The curious case of the ladder at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

The church in Jerusalem where Jesus was probably crucified has been the site of bickering clergy for hundreds of years—but one immovable ladder offers hope

April 14, 2022
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The ladder on the right window of the façade of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Credit: RnDmS / Alamy Stock Photo

If you stand in front of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, which encloses the place where Jesus was (probably) crucified and buried, you’ll spot a ladder. It’s a fairly ordinary-looking ladder, wooden, short—only five rungs—leaning against an upper window. Perhaps somebody cleaning the windows yesterday forgot to bring it back in?

Not quite.

As the culmination of the Christian pilgrimage experience, the Holy Sepulchre is a place of profound sanctity and emotion. As a church it’s small, dark, noisy, confusing, a bit sweaty and there’s nowhere to sit. Though it has stood where it stands today for nigh on 1,700 years, it has disappointed generations of pilgrims with its mundanity and the bickering among its clergy.

Six denominations share the building. The Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Orthodox are richest, so have most power and influence. The Syriac, Coptic and Ethiopian Orthodox manage to cling on. Others, including the Georgian, Serbian and Maronite churches, were ejected several centuries ago, while all the Protestant churches developed too late to have even a toe-hold.

With so much at stake, spiritually, financially and politically, there has always been jockeying for position—so much so that in 1757 the Ottoman sultan Othman III, who controlled Jerusalem, issued a ruling that codified the power relations existing within the church at that time. This “Status Quo,” as it was called, was reaffirmed in 1852 and then elevated to become an instrument of international law. It is still in force today.

The Status Quo means that everything that happens in the church—from renovation works to the timing of services to who picks up litter—is governed by mutually agreed rules. A strict rota exists for who opens and closes the church door, and in what fashion, according to a set sequence of actions. A representative of one denomination may light a candle only with the express agreement of representatives of the other denominations, since lighting a candle implies an assertion of ownership of the candle, and thus of the candlestick, and thus of the place where the candlestick stands, and thus of other places in the vicinity, and thus, perhaps, of the entire church—an issue of the utmost seriousness, with consequences that could reverberate around the world.

It's easy to ridicule the Status Quo. Why can’t everybody just get on? But imagine. If you were to allow a rival to, say, sweep dust from a certain corner, then the next time that corner needed to be swept, your rival will say that last time it was allowed so why not this time, and there will be no good argument against it. A precedent has been set. That corner has become the responsibility of your rival. With responsibility, naturally, comes possession. And so your nation’s sanctified heritage in this most holy of places, the solemn bequest of a hundred generations, entrusted to you for the veneration of the saviour of humanity himself, has been forfeit in your own time. And for what? For the sweeping of dust? It’s unthinkable. It must be resisted at all costs.

Think of the Status Quo like the United Nations. It’s a bit nutty, and is in desperate need of reform, but nonetheless it’s a rules-based international order. It has for more than two centuries successfully eliminated unilateral power-plays in one of the world’s most sensitive flashpoints.

However, the Status Quo says nothing about moving ladders. So that ladder leaning against an upper window cannot be moved. Ever. It’s been there since the Status Quo came into force 265 years ago. In fact, an engraving exists from 1728 showing the ladder, so it might have been there even longer. Some say it’s a stonemason’s ladder, others that it dates from a time when the Ottomans restricted movement in and out of the church, and was placed in order to allow clerics access to an outside ledge for sunshine and, perhaps, to grow vegetables. Nobody knows.

The ladder is older than cameras. Every photo ever made of the façade of the church, over the entire history of photography, shows it in place—bar a couple of exceptions. In 2009 some prankster moved the ladder along the ledge, until the church authorities noticed and moved it back. Worse, in 1997 a tourist identified only as “Andy” snuck around inside the church until he located the right window, leaned out, pulled the ladder in and hid it. He wanted to make a point about how ridiculous he thought the Status Quo was. The ladder was found some time later and put back.

Andy was ignorant, self-entitled and deeply rude—but also small-minded. In the ladder, he could only see division. But the ladder really represents something better: us. Human hopes, desires, fears and frailty have put the ladder in place and kept it there. There have been generations of spiritual and intellectual toil in this extraordinary place; centuries of praying, fighting and yearning. Without meaning to go overboard, I love the ladder because it says faith is about people. It gestures around at this holiest of churches, and all of Jerusalem, and each person watching, and it says all of this is about all of us, striving for the best. The ladder, oddly, is truth.