Pilgrims and tourists endure longs queues to spend a couple of moments in the candle-lit chamber inside the shrine and all three communities focus rituals around it. The shrine’s current structure was built in 1810 after a fire ravaged the church but the 200-year-old mortar that hold its marble slabs together is beginning to give way.
At the urging of the Israeli government, which did not want to test whether tourists crushed by falling marble would eventually be resurrected, the Orthodox initiated negotiations with the other two groups.
The talks were delicate but led to an agreement in late March with all three sides paying towards the cost. The agreement was first reported by the New York Times.
“The discussions were fascinating but I can tell you no more,” laughed Antonia Moropoulou, a professor at Athen’s National Technical University who is overseeing the restoration. “This is a scientific and technical challenge but it is also, of course, a political and a cultural challenge.”
The shrine was rocked by an earthquake in 1927 and twenty years later the British authorities clamped it in iron girders to prevent it from collapsing.
This is the first restorative work since then and Prof Moropoulou said the British bars could be removed after the project is finished early next year.
Jerusalem history is littered with examples of un-Christian behaviour at one of Christianity’s holiest sites.
On Good Friday 1846, the Orthodox and Catholics got into an argument over who would hold their service first. Angry words escalated into priests fighting with candlesticks, crucifixes and eventually pistols smuggled into the church.
The last fight was in 2008, when the Armenians and the Orthodox traded blows during an Armenian feast. Israeli police eventually waded into melee and broke up the fighting.