Jerusalem During the Byzantine Era
In 333 AD, a lone pilgrim passed through Constantinople heading for Jerusalem. We do not know his name, but his anonymous journal has survived. The Bordeaux Pilgrim, as he is known, crossed the Bosperous into Asia Minor, then rode south along the Syrian and Lebanese coastlines to the Holy Land. He found a Jerusalem that was essentially the same compact provincial town erected by Hadrian two centuries earlier over the ruins of the first and second Jewish revolts, and renamed Aelia Capitolina. Probably no more that five thousand people lived there. As at the time of Jesus, Roman Provincia Palaestina was centered on the seacoast capital of Caesarea Maritima; the Holy City had faded into near obscurity.
The Bordeaux Pilgrim mentions two statues erected in the 2nd century AD by the emperor Hadrian on the Temple Mount and states that "not far from the statues there is a perforated stone, to which the Jews come every year and anoint it, bewail themselves with groans, rend their garments, and so depart." What was meant by this "perforated stone" is uncertain. It may have been the sacred rock itself, now enclosed in the Dome of the Rock. Today, its function has been replaced by the Western Wall, incorrectly known as the "Wailing Wall."
The Bordeaux Pilgrim's arrival coincided with the Holy City's rebirth as Constantine issued a series of commands that would not only restore its ancient splendor but seal the claim of Christianity upon it. One was to expunge "Aelia Capitolina" and restore the name "Jerusalem."
A brief setback for Christianity
In 355 AD Flavius Claudius Julianus (a nephew of Constantine) was unexpectedly appointed Caesar following the execution of his half-brother Gallus. He remained on good terms with the emperor Constantius II until 360 AD, when he refused to supply troops for the war against the Persians and subsequently demanded an equal share in the government. Only the death of Constantius in 361 AD prevented yet another civil war in the Roman Empire.
Succeeding Constantius as emperor, Julian was adamantly opposed to Christianity. Although he had been raised as a Christian, eventually he came to detest the faith. He felt that Rome's decline from greatness was tied to its betrayal of the classical religious traditions of his pagan ancestors. To restore Rome, he had to restore the old Greco-Roman paganism to what he believed was its rightful place. He was not alone. Paganism was alive and well and would continue to flourish throughout the empire until the 5th century AD. Many people still adored the old gods and ancient rites. Christianity represented a casting off of hallowed traditions. Moreover, pagans were deeply offended by the Christian belief that Jesus — a man who died a disgraceful death — was divine. Julian could thus count on widespread support for his reforms. As ponifex maximus — head of the state religion — he appointed pagan priests to oppose Christian bishops; those towns that had never adopted Christianity were granted special privileges. Even though he disapproved of many aspects of Judaism, he admired the Jewish fidelity to their ancient faith. Julian formed an alliance with the Jews and authorized the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. As he saw it, animal sacrifices were offered there as in pagan temples, therefore, it seems he had no difficulty incorporating the "Jewish God" into his pagan pantheon. The Jews readily agreed and began working on the foundations. But the project was discontinued when the young emperor was killed in 363 AD in a skirmish with the Persians.
Julian was succeeded by Jovian, a devout Christian, and the Temple Mount once again became a desolate ruin. In the 5th century AD, the empress Eudokia, who lived in Jerusalem from 444 to 460 AD, lifted the ban on Jews entering Jerusalem. She also built several churches, a sumptuous palace and began extending the city walls to once again enclose the western hill. Apparently, she intended to reconstruct the walls the way she assumed they had been at the time of Jesus, but her wall was more cosmetic then protective. Her engineers did not bother to lay deep foundations, but built on top of the ancient walls they uncovered.
The reign of Justinian I (527-565 AD) was characterized by the construction of walls, water supply systems and new churches. But he also introduced new legislation depriving Jews of many of their rights, making it impossible for them to support the empire. He published edicts forbidding Jews to hold civil office or military posts, even in cities where they were a majority. The use of Hebrew in synagogues was outlawed and Jews were not allowed to observe the Passover on the correct date if it fell before Easter. Part of his offensive against the Jews was his building program in and around Jerusalem. He restored a church on Mount Gerizim, the holy mountain of the Samaritans, at Shechem and rebuilt the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, badly damaged during a Samaritan revolt. His most impressive project in Jerusalem was the new Church of Mary Theotokos, or Mary the Mother of God, on the southeastern slope of Mount Zion. Through the creation of such new buildings, monuments and monasteries, Justinan and his fellow rulers shifted the sacred center of the city away from the Temple Mount to Golgotha, and totally transformed the city from a minor Roman provincial town into what Christians now viewed as the spiritual center of the world, the source of life, enlightenment and salvation...
Under Christian control, Jerusalem prospered. Between 325 and 610 AD its development as a Christian city was rapid and continuous. Churches, large and small, monasteries and convents, hostels and a host of service institutions transformed the northern half and the western two-thirds of the city. The population grew to about 60,000, second in ancient times only to the some 80,000 in the Herodian period. From then on, the city continued to flourish and expand, with the peak development occurring during the reign of Justinian.
Sites and archaeological finds related to Byzantine Jerusalem
Like the Bordeaux Pilgrim, thousands of Christian pilgrims came to Jerusalem to worship during this era and they left many written descriptions of the city and its holy places. But the most important testimony of Byzantine Jerusalem is the famed mosaic map on the floor of St. George's Church built in the 6th century AD at Madaba, a city about 20 miles south of Amman in present-day Jordan.
The map, a beautiful bird's-eye-view of Jerusalem, shows in detail the city's walls, gates, main streets and churches. It reflects the fact that the city, for Byzantine Christians, was the spiritual center of the earth. Pilgrims flocked to the sites where the New Testament says Jesus lived, died and was resurrected, and monumental churches — dedicated to Jesus, his mother Mary and the apostles — were built throughout the city. These churches dominate the city depicted in the Madaba map.
The earliest graphic representation of Jerusalem, the Madaba map guided archeologists in their search for the remains of Byzantine Jerusalem. After the reunification of Jerusalem in 1967, excavations were conducted in the Jewish Quarter, in the southeastern part of the Old City. The map shows a walled city, oval in shape and protected by 18 towers. It helped locate Jerusalem's main north-south street, the Cardo Maximus (Cardo, for short), a colonnaded street bisecting the city from north to south, from today's Damascus Gate to the Zion Gate. Along the Cardo in the map, two large church complexes are clearly shown, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the center and the long-lost Nea Church at the southern end.
The Nea Church
For centuries, the great Nea Church was only something referenced in ancient texts. Justinian even had the Cardo Maximus extended to connect it with the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. But, it remained a memory until it was found by Israeli archaeologists in 1967.
The largest church ever constructed in Jerusalem, the New Church of the Mother of God (Greek Nea Theotokos) was built by Justinian in 543 AD. The huge Nea (new), as the complex was known locally, was an impressive engineering feat. The building was 375 feet long and 185 feet wide (larger than a modern football field) and its plan was that of a standard Roman basilica with two rows of pillars creating a nave with two side aisles. The Nea complex also included a monastery and hospice with three thousand beds for the sick. It was located on the southern slope of the city's western hill, and because the ground adjacent to it falls away, huge underground vaults, nearly 35 feet high, were needed to support the southeastern part of the platform on which it was constructed. These vaults, of which two survive intact, consisted of six domed halls adjacent to one another. The arches rested on massive square pillars. The structure was covered with plaster, creating a reservoir, with a capacity for thousands of gallons on water. High on the southern wall of this vaulted structure was a surprising discovery: a Greek dedicatory inscription, in plaster relief and painted red, reading:
"And this is the work which our most pious Emperor Flavius Justinian carried out with munificence, under the care and devotion of the most holy Constantine, priest and Hegumen, in the 13th (year of the) indiction" — probably 549-550 AD.
Right, southeast corner of the "Nea" Church foundation protruding from the base of a tower of the southern wall of the Old City, west of the Dung Gate. The huge blocks indicate the mammoth size of the structure. Another segment of the Nea's walls, found in the Jewish Quarter, is more than 20 feet thick.