Ancient Sudarium

blog post photo

by Ancient X-Files production team

Jerusalem is a difficult city to film in. Not least because we were caught in a city where riots happen daily. We couldn’t travel anywhere without coming into contact with a military check point or road blocks. We had to change plans every minute and be flexible about what and where we shot. The problem is, even though we may be flexible, often the filming cannot be so flexible. Although we were diverted by the military every day, the one time we couldn’t film had nothing to do with them. One morning we couldn’t get out of the hotel because the road that led to the location was being used for a Marathon. One by one athletes jogged by as we watched in frustration. I ended up missing a scene as a result. All the fixer could do was shrug her shoulders and say ‘It’s Jerusalem!’.  Even she never gets used to it here.

Reconstructing a 1st century burial in a tomb on a hillside looking over the old city was fun. We actually used a real 1st century tomb right next to one that Shimon Gibson, an archaeologist and character in the film, excavated and found the only example of a shroud from Jerusalem, from the time of Christ. Looking at the cramped size of these tombs I have no idea how he climbed in.

Getting the actor to play the Jesus character that we wrap in the shroud, or should I say hotel sheets, was a big decision that put me into a quandary for days. Should he look or not look like Christ? If he looks too much like Christ it becomes too much of a historic statement, if he looks too modern he doesn’t represent the past, it was a big decision. The trawl for the right Jesus character involved asking porters in the hotel and every day getting emails with actors, students etc. from casting agents. Many of them looked more at home on a catwalk than in a 1st century burial. Surprisingly, all these people seemed happy to get their clothes off on a hillside on the outskirts of Jerusalem and getting covered in olive oil (although I have to say we did it during school hours to avoid any kids poking fun at the actor). In the end the actor enjoyed the filming so much he wanted to stay with us all day and join us for the rest of the shoot, even though he was still rather slimy and covered in oil. It was also a hot day and he started to smell like he was being gently roasted by mid-afternoon. Not an unpleasant smell, but it did make you hungry.

One sore point from my perspetive was when Shimon and a helper had to lift the Jesus actor into the tomb. Although quite small he was rather muscular and turned out to be heavier than expected. Shimon announces he has a bad back and will struggle to carry the body at all. Bad timing. One of the many problems of the director.

The Israel Antiquities Textile lab was fascinating. This is where the burial shroud that Shimon Gibson discovered was kept. In fact every textile ever found in Israel, including those from the Dead Sea Scrolls, are kept here. The biggest shock was the textile experts surprise at the authenticity of the shroud — she expected it to be easily dismissed as a medieval fake, like the Turin shroud. But she was amazed at the quality and possibility of the shroud being from the right period. The other Jerusalem shroud also told an incredible story. It had blackened with exposure to oxygen, but the tiny black piece of cloth was still matted with very fine and clean hair. Of all the things that the textile expert commented on it was the fact that the hair had no nits — this amazed her. Apparently everyone at the time of Christ had nits unless they were rich and washed regularly. Which this man apparently did.  However the other thing the cloth told was that the person wrapped in the shroud had leprosy. Again a common disease in 1st century Jerusalem.

The event of Christ being wrapped in a shroud is believed to have happened in a huge church called The Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Here in one church is the place where the crucifixion happened, where the covering of Christ’s dead body in the shroud happened and where he was buried. It is possible to do a sort of tour around his last hours by walking around the different locations in the church.

However Shimon believes the place claimed to be the site of the crucifixion is wrong. Thousands of pilgrims pray here every day, but people walk right past the place he thinks Christ was executed. Several years ago he was allowed access to the rock where Christ and two others were executed by crucifixion. He made the simple observation that there was not enough room for one let alone three crucifixes. He then saw the maps of a much older church that were dedicated to the death of Christ, but was destroyed to make way for this huge church. The current church is a Crusader construction. This old Armenian church claimed it was made on the place where Christ was crucified. All of this got lost in the sands of politics and time. However, this location is nowhere near the current site of the crucifixion. If this old Armenian church is correct, then the crucifixion happened on what today is a really inconspicuous corner of the huge Crusader church, at the top of a set of steps leading down to what is today the Armenian cloister. People walk right over it without knowing. It seems the politics of owning the place where Christ was crucified is more important than the place itself.

Tracking down the cave where the Sudarium was found was an incredible adventure to be a part of. Firstly, getting access to the military zone which was laced with land mines and churches, felt like being in some twilight world. No one was there but us and a few soldiers who were escorting us around. Then we went to a river that is the border with Jordan and waved across the river to Jordanian soldiers on the other side. Israel is a country of checkpoints and borders within borders. This was an area where our Israeli fixer didn’t feel comfortable or safe guiding us around, so we had an Arab fixer to take us to safe zones and into Arab areas. Thankfully this day and throughout the whole shoot we met no hostilities.

Video Preview: “Covering the Face of Christ” — Would the shroud that covered Christ’s body have been kept safe as a religious relic?

Don’t miss Ancient X-Files The Blood of Christpremiering September 27th at 10P et/pt.