RELIGION

‘Astonishing’ discovery as Jesus' tomb opened for first time in centuries

A shrine was built in the 19th century over the site of the cave where Jesus is believed to have been buried before his resurrection, and it is visited by throngs of tourists and pilgrims each day

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 October, 2016, 12:03pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 October, 2016, 10:15pm

Preservation experts have opened for the first time in at least two centuries what Christians believe is Jesus’ tomb inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

Some of the historic work was witnessed by AFP photographer Gali Tibbon who captured images of the site believed to contain the rock upon which Jesus was laid in around 33 AD as it was uncovered as part of ongoing restoration at the site.

A marble slab covering the site, among the holiest in Christianity, was pulled back for three days as part of both restoration work and archaeological analysis, experts on the scene said.

It was the first time the marble had been removed since at least 1810, when the last restoration work took place following a fire, and possibly earlier, said Father Samuel Aghoyan, the church’s Armenian superior.

A painting of Jesus can be seen in the narrow area above where the marble slab was removed.

Debris and material was found beneath the marble and was being further studied, Aghoyan said.

“It is moving in a sense, something we’ve been talking about so many centuries,” Aghoyan said.

National Geographic has been documenting the restoration work which is being carried out by a team of Greek specialists.

It reported that “the exposure of the burial bed is giving researchers an unprecedented opportunity to study the original surface of what is considered the most sacred site in Christianity”.

What was found is astonishing. I usually spend my time in Tut’s tomb ... but this is more important
Archaeologist Fred Hiebert

An archaeologist accompanying the restoration team said ground penetrating radar tests determined that cave walls are in fact standing — at a height of six feet and connected to bedrock — behind the marbled panels of the chamber at the centre.

“My knees are shaking a little bit,” Fred Hiebert, an archaeologist-in-residence at the National Geographic Society, said.

“What was found is astonishing. I usually spend my time in Tut’s tomb,” said Hiebert about the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun’s burial site.

“But this is more important.”

A shrine was built in the 19th century over the site of the cave where Jesus is believed to have been buried before his resurrection, and it is visited by throngs of tourists and pilgrims each day.

Earlier this year, a major restoration project began on the site, surrounded by a structure called an edicule and located at the centre of the church in Jerusalem’s Old City, underneath its dome.

The project required the agreement of the various Christian denominations that share the church, which also contains the area where Jesus is believed to have been crucified and his body anointed.

The restoration project is expected to be completed around March 2017, in time for Easter, and the site has remained open to visitors for nearly the entire time, although the ornate edicule has been surrounded by scaffolding.

Its marble slabs have weakened over the years, caused in part by the thousands of people who visit daily.

The shrine is being painstakingly dismantled and rebuilt, the Custody of the Holy Land, which oversees Roman Catholic properties in the area, has said previously.

Broken or fragile parts are to be replaced while marble slabs that can be preserved will be cleaned, and the structure supporting them will be reinforced.

The work is being funded by the three main Christian denominations of the Holy Sepulchre - Greek Orthodox, Franciscans and Armenians - and by public and private contributions.

David Grenier, secretary of a group that oversees Roman Catholic church properties in the Holy Land, stood with a few other Franciscan friars, watching the work crew in awe.

“What happened here 2,000 years ago completely changed the history of the world,” he said. “To be able to dig, let’s say, to the rock where the body of Jesus was laid ... it’s overwhelming joy.”

Additional reporting by Associated Press