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 Today, its function has been replaced by the Western Wall, incorrectly known as the "Wailing Wall."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.



Madaba map highlights:

1. St. Stephen's Gate (now called Damascus Gate) - The main entrance to Byzantine Jerusalem on the north end of the city. Flanked by two towers, it opened onto a semicircular plaza in which a single column stood. The column — the source of the gate's Arabic name (Bab el-Amud, or Gate of the Column) — probably supported a statue of the emperor Hadrian.

2. Church of the Sheep Pool - Built early in the 5th century AD over the Sheep Pool (also called the Pool of Bethesda), it commemorates the site where Jesus healed a paralyzed man, commanding him to "Get up! Pick up your mat and walk" (see John 5:2-16). The area of the pool was excavated in the 1950's and the remains of the church, and those of other structures, can now been seen alongside the Church of St. Anne, just inside and to the right of the Lions Gate/St. Stephens Gate of the Old City.

3. Gate of the Sheep Pool (now called St. Stephen's or Lions Gate)

4. Temple Mount - Indicated only by a line of black tiles; where the Jewish Temple once stood, it was a desolate ruin in Byzantine times.

5. Nea Church (Nea Theotokos or New Church of the Mother of God) - Once the largest church in Palestine, it measured 375 feet long and 185 feet wide. It was destroyed by the Persians in 614 AD. See details below.

6. Zion Gate - Then, as now, this gate lead to the high western hill, erroneously identified by Christian pilgrims as Mt. Zion (this gate was located a little farther away from the present Zion Gate).

7. Basilica of Holy Zion - Built in 415 AD, and know as the "mother of all churches," this large basilica was second only to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in importance in the Byzantine period.

8. Church of the Apostles (or Sacristy of the Basilica of Holy Zion) - During the late 1st century AD it may have served as a Jewish-Christian synagogue. By the 4th century AD it was known as the Church of the Apostles. Today, a stone cenotaph (dictionary definition: "a monument erected to a dead person whose remains lie elsewhere") once placed in the church by Crusaders is mistakenly commemorated as the Tomb of David by the Jews. On the second floor of this building is the Room of the Cenacle (Greek for "supper"), also called the Coenaculum (Latin, "dining room"), where tradition says Jesus celebrated the Last Supper; Christian tradition also places the first Pentecost here

9. Gate of the Tower (now called Jaffa Gate)

10. Decumanus - The main east-west street of the Byzantine city, it began at the Gate of the Tower/Jaffa Gate. It is shown here ending at the Cardo Maximus, but it actually extended east to the Western Wall of the Temple Mount. Today's David Street/Street of the Chain roughly follows the same line.

11. Church of the Holy Sepulcher - Depicted upside down on the map; it was erected by the emperor Constantine in the early 4th century AD on the traditional site of Jesus' crucifixion and burial. From the writings of early church historian Eusebius, we know that the church included (from east to west): a staircase leading up from the Cardo Maximus to three entryways, an open-air forecourt, a basilica-style church, an open-air courtyard with the rock of Golgotha in one corner, and a rotunda called the "Anastasis" ("resurrection") with a golden dome over the traditional tomb of Jesus. Today's church is basically a Crusader reconstruction and the entrance faces south.

12. Cardo Maximus - The main north-south street of Byzantine Jerusalem. Originally the main street of Aelia Capitolina, the new Roman city built over the remains of the Herodian-era city destroyed in 70 AD, it ran from the Damascus Gate to the Decumanus. In the 6th century AD, emperor Justinian extended it to connect the Church of the Holy Sepulcher to his newly built Nea Church. This southern extension was laid out on leveled bedrock creating a 19-foot-high rock scarp on one side. It was lined with 16-foot-high columns made of single pieces of hard limestone rather than drums, and topped by Corinthian capitals. Bordering the street on its eastern side was an arcade of large arches supported by piers built of large cut stones (ashlars). Shops lined the street along its southwestern part; more shops were located behind the arcade of arches. Originally, the central roadway was 41-feet wide; the part seen today is about half as wide as the original.

Above, reconstructed Byzantine-era Cardo Maximus in the Jewish Quarter, with columns and the remains of shops partly carved out of the rock on the one side of the street.

Today, modern Suq Khan es-Zeit and its extension, Suq al-Atarin, coming from the Damascus Gate, follows the line of the ancient Cardo.

13. Curved colonnaded street - It followed the line of the Tyropoeon Valley from inside the St. Stephen's/Damascus Gate to the Dung Gate. The line of this second "cardo" is today preserved in Haggai Street.


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.

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