A recent discovery at Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre lends credence to the belief that the tomb of Jesus may lie within.
Question: Where in the world did a National Geographic researcher say that being wrong made his knees shake?
Answer: The purported tomb of Jesus, inside the Aedicule of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre
History reports that second-century Roman emperor Hadrian tried to bury the Christian story of Jesus somewhat literally by filling in the cave containing the tomb described in the gospels, building a temple to Venus atop the site. Constantine the Great tried to undo Hadrian’s efforts in the fourth century, replacing the temple with a church. Beneath its rotunda, he ordered the building of the Aedicule: a chapel surrounding the rock bed believed to be the tomb of Jesus.
Because so many pilgrims sought out the tomb as time passed, there was concern about its preservation, leading to the decision to completely encase the burial bed in marble. For centuries, visitors to the site have seen only a big rectangle of marble cladding, a heavy barrier between them and the tomb’s heart. Even with this layer of remove, the site has had a profound effect on visitors, many of whom weep upon entry (some even fainting dead away).
Since Hadrian’s attempt to mask the tomb took place more than 1,800 years ago, experts have long wondered at the authenticity of the site. In 2016, National Geographic worked with the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to arrange for a limited inspection by its Archaeologist in Residence, Fredrik Hiebert. It was no mean feat for National Geographic to get permission: the site is governed by an agreement called The Status Quo, in which six Christian Orthodox or Catholic denominations share the church complex, none of them allowed to make any alterations without permission from the entire set. When they granted access for this project, they kept a tight rein on things: National Geographic was given only 60 hours from start to finish, including putting everything back in its place.
The ticking clock caused anxiety when the team made their first discovery: the marble cladding covered only filler rock, all of which had to be cleared away. But then things heated up: beneath the fill was another, older layer of marble, marked with a cross. When that was removed, they found just what early Christian writers had claimed: a limestone burial slab hewn out of the cave wall. Hiebert reported that he “wasn’t expecting this,” and said, “I’m absolutely amazed. My knees are shaking a little bit...”
After the marble was resealed and the Aedicule restored to its original state, tests revealed that the limestone bed was indeed “living rock,” meaning the original rock was still in the earth of the site and that the second layer of marble dates to the time of Constantine. Though no one can ever prove for sure whether Jesus laid upon the slab, there is now a lot more evidence behind the early stories. This has only enhanced the allure of this spiritual nesting doll—a tomb with marble within marble within a chapel within a church—which now attracts two million visitors per year.
7 More Memorable Details at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre
- In the Chapel of the Angel, a square box usually adorned with candles contains The Angel’s Stone, said to be a fragment of the rock that blocked the entrance to the tomb.
- The Immovable Ladder perched up the façade of the church is a mystery: it’s been there since the 1700s, probably left by a worker, but no one dares move it for fear of disrupting the Status Quo.
- Below the main altar, windows peer into a limestone deposit said to be the Rock of Calvary, punctured by a visible hole where the cross would have been inserted into the ground during crucifixion.
- On the broken columns that once formed an arcade at the entrance, you can still see Crusader Graffiti, hand-carved crosses left by Crusaders upon their returns from their respective missions.
- Popular but somewhat dubious in origin is the Stone of Anointing just inside the entrance. Said to be where the body was prepared for burial, the stone wasn’t placed there till 1810 and was prompted by the claims of a crusader in 1288.
- The Catholicon structure is home to the Omphalos, the Center of the World according to the Greek Orthodox. They say ancient writings name this spot as the “navel of the earth,” which they have marked with a rose-colored urn.
- Because the story of Jesus was left to those who remained behind, there is a special Chapel of Mary Magdalene, said to be the first to see Jesus after the resurrection, and without whom neither the Sepulchre nor this article would have existed.
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