A restoration team Monday announced the completion of a historic renovation of one of Christianity's holiest sites — the shrine that, according to tradition, houses the tomb of Jesus.
The ornate shrine, called the Edicule, sits in the center of Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulchre, one of the world's oldest churches, a 12th-century building sitting on 4th-century remains in Jerusalem's Old City.
According to Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christian belief, the Edicule encases the ancient cave where Jesus' body was entombed and resurrected.
The Edicule shrine is built around the original cave; visitors can kneel before a marble niche that covers what is believed to be the bench where Jesus' body was placed.
The shrine, almost completely destroyed in an 1808 fire and restored in 1810, had not been restored since, and its stone walls were buckling outward. Water, humidity and candle smoke all wore down the structure.
"I would venture to say that if this intervention hadn't happened now, there was a very great risk that there could have been a collapse," said Bonnie Burnham of the World Monuments Fund, a nonprofit in New York that helped raise funds for the $4 million project.
King Abdullah of Jordan and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas also donated about 150,000 euros each for the renovation efforts, she said.
Starting last May, a Greek restoration team from Athens spent nearly a year removing parts of the Edicule shrine and putting them back together. Stone slabs were removed from the walls, decades of black candle soot and pigeon droppings were scrubbed off and while the stone slabs of the facade were removed, titanium mesh and grout were inserted to strengthen the building's core.
Most strikingly, the hulking and unsightly iron cage built around the shrine in 1947 to reinforce it, approximately 30 ft. high, was removed.
"This monument today is free. It is emancipated from the iron grids," said Antonia Moropolou, who supervised the renovations.
The most dramatic moment of the restoration took place in late October, when Moropolou's team entered the inner sanctum of the Edicule — which is open to visitors — and slid back layer after marble layer covering the rock-hewn bench where believers say Jesus' body was placed after he died on the cross.
There was a layer from the late-Crusader era of the 14th century, and an earlier layer from the 4th century, when the emperor Constantine built the original church. Underneath that was the exposed rock bench.
"It was really important to see the bench, very flat and almost complete, from the right to the left, almost for the shape of one man [who] can stay on it," said Fr. Eugenio Alliata, an Italian archaeologist in Jerusalem who is a member of a Franciscan group that looks after Christian sites in the Holy Land. "This was really something very important. And it was the first time it has been documented as it is."
The marble layers were put back in place, but one change was made in the shrine's inner sanctum: A small window was cut into one of the shrine's walls. Now, for the first time, visitors can get a glimpse of what's behind: the original rock wall of what tradition says is Jesus' tomb.