Graffiti or homage? Hi-tech imaging sheds light on Holy Sepulchre wall crosses

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Low Angle View Of Cupola At The Holy Sepulchre. (Photo: Carlos Restrepo Angarita/ EyeEm/ Getty)
Low Angle View Of Cupola At The Holy Sepulchre. (Photo: Carlos Restrepo Angarita/ EyeEm/ Getty)
  • Revered in Christian tradition as the site of Jesus’s crucifixion and burial, Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre bustles with worshippers and clergy.
  • Crosses etched in mysterious abundance across the walls of Christianity’s most sacred church were long assumed to be graffiti.
  • Research suggests they may be the work of mediaeval masons paid to carve them by pilgrims.


Crosses etched in mysterious abundance across the walls of Christianity’s most sacred church were long assumed to be graffiti, but they may be the work of mediaeval masons paid to carve them by pilgrims, research suggests.

Revered in Christian tradition as the site of Jesus’s crucifixion and burial, Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre usually bustles with worshippers and clergy. That has made study of the sacred markings difficult.

But renovations in 2018 at one of its chapels featuring thousands of the close-bunched and hand-engraved crosses gave Israel’s Antiquities Authority and Hadassah Academic College Jerusalem an opportunity for research.

Jerusalem, Church of the Holy Sepulchre,  Chapel o
Jerusalem, Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Chapel of St. Helena, Ancient Crusaders Graffiti of the crypt, Old City (Unesco Heritage), Holy Land. (Photo: Stefani Stefani/ Getty)
A series of stone carvings of a Christian cross co
A series of stone carvings of a Christian cross cover a series of stone blocks on a basement wall of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City of Jerusalem. (Photo: Searagen/ Getty)
Graffiti of many languages and eras is carved into
Graffiti of many languages and eras is carved into the columns, placed there by the Crusaders, at the entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.( Photo: Hanan Isachar/ Getty)

In coordination with the Armenian Orthodox Church, which controls the chapel, the scholars used digital cameras and three-dimensional imaging to map out, compare and date the crosses.

“This unique phenomenon always baffled us: Is it graffiti of the pilgrims, or rather, something else?...,” said Amit Re’em, Jerusalem regional archaeologist for the Authority.

“We saw that all of them (crosses) have the same depth and even the marking of the mason,” he said, provisionally dating them to the 15th century.

“Maybe two or three hand artists made these crosses,” Re’em said. “...So it’s not graffiti, it’s something more organised.

"Let’s say that you are an Armenian pilgrim, so you pay something to the priest, you pay something to this special artist and he carved for you, for the benefit of your soul and your relatives’ souls, ...a special cross in the most sacred place for Christianity on earth,” Re’em said.

Father Samuel Aghoyan, the Armenian superior at the Holy Sepulchre, saw benefits to the church from the research, especially as it struggles to emerge from COVID-19 lockdowns? ?and prepares for Easter.

“Now there are no pilgrims here, (but) still their spirit is here, we know, I believe in that,” he said.

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