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The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, located in Jerusalem’s Old City, houses one of Christianity’s most sacred monuments: an ornate shrine, believed to have been built over the cave where Jesus of Nazareth was buried and resurrected. Throughout centuries of war and inclement weather, the shrine has been damaged, rebuilt and damaged again. By 1947, it had fallen into a state of such disrepair that it was covered with a rather unsightly iron cage.
Now, after a nine-month, $4 million renovation project, the shrine—known as the Edicule—has been restored, Harriet Sherwood reports for the Guardian. The newly renovated structure will be unveiled during a ceremony at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre today.
Fifty experts from the National Technical University of Athens carried out the much-needed restoration of the Edicule. They scrubbed away clumps of candle soot and pigeon droppings, enforced the structure with titanium bolts and mortar, and lifted up that bulky cage that has covered the shrine for decades.
Four months into the restoration, the team pulled back marble slabs within the Edicule and hit upon a limestone burial bed, which is believed to be Jesus’ original resting place, Kristin Romey wrote in an exclusive piece for National Geographic in October. A small window has now been cut into the Edicule so pilgrims can view the rock beneath it.
The renovation marks a new chapter in the long and ragged history of Jesus’ tomb. As Jason Daley reports for Smithsonian.com, historical sources suggest Roman emperor Hadrian covered Jesus’ place of burial with a temple to Venus around 132 A.D. Two centuries later, in 335 A.D., the Christian emperor Constantine tore down the pagan temple so the tomb could be unearthed. He subsequently ordered a majestic church to be built over the burial site, which later became known as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. At the same time, according to Live Science’s Stephanie Pappas, Constantine had the Edicule installed over Jesus’ burial cave. The top of the cave was removed so pilgrims could peer inside.
Since the days of Constantine, the Edicule has gone through several incarnations. It was destroyed by order of the Fatimid Caliph of Egypt in 1009, and subsequently rebuilt by the Byzantines in 1048. As control of Jerusalem was bandied about between Christians and Muslims during the Crusades, the structure fell into disrepair. It was restored in the 16th century, only to be consumed by a fire in 1808. A few years later, the Edicule was resurrected for the fourth time by the Greek architect Nikolaos Komnenos.
The 19th-century structure persisted until the present day, but it has not been well-maintained. According to the Guardian’s Sherwood, previous restoration projects were thwarted due to wrangling amongst the six Christian denominations— Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, Syrian Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox and Copts—that share control of the Church.
The squabbling sects were forced to set their differences aside when the Israel Antiquities Authority temporarily closed the Edicule in 2015, due to concerns that the structure had become unsafe. With the blessing of these religious leaders—and with the help of a $1.3 million donation—construction on the Edicule began the summer of 2016. After months of work, the venerated Christian site is now ready for its grand unveiling.
By 1050 A.D., it’s agreed that most of the Viking followers of Odin, Loki and the other Norse gods adapted to Christianity. But a small gold crucifix found near the Danish town of Aunslev may push that chronology back a little further.
Earlier this month, Dennis Fabricius Holm decided to go metal detecting near the rural village of Aunslev. What he found in a seemingly empty field was a roughly 1.6 inch, half-ounce crucifix made of gold wire and beads with an eye on top so it could be worn as a pendant, Will Worley reports for the Independent.
After Holm posted photos of his find up on social media, users urged him to take the crucifix to local experts. Now, the find is in the hands of the Viking Museum at Ladby, which is cleaning and analyzing the pendent, dubbed the Aunslev Cross.
Researchers estimate that the pendant dates from 900 to 950 A.D., which means that Christianity or at least Christian influences reached the Danes earlier than thought. The Jelling Rune stones, erected in 965 to commemorate King Harald Bluetooth’s conversion of Denmark and Norway to Christianity were previously considered the oldest image of Jesus on the cross found in Denmark.
Malene Refshauge Beck, curator and archaeologist at the Østfyns Museum told the Danish site DR that “This is a subject that certainly will have to appear in the history books in the future. In recent years there have been more and more signs that Christianity was widespread earlier than previously thought—and here is the clearest evidence so far.”
According to a museum press release, the pendent was found outside the church in Aunslev, currently in an isolated area of bare fields. The crucifix and runestones found in the area in 1623, may also indicate that there was a once a Viking settlement at the site, which eventually established the local church before disappearing.
Still, it’s not possible to conclude whether the village had adopted Christianity, as it's possible that the crucifix could have come from outside trade or missionaries.
“It’s pure luck, that the little jewelry has survived the last 1100 years in the earth” says the Ladby Museum’s press release. “It was probably worn by a Viking woman, but it cannot yet be decided whether the cross was to show that she was a Christian Viking or was just a part of a pagan Viking’s bling-bling.”
The museum will be putting the artifact on display through Easter before it undergoes further preservation.
In the dusty highlands of northern Ethiopia, a team of archaeologists recently uncovered the oldest known Christian church in sub-Saharan Africa, a find that sheds new light on one of the Old World’s most enigmatic kingdoms—and its surprisingly early conversion to Christianity.
An international assemblage of scientists discovered the church 30 miles northeast of Aksum, the capital of the Aksumite kingdom, a trading empire that emerged in the first century A.D. and would go on to dominate much of eastern Africa and western Arabia. Through radiocarbon dating artifacts uncovered at the church, the researchers concluded that the structure was built in the fourth century A.D., about the same time when Roman Emperor Constantine I legalized Christianty in 313 CE and then converted on his deathbed in 337 CE. The team detailed their findings in a paper published today in Antiquity.
The discovery of the church and its contents confirm Ethiopian tradition that Christianity arrived at an early date in an area nearly 3,000 miles from Rome. The find suggests that the new religion spread quickly through long-distance trading networks that linked the Mediterranean via the Red Sea with Africa and South Asia, shedding fresh light on a significant era about which historians know little.
“The empire of Aksum was one of the world’s most influential ancient civilizations, but it remains one of the least widely known,” says Michael Harrower of Johns Hopkins University, the archaeologist leading the team. Helina Woldekiros, an archaeologist at St. Louis’ Washington University who was part of the team, adds that Aksum served as a “nexus point” linking the Roman Empire and, later, the Byzantine Empire with distant lands to the south. That trade, by camel, donkey and boat, channeled silver, olive oil and wine from the Mediterranean to cities along the Indian Ocean, which in turn brought back exported iron, glass beads and fruits.A stone pendant with a cross and the term "venerable" in Ethiopia's ancient Ge'ez script found outside the eastern basilica wall. (Ioana Dumitru)
The kingdom began its decline in the eighth and ninth centuries, eventually contracting to control only the Ethiopian highlands. Yet it remained defiantly Christian even as Islam spread across the region. At first, relations between the two religions were largely peaceful but grew more fraught over time. In the 16th century, the kingdom came under attack from Somali and then Ottoman armies, but ultimately retained control of its strategic highlands. Today, nearly half of all Ethiopians are members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church.
For early Christians, the risk of persecution from the Romans sometimes ran high, forcing them to practice their beliefs in private, posing a challenge for those scholars who study this era. Christianity had reached Egypt by the third century A.D., but it was not until Constantine’s legalization of Christian observance that the church expanded widely across Europe and the Near East. With news of the Aksumite excavation, researchers can now feel more confident in dating the arrival of Christianity to Ethiopia to the same time frame.
“[This find] is to my knowledge the earliest physical evidence for a church in Ethiopia, [as well as all of sub-Saharan Africa,]” says Aaron Butts, a professor of Semitic and Egyptian languages at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., who was not involved with the excavation.
Harrower’s team conducted their work between 2011 and 2016 at an ancient settlement called Beta Samati, which means “house of audience” in the local Tigrinya language. The location, close to the modern-day border with Eritrea and 70 miles to the southwest of the Red Sea, appealed to the archaeologists in part because it was also home to temples built in a southern Arabian style dating back many centuries before the rise of Aksum, a clear sign of ancient ties to the Arabian Peninsula. The temples reflect the influence of Sabaeans, who dominated the lucrative incense trade and whose power reached across the Red Sea in that era.
The excavators’ biggest discovery was a massive building 60 feet long and 40 feet wide resembling the ancient Roman style of a basilica. Developed by the Romans for administrative purposes, the basilica was adopted by Christians at the time of Constantine for their places of worship. Within and near the Aksumite ruins, the archaeologists also found a diverse array of goods, from a delicate gold and carnelian ring with the image of a bull’s head to nearly 50 cattle figurines—clearly evidence of pre-Christian beliefs.
They also uncovered a stone pendant carved with a cross and incised with the ancient Ethiopic word “venerable,” as well as incense burners. Near the eastern basilica wall, the team came across an inscription asking “for Christ [to be] favorable to us.”
In the research paper, Harrower said that this unusual collection of artifacts “suggests a mixing of pagan and early Christian traditions.”A gold and carnelian ring depicting a bull's head from the excavation site. (Ioana Dumitru)
According to Ethiopian tradition, Christianity first came to the Aksum Empire in the fourth century A.D. when a Greek-speaking missionary named Frumentius converted King Ezana. Butts, however, doubts the historical reliability of this account, and scholars have disagreed over when and how the new religion reached distant Ethiopia.
“This is what makes the discovery of this basilica so important,” he adds. “It is reliable evidence for a Christian presence slightly northeast of Aksum at a very early date.”
While the story of Frumentius may be apocryphal, other finds at the site underline how the spread of Christianity was intertwined with the machinations of commerce. Stamp seals and tokens used for economic transactions uncovered by the archaeologists point to the cosmopolitan nature of the settlement. A glass bead from the eastern Mediterranean and large amounts of pottery from Aqaba, in today’s Jordan, attest to long-distance trading. Woldekiros added that the discoveries show that “long-distance trade routes played a significant role in the introduction of Christianity in Ethiopia.”
She and other scholars want to understand how these routes developed and their impacts on regional societies. “The Aksumite kingdom was an important center of the trading network of the ancient world,” says Alemseged Beldados, an archaeologist at Addis Ababa University who was not part of the study. “These findings give us good insight ... into its architecture, trade, civic and legal administration.”
“Politics and religion are important factors in shaping human histories, but are difficult to examine archaeologically,” says Harrower. The discoveries at Beta Samati provide a welcome glimpse into the rise of Africa’s first Christian kingdom—and, he hopes, will spark a new round of Aksum-related excavations.
A Violent Volcanic Eruption Immortalized in Medieval Poem May Have Spurred Iceland’s Adoption of Christianity
Within 100 years of Iceland’s settlement by Vikings and Celts in the late 9th century, a devastating volcanic event wreaked havoc on the island. In a rare type of eruption known as a lava flood, Iceland’s Eldgjá volcano belched up 7.7 square miles of lava and spewed out thick clouds of sulfuric gases. The effects of the eruption—a persistent haze, droughts, harsh winters—were felt from northern Europe all the way to northern China.
Experts have long been unsure precisely when this catastrophic event occurred, but as Chase Purdy reports for Quartz, a new study has pinpointed a date for the Eldgjá. The research, led by a team from the University of Cambridge and published in the journal Climactic Change, also explores how the eruption may have led to a dramatic shift in Iceland’s religious culture, driving the island from paganism to Christianity.
To date the volcanic event, researchers analyzed ice core records from Greenland. As Sarah Laskow of Atlas Obscura explains, the ice cores showed clear evidence of both Eldgjá and the eruption of the Changbaishan volcano (also known as Mount Paektu and Tianchi volcano) in Asia, which is known to have occurred around 946 A.D. The team also looked at tree ring data from across the Northern Hemisphere, which showed that one of the coolest summers of the past 1500 years occurred in 940 A.D.—possibly because large quantities of sulfur were choking the atmosphere.
Based on this data, the researchers concluded that Eldgjá began in the spring of 939 and continued at least through the summer of 940, according to a University of Cambridge press release.
The team then consulted medieval texts from 939 and 940 that appear to chronicle the effects of the volcanic eruption. Accounts written in Ireland, Germany, Italy, China and Egypt describe bizarre and devastating atmospheric phenomena: a blood-red and weakened Sun, exceptionally harsh winters, severe droughts in the spring and summer, a suppression of the Nile’s flow. Climactic anomalies brought locust infestations, livestock deaths, dire subsistence crises, and vast human mortality.
“It was a massive eruption, but we were still amazed just how abundant the historical evidence is for the eruption's consequences,” Tim Newfield, study co-author and environmental historian at Georgetown University, said in the statement. “Human suffering in the wake of Eldgjá was widespread.”
No firsthand accounts from Iceland, the country most affected by Eldgjá, survive to the present day. But the study authors believe that a medieval poem written some 20 years after the eruption references Eldgjá’s devastation and attests to its profound effect on Icelandic society.
The Voluspá, a poem composed in approximately 961 A.D., tells of Iceland’s rejection of pagan deities and adoption of a single, Christian god. “The poem describes how the revered pagan god Odin raises a prophetess from the dead,” the researchers write in the study. “She foretells the end of the pagan pantheon and the coming of a new (and singular) god in a series of portents, one being the rearing of a monstrous wolf that will swallow the Sun.”
“[The wolf] is filled with the life-blood of doomed men, reddens the powers’ dwellings with ruddy gore,” a translation of the poem reads. “[T]he sun-beams turn black the following summers, weather all woeful: do you know yet, or what? The sun starts to turn black, land sinks into sea; the bright stars scatter from the sky. Steam spurts up with what nourishes life, flame flies high against heaven itself.”
This description of strange atmospheric phenomena—a darkened sky, strange weather, surges of steam—“suggest volcanic manifestations,” the authors of the study write. The Voluspá may include other impressions of Eldgjá’s fallout. One passage, for instance, describes “venom drops” flowing through roofs, which may be a reference to acid rain associated with volcanic plumes.
As the study notes, the widespread adoption of Christianity in Iceland was a gradual process that took place throughout the latter half of the 10th century. But based on the Voluspá’s account of a volcano-like event that brought paganism to its knees, the researchers posit that the terrifying Eldgjá eruption may have pushed Iceland’s population toward a new, monotheistic religion.