We all love symbols. One image can say so many things. Hearts for love and folded hands for prayers.
Another example is the ladder in the Old City of Jerusalem. Just an old, wooden ladder.
It has, however, for at least 142 years been a symbol of both unity and division. As such, it symbolizes an official “status quo” that exists there. “Status quo” comes from the Latin, meaning “the way things were before” and, by extension, the ways things are now.
The ladder stands outside a window on the second floor of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the site of the tomb of Christ.
The church, which also contains Golgotha, is controlled by six groups: Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox and the Armenian Apostolic Church, as well as chapels belonging to the Coptic Orthodox, the Syriac Orthodox and the Ethiopian Orthodox. (The Ethiopian chapel is on the roof of the Chapel of St. Helen).
The Holy Sepulcher traces back to a structure first built in the fourth century by the Roman Emperor Constantine. His mother, St. Helen, came to the Holy Land in 326 A.D. to discover the sacred sites of Christ’s life. Golgotha and Christ’s tomb were two of these.
In the seventh century, Persian invaders destroyed most of Constantine’s church. It was rebuilt, but twice damaged by earthquakes. Most of today’s church was built by crusaders in the 12th century.
Peace didn’t last
For its first centuries, there was peace among the Christians in the Holy Land. However, after the break between the East and the West in 1099, irritations rose. These escalated as Muslim armies overran the area. Finally, the Western church launched the Crusades. These bloody engagements widened the rift between the East and West. Peace was finally restored, and maintained, under various Muslim sultans.
Finally, in 1852, Sultan Abdülmecid I issued a firman (an “edict”) that the Church of the Holy Sepulcher would be shared between the Greeks, the Catholics and the Armenians. This became known as the “Status Quo of the Holy Places” (1852), and was later guaranteed in Article LXII of the Treaty of Berlin (1878) after Russia had overthrown the Ottoman Empire.
Around this time the ladder — now called the “immovable ladder” — appeared. Some sources say it had been there since 1757, but no one knows for sure. In fact, no one knows which church put it there, though most often cited are the Armenians.
Under the firman, all the churches involved must agree before anything is done in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. That has not been easy. It is so difficult, in fact, that the keys to the church’s entrance are held by two Muslim families. (Anyone else having the key could argue that they owned the church.)
The need for complete agreement extends to repairs. In 1927, another earthquake damaged the Edicule, the ornate shrine surrounding Christ’s tomb. The British government, which controlled what was then known as Palestine, built an iron cage around it to prevent the structure from collapsing.
However, that meant to be a temporary fix. Yet nothing changed and, by the early part of this century, the deterioration was clear. Finally, the Israeli police shut down the church and barricaded it on Feb. 17, 2015, fearing the whole thing would collapse.
This forced the six churches to alter their status quo. A March 22, 2016 agreement saw the three main partners agree to contribute to the $3.4 million cost of repairs. Within a year, the work was done and capped with an ecumenical ceremony on March 22, 2017.
Everything went so well that the three churches entered another agreement, in 2019, to repair the pavements under the church that had rusted from rain water runoff.
But through it all, the immovable ladder remained. Oh, it has been moved — at least three times in the last 50 years. Someone tried to steal in 1981. Someone else hid it for several weeks in 1997. Finally, in 2009, it was moved to set up scaffolding. It has also sometimes been moved from the left window to the right. However, photos dating to the 19th century show it largely in the same place. So that ladder remains as both a symbol of disunity and, now with the renovations, a symbol of potential unity.
Yet things remain heated. Attempts to drown each other out with singing or the clanging of bells continue. Priests of other churches, as long as they are wearing vestments, may use the Armenian walkway to the Edicule, but cannot stop and stand there because that could be seen as a challenge to Armenian rights. In 2008, a fight broke out between Greek Orthodox monks and the Armenians that had to be broken up by Israeli police.
Still, constructive work is being done together and there is cooperation with the Israeli government.
As the three leaders of the Greek, Roman Catholic and Armenian churches declared when announcing the current pavement work: “This project comes immediately after the positive outcome of the project for the restoration of the holy tomb itself. It marks and confirms the communities’ ongoing commitment to the maintenance and rehabilitation of this holiest place which, in its silence and barrenness, eloquently proclaims the very essence of our faith.”
It is a start and it is a change in the status quo. The ladder stands as silent witness. It is said that when St. Paul VI made his famous visit to the Holy Land in 1964, he saw that ladder and asked that it remain where it was until the Roman Catholic and the Greek Orthodox churches reunite.
Sources: The Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, the Custody of the Holy Land at custodia.org; ancient-origins.net; en.jerusalem-patriarchate.info; Catholic News Service; timesofisrael.com; thevintagenews.com; Aleteia.org; Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and The New York Times