules the territory.
New scaffolding for the repairs was installed in March 2016, and the project began in May.
The removal of the stone facing from the north side of the monument for the very first time “has revealed the true conditions in the underlying masonry, allowing the project team to finalize the restoration approach,” Ackerman said.
Prior to carrying out a full-scale cleaning of the tomb, the conservators conducted a series of tests on isolated sections to see which methods and materials were best suited to the project. The one chosen has enabled the workers to reach the original cream-colored and reddish stone surfaces of the exterior.
Despite the repair and reconstruction work taking place on a daily basis, pilgrims have been able to visit the interior of the Edicule and pray at Jesus’ tomb. The project is expected to be completed before Easter 2017.
Franciscan Father Athanasius Macora, who supervises the “status quo” agreement between the various churches on behalf of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land, said the external stones have been removed and a specially formulated mortar has been injected into weaker points.
In places too far gone to repair, “certain sections have been almost entirely rebuilt with modern stone. When everything is properly strengthened, the marble that has been cleaned will be reattached to the Edicule,” Father Macora said.
That this repair is taking place at all “is the result of the excellent cooperation between the Christian communities” in the Holy Land, the Franciscan priest said.
Although Father Macora believes the repairs were perhaps not quite as urgent as some asserted, “they needed to be done [eventually], and we saw this as an opportunity to finish a project that had been planned many years ago.”
Father Macora called the Edicule “‘the very heart” of the ancient church. “We have a sacred duty to ensure it is safe and strong for generations to come,” he said.
Many Christians, including the professionals rehabilitating the site, say they feel a heightened sense of spirituality near the tomb.
“This is the ‘most alive’ place we have ever worked,” Antonia Moropoulou, team leader of the National Technical University of Athens specialists repairing the tomb, told the Register, as a dozen workers labored behind her. Her team has rehabilitated numerous cultural, religious and heritage sites all over the world.
Moropoulou told National Geographic that when the 3-by-5 marble slab was uncovered, workers found a gray-beige stone surface. “What is it,” a conservator was asked. “We don’t know yet,” she replied. “It’s time to bring in the scientific monitoring tools.”
Moropoulou told the Register that, while every job requires painstaking work and respect for the site’s history, “This job is indeed unique,” she said.
“This is the tomb of Jesus. This is where Christianity began. This is special for me, as a Christian.”
Michele Chabin is the Register’s Middle East correspondent.