Around 132 A.D., the Roman Emperor Hadrian began constructing the city of Aelia Capitolina on the ruins of Jerusalem, which had been decimated by Roman forces in 70 A.D. As Aelia Capitolina took shape, the construction of a temple to Venus destroyed the sites Christian tradition says Jesus was crucified and the tomb in which he was reportedly covered.
But some 200 years later, after Christianity began to take root throughout Roman empire, the first Christian emperor Constantine ordered the temple be removed in order to reveal Jesus’ tomb. Constantine then had a church built around the site, which became known in later centuries as the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre.
The church has had a rough past; over the next few centuries, through crusades and various regime changes in the region, it was destroyed and rebuilt several times. By the early 20th century, the entire structure, then under British control, was in desperate need of repair and was damaged by a 1927 earthquake. So in 1947, a giant iron cage was constructed around the Edicule, the interior chamber that houses the actual burial cave. It worked for a while, but last year, the Edicule became so unsafe that the Israel Antiquities Authority closed down the site. That pushed the rival Christian sects that jointly manage the site and have not been able to agree on restoration work to finally settle their differences and restore the Edicule.
Now, as the work conducted by the National Technical University of Athens is underway, researchers are excited to find that some of the original tomb still exists, Kristin Romey writes in a National Geographic exclusive. Archaeologists recently began stripping away slabs of marble to reveal the actual limestone walls and burial bench on which Jesus' body would have been laid, the Associate Press reports. It’s the first time since at least 1555 that anyone has seen the limestone itself. “The marble covering of the tomb has been pulled back, and we were surprised by the amount of fill material beneath it,” says Fredrik Hiebert, archaeologist-in-residence at the National Geographic Society, which is documenting the restoration. “It will be a long scientific analysis, but we will finally be able to see the original rock surface on which, according to tradition, the body of Christ was laid.”
The researchers hope to document the interior of the tomb before restoring the marble cladding and sealing it tightly with mortar. But the AP reports they are making one significant alteration by cutting a rectangular hole in one of the marble slabs so that pilgrims can see the actual wall of the cave.
Stephanie Pappas at Live Science reports that the restoration specialists were surprised that so much of the original cave structure still exists. The team had to pull down several slabs of marble from the 19th, 15th and 12th centuries to reach the bedrock.
Pappas points out that it’s unlikely the tomb will reveal anything new about Jesus. There are questions about whether the tomb is actually the one in which his body was placed, since it was pointed out to Constantine’s mother, Helena, by locals 300 years after the fact. Some scholars even dispute the idea that Jesus existed at all, and that his story is a literary construct.
Still, that does not diminish the sacredness of the spot for believers. “What happened here 2,000 years ago completely changed the history of the world,” David Grenier, secretary of a group that oversees Roman Catholic church properties in the Holy Land, told the AP.