After years of delay, restoration and archaeological excavation of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher will begin what experts believe may reveal secrets and churchmen hope to bring peace.
Representatives from three Christian communities were on hand to begin the work of uncovering what lies beneath the church’s tiled floor, while updating a building’s electrical systems, fire suppression and plumbing which dates back to the 4th century AD.
The Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos III, the Custos of the Holy Land, Father Francesco Patton, and the Grand Sacristan of the Armenian Patriarchate, Archbishop Sevan Gharibian, were present at the inauguration of the works.
Within the basilica church is the place of death of Jesus, known as Golgotha or Calvary, as well as his tomb, known as the Holy Sepulchre.
Patton, the Holy Land monument’s Catholic custodian, said at the March 14 event: “The pandemic has slowed down the possibility of moving forward from project to execution, but now we are ready to begin. In this historical context, with the pandemic and the war, cooperation on the work of restoration takes on a different meaning, because this is where Jesus becomes a cornerstone of the Church.”
The investigation and restoration were due to 30 years of negotiations between the three religious traditions, which share joint authority over the basilica sanctuary that attracts hundreds of thousands of pilgrims each year.
The renovation completed in 2017 repaired cracks in the church, but also revealed a monument built in the 12th century by Templar crusader knights.
Professor Francesca Romana Stasolla of La Sapienza University in Rome will lead the archaeological study, which is expected to reveal centuries of changes to the church, which date back in part to the time of Emperor Constantine.
During the restoration and study, the basilica, known officially as the Church of the Holy Resurrection, will be open while work on the floors will continue in sections in order to have space to receive visitors and pilgrims.
Archbishop Sevan Gharibian, Armenian Apostolic Patriarch of Jerusalem, said, “I wish all the best to our communities for this project and to the technicians, who will certainly do their best to complete the work as well as possible.
This new phase of restoration work aims to restore the tiling of the entire basilica and to secure the Aedicule, which is the monumental sanctuary above the Holy Sepulcher itself inside the basilica.
Prayers in Armenian, Greek and Latin opened the ceremony, while the Greek Orthodox Patriarch said: “The restoration of the Edicule is a sign of hope for the world. We are deeply grateful to all the experts who made this all possible and we are confident that it will lead to an excellent restoration of the Anastasis Rotunda [Resurrection] which was started years ago, and moreover the floor of the basilica.”
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The restoration of the floor will be complicated because the tiles date from different periods, and some may date from the time of Constantine the Great (272 – 337 AD), who had a church built there.
The works will be led by Franciscan friars of the Custody of the Holy Land in cooperation with the Armenian Patriarchate and the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate under the status quo agreement of 1852, which distributed authority between them over the basilica and other Christian holy sites in the Holy Land.
According to experts, including Professor Giorgio Piras of La Sapienza University, no one knows what is under the floor of the basilica, which has never been excavated before.
It is believed that archaeologists may find remains of the Church of Constantine, as well as a pagan Roman temple.
Experts will have to analyze and confirm the age of the tiles from various places in the church. The majority are believed to date from the 19th century, but others may have been left behind by Crusaders, and some in the so-called Prison of Christ may be from the era of Constantine.
In October 2016, earlier work at the Edicule revealed what some believe to be the actual burial slab on which the body of Jesus Christ had rested before his resurrection.
It is made of limestone and had been covered with a marble covering since at least 1555 or even earlier, probably to deter pilgrims from stealing pieces of it.
Until the 1st century BC. J.-C., a stone quarry was exploited at the current site of the church; traces of the quarry are visible in the chapels below the current church.
From AD 135, the Roman Emperor Hadrian built a temple of Jupiter Capitoline on the site after a bloody suppression of a Jewish revolt led by Simon bar Kochkba.
Shortly before his death, Constantine ordered the construction of the church built as a rotunda with the holy tomb at its center. Persian invaders burned the church in 614, and it was restored by Christians.
In 1009, it was nearly razed by the Muslim Caliph of Cairo.
However, in 1099 after the establishment of the Crusader kingdom in the Holy Land, work on the site resumed and the church in its present form was consecrated in 1142.
A fire in 1808 and an earthquake in 1927 also caused damage.
Worship and work at the basilica have not been without controversy.
In 2008, a fight broke out between Armenian and Greek clerics during a religious procession to the basilica; Israeli police entered the church and broke up the fight and arrested two members of the clergy from each of the two Christian communions.
Another such fight broke out in 2011 when Armenian and Greek clerics were cleaning up the basilica and accusing each other of encroaching on their respective jurisdictions; fists and brooms were exchanged until Israeli police halted proceedings.
This story was provided to Newsweek by Zenger News.