The Churches of Jerusalem

by Asher Ovadiah

Out of the nine churches depicted on the Madaba Mosaic Map, (1) the remains of only five have been uncovered to date in the course of archaeological excavations:

1. The "Nea" Church (or "Theotokos") (no. 12)
2. The church above the Siloam Pool (no. 13)
3. The Church of St. Anna, also called the Church of the Paralytic above the Probatike pool (no. 10)
4. The Church of Holy Zion (no. 14)
5. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre (no. 7)

The four churches whose remains have not as yet been discovered are:

1. The Church of St. Georgios (near the New Gate) (no. 9)
2. The Church of St. Sophia (no. 17)
3. The Church of Mary Magdalene
4. The "Corner" Church of the Temple Mount, dedicated to the memory of Jacob, Jesus' brother (no. 11)

Jerusalem truly flourished. under the Emperor Justinian. He was famous for his enormous construction efforts throughout the empire, and the greatest of his projects in Jerusalem was the erection of the New Church of St. Mary, Mother of God (Theotokos), known as the Nea, which Propocius described in detail. (2) This huge basilical building was consecrated on 20 November 543. The church, which is located in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, was excavated from 1970 to 1977. (3) The church is represented on the Madaba Map facing the cardo maximus of the early Byzantine city, as the excavations have confirmed. The depictions of the Nea Church and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on the Madaba Map, the only ecclesiastical buildings on the cardo maximus, emphasize their importance and grandeur, and commemorate Justinian's largest architectural enterprise in Jerusalem.
The Nea Church was 116 m. long and 57 m. wide and comprised a central nave with one or two aisles on each side. It was a triapsidal building oriented to the east, of which only the northern and southern apses have been discovered. Literary sources assert that the church was part of a larger complex that included a monastery, a library, a hostel and a hospital, none of which have been found or identified. However, to the south of this huge architectural complex a large vaulted cistern was discovered which was intended to support the southern wing of the Nea Church complex, built over the slope. The description of Procopius corresponds precisely with the archaeological evidence: the topographical difficulties, the remains of the Nea Church founded upon bedrock, the vaulting built on the southern slope with traces of construction above it, and the supporting wall of the terrace on the south. The subterranean vaulting would appear to be associated with the vaulted substructures mentioned by Procopius. (4) On one of the walls of the vaulted cistern, within a tabula ansata, a monumental Greek inscription mentions the Emperor Flavius Justinian and his munificent enterprise carried out under the care and devotion of Constantinus, priest and hegoumenos (abbot of the monastery), in the thirteenth indiction, either 534/535 or 549/550, (5) (the earlier date is more plausible). Abbot Constantinus is mentioned in Patristic literature, by Johannes Moschus (ca. 550-619), as one of the abbots of the Nea Church. (6)
The basilical church in Kefar Shiloah (Silwan) in Jerusalem was excavated in 1894. Part of the building was built above the ancient pool of Shiloah (Siloam). Its first phase is attributed to the Empress Eudocia (died in Jerusalem in 460), while the second phase belongs most probably to the time of the Emperor Justinian (mid-sixth century - based on the construction of the dome). (7) The Anonymus of Piacenza (often called Antoninus Martyr), who visited Jerusalem between 560-570 gives a full description of the church and the pool. The description is related to the later stage of construction - but he does not indicate who built the church. (8) It is most likely that it was destroyed by the Persians in 614.
The most important architectural change that occurred in the second phase of construction was the erection of large pillars at the centre of the nave (replacing the two rows of columns with arcades built during the previous stage of construction) in a perfect square to carry the dome. This way of erecting a dome, namely with a pillar at each corner of a square bearing four arches over which the dome was constructed by means of pendentives, is characteristic of the Age of Justinian. The dome was the most conspicuous change made to the basilica during this later stage of construction.
The Church of St. Anna, also known as the Church of the Paralytic, is built over a double pool called Probatike (Sheep's Pool) or Bethesda. It was excavated in 1957 and 1962 on behalf of the Peres Blancs de Sainte-Anne. It is a basilica, 45 m. long and 18 m. wide, with three halls of the same size separated from each other by two rows of columns. The halls end in the east in identical internal round apses. The floor was paved with marble slabs, and there was probably a narthex with a mosaic floor. (9)
This basilical church was built to commemorate the Healing of the Paralytic, on the site where a pagan temple to Aesculapius had once stood. The early Byzantine church was also dedicated to St. Mary on the strength of apocryphal writings from the second century, according to which she was born close to the Temple in Jerusalem. (10) It is a memorial church dated to the fifth century, probably the beginning of the century. The crosses on the mosaic floor suggest a construction date before 427. It was burnt down by the Persians in 614 and rebuilt by Modestus, Patriarch of Jerusalem (634-638), shortly afterwards. Sophronius, Patriarch of Jerusalem (634-638), noted that this church stood during his lifetime.
The Holy Zion Church on Mount Zion was partially excavated in 1899. This was a basilical church whose greater part has been reconstructed from the few remnants of its western section found during the excavations. The estimated length of the building is 55 m. and its width is half its length. Evidence uncovered by the excavations confirms the literary sources which mention the measurements and form of the church, called "the Mother of all the churches of Zion". It extended over the whole of the large area situated north and northwest of the traditional "Tomb of David". (11) The importance of this church is attested to by pilgrims and literary documents identifying it as "the Mother of all the churches of Zion".
On the Madaba Map the Church of Holy Zion appears to be larger than that of the Holy Sepulchre. The map shows a large basilica facing eastwards, between "Zion Gate" and the outer wall of the city, with a small building attached to its northwest corner. According to this representation the main entrance to the church was through a double doorway in the western facade; it would appear that another entrance must have existed in the northern facade, since this side of the church faced the city.
An Armenian pilgrim wrote in the seventh century: "The Church of Holy Sion, one stadium (asparez) distant from the Resurrection, 100 ells in length and 70 in breadth, has 80 (Va. 90) vaulted connected columns". (12) The church was connected to a monastery and other religious structures. It was built where, according to tradition, the Last Supper took place. It was here that the Apostles first gathered together and it is for this reason that it is considered "the Mother of all the churches". It is also considered the first church to have been built after the death of Jesus to serve the Jerusalem community.
The first stage of construction was carried out in 340 by Maximus, Bishop of Jerusalem. The church was destroyed during the Persian invasion of 614. The second stage of construction is dated to the first half of the seventh century (634), when the church was rebuilt by the Jerusalem patriarch Modestus, apparently according to the same ground plan as its predecessor; it was looted and burnt in 966.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was investigated for the first time by trial soundings during 1933/34 and has been re-examined from 1960 onwards by various scholars. It is a huge and sophisticated architectural complex consisting of four units: an outer atrium, a basilica (or Martyrium) an inner atrium and a rotunda (around the Anastasis), a circular domed structure separated from the basilica by an second, inner atrium. This latter structure solved the problem of linking the Martyrium (the basilica) to the church complex. (13)
The basilica (martyrium) and the domed structure above the tomb constituted two separate architectural features with the second, inner atrium between them as the connecting feature. On the Madaba Map the entire complex is shown: a propylaeum begins west of the colonnaded street (the cardo maximus), and behind it there is a basilica with three entrances and a domed structure (the Anastasis). (14)
Eusebius' brief description of the rotunda contrasts with his long and detailed description of the basilica (Martyrium), which at that time was already completed. Eusebius' fragmentary description of the rotunda appears to be due to the fact that during his visit to Jerusalem the rotunda was still under construction and surrounded by scaffolding. (15) Thus, in the time of Constantine the basilica was built and construction of the Anastasis (rotunda) was begun, but this was not completed until the end of the fourth century. It is possible that this is why Eusebius does not mention the structure of the Anastasis. On the other hand, Aetheria-Egeria, who visited the site at the end of the century (395), does give a description, which obliges us to conclude that a structure already stood there. (16) It is plausible to consider that if a straight wall around the aedicula, according to Couasnon's isometric plan, (17) did exist on its south, west and north sides, at sometime during the building of the rotunda, it was almost certainly meant to isolate the ongoing construction of the rotunda and the peripheral wall, to prevent pilgrims or visitors from being injured. This may be another reason for Eusebius' brief description of the rotunda. It would seem that Modestus' building projects after the Persian conquest were limited to repairs and restoration only, and did not include the construction of new buildings. Thus the structure which Arculfus saw in 670 was actually the fourth-century structure, which still stands today in large part.
We may conclude, therefore, that the rotunda with its two rings, the inner ring of columns, the dome, (18) and the outer ring (which is three quarters of a circle) with the three semi-circular niches, belong to the period of Constantinian construction. These conclusions are based on scholarly opinions, the schematic description of the church complex on the Madaba Mosaic Map, (19) and the absence of references in literary sources to changes and/or repairs and restorations of the rotunda between the reigns of Constantine and of Justinian, as well as recent archaeological discoveries. This form was adopted by the Patriarch Modestus in the third and fourth decades of the seventh century, when he restored and repaired the complex after the damage wrought by the Persians. Perhaps the twelve columns, mentioned by Eusebius as symbolizing the twelve Apostles, are those which form the inner ring of the rotunda and supported the hemisphere or the dome. (20)
Magnificent churches were erected by the order and with the support of several Byzantine emperors, an empress and members of the high and low clergy. Jerusalem as a holy city appears to have enjoyed a period of prosperity and solid economic status, which is expressed in the large-scale and systematic construction of ecclesiastical buildings and complexes. This building process provides evidence that the city, although distant from the centre of the Empire, was of paramount religious importance. Undoubtedly it played a significant role with regard to the dissemination of Christianity and the encouragement of pilgrimage.
The heavenly concept of Jerusalem is expressed throught its location in the centre of the Madaba Map, and possibly also in the centre of the sixth century church in which the map was found. Its importance is emphasized by its large scale depiction in relation to the other cities and towns. Its earthly concept is represented by the depiction of various buildings.


1. M. Avi-Yonah, The Madaba Mosaic Map, Jerusalem 1954, 50-60, esp. 51 (figs. 12-13 and pl. 7).

2. Procopius, De Aedificiis Justiniani, V. vi (transl. H.B. Dewing, Loeb Classical Library, VII, London and Cambridge [Mass.] 1961, 342-349).

3. N. Avigad, The Upper City of Jerusalem, Jerusalem 1980, 229-246 (Hebrew); A. Ovadiah and C. Gomez de Silva, Supplementum to the Corpus of the Byzantine Churches in the Holy Land (repr. from Levant 13 [1981], 14 [1982], 16 [1984]), Colchester and London 1984, 221-222.

4. N. Avigad, The Nea: Justinian's Church of St. Mary, Mother of God, Discovered in the Old City of Jerusalem, in, Y. Tsafrir, ed., Ancient Churches Revealed, Jerusalem 1963, 133.

5. Avigad (above, n. 2), 240-245.

6. Johannes Moschus, Pratum Spirituale, in: Patrologiae Graecae, 87 (III), Paris 1865, col. 2857B. See also J. P. Milik, La topographie de Jerusalem vers la fin de l'epoque Byzantine, Melanges de l'universite Saint Joseph 37 (1960-61), 145-151, esp. 146, n. 2.

7. A. Ovadiah, Corpus of the Byzantine Churches in the Holy Land (Theophaneia 22), Bonn 1970, 90-93.

8. D. Baldi, Enchiridion Locorum Sanctorum, Jerusalem 1955, No. 725.

9. Ovadiah and Gomez de Silva (above, n. 2), 223-224.

10. Baldi (above, n. 9), No. 690.

11. Ovadiah (above, n. 8), 89-90; Ovadiah and Gomez de Silva (above, n. 2), 142.

12. Baldi (above, n. 9), o. 747.

13. Ovadiah (above, n. 8), 75-77; Ovadiah and Gomez de Silva (above, n. 2), 134-138.

14. Avi-Yonah (above, n. 1), 51 (fig. 12: no. 2), pl. 7.

15. Ovadiah and Gomez de Silva (above, n. 2), 136.

16. Baldi (above, n. 9). no. 928.

17. C. Couasnon, The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, Lndon 1974, pl. VII.

18. Eusebius, De vita Constantini, Patrologiae Graecae, 20, Turnhout n.d., cols. 1097-1098.

19. Avi-Yonah (above, n. 1), 51 (fig. 12: No. 2), pl. VII.

20. Eusebius (above, n. 19), cols. 1097-1100.

This article was first published in: The Madaba Map Centenary 1897-1997, Jerusalem 1999, 252-254.

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