The ‘burial slab’ of Jesus Christ has been uncovered for the first time in centuries, reports say.
The stone shelf, which has for years been encased by marble, is believed by many Christians to have held the body of Jesus after his crucifixion.
Fredrik Hiebert, archaeologist-in-residence at The National Geographic Society, said: “The marble covering of the tomb has been pulled back, and we were surprised by the amount of fill material beneath it”.
“It will be a long scientific analysis, but we will finally be able to see the original rock surface on which, according to tradition, the body of Christ was laid.”
The stone slab is located in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem which 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.
It is currently undergoing restoration work after being damaged by many years of exposure to humidity from the condensation from the breath of visitors, and thermal stress caused by candles burning for hours nearby.
The shrine at the heart of the complex called the Edicule, the supposed location of the tomb of Jesus, is being renovated at a cost of $3.4 million and the monument, which in its present form dates back to 1810, is being completely rebuilt. The restoration is expected to be finished in 2017.
The renovations will see the marble slabs taken off, the 12th century Crusader shrine beneath the Edicule repaired and the cracks in the tomb under that filled.
The noisy work is being undertaken at night to minimise the disruption to pilgrims.
Professor Antonia Moropoulou, the chief scientific supervisor of the project, told National Geographic that his team had reached “the critical moment for rehabilitating the Edicule”.
“The techniques we’re using to document this unique monument will enable the world to study our findings as if they themselves were in the tomb of Christ,” he added.
The Eastern Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, Theophilus III, said the “atmosphere was special”while waiting outside the Edicule as the burial shelf was exposed.
“Here we have Franciscans, Armenians, Greeks, Muslim guards, and Jewish police officers,” he added. “We hope and we pray that this will be a real message that the impossible can become the possible. We all need peace and mutual respect.“