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© franciscan cyberspot


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

Bethany of the Middle Ages

Middle Ages remains

In the twelfth century, the second church at Bethany underwent such basic changes that we can style the new building "the third church." Besides making alterations, the Crusaders built another church above the tomb of Lazarus, facing east. This we shall call "the fourth church." To the south, there arose a great monastic foundation, given over to the Benedictine Sisters By the middle of the fourteenth century, both churches were in ruins. The same fate overtook the monastery, most likely in the thirteenth century.

As is clear from the excavations, the Crusaders made changes chiefly with regard to the buttresses of the north wall, the four central pillars and the arches supported by these. As was usual during the time of the Late Empire and the Byzantine period, the north and south walls of the church were not very solid. The Crusaders thought it necessary to add to the four buttresses (only 51, 50 cm. thick) pilasters about 230cm. thick. Three of these have been recovered. On the south side, thanks to the arches and walls of the abbey, such additions were not needed.

Inside, pillars, 170 cm. thick, were built against those standing. The arches above were also strengthened, possibly because the woodwork and tiles of the original dome and roof were replaced by stone, and the side aisles were provided with balconies. The pillars were covered with lime and paint. In the central aisle, the excavations have brought to light three bands of white mosaic, 15 cm. above the floor of the second church. In themselves, they are not very important but they do seem to be part of the additions made in the Middle Ages.

Jesus raises Lazarus: medieval fresco inside crusader chapel of Bethfage

All that remains of the fourth church, built over the tomb of Lazarus, are parts of the north and south walls. The south apse was still to be seen at the beginning of the twentieth century. During repairs to the mosque, the central apse was momentarily revealed in 1954. The length of the stones uncovered at the time was between 60 and 130cm.

The slope of the ground had called for a notable substructure, comprising a crypt and a passage-way leading to the tomb. This passage-way was used as a chapel until the middle of the sixteenth century. The building of the church also meant work on the foundations inside the tomb and its vestibule. The fourth church at Bethany was probably reserved for the use of the Sisters who had direct entry to it through a door which opened in the south wall of the church.

An olive-press found in the area of the sanctuary

The religious foundation stretching along the south side of the two churches was 62.50m long, east to west, and 50m north to south Its construction meant building up the slope of the hill with terraces to form foundations for the rooms and service quarters of the monastery. Of the whole structure part of the portico, the west and north wings, and part of the east wall have been laid bare.

The portico stood on the higher western terrace. It was about 4m in size, running south to the old Jerusalem-Bethany road. There it was most likely entered through a door. The stones of the west wall bear the criss-cross chiselling typical of the Crusader period and show numerous markings left by the masons (Guides explain this as the site of the house of Martha and Mary)

To the east, the portico led through four doors into the west wing. Of this latter structure, six sections, standing on different levels, have been recovered. Three doors gave access to the monastery strictlv so-called. Of the columns which once adorned it only the bases of the pillars have been found. It was in this part of the monastery that the excavators came across the Byzantine tombs already mentioned.

In the north wing of the abbey, various sections have come to light revealing a press, ovens. a silo and a cistern. One of the sections coincides more or less with the south chapel of the second church.

The east wall of the monastery has been uncovered for a length of 26 m. Against this wall there arose a tower 7m by 5.60. Its present height is 7,10 on the eastern side.

The Greek Orthodox have the rights to another medieval tower standing between the site of the abbey and that of ancient Bethany. Built above a cistern, this structure was 14,60 m. by 14,80, and had walls 4m thick. It served as a shelter for the religious in emergencies when they had no time to withdraw for safety to Jerusalem. It certainly proved its worth. For instance, in November 1152, during the reign of Baldwin III, a band of Turcomans plotted a swift blow at Jerusalem while the Frankish knights were absent in Nablus. They set up a camp on the Mount of Olives. The Christian population of Jerusalem made a sortie from the city and pursued the Moslems in the direction of Bethany, inflicting grave losses. After the time of the Crusaders, the tower became a landmark in the area and is mentioned by many pilgrims.

Entrance to the Benedictine Sisters

In the two churches and the monastery evidence has been found of decorative designs which attest the skill of Jerusalem stonemasons and sculptors during the Crusader period. The most interesting ornamentation is found on a frieze and an arch-stone. Of the former, there remain the head of a bearded dog-man, the head of a lion, a great bird, hounds seizing a bird, foliated scrolls and rosettes. Pieces of the arch-stone represent what may be an Annunciation scene and one of the Holy Family; the latter theme was quite popular during the Renaissance but extremely rare in the Middle Ages.

Mention should also be made of pedestals found in their original position in the portico of the abbey. They are decorated with alternating flutings and cablings similar to those on pedestals in St. Anne's convent, Jerusalem, whence came the community of nuns to staff the Bethany monastery.
Fragments of sculptures in marble from the Crusader period

More than sixty texts help us to rewrite the story of the medieval buildings at Bethany. All do not have the same interest and some are contradictory. These documents do however, stress the importance attached by Christians to the site and the memories it held during the time of the Crusades and even through the Moslem period when the churches were already in ruins. Some enttries are especially detailed and are of prime importance: those of Nicholas of Poggibonsi (1347), of Felix Fabri (1483), of Francis Suriano (1485, 1514 and 1524), of John Zwallaert (1586), of John van Kootwijk, known as Cotovicus (1598) and of Francis Quaresmi (about 1625).

In 1138, Bethany got a new lease of life when King Fulk of Anjou (1131-1144) took the church of Saint Lazarus from the Canons of the Holy Sepulchre and handed the property over to the Benedictine Nuns of Saint Anne's, Jerusalem. Yvette, sister of Queen Millicent, was a member there. As compensation, the Canons were given the areas around Teqo'a, south east of Bethlehem.

Queen Millicent undertook the restoration of the church and the building of the monastery. The latter comprised a fine church, a cloister, a chapter house, a dormitory and various premises. Title to the beautiful oasis of Jericho was given the community which became one of the most wealthy in the Frankish kingdom. Besides these and other patrimonies, the queen provided the abbey with chalices and crosses of gold, candlesticks and censers of silver, silken cloths, copes and chasubles. The first abbess, Mathilda, was already aged and, on her death, Yvette became head of the community.

A Crusader hall
The building of the monastery was not just an act of family devotion on the part of Millicent, as the deed of 1138 might suggest. According to William of Tyre, the setting up of the institution made it possible for the queen to bestow a title on her sister who, in the monastery of Saint Anne's, was but a simple religious.

If we can believe the information provided much later by the pilgrim Felix Fabri. the dress of the religious of Bethany was a white tunic with a black mantle, adorned with a cross of green.

The Crusaders re-introduced the Procession of Palms which Caliph el-Hakim had forbidden in 1007-1008. Discontinued after the defeat of the Crusaders, it was noted again at the end of the fifteenth century by Felix Fabri.

The existence of the two churches lead to changes in their names. The third church, formerly, St. Lazarus', was dedicated to Martha and Mary, the fourth, to Lazarus.

When Saladin reoccupied Jerusalem (1187), the Sisters most likely followed the example of other religious and fled to Tyre which remained in the hands of the Franks. In 1191, when Acre was conquered again, they set up their community there.

In the middle of the fourteenth century, the third church was already in ruins, with its dome fallen in. Of the fourth church, there remained only the crypt which pilgrims at the end of the century said had been changed into a mosque. However, it would seem that Christian rites were still celebrated there during the fifteenth century. Moreover, the visitors testify to the good relationships which existed between the authorities and Christians, as also to the freedom enjoyed by the latter despite the hostility of the Moslem population. In 1499, the Franciscans got possession of a key to the tomb and, about 1570, they obtained the right of opening the current entrance.

In the sixteenth century, the house of Simon which, from the beginning of the twelfth century, had been localized on the site of the second and third church, began to be identified with a dwelling in what is now known to have been ancient Bethany. The dining room had been changed into a chapel. In the seventeenth century, however, only a wall remained.

In time, the number of places held sacred grew. Pilgrims made a distinction between the house of Lazarus, that of Martha and that of Mary. Fabri gives as the reason the well-being of the family which was said to have owned several properties at Bethany and beyond, even in Jerusalem itself. In the seventeenth century, Bethany knew four annual Christian celebrations: the feast of St. Lazarus (December 17), the Friday of the fourth week of Lent, the feast of St. Mary Magdalene (July 22) and the feast of St. Martha on an undertermined day, but which the Roman calendar set for July 29. The Custody of the Holy Land continues to celebrate the first three feasts. Regarding the abbey, some state that it was destroyed by Saladin himself. Whatever the case, it was simply a mass of ruins in the fourteenth century. In pilgrims' accounts, its great tower marked the site of Lazarus' house.

Remains of Crusader tower of Melisenda

© franciscan cyberspot - text written by Albert Storme

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