betanja logo

© franciscan cyberspot


  * Introd.
  * Texts
  * Gospels
  * Byzan. 1
  * Byzan. 2
  * Byzan. 3
  * Pilgrims
  * Mid.Ages
  * Modern
  * Conclusion

Bethany in Byzantine times III

The second church apse

Following on the earthquake which laid waste the first church, the walls were demolished and a new church built according to the same basilica design, with an apse and two sacristies. We do not know when exactly it was erected. Fr. Saller thinks that the first church was in existence for a short time only, and that it was destroyed in the 5th century. His reasons are based on the good state of preservation of the original mosaics, and on certain features of the second building. Other experts suggest, as the date, the 6th century. Earthquakes around Jerusalem occurred in the 5th and 6th centuries and the most violent were those of November 6, 447 and July 9, 551. The latter wrought havoc not only in the whole of Palestine but in Arabia, Mesopotamia, Syria and Phoenicia. The date coincides with the reign of Justinian, a tireless builder.

The new, second church was not a slavish copy of the first. Notwithstanding the steep slope, the architect moved the building site thirteen metres eastwards so that the foundations of the north and south walls are quite out of line with the older ones. Actually, the new, west wall so cut across the aisles of the first church that its western part served henceforth as an atrium. With this change of the church site to the east, the architect made available a larger, free area between the building and the tomb of Lazarus, in contrast with the older arrangement. Perhaps it was because the great festivals drew such crowds to Bethany so as to fill even the adjoining fields (as Egeria states) that the need for more room was the sole reason for enlarging the area in question.

These were not the only changes wrought by the architect of the second church. He put up pillars instead of columns, doubled the size of the pilasters in the side walls by adding buttresses, and raised the height of the middle of the building with a dome.

The inside length of the new church was 27 metres. On the north side, a door from it opened into rooms paved with mosaics. To the west, three doors gave entry from the atrium. On the south side of this latter there was a chapel. The excavations cannot be continued to the western part of the first church and, so, the archaeologists have not been able to compare the remains of the two structures in this area.

Excavations at Bethany

The new fill was not made with soil but with stones, and even fragments of pillars from the first church. To the east and west, the foundations were entirely new, partly so to the north and south. Slightly higher than those of the first church, the courses vary between 40 and 53 cm. The facing is regular, except for the first course where rubble has been used.

The courses of the walls, 32 to 37 cm high. were perfectly even, with the exception of some lower stones in the apse. However, they have suffered from cracks due to the wear and tear of time and especially from the fireplaces built against them by people who later came to dwell on the site. The north and south walls were 70 cm thick, except at places where pilasters and supports joined them. The thickness here was up to 170cm. Of the west wall, which was 120 cm. wide, some stones still remain in position up to a height of 3.54 metres.

Notwithstanding the notable number of courses brought to light to the north and south, the excavators found no traces of windows. Only the west wall had arched windows over the door. Thus, the interior was lit mainly from the cupola and perhaps through a skylight. The lintels and door frames of the portals of the facade were strikingly simple.

The pillars which divided the naves rested on two bases. Their construction meant the disappearance of the mosaic of the first church floor in the areas between the columns. The bases were set deep down on the virgin rock. Only the visible pieces proofed of careful work. The pillars and pilasters were very finely made. The former were somewhat higher than the latter, and the four which supported the dome were 4.65 m. in size. They were topped by a moulding 25 cm. high. Their sides measured 143-145 cm.

On some stones, one can still see traces of limestone wash, bearing traces of pictures and numerous small crosses, scratched or painted on the walls. It is not easy to date them, except in those places where a later Crusader buttress has protected them. It is noteworthy that the pictures of the second church were remarked on by the Abbot Daniel (1106-1107) who also made mention of the dome.

The floor was more level than that of the first church. A great part of its mosaic decoration has been recovered. Only the middle aisle, however, had colours and designs, though simple enough in form. They consisted of three geometric patterns, the most striking of which was in front of the sanctuary. It showed four circles bound by diamond shapes, themselves linked by knots. Fruit and leaves were used to decorate the spaces between the circles and the diamonds.

The cubes used in the second church mosaics were larger than those of the first and more irregular. That the church was in use for a very long time is shown by the numerous repairs which had been carried out on the floor. The original cubes were replaced with different ones and of a different colour. Even pieces of marble and simple, unadorned stones were inserted.

In front of the church there was a portico which joined it to the atrium. Its western front consisted of a series of pillars 3.53 m. high. The archaeologists were able to recover the greater part of the south-west pillar, as also the full curve of the arch which it supported. The portico was paved with flagstones and it possibly ran right round the atrium, at least on its north and south sides.

Fr. SaIler was able to recover almost intact the southern face of the south wall of the atrium. This wall, broken by a doorway, is still 6 m. high. Its thickness (70cm.) and the style of its masonry are identical with those of the church. In 1967, Fr. Patacconi brought to light part of the west wall and the site of a door. Its sill, frame and arch have been quite well preserved.

Entrance to Lazarus' tomb

To the south, the atrium gave entry to a large room, the purpose of which is not yet determined. Seeing that the ancient road from Jerusalem to Bethany passed south of this site, the room may have served as a passageway leading, left, through the atrium to the tomb of Lazarus and right, to the church. In any case, Fr. SaIler concludes that, judging from similarities to other Byzantine churches and the existence of a mosaic, the room must have been a side-chapel of some kind.

That the structure did not really serve as a passageway is seemingly confirmed by the fact that, to the west, there is a double-storied room. To build it, the architect had to dig deeply into the surrounding rock. The excavations of 1967 have shown that, to the north, in front of the west wall of the atrium, the rock was hewn out in the form of a vault. In this area, examination could not be pushed beyond a rather low opening, now stopped up with rubble, and surmounted by a half-arch. All this seems to have been the real passageway which gave entry to the tomb from the road, skirting the atrium to the east. Only new diggings, at present impossible because of the mosque, can tell whether the passageway really continued to the north.

It is interesting to note that, though the west facade of the first church cannot be exactly located, it should not be sited too far away from the spot where the west wall of the second atrium has been found. In other words, that facade rose close to the rocky mass itself. The architect must have had some serious reason for such an unusual siting of his building. Perhaps. St. Jerome has left us a clue in his remark that the Bethany church "marked" the tomb of Lazarus.

The north wall of the chapel corresponded to the south wall of the atrium. Only the foundation of the south wall of the chapel remains (70 cm. thick). In this area the room which was about 5m wide was reduced in size in the Middle Ages when a wall of the abbey was erected. Three fragments of the mosaic in the chapel have been recovered. The most interesting is seen along the south wall. In some details, it offers a striking comparison with the central mosaic of the first church.

Inside Lazarus' tomb

The excavations have brought to light fragments of cornices, mouldings, pillars, stone and marble plaques, small columns and table-surfaces of altars which go back to Byzantine times. Some of them belonged, most likely, to the second church.


There is not much to be said about the rooms which bordered the church to the north, nor about the grotto, north of the tomb of Lazarus. This latter was probably the "bath" viewed by the French pilgrim Bernard (866-870) and identified by him as the pool in which the risen Lazarus washed, at Christ's command, after his return from the grave.

More interesting are the three burial chambers found Southeast of the tomb because of the various objects hidden within. The rooms contained many examples of tombs hewn out lengthwise along the wall (arcosolia) and also burial troughs which could have been in use in the period of the first church. Two lamps dating from the seventh century were found, as also oil lamps common in the 4-6th centuries. Two rooms yielded fragments of glass vases and even two whole vessels with a cylindrical neck and a bulbous body. Two samples of dual face-rouge phials were found, one containing a bronze application stick. Such objects have been brought to light in a number of Byzantine tombs. Besides, items in bronze and iron have been retrieved: bracelets, rings, clasps and others.

The excavators found a tomb in the central aisle of the church, near the main door and many graves in the portico. When these burial places were dug, the floor mosaics of the first church suffered badly.

Inner entrance to Lazarus' tomb

Throughout the whole of the Byzantine period and even during the Moslem occupation, Bethany remained an important liturgical centre of the Jerusalem area. The ceremonies connected with the vigil of Palm Sunday were continued, with some variations in the order of prayers, at least until the seventh century. However, during that same period, the observances for the Octave of the Epiphany were changed in favour of another festival which was held on September 7, perhaps the date of the dedication of the shrine. In the following centuries, Lazarus and Martha were remembered on December 17 at Bethany. Mary and Martha were commemorated together on June 4 in a church further up the hillside, to the west of the village.

In the 9-10th centuries, the Procession of Palms which, in Egeria's time, had set out from Mount Olivet, started from Bethany itself. From there an olive branch was carried to the Anastasis in the Holy Sepulchre basilica. The Arab governor of Jerusalem usually headed this procession with an escort to clear the way. In 1007-1008, the ceremony was forbidden by the Caliph el-Hakim, who, subsequently in October, 1009, gave orders that the basilica of the Holy Sepulchre be demolished. Arculf and Bernard the Monk noted the presence of a religious community at the shrine of Bethany, but nowhere is the name of this group written down. Early in the time of the Frankish kingdom (1114), Arnoul, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, handed over the Bethany church and monastery to the Canons of the Holy Sepulchre.

© franciscan cyberspot - text written by Albert Storme

  Bethany MainOther Santuaries  


Please fill in our Guest book form - Thank you for supporting us!
Created / Updated Monday, 11 October, 2004 at 12:00:32 am by J. Abela, E. Alliata, E. Bermejo
Web site uses Javascript and CSS stylesheets - Space by courtesy of Christus Rex

© The Franciscans of the Holy Land

cyber logo footer