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© franciscan cyberspot


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

Modern Bethany

Today's church - façade


Although the population of Bethany today is quite Moslem, the name of the village still recalls the Gospel memories and, chiefly, that of the raising of Lazarus. In their mosque, the Moslems themselves honor the name of el-'Uzeir who is considered by some to be the brother of Lazarus. It is not surprising that the Christian communities have wished to establish a presence at Bethany to help maintain the tradition. At present, there are two churches, one belonging to the Custody, one to the Greek Orthodox. Though the religious and historical meaning of Bethany is tied up with the tomb of Lazarus, there are other items connected with the Christian story which may be of interest to the visitor.

Inside the franciscan modern church

After deciding to build on the site of the first three churches, the planning of the new church was entrusted to the architect, Antonio Barluzzi. Its consecration took place on April 2, 1954. The structure brings together in one spot all Bethany's memories: the friendship of Jesus for Lazarus and his sisters, the promise of the resurrection of the body, the raising of Lazarus, and the meal in the home of Simon the Leper. However, the main reason for the building, as for its predecessors, is to mark the tomb of Lazarus.

The architect chose to bring out the contrast between the sadness of death and the joy of resurrection. Thus, we have, according to Pere Vincent, "the impression of a funerary monument full of semi-darkness, while the dome, flooded with light from its large oculus, stirs up in one's soul the sublime hopes of resurrection and of life arising from the words once spoken by Jesus in this place" (Revue Biblique 65 ~l95~ 476).

The church is in the shape of a Greek cross, its width coinciding with that of the three Byzantine naves. The dome over the centre of the cross is as wide as the central aisle (7,70 m.). Remains of the first church on the site can still be seen: outside the new building there are fragments of mosaic and, beneath the floor of the west arm of the cross, two parts of the apse. Of the second church, there remain: the west end of the north wall, the facade, two pillars and one pillar of the portico, a part of the apse (behind the main altar) and a fragment of mosaic (at the beginning of the west arm). Of the third church we have: two of the northern buttresses and some small pieces of mosaic.

Because there are no windows and by reason of the stark simplicity of the tower, the plain entrance and the surrounding ruins, the modern church gives a real impression of a funerary monument."

The west façade is decorated by three mosaic panels showing Lazarus, Martha and Mary while, on the east facade, there is the name of the church, flanked by two angels who, with trumpets, announce the resurrection of Lazarus.

The church door in bronze, is divided into six equal panels containing endless tresses, symbols of eternity, surrounding circles in high relief, emblems of life.

The only source of light within is the oculus of the dome. Beneath this an inscription reads (in Latin): "He who believes in me, though he is dead, will live on and whoever has life, and has faith in me, for all eternity cannot die" (John 11:25). This promise on the part of Jesus is dramatized in the forty-eight mosaics of the dome where doves, symbolizing faithful souls, take flight aloft to eternity.

The walls of the four arms of the church are decorated with half-moon shaped mosaics. The designs for these, as for the other mosaics, are the work of the artist Cesare Vagarini. The panels represent: centre, Jesus saying to Martha. "I am the resurrection and life"; left, Jesus in the house of Martha and Mary; right, the raising of Lazarus; over thc door, the meal in the home of Simon the Leper. All four themes are explained by passages from the Gospel. Sculpture on the main altar, the work of Aurelio Mistruzzi, shows two angels beside the tomb of Lazarus.

The altar of the Franciscan Chuch at Bethany

In accord with the wishes of Abbot Seraphin of Mar Saba monastery, the Greek Orthodox community, in 1965, began building a church on their property to the west of the tomb of Lazarus. The whole is made up of two churches, one above the other. The stonework of the lower incorporates part of the north wall of the medieval monastery church.

Like most Jewish tombs of old, that of Lazarus was composed of a vestibule and a burial chamber. Quarried out of the soft rock, the tomb was most likely faced during the Byzantine period with stone or marble-work. In its present state, however, with the exception of the entrance, the tomb shows traces of changes and additions made during the Middle Ages. Since the sixteenth century, the entry to the tomb has been made not from the east but from the north, outside the mosque. A flight of 24 steps leads down to the vestibule, 3,35 m. long, 2,20 wide. The east wall was once pierced by the original entrance to the tomb but this is now walled up. Three steps connect the vestibule with the inner chamber which is a little more than two metres in size. It contains three funerary niches (arcosolia), now mostly hidden by a facing of stonework. One tradition places the tomb of Lazarus to the right of the entrance which was formerly closed by a horizontal stone. According to pilgrims of old, it was in this vestibule that Jesus was standing when he called Lazarus from the grave.

Today's entrance to Lazarus' tomb

ln 1950, while a trench was being dug in the property of the Sisters of Charity, to the north-west of the Franciscans' olive grove, a grotto was discovered marked with scratchings (graffiti) which give proof of long devotion. Dating from Byzantine times, these symbols were studied by two professors from the Franciscan Biblical Institute and by two from the French Biblical School, Frs. Benoit and Boismard. The latter wrote a long article on the subject in the Review published by the School. Another Franciscan professor, Fr. F. Testa, has made a fresh study. According to him, this grotto must have been a place sacred to Jewish-Christians where they commemorated the supper of Christ and his disciples which, according to various documents, took place on Resurrection Day and precisely in the Bethany area. Whatever the facts, the Jewish-Christian nature of the grotto is proven by the cosmic ladder, the triangle and various eschatological designs on the walls. The cosmic ladder symbolizes the journey which the soul must make from the grave to God. It appears often in the writings and monuments relative to Jewish-Christian belief. The grotto was abandoned about the fifth-sixth century, that is about the time when the Jewish-Christian communities themselves disappeared.

The venerated Grotto of the Jewish-Christians at Bethany


According to Egeria, the meeting of Jesus and the two sisters was localized about 500 yards west of the tomb, in the Jerusalem direction. To the west of the village also, there was found the tower or column with which the Abbot Daniel associates the meetings.

From the thirteenth century onwards. the encounter was sited to the east of the village. Nicholas of Poggibonsi connects it with a stone where, according to later pilgrims, Jesus was seated when Martha came to meet him. Indulgences were attached to this stone and these preserved the memory of the episode down to our own time. At present, it is to be found in a small enclosure, to the left of the road to Jericho, but its significance will soon be lost. The Greek Orthodox transferred the memory of the meeting to their church nearby and the Russians, to their own property where they point out a stone discovered in 1934 and bearing an inscription in ancient Greek: "On this spot, the Messiah spoke about the resurrection to Martha and Mary."


The Greek church of Burj el-Hammar consists of a porch, one aisle only, broader than it is long, and a large clover-shaped choir. It was built in 1882-1883 on ancient foundations which, with their great thickness and rough bosses, seem to belong to some medieval structure. A block of masonry, fairly low in dimensions. surrounds the main apse. The other two apses are prominent.

A late tradition sited a church in honour of Mary Magdalene to the east of Bethany. Some writers would identify the building in question with this edifice. The Greeks, however, are content to commemorate here the meeting of Jesus with the sisters. They point out a stone in this connection. Experts believe that it is part of a tombstone.

© franciscan cyberspot - text written by Albert Storme

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Created / Updated Monday, 11 October, 2004 at 12:00:39 am by J. Abela, E. Alliata, E. Bermejo
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