Restoration work at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem reveals one of world’s holiest sites rests on a precarious earthly foundation.
Scientists have discovered that there is a “very real risk” that the holiest site in Christianity may collapse if nothing is done to shore up its unstable foundations.
A scientific team from the National Technical University of Athens (NTUA), which has just completed the restoration of what is traditionally believed to be the tomb of Christ in Jerusalem, warns that additional work is needed to prevent the shrine and surrounding complex from experiencing significant structural failure.
“When it fails, the failure will not be a slow process, but catastrophic,” says Antonia Moropoulou, NTUA’s chief scientific supervisor.
The Edicule (from the Latin aedicule, or “little house”), a small structure within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, encloses the remains of a cave that has been venerated since at least the fourth century A.D. as the tomb of Jesus Christ.
Restoration of the Edicule reveals that much of the 19th-century shrine and its surrounding rotunda, which host millions of annual visitors, appear to be built largely on an unstable foundation of crumbled remnants of earlier structures and is honeycombed with extensive tunnels and channels.
While the year-long restoration of the Edicule is being celebrated today in Jerusalem with a ceremony at the church, scientists and church leaders are grappling with the new evidence for significant risks that the engineering work has revealed.
Layers of History Pose Risk to Future
The most recent NTUA report provided to National Geographic reveals that much of the risk posed to the tomb is due to the rich history of the venerated site.
Archaeologists believe that some 2,000 years ago, the site was the location of a defunct limestone quarry that eventually housed tombs of the Jewish upper class. At least half a dozen such tombs have been identified within the grounds of the church, in addition to the tomb traditionally believed to be the burial place of Jesus.
A Roman temple built on the site in the second century was razed by Constantine, the first Christian emperor of Rome, around 324 A.D. to reveal what was believed to be the tomb of Christ.
The shrine built by Constantine around the tomb was partly destroyed by Persian invaders in the seventh century A.D. and destroyed again by the Fatimids in 1009. The church was rebuilt in the mid-11th century. The Edicule was later altered by the Crusaders and restored again in the 16th and early 19th centuries. Its current form encloses several earlier construction phases.
The domed rotunda that surrounds the Edicule is believed to mark the footprint of the original Constantinian church, and possibly the Roman temple that preceded it.
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