The Immovable Ladder of Jerusalem’s Church of The Holy Sepulchre

Feb 21, 2018 2 comments

Underneath one of the arched windows of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in the Old City of Jerusalem, there is an old wooden ladder casually leaning against the wall on the upper ledge. At first glance it appears as if the Church is undergoing renovation and the ladder was put there by a workman for repair works on the wall.

You can clearly see the ladder under the double window on this photograph taken very recently in 2017.


The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in 2017. Photo credit: Gary Bembridge/Flickr

Below is another photograph taken eleven years earlier, in 2007. Curiously, the ladder was still there.


The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in 2007. Photo credit: Dan/Flickr

And another photograph from more than thirty years ago. Notice the ladder? It stands on the exact same spot.


The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in 1987. Photo credit: Barbara Ann Spengler/Flickr

In fact, the ladder appears in every photo taken of the church. And before the age of photography, it featured on sketches, paintings and engravings. Indeed, the ladder has been an integral part of the building complex for at least three centuries, possibly even more.

Nobody knows for sure how the ladder got up there and when. What we know is that it was there in 1728—from an engraving and possibly the oldest depiction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre with the ladder under the window. The first written account mentioning the ladder, however, didn’t come by for another thirty years. Some accounts say that the ladder was put there by a mason who was doing restoration work in the Holy Sepulchre. But why wasn’t the ladder taken down once the work was done?


Illustration of the window and the ladder, circa 1874 and 1878


A photo of the church from 1895.


The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, circa 1890-1900.

Many places in the Holy Land of Jerusalem are revered by different religious groups, including the Christians, the Muslims and the Jews. Deciding who gets to manage which site has been a source of great conflict over the centuries.

In the 18th century, the Ottoman Sultan Osman III forced a compromise and decreed that whoever currently controlled a certain site would get to continue the control indefinitely. If multiple groups had claim to a site, then all of them would have to agree to any changes, however minor. Certain places went to the Muslims, some went to the Jews, but most went to the Christians. Despite the many subsequent changes of political power in the Holy Land, this status quo has remained essentially in force, with each religious group jealously guarding their relevant sites.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre holds great significance for every Christian denomination. It was built in the fourth century at the place where Jesus is said to have been crucified, buried and resurrected. Understandably, every Christian denomination wants to claim it. As it stands, there are six Christians groups who lay claim to the church, and they can’t arrive at an agreement what to do with the ladder.


Photo credit: Ron Almog/Flickr

According to some source, the windows belong to the Armenians but the ledge where the ladder rests belong to the Greek Orthodox. It was common for the Armenians to put a ladder under the window and descend to the ledge below to watch ceremonies in the square in front of the church. The Armenians also used the ledge to pull up with rope food and supplies brought to them. This offended the Greeks, but they couldn’t protest because the status quo was already laid down with the ladder beneath the window.

Today, the ladder has lost its practical function. It serves only as a symbol of the long-standing differences and divisions among Christians. Some say that the ladder serves as a reminder that the Church of the Holy Sepulcher belongs to all the churches rather than any one body of believers. For others, the ladder symbolizes human stupidity than anything else.

In the ladder’s recent history, there has been a few attempts to move it. In 1981 someone stole the ladder and it went missing for a short time. The local police soon found the ladder, and returned it to its rightful spot, though the perpetrators were never discovered. In 1997, the ladder went missing for several weeks before it was found. In 2009, the ladder was moved again, this time to make way for scaffolding that was needed to finish the renovations on the bell tower.


Photo credit: Jorge Láscar/Flickr


  1. Does it not rain there? Wouldnt it have rotted away after 300 years of exposure?


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