Science and Faith Unite in ‘Tomb of Christ’ Exhibit


By Nora Hamerman

WASHINGTON — There is no more sacred place in Christianity than the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. And now you can visit it — virtually, anyway — here in the nation’s capital at the interactive “Tomb of Christ” exhibit of the National Geographic Museum ( that unifies cutting-edge science and technology with faith.

The science has been deployed to conserve and shed new light on the ancient building. The faith stirs the feelings of every Christian who approaches those places where our Savior suffered, died, and rose again, according to a tradition that goes back until at least the 4th century. (The latest scientific tests confirmed the presence of rock-cut Jewish tombs dating back to the first century, when Jesus lived.)

The exhibit celebrates the recent preservation of the Aedicule of the Holy Sepulchre built by Franciscan friars in 1555. Led by an interdisciplinary group of engineers, researchers, stonemasons, and professors from the National Technical University of Athens, the work began in 2016 and was completed by Easter 2017.

This precious complex has undergone many cycles of destruction and rebuilding since the first Christian Emperor Constantine first visited in 325. Constantine tore down a Roman temple that had been erected to counteract growing Christian fervor, and built the first church on the site. It was wrecked under Arab rule in the 7th century. Earthquakes and fires wreaked further havoc. Each time it was rebuilt.

The constant traffic of visitors and the destructive impact of water, humidity, and soot from gas lamps and candles have undermined the stability of the building. The stone walls of the Aedicule were beginning to buckle outward. Intervention was urgent.

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Virtual Tour

When visitors walk through the vestibule at the museum, a door opens and we suddenly find ourselves virtually at the portal of the Holy Sepulchre while a virtual guide describes the premises. Six religious orders of different Christian denominations (primarily the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Armenian Apostolic churches) share the custody of this ancient building, where they hold mass in their respective rituals and host thousands of pilgrims every day.

The guide describes architectural details from many eras, from an early Christian narrative relief in Western style, to a foliate frieze made under the Ottoman Turks. She points upward to an “immovable ladder” that has been there for 150 years and symbolizes the Status Quo accord, under which none of the religious orders may make any change without the unanimous consent of the others.

In the next room, visitors don 3-D glasses to witness the transformation of the building over its long history, culminating in a “you are there” emersion into the famous Holy Fire ceremony on the Orthodox Easter vigil.


The Technology

Next, you walk out into a room that features a timeline wall and some of the non-invasive machines used to gain information about the site, such as ground-penetrating radar, radiometry, and robotics.

The images gained from heat-sensing cameras allowed the team to see under centuries of soot to reveal dome and wall frescoes hidden for perhaps a thousand years. They located voids in the masonry with the radar and filled them to stabilize the stone structure. Once the mortar had set, they removed an ugly iron “cage” that had surrounded the Aedicule since the 1940s.

So as not to disturb the millions of pilgrims who visit each year, much of the work was carried on at night. Corey Jaskolski, a National Geographic Explorer and engineer, described to me how he and his wife waited until the site was closed for the day, and then be locked in all night with 50 monks to carry out the laser scanning (literally, billions of images) of the entire structure.

Only once during the yearlong process, the tomb of Christ closed for six hours to lift the stone cover from the limestone rock upon which Jesus’ body was buried. A crystal window now allows visitors to see part of the holy rock, which had been invisible for centuries.

A visit to the “Tomb of Christ” exhibit should ideally be combined with a trip to the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America in northwest DC, where the Franciscans are celebrating the 800th anniversary of their arrival in Acre (now in Israel) in 1217. The church, dedicated in 1899, and grounds include replicas of the sacred shrine constructed between then and the 1930s. Although they are old, they are tangible. You may even get a tour from a friar who served in the Holy Sepulchre or other shrines in the Holy Land. The adjoining church has a splendid dome, one of three in Washington that are reminiscent of the Holy Sepulchre.

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