The Immovable Ladder at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher

At one point in our walking tour of Old Jerusalem I found myself standing before the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. I took a panorama of the plaza and while doing so briefly noticed a metal ladder leaning up against the building on the second floor.

Pano of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher: notice the immovable ladder?

Pano of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher: notice the immovable ladder?

The tour continued and I was crammed with more than 2,000 years of history in the span of two hours. (Note: this is more history than a human should ingest. My current rate is just under minute by minute.) Our tour moved on to an Armenian gift shop, not noticing me trying to pick up old childhood memories that had fallen out on the ground as they were displaced by new memories and facts about the 6 (six!!!) religious factions that lay claim to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

In this gift shop a very nice Armenian/Palestinian/Christian woman told us under the many watchful eyes of the pomegranates depicted on everything: “we fight over every centimeter here. It’s important that we do. Because if you give up one centimeter today, you will give up two centimeters tomorrow. And before you know it you won’t have any culture or land left.” I have to say I agree with this somewhat, but at its base this posture turns us all into rock hard stoic assholes who fight over something as small as a centimeter when there are bigger issues at hand.

...if you give up one centimeter today, you will give up two centimeters tomorrow. And before you know it you won’t have any culture or land left.
— Armenian Shopkeeper in Jerusalem

Later that day our hosts took us out for lunch. Over a table too small for the amount of plates delivered, they asked about our day. We chatted about this and that. About the smallness of the tables around the world, about religion, about space cats. Paul and his wife and kids have lived in Jerusalem for on about 4 years now, and have an interesting perspective on the customs and habits here.

Paul asked if we happened to stop by the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. I nodded as I was preparing a piece of soft warm pita for the softer warm hummus. He then asked if I noticed the ladder. I was taken aback a bit. It was kinda like he read my mind and I said as much. And this is how I came to learn about the story behind the ladder leaning up against the wall of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

Immovable Ladder at Church of the Holy Sepulcher

Immovable Ladder at Church of the Holy Sepulcher

“The ladder has been there many years. It’s a mystery who left it, and nobody will move it for fear of upsetting the others who claim dominion over the Church. The best part is that it’s not the original ladder. The original one was old and crumbly so the groups got together and chipped in for a new ladder and replaced it. And there it stands to this day.”

I find this little story to be a microcosm of Jerusalem, and as we toured around Bethlehem in the shadow of the massive wall or wandered the bustling Ben Yehuda market, I continued to ponder its significance. Could the story be true? In a city so filled with parable and metaphor and symbols it’s hard to tell. So I turned to the only place of real truth in the world: the Internet.

It turns out that the story is true, and it’s significance has not gone unnoticed. The first record of the immovable ladder comes in 1757, and has remained in that location since the 18th century. Except for one instance of renovation and one instance of a prank. The immovable ladder has become one of many symbols of the conflict over this contested city in this contested region.

1728 engraving of the immovable Ladder Church of the Holy Sepulcher

1728 engraving of the immovable Ladder Church of the Holy Sepulcher

And before you start to think that there is no way a fight would break out over an old ladder, take this story to heart - a monk at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher moved his chair a mere twenty centimeters to get out of the searing sun, an act that was considered "hostile" by the other monks and ended with 11 people being injured.

Pope Paul VI even created a pontifical order that the immovable ladder remain in place until the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church reach a state of unity, thereby dashing my hopes of walking up to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and claiming the immovable ladder for my own.

Tell us. Have you been to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher? Have you noticed the ladder and wondered why on earth it’s there?