Every year, hundreds of thousands of immigrants make their pilgrimage to the Old City of Jerusalem. Everyone who goes is definitely sure to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and see the two holiest sites in all of Christendom – Calvary, where Christ was crucified; and His empty tomb, where He was buried and rose from the dead. However, attentive onlookers will also notice something else – a ladder under the church’s window.
While at first glance it may look like the forgotten afterthought of a maintenance crew surely to retrieve it soon, but it actually has remained in place for almost 300 years. The Immovable Ladder, an endearing name it has become known by, is a small wooden ladder made of cedar wood from Lebanon situated above the facade and under the window at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Differing accounts tell the story of just exactly how the ladder came to be. One account places it as belonging to a mason doing restoration work on the church. The first textual account of the ladder describes its location in 1757, in an edict by the Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid I.
If its just a simple ladder, why has it remained in place for so many years? The answer comes down to an understanding called the Status Quo, an agreement among religious communities concerning nine shared religious sites in Jerusalem and Bethlehem. It states that for any changes to be made at any of the religious sites, all those who lay claim to the site must agree. In the case of the ladder at the church, they found it easier to simply do nothing.
In 1964, Pope Blessed Paul VI made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. He described the ladder as a symbol of division within Christianity. He gave pontifical orders that the ladder was to remain in place until the Catholic Church and Orthodox Church reach a state of ecumenism.
However, some have attempted to violate the Status Quo agreement. In 1981, an unknown perpetrator attempted to steal the ladder but was quickly thwarted by Israeli police. In 1997, the ladder was removed and went missing for weeks before being anonymously returned. In 2009, it was temporarily moved from the right window to the left window while renovations were being done on the bell tower.