Workers will soon enter the tomb of Jesus — and repair the ‘Holy Stone’ with titanium bolts

Source: The Washington Post

June 20, 2016

Work has begun to save the holiest shrine in Christendom.
It won’t be a simple patch-and-paint job.

This is the alpha and omega of restoration projects.

They are going to repair Jesus’s — with
titanium bolts.

Over the next nine months, a team of Greek
conservationists will restore the collapsing chapel built
above and around the burial cave where the faithful
believe that Jesus was buried and rose from the dead after
the Crucifixion.

To fix the chapel, which is buckling under its own weight,
the crew will have to enter a few square meters of the
ruins of the first-century tomb.

A group of Israelis visit the rotunda in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. (Jim Hollander/EPA)
A group of Israelis visit the rotunda in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. (Jim Hollander/EPA)
It is called the Holy
Rock.

To get there, they will clean centuries of candle soot
left from votive lamps; they will reset and anchor the
imported marbles; and they will inject 21st-century
stabilizing mortar into 12th-century masonry from the
Crusader times.

And at the heart of the heart of the edifice, in the
center of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City
of Jerusalem, they will lift the slab where millions of
pilgrims have knelt and prayed, where the salt of tears
and the wet of sweat have smoothed and worried the hardest
stone.

And for the first time in more than 200 years, they will
look inside.

The ruins of what is believed to be a rock-cut tomb are
being breached because the chapel built above is falling
apart.

Its repair is decades overdue. After years of squabbling
among the Christian communities who occupy the site, work
to restore the edifice began earlier this month.

The conservationists — whose jobs have included
repairing the Acropolis in Athens — are not sure
what they will find.

Christian pilgrims stand in line near the rotunda as they await entrance into the Tomb of Jesus in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. (Jim Hollander/EPA)
Christian pilgrims stand in line near the rotunda as they await entrance into the Tomb of Jesus in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. (Jim Hollander/EPA)
“This is the most alive
place we have ever worked,” said Antonia
Moropoulou, a leader of the team from the National
Technical University of Athens.

“We will see what we see,” she said.

The conservation team has already probed the chapel
and tomb with ground-penetrating radar and laser
scanners.

They are flying drones with cameras above the indoor site
now, which — like flying drones around the Vatican
or Mecca — is not easy.

They have detected a fracture in the rock of the tomb,
unknown until today.

They believe that the crack is the result of stresses put
upon it by the columns supporting a cupola above. Still.
No modern scientist has ever looked inside.

What will they see?

Archaeology at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre has been
limited, not only by protective clerics but also by
centuries of tradition. The site is considered the most
sublime in Christendom, a place of pilgrimage, faith,
passion and mystery — not digging and probing.

Patriarch Theophilos III, of the Orthodox Church of
Jerusalem, told The Washington Post: “There is no
doubt that there is some kind of energy. I don’t
want to describe it, but some kind of energy that emanates
from this place.”

Theophilos said he has reread the historical accounts of
his predecessors who saw the ruins of the tomb when it was
last exposed in 1810.

Here in the ancient alleys of Jerusalem, two centuries is
not a long time. But in 1809, the last time clerics and
workers exposed the Holy Rock, Thomas Jefferson was the
American president, people didn’t know that germs
caused disease and the science of archaeology did not
exist.

Theophilos sat perched on a velvet chair in the recesses
of the church, surrounded by a dozen members of his
retinue, including a pair of bodyguards each sporting a
red fez and a long cane to push overeager congregants
back.

The previous Crusader-era chapel was destroyed by a
catastrophic fire in 1808, the patriarch said.

When the Greeks were rebuilding in 1809, Theophilos said,
“Everybody was so excited to see part of what has
remained of the original cave that served as the tomb of
Christ.

“Now? To be honest, we have the same
feelings,” the leader of the Greek church said.
“You cannot remain indifferent.”

He smiled but warned his guest: “This is not an
archaeological monument. Those stones are not mere
stones.”

What is there?

The British archaeologist Martin Biddle, who studied the
site in the 1990s, speculated that there could be ancient
graffiti left by pilgrims somewhere around the Holy Rock
or beneath the floor under the rotunda, perhaps scribbles
of “He is risen!”

Or maybe the small, scratched crosses left in the caves of
Christians in the first centuries after his death.

Or maybe just cut stone.

Whatever evidence exists, the conservationists won’t
know until they get there — and even then, will it
prove definitively that this was the tomb of Jesus?

The Greek team has promised to keep the church open to
visitors and pilgrims throughout the restoration, meaning
its members will be working in the deep of the night, the
site lit by their own portable generators and a hundred
vigil lamps.

“This is a very challenging environment. Very
profound. Yet very exciting,” said Moropoulou, a
leader of the Greek team.

Moropoulou said she is both an engineer and a believer.

“This is a serious undertaking,” she said.
“We know very well where we are, and we know what we
are doing.”

A place of piety and blood

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem is one of
the most popular religious sites in the world.

The cavernous basilica, filled with obscure niches, secret
Crusader tombs, and hidden chapels and golden icons, marks
the site where Catholic and Eastern Orthodox faiths
believe that Jesus died, was buried and rose.

“Where heaven and earth meet,” said
Theophilos.

Every year on Easter Saturday, thousands of Eastern
Orthodox Christians pack into the Sepulchre to see the
miracle of the Holy Fire, when a bundle of candles is lit
by the tomb and passed, hand to hand, to reaffirm for
believers the resurrection of Christ and the promise of
eternal life.

Religious scholars say the earliest followers of the new
Jesus movement may have been praying here in A.D. 66.
There is abundant evidence that Christian pilgrims have
been making their way here since at least the 4th century.

The traditional tomb is now underneath a towering rotunda,
cocooned in a small chapel called the Edicule, which
according to tradition shelters the remains of the
1st-century burial cave the Bible says belonged to a
prominent Jew — and a secret disciple of Jesus
— who offered it to Christ.

Today, the site thrums with piety, but history knows it is
soaked in blood. There have been at least four Christian
chapels erected over the site. The first was by Emperor
Constantine in the 4th century, who swept aside a pagan
temple Hadrian built to the goddess Aphrodite —
perhaps a move by Rome to deny early Christians a place of
pilgrimage. The Holy Sepulchre was saved by the Muslim
conqueror Omar in 638; destroyed by the Egyptian Caliph
al-Hakim in 1009; rebuilt by the Crusaders who themselves
slaughtered half the city; protected again by the Muslim
conqueror Saladin and laid waste again by the fearsome
Khwarezmian Turks, whose horsemen rode into the church and
lopped off the heads of praying monks.

The last chapel was built by the Greeks, after a
tremendous fire, in 1810.

Today, a cage of iron girders, erected as a temporary
emergency fix by the British governor in 1947, no longer
can sustain the bulging edifice.

‘It is past time’

The Rev. Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, in his respected
Oxford archaeological guide to the Holy Land, saw the
Church of the Holy Sepulchre as a very human collision of
the sacred and profane.

“One looks for luminous light, but it is dark and
cramped,” he wrote. “One hopes for peace, but
the ear is assailed by a cacophony of warring
chants.”

The priest-archaeologist asked: “Is this the place
where Christ died and was buried? Yes, very
probably.”

It has taken years to get the Christian communities that
worship at the Holy Sepulchre to agree to the restoration
project.

The religious orders that have rights at the Holy
Sepulchre — Greek Orthodox, Latin Catholics and
Armenian Orthodox, alongside Syrians, Copts and Ethiopians
— are notorious squabblers, each fiercely asserting
its rights under an Ottoman-era “status quo”
agreement to worship at this altar at that hour on this or
that holy day.

It took a poke from the pope and a nod from the head of
the Eastern Orthodox Church to get the project rolling
— plus a commitment by King Abdullah II of Jordan, a
Muslim who has rights as a protector of holy sites in
Jerusalem, to foot most of the $3.4 million bill.

“The work will finally begin, and it is past
time,” said the Rev. Peter Vasko, president of the
Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land.

“The place is falling apart,” he said.

Vasko recalled the first time he prayed over the covered
tomb as a young priest and trembled with the realization,
“I am not worthy.”

“This is the real thing,” Vasko said.
“It is not a holy place. It is the holy
place.”

When the restoration is complete, the British iron girders
will be gone, the columns straightened, the tomb bolted,
and the limestone and marble scrubbed clean and glowing
again in colors pink, yellow, white, black and green.

Asked how long the repairs should last, one of the Greek
conservationists guessed “a thousand years.”

Then, shrugging, “Maybe forever,” he said.

“Hard to tell.”

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