JERUSALEM — Just in time for Easter, one of Christianity’s holiest sites has been restored to its former glory.
The tomb that Christians believe was where Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected — officially known as the Holy Edicule — has undergone a year-long renovation.
Gone is the cage-like structure that was put in place to prop up the walls 70 years ago.
And the black soot that had accumulated on the stone structure from years of visitors' candles has been scrubbed clean. Now the warm red marble welcomes worshippers.
The holy site sits inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem — one of the world’s oldest churches.
Three different Christian denominations — Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Orthodox — share custody over the Holy Sepulchre and in the past there have been turf wars and brawls over the management of the site. But they agreed to set aside their differences to save what they all believe is Christ’s tomb.
The same Greek team that restored the Acropolis in Athens was chosen to restore it.
A year ago, Professor Antonia Moropoulou and her team of 50 scientists from the National Technical University of Athens arrived in Jerusalem to start the project.
“We didn’t dismantle the monument, we didn’t jeopardize its structural integrity. We just restored it,” Moropoulou said. “Now you can see the colors, the texture of the stone, you can see the letters of inscriptions, the frescos, the different styles of mural paintings. So here is a monument that was worshipped through the centuries and will be worshiped forever."
The shrine was in desperate need of attention after years of exposure to water, humidity and both candle smoke and wax.
The restoration team removed each marble slab, numbered them and delicately used Q-Tip-like cotton swabs to clean them before putting them back.
The most dramatic and exciting moment of the renovation came on Oct. 26 when workers entered the inner sanctum of the shrine, the burial chamber of Jesus. An old marble layer covering the bedrock where Jesus' body is said to have been placed was temporarily slid open.
Below the outer marble layer was a white rose marble slab engraved with a cross, which the team dated to the 14th century. Beneath that one was an even older, gray marble slab protecting the bedrock. Mortar on that slab dates to the 4th century, when Roman Emperor Constantine ordered the Church of the Holy Sepulchre 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.
“The opening of the tomb was a unique moment not only for us, but for all humanity,” Moropoulou added.
The total cost for the renovation was $3.7 million. The biggest donor was U.S.-based World Monument Fund — which contributed $1.7 Million.
“This is a complete transformation of the monument,” said Bonnie Burnham, president of the World Monument Fund. “The monument was surrounded by scaffolding that made it very difficult to really appreciate. And the scaffolding was often used by the worshipers to place candles, so the entire outside of the building was covered with black soot and you couldn’t really see the color."
She hopes the restoration of the shrine will “stimulate a new respect on the part of the visitors to enjoy and appreciate the beauty of the building.”
The renovated tomb will be opened in an official ceremony on Wednesday in the presence of two representatives of dueling Christian denominations — Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, who is the spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians, and a representative of Pope Francis, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church.
The Greek restorers say they feel like the shrine has a new lease on life.
“This monument today is free, it’s emancipated from the iron grids,” Moropoulou said. “It’s emancipated from what was keeping it in a jail, we protected it in order to leave it for worship by the pilgrims and by the religious communities.”