Aelia Capitolina


Some 40 years after its destruction by the Romans in 70 AD Jerusalem still lay in ruins. Of all the outstanding buildings erected by Herod the Great, only part of the western retaining wall of the Temple Mount (the "western wall") and three towers of the tyrant's former palace near the present Jaffa Gate remained. According to Josephus they were left "in order to demonstrate to posterity what kind of city it was, and how well-fortified, which the Roman valor had subdued." The destruction of the Temple, the general devastation and the great loss of life caused the Jews enormous despair. The high priest and his role as leader was gone forever. The rabbis attempted to find a middle ground between mourning for the Temple and adjusting to life without it.

In 117 AD Publius Aelius Hadrianus (more familiarly, Hadrian) became emperor, and he was determined that mighty Rome would never again be troubled by the alien Jews. Their civilization would be expunged. Like Antiochus IV centuries before him, he outlawed circumcision and made the study or practice of Judaism a capital crime. The ruins of the Jewish capital — and even its name — were to be obliterated. In 129 AD he visited Jerusalem and, aware that Jewish nationalism was still alive, he issued a series of edicts forbidding circumcision and the observance of the Sabbath. 

Hadrian's actions sparked a violent reaction from the Jews. In 132 AD, sixty-two years after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by Titus, the Jews still living near the city gathered enough strength for one last desperate revolt (the Galilean Jews did not take part). Under the leadership of Simeon ben Koseva, known as Bar-Kochba ("Son of the Star"), the Romans were driven out of Jerusalem. The rebels minted coins bearing the facade of the Temple, now only a memory, and even started preparations to restore it. But they had too little time.

Realizing the gravity of the rebellion, the Romans brought in the full might of their military. Hadrian dispatched his best general, Severus, to quell the uprising and once again Jerusalem fell. The Jews were banned from re-entering the city under penalty of death, their communities were broken up and great numbers were sold into slavery or sent to Rome. Others fled south into Egypt and across north Africa, or north and east to join existing Jewish communities in Asia Minor and Babylon who had settled there after the destruction of the First Temple, built by Solomon centuries earlier. This was the second great scattering of the Jews, known as the Diaspora (Greek "dispersion").

With the revolt suppressed, Hadrian, who was devoted to the erection of magnificent buildings and cities, was free to complete his rebuilding project. It substantially altered the character of Jerusalem. Hadrian plowed a furrow ("pomerium") around the city which, in Roman tradition, defined the boundaries of a new city. Greeks were brought in to replace the Jews and the desolate site was transformed into an up-to-date Hellenistic city. Whereas one God was honored in the pre-Hadrian city, now many gods were worshipped there: Jupiter, Aphrodite, Asclepius, Dionysus, Tyche (meaning, "luck," the goddess of fortune) and Nemesis (the goddess of revenge, one of the symbols of Rome). In the two centuries after the establishment of Aelia Capitolina, Jerusalem was reduced to the status of a minor Roman provincial town, and the Jews became a minority in their land.

Archaeological finds related to Aelia Capitolina


After suppressing the Second Jewish Revolt (132-135 AD), Hadrian implimented his plan to rebuild Jerusalem on a smaller scale. To remove any association with the Jews he renamed it Aelia Capitolina, after his family name (Aelius) and the three Capitoline gods — Jupiter, Juno and Minerva. Hadian also changed the name of the country from Judea to Syria Palaestina, derived from the Philistines (Pelleste), the long-vanished enemy of the Hebrews.


Right, coin issued during the reign of Hadrian commemorating the founding of Aelia Capitolina. A bust of the emperor on one side; Hadrian as founder shown plowing with team of oxen and a military standard behind.


Hadrian's new city was laid out like a Roman camp, divided into quarters by a cardo maximus (north-south street) and decumanus (east-west street), with two marketplaces, a theater, public baths and temples. During the initial Roman period the city was divided into two distinct areasa civilian section in the north and a Roman encampment in the south. Even today a map of the Old City reveals a clear difference in the street plan between the northern and the southern sectors. In the northern sector (today's Moslem and Christian Quarters), the alignment of streets at right angles reflects an orderly geometric network of streets. In marked contrast, the southern part of the Old City (the Armenian and Jewish Quarters) is a jumble of streets coming together at odd angles. This area was indiscriminately settled, without any central plan, after the Roman Tenth Legion, which had been stationed in Jerusalem since putting down the First Jewish Revolt in 70 AD, was transferred from Jerusalem at the end of the 3rd century AD to ward off an Arab invasion, leaving Jerusalem unprotected.


Originally Hadrian intended to erect a temple of his patron god, Jupiter Capitolinas, on the now barren platform of the Temple Mount. He seems to have had second thoughts, because no visitor ever reported seeing a pagan temple on the Herodian platform, only two statues, one of Hadrian himself, the other of his successor Antonius Pius. Rather, the Temple of Jupiter may have been built beside the commercial agora or marketplace to the west of the Temple Mount.


In his "Life of Constantine," Eusebius of Caesarea (265-340 AD), a native of Palestine, recounted how the hill of Golgotha and the nearby garden containing Christ's cave-tomb at the west side of the city were covered over to level off the area for the construction of a platform, where a Roman temple to the goddess Venus was built:

"This sacred cave, then, certain impious and godless persons had thought to remove entirely from the eyes of men, supposing in their folly that thus they should be able to effectively obscure the truth. Accordingly, they brought a quantity of dirt from a distance with much labor, and covered the entire spot; then, having raised this to a moderate height, they paved it with stone, concealing the holy cave beneath this massive mound. Then, as though their purpose had been effectively accomplished, they prepared on this foundation a truly dreadful sepulcher of souls, by building a gloomy shrine of lifeless idols to the impure spirit whom they call Venus, and offering detestable oblations therein on profane and accursed altars. For they supposed that their object could not otherwise be fully attained, than by thus burying the sacred cave beneath these foul pollutions."

On coins of the time Hadrian's pagan temple is represented as a round building with a dome; within was a marble statue of the goddess (below left). It was built on the east-west axis and was surrounded by a protective wall (temenos) (below right, excavated remains in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher) with its facade on the Cardo Maximus, the main north-south street of Aelia Capitolina, from where devotees could enter the sacred enclosure.



It is worth noting that Hadrian targeted an existing place of worship used by the Jewish-Christian community of Jerusalem.


Christians later accused Hadrian of deliberately desecrating their holy place, but it is unlikely that the emperor ever took notice of the obscure group of Jewish-Christians residing in his new city. However, by this action, the precise spot of Christ's crucifixion, burial and resurrection was marked by a pagan shrine, with the unintended result that its memory was preserved for later generations.


Eastern Marketplace of Aelia Capitolina

In the Muslim Quarter of the Old City, near the start of the Via Dolorosa, the traditional route commemorating Jesus' way to his crucifixion, is the Convent of the Sisters of Zion. Here, a flight of steps leads down seven feet below present street level to an area of paving stones once claimed to be the "lithostratos" (KJV) or "stone pavement" (NIV) referred to in John 19:13 where Pontius Pilate interrogated Jesus before sentencing him to death. Recent studies, however, have shown it was actually part of the eastern marketplace or forum of Aelia Capitolina, built in 135 AD, a hundred years after Jesus' crucifixion. The stones glisten with age, polished by horses hooves and countless footsteps of pilgrims; some are etched with games played by bored Roman soldiers (bottom right).




Triumphal arch

Emerging from the south wall of the Convent of the Sisters of Zion along the Via Dolorosa is another remnant of Aelia Capitolina, the so-called Ecce Homo Arch. It was once claimed to mark the spot where Pontius Pilate presented Jesus to the crowd (John 19:5) with the words, "Here is the man!" (Latin, ecce homo). Like the "stone pavement" it was not here in Jesus' time. It is, in fact, two-thirds of the center span of a triple arch built at the western end of the eastern marketplace of Aelia Capitolina to commemorate a Roman victory in 135 AD over Jewish rebels led by Bar Kochba. In the mid-19th century, the northern end of the arch was incorporated into the interior of the Convent of the Sisters of Zion; the southern end was destroyed.


Below, the Ecce Homo Arch, as seen today along the Via Dolorosa

Above, the Ecce Homo arch as it appeared before the left side of the main arch and the smaller left portal were incorporated into the Convent of the Sisters of Zion, built in 1857 after the Crimean War. The small arch now frames the altar of the convent church.


Reconstructed Cardo Maximus in the Jewish Quarter

Lined with columns, the Cardo Maximus or Cardo (referring to the heart), was the main north-south street of Aelia Capitolina. It extended from what is now the Damascus Gate in the north through the civilian section of the Roman city as far south as the northern border of the Roman Tenth Legion campsite (today's David Street). Further south, no remains of the Roman-era Cardo were found. The Roman engineers sought to construct straight, level streets. But they had to contend with Jerusalem's hilly topography. On the southern side of the cardo they had to lower the ground level by cutting through the rock, while on the northern side they raised the level. Originally, the Cardo was 73 feet wide, divided by two rows of columns into a broad street flanked on either side by 16-foot-wide roofed pedestrian walkways. The central roadway was 41 feet wide and it was laid upon several feet of earthen fill.


Visitors can get a good idea of how the Cardo Maximus looked just beyond the entrance to today's Jewish Quarter. Here, you can descend 13-feet below present street level to a reconstructed section of the Cardo running almost 650 feet alongside Jewish Quarter Road (Ha-Yehudim). You can walk today, as did people some 1800 years ago, and imagine a Roman Jerusalem, a city without Jews.


Right, reconstructed section of the Cardo Maximus in the Jewish Quarter, with columns and the remains of shops partly carved out of the rock on the west side of the street. The columns supported a wooden roof (no longer preserved) that covered the shopping area and protected the patrons from the sun and rain. Today the street is some 19 feet below the present street level, indicating the level of debris accumulated in the last 1400 years.


During the reign of emperor Justinian (527-565 AD) a southern extension of the Cardo was built linking the two main churches of Byzantine Jerusalem, the Holy Sepulcher and the Nea Church. In the 12th century, the Crusaders built a covered bazaar over the northern section of the Cardo. This portion (right), now beneath modern buildings of the Jewish Quarter, has been preserved as an arcade of exclusive shops and boutiques, where Jewish storekeepers sell fancy souvenirs and keepsakes to tourists "for a good price." Along with the modern shops, archaeological remains from various periods are displayed and identified. Well-like viewing ports in the center of the street reveal fragments of the city's defensive walls dating from the First Temple period, about 700 BC, now well-below the present street level.


This street continues north to the Damascus Gate; as it leaves the Jewish Quarter it becomes the division between the Christian Quarter (to the west) and Muslim Quarter (to the east). It still serves as the main street of the Old City, but today it is much narrower; in ancient times it was the equivalent of a 4-lane highway.

Northern Gate of Aelia Capitolina

The Damascus Gate in the north wall is easily the most recognizable of the seven gates of the Old City, not only because it is the most monumental, but also because of the perpetual bustle of activity outside it. The present-day gate, however, was built in the 16th century AD by the Ottoman sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. But, it is situated directly over the remains of the northern city gate of Aelia Capitolina built by the emperor Hadrian in the 2nd century AD to mark the northern border of then unwalled Roman colony.


Like the previously mentioned triumphal ("Ecce Homo") arch by the city marketplace, this impressive Hadrianic gateway consisted of a large central archway flanked by smaller, lower arches. It was protected on both sides by massive towers. Only the eastern of the small arches has survived intact and can be seen below and to the left of the modern raised walkway entering the Damascus Gate. Above the entrance to the gate is a fragmentary inscription in Latin, probably in secondary use, which ends "... by the decree of the decurions of Aelia Capitolina." Inside the gate was a large, open plaza, nearly 100 feet of which has been found. It was paved with huge stones, the largest of which measures 5 by 7 feet; none is smaller than 4 by 5 feet. In the center of the plaza was a high column, probably topped by a large statue of the emperor himself. Undoubtedly, Christians later removed the statue, but the memory of the column has survived in one of the Arabic names for the Damascus GateBab al-Amud ("Gate of the Column").


The northern city gate of Roman Jerusalem remained in use during the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD. During the Byzantine and Early Arab periods its side entrances were blocked, and later the Crusaders built a new, fortified gate at a much higher level, thus preserving the remains of the Roman gate below.


Right, surviving eastern arch of Hadrian's gate, viewed from the walkway entering today's Damascus Gate in the north wall of the Old City.


The northern Roman gate of Aelia Capitolina has been restored and opened to the public; upon descending below the bridge leading to the Ottoman-era Damascus Gate, you can again enter the city through this early gate, or climb the original stairs to the walkway along the Old City walls to enjoy the view of the Old City and the Temple Mount. Here, too, are the remains of a Crusader chapel, part of a medieval walkway and a sign marking the presence of the Roman Tenth Legion after the city's destruction in 70 AD.


No city wall?

At first Aelia Capitolina was not protected by a wall. While the gateway under the Damascus Gate served as the northern entrance to the city, there is no evidence that it was part of a wall. If it had been, we would expect to find its remains under the foundations of the present northern wall of the Old City, which was not built until the 16th century AD. But no trace has been found in the many excavations carried out along the walls of the Old City. The earliest wall built along the northern side is Byzantine; the earliest wall built along the southern side dates no earlier than the medieval period. If you think about it, there was no need for a wall as the city held no strategic value.


Christians and Jews in Aelia Capitolina?

Opinions differ as to whether there was a Christian community in Hadrian's new Romanized city. Nearly all of what is known about Christianity from 70 AD until the 3rd century AD is through the writings of Eusebius of Caesarea (264-340 AD) and Epiphanius of Cyprus (c. 315-403 AD) who had access to local traditions:


There are indications that the early Jewish-Christian community fled Jerusalem before the city's destruction in 70 AD, and took up residence in Pella, one of the cities of the Decapolis across the Jordan River. After the fall of Masada in 73 AD at least some were allowed back into the city from this self-imposed exile. Under the leadership of one Simeon, they settled on the southern part of the western hill, the highest spot in the ancent city, which now lay outside the bounds of Aelia Capitolina.


The Jewish evidence is far less direct, but since there was as yet no ban on their living in Jerusalem, there is no reason to think that some Jews did not choose to do so. There were certainly Jewish pilgrims in the city, making it plausible some kind of Jewish settlement existed in Jerusalem after 70 AD. Since they could not worship in the now polluted Temple, the small number of Jews who had chosen to remain in their desolate city also took up residence on the western hill, were they erected seven synagogues.

Later, after mercilessly putting down the Second Jewish Revolt (the so-called Bar-Kochba revolt) in 135 AD, the Romans expelled the Jews from Jerusalem and Judea and they now concentrated in the cities of Tiberias and Sepphoris in Galilee. Some of the Greek and Syrian colonists brought in by Hadrian to repopulate his new officially pagan city of Aelia Capitolina were probably Christian. These non-Jewish Christians also resided on the high western hill, which they (and Josephus, Eusebius, and all authors, both Jewish and Christian, who followed them) mistakenly identified as Mount Zion, the site of the ancient City of David. They failed to take into account that Jerusalem's only permanent source of fresh water, the Gihon Spring, was located on the eastern flank of the southeastern hill.


Christianity, however, was still not a sanctioned religion of the Roman empire and was often persecuted by authorities. Nor was Aelia a major pilgrim center during the 2nd and 3rd centuries. For the benefit of those few pilgrims who did come to the city, the site of Golgotha, buried under the Aphrodite temple, was pointed out. Bishop Melito of Sardis (modern Sart, Turkey) reported to his flock that he had seen it during his visit in 160 AD and told them that it was now in the middle of the city (in Jesus' day it was outside the walls). Devotion to shrines and temples was characteristic of paganism, from which Christians anxiously wanted to distance themselves. Thus Jerusalem had no special status in the Christian world. However, the local Christians of Aelia liked to visit sites outside the city connected with Jesus' life and ministry: Gethsemane in the Kidron Valley, where he had prayed before his arrest; the Jordan River, where he had been baptized; and the Mount of Olives, where he had ascended to heaven.


Since they had not taken part in the Bar-Kokhba Revolt, Jewish-Christians were allowed to drift back into Aelia, especially during the favorable reign of Antoninus Pius (138-161 AD). Early in the 3rd century AD, they appear to have built some kind of a makeshift wall around their neighborhood and their synagogue on Mount Zion. This impoverished community was rarely visited by Gentile Christians, who looked down on their fellow believers because they refused to accept the doctrinal decisions of the Council of Nicea in 325 AD.


Another opinion, as expressed in a letter by Hillel Geva in the "Queries and Comments" section of the March/April 1998 issue of Biblical Archaeological Review: "There was no Jewish-Christian community on Mount Zion during the Roman period (2nd-3rd centuries AD). The entire hill was an encampment for the Tenth Roman Legion."


"My frame of reference is archaeological. The archaeological finds from the southwestern hill, including present-day Mount Zion, are unequivocal. In all of the numerous excavated significant evidence for occupational strata dating to Roman Aelia Capitolina has been found, with the exception of a limited area in the northwestern corner of the hill, today's Citadel. Finds on the southwestern hill include mainly roof tiles impressed with the initials of the Tenth Roman Legion (right), very little pottery and few coins. The archaeological not attest to the existence of a residential area here in the period of Aelia Capitolina."


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