Repairs allow for excavation at Christianity’s holiest site
In the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, one of the holiest sites in Christianity, restoration means archaeology. Starting in early 2022, the church began a two-year project to restore and repair pavement stones throughout the complex as well as install updated plumbing, electrical, and fire-prevention systems. During the project, much of the church’s floor will be refurbished, allowing a team from the Sapienza University of Rome to study both the floor itself as well as the archaeological layers beneath. As reported in the Jerusalem Post, this will be the first time archaeologists have ever been able to excavate many of the sections of the church, and scholars are excited to examine some of its ancient mysteries.
Although the pavement currently found in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre dates to the 19th century, many of the individual paving stones are thought to be much older and could even date back to the fourth century when the church was first constructed by Constantine the Great. The archaeological team intends to study each stone’s shape, weight, and markings, as well as the mortar between them. Once the pavement is removed, the team will carry out limited excavations in various sections of the church, allowing them to learn more about the building’s history. Most of what is uncovered, however, will be reburied, and the flooring stones will be either placed back in their original positions or, if they are damaged, replaced with new, locally sourced stones. The project will be carried out in phases in order to limit disturbances to the routine functioning of the holy site.
According to Giorgio Piras of the Sapienza University, “We don’t know what is beneath the floor. It has never been systematically excavated, so we don’t know what we shall find. But it should be at least some remains of Constantine’s church.” The repairs and requisite excavations come after nearly 30 years of discussion between the three main Christian denominations—Greek Orthodox, Catholics, and Armenians—that share custodial authority over the church of the Holy Sepulchre.
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 C.E. 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, indeed, it is largely the remains of the Crusader-period church that visitors see today when they visit Jerusalem.
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