If you ever visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, be sure to turn your gaze to the upper-story windows on the main facade. Just beneath the window on the right, you’ll find a ladder.
At first it might seem like a simple ladder of little account, probably left by someone doing recent maintenance. That is, until you learn that it’s been there for three centuries.
They call it the Immovable Ladder, and it has become a powerful symbol of something all Christians will have to give an account of someday: our painful, long-standing divisions.
This is its story.
No one is exactly sure how the ladder got there in the first place. Some accounts say the ladder was left there by a mason doing some restoration work on the church, but no is sure exactly when.
An engraving from all the way to 1723 appears to include the ladder. The first mention of the ladder in writing dates to 1757, when Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid I mentioned it in an edict. Various lithographs and photographs in the 19th century show the ladder.
Here’s one such photo from 1885, with the ladder circled:
But if the ladder was left there by a mason in the early 18th century or earlier, why has it remained there for so long? The answer has to do with how the holy site is managed.
Like many places in the Holy Land, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is revered by many different religious groups. Deciding who gets to manage it has been a source of great conflict over the centuries.
In the 18th century, the Ottoman Sultan Osman III forced a compromise that came to be known as the Status Quo agreement: in addition to splitting Jerusalem up into quadrants, he decreed that whoever currently controlled a certain site would get to continue to control that site indefinitely. If multiple groups had claim to a site, then all of them would have to agree to any changes, however minor.
That last part has averted war but also prevented the proper upkeep of various pilgrimage sites. Unless all the relevant parties come to total agreement about how something should be improved, cleaned, or fixed, nothing at all can happen.
This helps to explain why the ladder hasn’t moved. Currently, six Christians groups have claims to the church, and they have found it easier to simply leave the ladder where it is. At this point, it’s not even clear who the ladder belongs to exactly, though some people argue it belongs to the Armenian Apostolic Church, along with the ledge that it is on.
In 1964, the ladder took on a new meaning. Pope Bl. Paul VI was visiting the Holy Land and was pained at how the ladder, which had become a symbol of the Status Quo agreement, was also a reminder of the scandalous divisions among Christians. So he decreed that the ladder remain exactly where it is until the divisions between Christians are resolved. Since the Roman Catholic Church is one of the six Christian groups with veto power over any changes, at this point the ladder will not be going anywhere for at least that reason.
That doesn’t mean some people haven’t tried to move it anyway! In 1981, someone tried to move the ladder, but was quickly stopped by Israeli police. In 1997, a prankster actually managed to successfully steal it, and it remained missing for several weeks! Fortunately, it was eventually recovered and put back in its place.
Here’s a picture of the person stealing the ladder in 1997:
More recently, the ladder was moved only briefly in 2009 while workers were taking down scaffolding used to repair the bell tower.
But maybe, someday, full Christian unity will be achieved, and the ladder will be legitimately removed.