The limestone bed that, according to tradition, Christ’s body lay on in his tomb was uncovered for about 60 hours starting on October 26. Known as the Holy Rock, the burial bed was last exposed in 1810 when the Greek Orthodox Church repaired the shrine after a fire damaged the previous Crusader-built structure. This structure, also called the Edicule, encases the walls of the cave like church-within-a-church to protect the burial bed.
The Edicule has needed serious repairs since 1947, when the British Governor erected a cage of iron girders as a temporary fix to keep the structure from falling. Despite the dire need, the various ecclesial bodies that own the Church of the Holy Sepulchre only reached a consensus earlier this year.
Chief Scientific Supervisor Antonia Moropoulou led a team from the National Technical University of Athens in the restoration work. The group had previously worked on maintaining the Acropolis. The Athens team will clean the soot from centuries-worth of candles, reset the marble structure using titanium bolts and stabilizing mortar, and document every inch of the underlying limestone structure. In total, the project is estimated to cost $3.4 million.
“This is a very challenging environment. Very profound. Yet very exciting… We know very well where we are, and we know what we are doing,” Moropoulou said.
The burial bed, a limestone shelf protruding from the wall of the cave where Jesus was likely buried, was covered in marble casing since 1555 to protect the relic from pilgrims who chipped bits of limestone off for souvenirs. Researchers originally believed that there was only one marble slab covering the bed, but the Athens team found a second marble slab with a carved cross beneath a layer of filler. It is possible that the second slab may trace back to the Crusades, according to National Geographic.
“I'm absolutely amazed. My knees are shaking a little bit because I wasn't expecting this. We can't say 100 percent, but it appears to be visible proof that the location of the tomb has not shifted through time, something that scientists and historians have wondered for decades,” said Frederik Hibert, National Geographic’s archeologist-in-residence. National Geographic has been given exclusive access to document the repair process and will produce a special on their program Explorer in November, detailing the restoration work.
The site of what is now the Church of the Holy Sepulcher was originally discovered in AD 325 by St. Helena, who was sent to the Holy Land to build churches and monuments dedicated to the important events of Jesus’ life. She discovered the tomb enshrined under a pagan temple to Aphrodite built by Trajan. Still, there is some speculation about whether this really is Jesus’ tomb.
“We may not be absolutely certain that the site of the Holy Sepulcher Church is the site of Jesus' burial, but we certainly have no other site that can lay a claim nearly as weighty, and we really have no reason to reject the authenticity of the site,” former city archaeologist of Jerusalem Dab Bahat said. One of the functions of the Athens team will be to search for ancient graffiti which would provide some indication for why this tomb was identified as Christ’s tomb, especially because six other limestone tombs exist underneath the church.
Asked how long it will be before the Edicule needs further repairs, Moropoulou was optimistic. “The architectural conservation which we are implementing is intended to last forever,” she said. As to when the Holy Rock will be exposed again—if ever—only time will tell.