See where Jesus died and was buried - Tomb now restored in Jerusalem
In time for Easter, the tomb believed to be that of Jesus has been restored in a multi-million dollar renovation, with pilgrims able to see for the fist time the bare stone of the ancient burial cave.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem's Old City was identified as the site of Jesus's crucifixion and burial by representatives of the Roman emperor Constantine, in AD 326.
The church is visited by hundreds of thousands of pilgrims every year and its ownership and maintenance is shared in a complex arrangement between the Armenian, Greek Orthodox and Catholic Churches.
This year, all three denominations unusually share the same Easter, on 16 April.
The Church has been undergoing restoration work after being damaged by many years of exposure to humidity from condensation from the breath of visitors, and thermal stress caused by candles burning for hours nearby.
Now, an iron cage built around the shrine by British authorities in 1947 to shore up the walls from the black soot on the shrine's stone façade from decades of pilgrims lighting candles, has been removed.
The old shrine is believed now to be stable for the first time in 200 years.
'If this intervention hadn't happened now, there is a very great risk that there could have been a collapse,' Bonnie Burnham of the World Monuments Fund (WMF) said. 'This is a complete transformation of the monument.'
The WMF provided an initial $1.4 million for the $4 million restoration, thanks to a donation by the widow of the founder of Atlantic Records. Jordan's King Abdullah II and the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas also contributed around 150,000 euros each, along with other private and church donations, Burnham said.
The shrine needed urgent attention after years of exposure to the candle smoke, water and humidity.
In 2015, Israeli police briefly shut down the building after Israel's Antiquities Authority deemed it unsafe. Repairs began in June 2016.
A restoration team from the National Technical University of Athens stripped the stone slabs from the shrine's façade. The team then patched up the internal masonry of the shrine, injecting it with tubes of grout for reinforcement.
Each stone slab was cleaned before being put back in place.
Titanium bolts were inserted into the structure for reinforcement, while frescos and the shrine's painted dome were renovated.
In October, the team entered the inner sanctum of the shrine and temporarily slid open an old marble layer covering the bedrock where Jesus' body is said to have been placed.
Below the outer marble layer, a white rose marble slab engraved with a cross was revealed, which the team dated to the late Crusader period of the 14th century.
Beneath that marble slab was an even older, grey marble slab protecting the bedrock, and mortar on the slab dates to the 4th century, when Constantine ordered the Church to be built.
The team has now cut a small window from the shrine's marble walls for pilgrims to see the bare stone of the ancient burial cave.
'It seems we are in front of levels of history that are validated,' said Antonia Moropoulou, who supervised the restoration.
The team is currently dismantling the work-site ahead of a ceremony tomorrow to mark the completion of the renovation, in the presence of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, who is the spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians, and a representative of Pope Francis.
Violence between the denominations has traditionally broken out inside the Church, and Moropoulou hopes the restoration work will usher in a 'new era' of cooperation.
'Here is a monument that has been worshipped through the centuries, and will be worshipped forever,' said Moropoulou.