New archaeology from Christianity’s holiest site
Around-the-clock excavations in Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre continue to reveal fascinating tidbits about the building’s ancient history, as the church undergoes its most extensive renovation in centuries. The most recent round of excavations included a non-stop, week-long excavation of the Edicule, thought by most Christians to be the tomb of Jesus.
According to the Custodia Terrae Sanctae, which oversees Christian holy sites in Israel, the excavations of the rotunda surrounding the Edicule revealed part of the earliest Christian site, which dates back to the fourth century. The dating was established based partly on the discovery of a coin hoard found beneath one of the stone slabs of the church’s fourth-century floor. The latest coins date to the reign of Emperor Valens (r. 364–378 CE).
Additional discoveries include the remains of the base of the balustrade of the 16th-century liturgical enclosure, and excavations in the Edicule itself have presented new information about the layout of the original stone-cut tomb.
The excavations at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre are part of a multi-year, $11 million renovation and conservation project throughout the nearly 1,700-year-old church complex. Although part of the Edicule was refurbished in 2016—after it was briefly closed due to safety concerns—the last major renovation of the church was carried out in the early 19th century following a fire in 1808. While the renovations have closed many sections of the church, they have also given archaeologists from Sapienza University of Rome an incredible opportunity to examine what lies beneath the pavement stones.
One of the many purposes of the renovation is to refurbish the floors of the church, which consist of a hodgepodge of different pavement stones and techniques dating back to the Crusader reconstruction of the church in the 12th century. The renovations will also include updated sewage, electrical, and safety systems.
Any large renovation in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is difficult to carry out because of the “status quo,” a rigid power-sharing agreement between the primary Christian sects that control and administer the church. Under this system, any extensive work needs to be agreed upon by all parties.
According to a tradition accepted by many Christians, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre marks the place of Jesus’s crucifixion and burial. Emperor Constantine was the first to construct a church on the spot in 326. However, the original church only survived for about three centuries before it was burned down during the Sassanid conquest of Jerusalem in 614. The church was rebuilt in 630 by Emperor Heraclius but was destroyed yet again in 1009 by the Fatimids. It was rebuilt again in 1042 by the Byzantine emperor Monomachus, who agreed to reopen the mosque of Constantinople in return. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was later expanded during the time of the Crusades and it is largely the remains of the Crusader-period church that visitors see today when they visit Jerusalem.
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