The tomb of Jesus has been resurrected to its former glory.
Just in time for Easter, a Greek restoration team has completed a historic renovation of the Edicule, the shrine that tradition says houses the cave where Jesus was buried and rose to heaven.
Gone is the unsightly iron cage built around the shrine by British authorities in 1947 to shore up the walls. Gone is the black soot on the shrine's stone facade from decades of pilgrims lighting candles. And gone are fears about the stability of the old shrine, which hadn't been restored in more than 200 years.
"If this intervention hadn't happened now, there is a very great risk that there could have been a collapse," Bonnie Burnham of the World Monuments Fund said Monday. "This is a complete transformation of the monument."
The fund provided an initial $1.4 million for the $4 million restoration, thanks to a donation by the widow of the founder of Atlantic Records. Jordan's King Abdullah II and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas also chipped in about 150,000 euros each, along with other private and church donations, Burnham said.
The limestone and marble structure stands at the center of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, one of the world's oldest churches — a 12th-century building standing on 4th-century remains. The shrine needed urgent attention after years of exposure to environmental factors like water, humidity and candle smoke.
Three main Christian denominations jealously guard separate sections of the church, but they put aside their longstanding religious rivalries to give their blessing for the restoration. In 2015, Israeli police briefly shut down the building after Israel's Antiquities Authority deemed it unsafe, and repairs began in June 2016.
A restoration team from the National Technical University of Athens stripped the stone slabs from the shrine's façade and patched up the internal masonry of the shrine, injecting it with tubes of grout for reinforcement. Each stone slab was cleaned of candle soot and pigeon droppings, then put back in place. Titanium bolts were inserted into the structure for reinforcement, and frescos and the shrine's painted dome were given a face-lift.
The restorers also made some discoveries.
On October 26, the team entered the inner sanctum of the shrine, the burial chamber of Jesus, and temporarily slid open an old marble layer covering the bedrock where Jesus' body is said to have been placed.
Below the outer marble layer was a white rose marble slab engraved with a cross, which the team dated to the late Crusader period of the 14th century. Beneath that marble slab was an even older, grey marble slab protecting the bedrock, and mortar on the slab dates to the 4th century, when Roman Emperor Constantine ordered the Church of the Holy Sepulcher built.
The restorers have cut a small window from the shrine's marble walls for pilgrims to see – for the first time – the bare stone of the ancient burial cave.
"It seems we are in front of levels of history that are validated," said Antonia Moropoulou, who supervised the renovation.
The team is dismantling its worksite ahead of a ceremony Wednesday to mark the completion of the renovation, in the presence of two representatives of dueling Christian denominations – Ecumenical Patriarch Vartholomaios I, who is the spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians, and a representative of Pope Francis, the leader of the Catholic Church.
Concern for the church's stability has brought Christian denominations together, and Moropoulou hopes it ushers in a "new era" of cooperation. She hopes the communities will make some changes in longstanding customs inside the church, like pilgrims smashing their lit candles onto the Edicule's stone wall, so the structure is not compromised.
Now, money is being raised for another round of restorations – consolidating drainage and sewage pipes underground, around the tomb, to stabilize its foundations – so renovations won't be needed for years to come.
"Here is a monument that has been worshipped through the centuries, and will be worshipped forever," said Moropoulou. [AP]