Archaeology

Christ's Tomb at Risk of ‘Catastrophic' Collapse

The structure housing the alleged tomb of Christ sits atop unstable bedrock and rubble and is in need of substantial renovation, according to a team of scientists from Athens.

One of the world's most venerated religious sites is at risk of collapse if its foundations are not reinforced, according to a team of researchers tasked with its restoration.

A team from the National Technical University of Athens (NTUA) told National Geographic that what has been traditionally considered the tomb of Christ is at risk of a "catastrophic" collapse.

The structure, known as the Edicule, lies within the Holy Church of the Sepulcher in Jerusalem's Old City. The structural instability of the Edicule is in part tied to the long history of the church, which was built and rebuilt during centuries of conquest and reconquest. Parts of the structure rest atop rubble from an abandoned limestone quarry, adding to the precariousness of the foundation.

Today, the empty tomb consists of the limestone remains of the cave where Christ is believed to have been buried.

The team of scientists from Athens has been working for eight months to repair the Edicule and ensure its structural integrity.

"While we were working, we were able to monitor the rising damp from underground," Antonia Moropoulou, a professor at NTUA and the chief scientists on the restoration project told National Geographic. Once her team identified the problem, they made a "plea for the community to immediately undertake the proper underground intervention to ensure the sustainability of the tomb, the Edicule, and the rotunda."

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The threat, according to Moropoulou, lies beneath the structure, where a moisture rich environment lacks proper drainage.

In the second century, Constantine leveled a Roman temple built on the site, revealing what has since been considered the tomb of Christ. While the structure built by the Roman emperor was partially destroyed on numerous occasions, it was eventually restored in the 16th century and again in the early 19th century.

For Dan Bahat, a theology professor in Lugano and the former official district archaeologist in Jerusalem, alarm over possible collapse may be overstated. While he believes the structure is close enough to bedrock to support any additional shifts, he warns that restoration efforts could exacerbate the situation.

"It is very important that it be kept exactly as it is," said Bahat. "The team working on it now has on the one hand added big blocks, making the structure bigger and heavier, while on the other hand they talk about possible collapse."

He said that any damage to the site, however, would be devastating to Christians who consider the tomb the holiest in the world. "Can you imagine a pilgrim coming all the way to Jerusalem and not being able to see the tomb," he asked.

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While the Edicule is facing an urgent situation, Moropoulou believes there are other structural concerns that may also need to be addressed.

"There are steep slopes on natural rock that is over excavated and old rubble fillings under the Chapel of the Angels," she said. "The underpinnings of the rotunda around the Edicule, due to excavations, are now corroded due to this water environment."

Yesterday, as the completion of the restoration was celebrated at the Church, Moropoulou presented her team's findings on the potential for collapse and proposed a solution: a 10-month, $6.5 million project that would include the removal of paving around the Edicule, as well as the installation of drains around the rotunda.

"We are not catastrophologists," Moropoulou said. "But if this project has to endure for 10 months, it has to start at the end of May to be delivered by Easter, at the end of March next year."

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