A global pilgrimage destination
For many centuries until this day, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre has been a pilgrimage destination for Christian faithful and believers of all faiths who long to pray at the tomb of Christ. Its history began in the fourth century, when the Bishop of the Christian community of Jerusalem discovered a tomb that has since become almost universally accepted as the burial place of Christ. In response, Emperor Constantine ordered the construction of a church to enclose the site, around which grew the Christian Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. An edicule, or small edifice, has enclosed and protected the rock-cut tomb since that time. The entire church, including the Edicule, was destroyed and rebuilt from its foundations in the eleventh century, and it was later modified further by the Crusaders. The Edicule was rebuilt twice since then, and the current structure dates from 1810. It was built in an Ottoman Baroque style by a Greek architect after the previous structure was damaged in a fire. The small building encloses two spaces: the Tomb Chamber, to which access is gained through the Chapel of the Angel, matching the account of the Christian gospels.
Three communities come together
Three major Christian communities serve as the custodians of the Holy Sepulchre. They include the Greek Orthodox, the Franciscan Order (known as the “Latins”), and the Armenian Church. Setting aside their rivalries, the three communities came together in the second half of the twentieth century for a celebrated campaign to repair and restore the dilapidated church building, thus saving it from collapse. But no intervention took place at the Edicule during this time due to a lack of consensus about what was to be done. Until now, the structure has been supported by heavy shoring that was installed in 1947 as a temporary measure to address the detachment and movement of exterior stone—a condition that was first detected in the 1920s. In 2016, the three Christian communities finally came together again and agreed to a restoration plan for the Edicule. World Monuments Fund joined their effort by offering major funding for the project through a gift from its trustee, Mica Ertegun. The restoration plan for the project was based on a study by an interdisciplinary study team from the National Technical University of Athens. The study, which took place in 2015 and involved more than 25 researchers, aimed to document the Edicule, diagnose the factors affecting its preservation, and propose an appropriate plan for its restoration.
An ambitious project begins
With the backing of the three communities, and under the direction and supervision of the National Technical University of Athens, the project began in May 2016. The removal—for the first time—of the exterior stones around three sides of the monument revealed the true conditions in the underlying masonry. To ensure the long-term durability of the structure sections of the masonry were carefully rebuilt using local stones, and a specially designed grouting mixture was used to bond the masonry to the rock that lies at the core of the structure. In order to prevent grout from flowing inside the tomb, the stone slab covering the burial couch in the Tomb Chamber was temporarily removed in a delicate operation that took place in October 2016. The decision was also made to create an opening in the wall facing the burial couch inside the Tomb Chamber, offering a view of the underlying rock. Meanwhile, an on-site conservation laboratory was set up and equipped, where all the stones that are removed from the monument receive treatment. Conservators carried out cleaning tests to select the methods that will reveal the original cream-colored and reddish stone surfaces of the exterior once the project is complete.
Completed within a year
The design of the construction site allowed pilgrims to continue to visit the interior of the Edicule and pray at the tomb of Christ without any disruption. The project was completed prior to Easter in 2017, when the unsightly shoring that was a part of the structure for seven decades was removed. In a subsequent phase, the network of drainage channels that lies underneath the Rotunda pavement will be mapped and an intervention will be designed to prevent subsurface moisture from undermining the stability of the Edicule.