Paralysis by serial veto

Church of Holy Sepulcher entranceIf you look at the picture on the left, you’ll see a ladder on the upper right window looking at the entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. You may not believe it, but there’s more chance than is usually the case with relics that the church is on the right spot. It’s location was not arrived at in the middle ages, but in the third century by St Helena, Constantine’s Mum who turned up in Jerusalem and looked for relics.

Anyway, the attentive viewer might assume that the ladder will be moved some time soon, it’s job in lifting up some tradesman to work on the window done. But you’d be wrong, something which is well illustrated by the companion photo from the late nineteenth century. There’s that ladder again!

In fact the ladder turned up sometime in the 1850s. So what’s it still doing there? This is the explanation offered by Atlas Obscura which offers itself as a “compendium of the world’s wonders, curiosities, esoterica (I guess this qualifies in the latter two categories).

The church is run by six denominations – Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic and Roman catholic church, with lesser duties shared by Coptic, Ethiopian and Syriac Orthodox churches.

The whole edifice is carefully parcelled into sections, some being commonly shared while others belonging strictly to a particular sect. A set of complicated rules governs the transit rights of the other groups through each particular section on any given day, and especially during the holidays. Some of the sections of the church however still remain hotly disputed to this day. Arguments and violent clashes are not uncommon. In November 2008 the internet was flooded with videos of a fistfight between Armenian and Greek monks in one such dispute. A small section of the roof of the church is disputed between the Copts and Ethiopians. At least one Coptic monk at any given time sits there on a chair placed on a particular spot to express this claim. On a hot summer day he moved his chair some 20cm more into the shade. This was interpreted as a hostile act and violation of status quo. Eleven were hospitalized after a fight resulting from this provocation.

This state of affairs makes any agreement about renovations or repairs on the edifice impossible. The church is in a state of decay as a result.

The famous immovable ladder is a bizarre outcome of this religious stubbornness pushed to extremes. Some time in the first half of the 19th century, someone has placed a ladder up against the wall of the church. No one is sure whom he was, or more importantly, to which sect he belonged. The ladder remains there to this date. No one dares touch it, lest they disturb the status quo, and provoke the wrath of others. The exact date when ladder was placed is not known but the first evidence of it comes from 1852.

The ladder hasn’t moved since.

The immovable ladder is a nice metaphor for decision making with large groups or within complex systems of rules or regulations.  Satisfying them all can be hard. And when the obstacles are not ‘hard’ ones, they can be soft sociological ones.  Within bureaucracies one is ill-advised to offend anyone gravely – often even if they’re not very important.  People don’t like other people getting their noses seriously out of joint and will go to some lengths to preserve harmony and consensus.  So the immovable ladder goes into my slide pack to illustrate the problems of paralysis by serial veto. And below the fold, you’ll find a spooky codicil to the story.  Just spooky. Come in Dan Brown, come in.

The explanation for this spooky picture is here, though I think you’ll agree it’s not really an explanation at all!  The rapture may be at hand. Last drinks anyone?

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18 Responses to Paralysis by serial veto

  1. Paul Frijters says:

    what a great example.

  2. MikeM says:

    Within bureaucracies one is ill-advised to offend anyone gravely – often even if they’re not very important.

    A topical example of what can happen if this principle is broken is the fuss in Washington over Elizabeth Warren and Representative Patrick T McHenry:

    THE denizens of Capitol Hill let out a gasp last week when Elizabeth Warren upended the natural order of things by telling a congressman that his time to question her had run out.

    Ms. Warren, the Harvard Law professor who has raised the hackles of Republicans as she directs the start-up of a new consumer protection agency, was being grilled by Representative Patrick T. McHenry, a North Carolina Republican, when a dispute erupted over whether they had a deal that she would stay just one hour. Soon, the usual false pleasantries of Washington gave way to a shocking — or, depending on one’s point of view, delightful — breach of decorum.

    “Congressman, you are causing problems,” Ms. Warren declared; Mr. McHenry, in not so many words, responded by calling her a liar. The upshot was a city abuzz with tsk-tsking, and in some quarters applause, at a bureaucrat’s brazen violation of a cardinal rule of the Capitol Hill etiquette book: the Congressman Is Always Right. […]

  3. conrad says:

    I’m with Paul, that’s a super example. Perhaps you can also use it as an example that it’s possible to make things that last — People’s houses fall to pieces in Australia more quickly than that ladder (and perhaps the Church pictured won’t last as long as the ladder either by the sound of it).

  4. Nicholas Gruen says:

    I’m not so sure it is the same ladder. It looks in pretty good nick to me – I figure it might have been replaced – perhaps restored at various times, one piece at a time, so that none of the components of the original ladder is there, but the original ladder is there, if you get my drift. But I don’t know.

  5. john says:

    Nicholas are you totally sure it is not there for maintenance reasons?

  6. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Well, I’ve shown you the documentation. And I’ve told you what the people in Jerusalem told me. So in so far as you can be totally sure about such a thing, I’m totally sure. But it does depend on what you mean by totally. Why wouldn’t they take the ladder inside if it were just needed for maintenance? That’s what they do everywhere else.

  7. Don Arthur says:

    Nicholas – Nice example!

    You might be right about it not being the same ladder. According to Simon Goldhill:

    As the ladder rots, it is replaced with an exact copy — so that there is always the ladder that was always there (Jerusalem: city of longing p 13).

  8. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Do you have a reference?

  9. Don Arthur says:

    I found the quote via Google Books. It’s from Goldhill’s Jerusalem: city of longing (p 13).

  10. Paul Montgomery says:

    It could be a load-bearing ladder.

  11. Nicholas Gruen says:

    It could be being a ladder in its spare time.

  12. john says:


    Maybe its pining for the fiords?

    The explanation of the spooky picture of the ,ladder, in a different place , could be- the overnight cleaner forgot to put it exactly back in place, no?

  13. wilful says:

    That’s great.

    I am totally ripping this off for a metafilter post (I will attribute).

  14. Nicholas Gruen says:


    This is religion after all. Why accept a simple explanation when you can bring the rapture into it?

    But I do think there is a fair chance that the ladder is pining for the fjords.

  15. Don Arthur says:

    Nicholas – James Lancaster has lots of references.

  16. john says:

    In the more orthodox end , the body of the church- the continuance of the ritual- is all important and the text -the theory- is secondary. Hence some orthodox regard the “American folk religions’ as “heresy”.

  17. nick says:

    I’m with Paul too – superb example – metaphor overload!

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