The Famous Immovable Ladder at the Holy Sepulchre

The ladder, a symbol of ecumenical discontent, has stood in the same spot for at least 150 years.

The ladder at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem
The ladder at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem (photo: Ralph A. Furtado / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Some years ago, a co-worker told me the story of the Vacuum Cleaner and the Bow. My co-worker was by nature a neatnik, putting his dirty clothes in the hamper and his mail in the trash as a matter of habit. When he married a woman who was a clutterer, there began a silent war between the two. She left the upright vacuum cleaner sitting in the living room; and after several days, he made his point — adorning it with a large red bow. There it stood from that time forward, a reminder of the great chasm between his impeccable lifestyle and her more casual approach to housework.

I hadn’t thought of that vacuum cleaner for years, until I read recently about the Immovable Ladder. The Ladder — with its five or six rungs of cedar — leans against an upper window of Jerusalem’s famed Church of the Holy Sepulchre. It’s stood in the same spot for at least 150 years.

What’s it doing there?

The Old City of Jerusalem is home to many religious sites, one of which is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Completed in the year 335, the church sits atop the site where it’s believed that Jesus was crucified and buried. The Immovable Ladder — leaning, as it does, against an upper window at the iconic church — is one of the most powerful symbols of the divisions and religious disputes within the Christian world. Atlas Obscura explains the controversy which prevents workmen from putting the ladder away in its proper place:

The care over the church is shared by no less than six denominations. The primary custodians are the Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic and Syriac Orthodox churches, with lesser duties shared by Coptic, Ethiopian and Syriac Orthodox churches. The whole edifice is carefully parcelled into sections, some being commonly shared while others belong to a particular sect. A set of complicated rules governs the transit rights of the other groups through each particular section on any given day, and especially during the holidays.

 When the complicated rules have been broken, fisticuffs have sometimes been the result. Christianity Today reported on one 2002 incident in which 11 people suffered various injuries:

Chairs, iron bars, and fists flew on the roof of one of the most revered sites in Christianity, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. When the dust cleared, seven Ethiopian Orthodox monks and four Egyptian (Coptic) monks had been injured. The fight started when an Egyptian monk decided to move his chair into the shade  —  technically, argued the Ethiopians, encroaching on the latter's jurisdiction.

So, the members of all six churches are careful not to offend one another, lest they trigger another violent incident.  

And so, the ladder remains.

It’s unclear to which denomination the ladder belongs, or which denomination has control of the wall against which it rests. In fact, it’s uncertain why it’s there, when it was placed there, and — most importantly — who put it there. As early as 1757, the ladder is mentioned in writings. Beginning in the mid-1850s, it shows up in photographs and lithographs  And in 1853, Sultan Abdulmecid I of the Ottoman Empire, who ruled Jerusalem at the time, issued a decree now known as the “status quo.” The sultan’s decree designated certain areas of the church as “common areas” which could not be altered unless all six of the controlling denominations agreed. The ladder is subject to the status quo doctrine; so unless all six denominations agree about what to do with the ladder, it cannot be moved. For the most part, the ladder has remained stationary for the last 150 years. It’s been temporarily moved a few times — falling to pranksters or thieves. In 2009, the ladder was moved to the left window, perhaps to facilitate cleaning; but no one has been willing to take the blame for moving it.  

And so the ladder, like my friend’s vacuum cleaner, isn’t going anywhere.