JERUSALEM — Renovations at Christianity’s holiest site — carried out over the past nine months — were finally unveiled Wednesday in a ceremony that brought together rival Christian denominations and ushered in a new era for pilgrims wanting to get closer to their savior.
And it’s all ready in time for Easter, which falls on April 16 this year.
Restoring the Holy Edicule, the chamber where Christians believe Jesus was buried and rose from the dead after his crucifixion, was no simple undertaking.
The shrine, which is thought to encase Jesus’ 2,000-year-old burial cave, stands at the heart of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a 12th-century edifice built atop 4th-century remains.
Control of the sprawling church is shared by six Christian denominations. The Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Armenian Orthodox churches are the primary custodians, while the Syrian, Coptic and Ethiopian Orthodox churches, and even some secular entities, have lesser responsibilities.
It’s a complicated status quo, resting on various written agreements and unchanged for at least 150 years. And still, squabbles among the denominations as each attempts to assert its rights at the site are so frequent that they have acquired a physical symbol: an “immovable” wooden stepladder, in place since the 18th century, reminding each group that none may alter any part of the church without the consent of the others.
In the case of the Edicule, however, there was no choice. Renovations to the structure, built in 1810, were long overdue. Water damage had caused it to buckle, and it threatened to collapse under its own weight. Last year, Israel’s Antiquities Authority deemed the site unsafe and briefly closed the building, to much protest.
With approval from the pope and the head of the Eastern Orthodox Church, as well as donations from various entities and individuals to cover the nearly $4 million restoration, work finally began in June.
Greek conservationists set about methodically cleaning off the centuries of dust and candle wax built up by the hundreds of thousands of visitors from around the world. They restored tile work and columns, stabilizing the structure with mortar and titanium bolts.
The team also carried out restoration work in the inner sanctum of the burial chamber and cut a small window to allow pilgrims to see the bare stone of the ancient cave.
Among the religious leaders and other dignitaries at the public unveiling of the renovated tomb Wednesday were Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, the spiritual leader of Orthodox Christians worldwide, as well as a senior representative of the Catholic Church sent by Pope Francis.