For the first time in some 500 years, the marble slab above the supposed tomb of Jesus in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem was lifted, in the course of renovations of the crumbling church.
According to the Christian faith, after his crucifixion, Jesus' body was laid on a shelf within a cave that is now covered by a structure called the Aedicule, a small chapel also being fixed up now. Although the workers never reached the shelf itself on which Jesus' body was said to have laid, Christians believe the tomb is empty because of Jesus' resurrection.
They did lift the marble slab covering the empty tomb, in what seems to be the first time since the 16th century that cover has been moved.
The renovation of the structure began earlier this year after an agreement was finally hashed out between the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Armenian churches – the three main churches that share control and operation of the church.
In fact, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre did get some structural attention in 1947, by the British, who installed metal cables to support the Aedicule, but did not touch the tomb itself. Since then, the condition of the church has deteriorated, yet the three churches running it could not agree on a course of action.
A year and a half ago, antiquities officials warned that the structure is hazardous and the police closed it to tourism, fearing additional damage. The closure prompted immediate protests, including by church officials who complained that the police made the decision without conferring with them or even informing them in advance. Ultimately the shutdown lasted just some hours.
But after that, the three churches did sit down and some six months ago, reached an agreement, under which the the renovation is being led by the National Technical University of Athens, under the oversight Greek Orthodox Patriarchate and the Custody of the Holy Land – an order of the Roman Catholic Church, that is the site's custodian.
The renovation is substantial. It includes dismantling the metal cables put in place by the British, installing metal rods inside the columns, and injecting advanced cement-like materials inside cracks and crevices in the stones to reinforce them.
Part of the structure itself will also be taken apart to be restored independently before it is placed back within the holy site.
Last Wednesday, for the first time in hundreds of years, the actual stone above the interior tomb was lifted, exposing the holy site to about a billion Christians across the globe.
The marble blocks were placed above the grave some 500 years ago. Underneath them, workers discovered another marble block marked with a cross and dating back to the 12 century crusaders, as well as building materials used at the time the upper marble slab was placed above the tomb.
The workers apparently did not reach the surface of the tomb shelf itself, which was where Jesus' body was said to have been placed after the crucifixion, before he ascended to heaven, according to the Christian faith. the stone has been returned and on Saturday the site was reopened for visitors.
He was amazed that restorers were allowed to lift the stone to begin with, said Prof. Joseph Patrich of the Hebrew University's Institute of Archaeology. "It very much surprised me that a secular activity was permitted in such a sensitive and holy site, but this renovation is 'holy work'," he said.
Last week, the project's chief scientific supervisor, Prof. Antonia Moropoulou spoke at a Jerusalem conference organized by Israel's Antiquities Authority. The talk was attended by the Patriarch of Jerusalem, Theophilos III.
This article was amended on October 30, 2016, to remove a reference to "Jesus Christ," in keeping with Haaretz.com's style.