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 that 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.
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? 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.