Intensive excavations at Christianity’s holiest site bear surprising results

Intensive excavations at Christianity’s holiest site bear surprising results

Intensive excavation work at a sensitive section of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem was completed, revealing several surprising finds. The week of intensive excavation was part of a $11 million, two-year renovation and archaeological excavation at the church, which is considered the holiest site for Christians in the world.

An announcement was made by the Custodia Terrae Sanctae, a custodian priory of the Order of Friars Minor in Jerusalem founded in 1217 by Saint Francis of Assisi, which oversees Christian holy sites in Israel. 

“Excavation work in the area immediately in front of the Aedicule, in the Holy Sepulchre complex in Jerusalem, was completed on June 27th, 2023, a communique from the order read. “It is part of the restoration program of the floor of the basilica. The archaeological investigations in this area were carried out by the Department of Antiquities of Sapienza University of Rome under the direction of Francesca Romana Stasolla. The particular location of the excavation area meant that the access to the Aedicule had to be temporarily closed. For the same reason, the excavation was carried out in a continuous cycle, in just seven days and seven nights of work.

The excavation work was carried out in the area in front of the Aedicule ( a small shrine) in the center of the Rotunda of the church.  The Aedicule has two rooms, the first holding the Angel’s Stone, which is believed to be a fragment of the large stone that sealed the tomb; as rolled away from Christ’s tomb on Easter morning. The second chamber is the “Tomb of Christ,” which contains the marble slab where Jesus’ body was believed to have been laid.

The excavation revealed that the early Christian layout of the Aedicule was accessed via two white marble steps. In front of the steps was a floor of lithic stone slabs, which continued for approximately 6 meters eastwards until it joined a plane of large, smooth white lithic blocks arranged in a north-south direction. This arrangement represented the final appearance of the Rotunda at the end of the 4th century. 

Under the slab floor, the researchers found a hoard of coins from the period of the Christian Roman Emperor Valens (364-378).  Sections of masonry dating back to before the end of the 4th century were also discovered.

Remains of the base of the balustrade of the 16th-century liturgical enclosure were also uncovered. They remained in use until the 19th-century renovations.

A fragment of wall cladding, most likely from the Aedicule, was discovered. The cladding was covered in graffiti dated to the 18th century in various languages, including Greek, Latin, and Armenian.

Inside the tomb, a section was revealed, showing an earlier marble floor from the Middle Ages.  

According to Christian tradition, Jesus was crucified by the Romans outside the walls of Jerusalem  2,000 years ago and interred in a nearby cave. While there are differing opinions as to where these events took place, most opinions maintain that the Church contains the crucifixion site, known as Calvary or Golgotha (“the place of the skull”), and an empty tomb, which is where Jesus is believed to have been buried and resurrected. The tomb itself is enclosed by a 19th-century shrine called the Aedicule. The church has been a pilgrimage site for Christianity since the 4th century.

Before the church was built in 330 CE, it was a pagan temple built by Emperor Hadrian and dedicated to Venus. The Roman emperor Constantine I, a convert to Christianity, had the temple demolished to make way for a church. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was built around the year, after Consztantine’s mother, Helena, traveled to the Holy Land to identify sites linked to Jesus. The church was originally called the Church of the Anastasis. 

The church was destroyed in 614 by Persian invaders and again in 1009 by the Caliph al-Hakim.  Crusaders restored the church in the 12th century. Israeli authorities closed the Edicule in 2015 after it was discovered that the limestone and marble structure had deteriorated to a dangerous degree. During the restoration, conservationists claimed to have found the original limestone bed on which Jesus was laid to rest. 

Currently, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre itself has a complicated arrangement of control known as a simultaneum. It is controlled by several different Christian denominations at once. This balance is maintained by an understanding of the status quo, based on an Ottoman firman (religious decree) from 1757. 

Since at least the 12th century, the doors of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre have been controlled by the Nuseibeh family, the oldest Muslim family in Jerusalem, and the Joudeh family. Both families continue to hold this authority to this day, having the keys to the church that is thought to house Jesus’s tomb.

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