Virtually Explore Jesus’ Tomb at the National Geographic Museum

3-D technology brings Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre to life

Lately, the District of Columbia has been awash in Biblical archaeology. From the opening of the Museum of the Bible last November to the National Geographic Museum’s newest exhibit, Tomb of Christ: The Church of the Holy Sepulchre Experience, visitors to the nation’s capital have myriad opportunities to explore Biblical studies.

The Tomb of Christ exhibit, which is located at the National Geographic Museum in Washington, DC, opened on November 15, 2017, and is set to close on August 15, 2018. A modest admission price of $15 also admits the visitor to the exhibit Wild by National Geographic photographer Michael Nichols.


The National Geographic Museum exhibit Tomb of Christ: The Church of the Holy Sepulchre Experience presents an immersive 3-D look at the conservation of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Jesus is believed to have been buried. Photo: Oded Balilty, AP for National Geographic.

The focus of the Tomb of Christ: The Church of the Holy Sepulchre Experience exhibit is Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the recent restoration and conservation project conducted by the National Technical University of Athens (NTUA). The church, first constructed by Roman emperor Constantine in 335 C.E., stands over the suspected site of the burial of Jesus after his crucifixion at Golgotha.

Over the last two millennia, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and interior Aedicule—the shrine that houses the tomb—have been subjected to destructions, renovations, and alterations. In the 20th century, church leaders recognized the need to perform serious restoration and conservation of the church’s artwork and infrastructure. It was not until the past decade that the church seriously considered the application by the NTUA and secured a private donation to carry out the exploratory and innovative restoration.

Watch a video on the National Geographic Museum’s Tomb of Christ exhibit.

Documented by the National Geographic Society, the NTUA team employed state-of-the-art technologies like LiDAR and Ground-Penetrating Radar in their investigation into the structural weaknesses of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and even used thermal imaging to see paint pigments covered in hundreds of years of candle soot and grime. During the process, they mapped and 3-D-imaged the entire interior of the church in an effort to aid the preservation process. The exhibit details the history of the site along with the recent restoration efforts and utilizes the results of the 3-D imaging to create a unique tour of one of Jerusalem’s holiest sites.

Interested in the latest archaeological technology? Researchers at the UCSD’s Calit2 laboratory released the free BAS eBook Cyber-Archaeology in the Holy Land — The Future of the Past, featuring the latest research on GPS, Light Detection and Ranging Laser Scanning, unmanned aerial drones, 3D artifact scans, CAVE visualization environments and much more.

Upon entering the Tomb of Christ: The Church of the Holy Sepulchre Experience exhibit, the visitor first steps into a waiting room with images of the inside of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre accompanied by a short video that introduces the exhibit. Every few minutes, intimate groups of about a dozen are led into the first room, which offers a quick video on the history of Jerusalem and the site of the church itself.

The group makes its way past a few shop stalls like one would find in Jerusalem’s Old City and into a room with projections on the walls that place the visitor in the middle of the courtyard of the church. A virtual tour guide explains many of the more intriguing aspects of the practices and agreements of monks of the six Christian sects—Greek Orthodox, Franciscan, Ethiopian, Coptic, Armenian, and Syrian Orthodox—that reside in separated areas of the structure. The guide highlights the “Immovable Ladder,” an old wooden ladder that rests on a window balcony in a common space and has come to symbolize the “status quo” that no monk may alter an aspect of the common space of the church without the unanimous consent of the five other orders.

Next, visitors are adorned with 3-D glasses and step into another virtually projected courtyard. This dizzying adventure is a rollercoaster ride through many of the nooks, crannies, and hidden passages of the church. The 3-D experience through the massive structure focuses on the Aedicule and takes the viewer inside the tomb itself. Many interesting discoveries made by the NTUA team are presented along the way, such as the uncovering of an original Constantinian tomb stone.


In one of the first rooms of the groundbreaking exhibit, visitors don 3-D glasses and get a thrilling, up-close-and-personal tour of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the work conducted by researchers. Photo: Rebecca Hale/National Geographic.

After the 3-D experience visitors pass through a traditional exhibition with photographs of the restoration, details about overcoming challenges in the project, and explanations about techniques and technologies used by the NTUA team and how they work. The short exhibition hall is adorned with a thorough timeline of the history of the church as well as labels that present odd and intriguing pieces of niche historical trivia.


The exhibit guides visitors through the different technologies used in conserving and mapping the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, including LiDAR and Ground-Penetrating Radar. Photo: Robin Ngo.

Though the Church of the Holy Sepulchre holds a brilliant and vibrant history through many eras of occupation by different cultures and faiths, the exhibit lacks significant critical engagement with the Islamic period prior to the conquest of the Crusaders and the Ottoman period before the British mandate in Palestine. These periods in history had a critical effect, culturally and aesthetically, on the city of the Jerusalem, and on the continuity of the church, yet see little engagement in this exhibit.

Just before visitors exit the exhibit, they have the option to slip on a virtual reality headset and take a self-guided tour of the church interior. As you move about the 3-D reconstructed church, a voice narrates the history of individual monuments, shrines, cathedrals, and artifacts housed inside.


Wearing a virtual reality headset, BAR Managing Editor Megan Sauter explores the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Photo: Robin Ngo.

The exhibit does well to explain many of the history and processes that transformed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre over time, a composite of styles and ideologies. The exhibition hall ends with a message emphasizing that the appreciation of the church and its restoration is not restricted to a single faith. All can enjoy and participate in the lush history and beautiful, artistic features of this cultural landmark.

The National Geographic Museum’s Tomb of Christ: The Church of the Holy Sepulchre Experience is a great opportunity to learn about the ancient cultural heritage of one of the Near East’s historic and culturally vibrant cities. If you do not have the opportunity to visit the holy city and tour the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in person, the museum has certainly done an exceptional job of rendering the adventure and intrigue of the church in an accessible exhibit.

Samuel Pfister is an intern at the Biblical Archaeology Society.


Related reading in Bible History Daily:

Site-Seeing: Archaeological Remains in Holy Sepulchre’s Shadow by Jonathan Klawans

Where Is Golgotha, Where Jesus Was Crucified?

Tour Showcases Remains of Herod’s Jerusalem Palace—Possible Site of the Trial of Jesus

The Terra Sancta Museum: A New Stop on the Via Dolorosa

Pilgrims’ Progress to Byzantine Jerusalem

Museum of the Bible: Part Museum, Part Holy Land Experience


Posted in News, Biblical Archaeology Sites, Jesus/Historical Jesus.

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  • john says

    why did NG not elaborate on the underground tunnels which had no reason for being and leading directly under the tomb–maybe a way to remove the body and declaring a resurrection?

  • Joe says

    I saw this exhibit the first week end in May 2018–it is well worth it. I learned some things I did not know, even though I visited the church in Jerusalem back in 2005.

  • Kenneth says

    Maybe I am missing something but even as a non-believer I had hopes that NG would have put a video of what people would see in the VR display so that the would could take it in rather than just host it at their museum where not everyone is able to go.If it is online then I hope one day I run by it. I would like to see it as I enjoy many aspects of many religions. Being a Calligrapher and learning new scripts and Illuminated Manuals, this would have been quite interesting. The science behind it all was interesting also but other than being able to date it back to Constantine stating his found it hundreds of years later, then I would need much more facts and proof to have someone tell me, ” Yep, that’s it. 100% “. There was no 100% scientific deviance given that it is the correct tomb of Jesus but just stated the covering under the above the slab a body would have been placed on was the one Constantine found and that being it only dated back to his era in history. No more, no less.

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