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St. Anne and the Probatica

The gospel of John (5:2-18) relates how Jesus healed a lime man, who was suffering from his illness for 38 years. This happened in the Betzetha neighborhood, on the northern side of the Temple, near a pool called Probatica (but also Betzatha, Bethesda and Bethsaida). An ancient tradition wants the house of Virgin Mary's parents, St. Joachim and St. Anne, situated in the same area. Click on the photos to enlarge.

Eusebius of Caesarea and other ancient Christian writers describe the Probatica as a double pool, i.e. composed of two basins which were replenished by raining water during the winter season (the above model is shown in the local museum).

Archaeological excavations begun in the 19th century have brought to light remains of the Probatica pool (black), of Jewish baths (green), of a pagan shrine of Roman epoch (yellow), of the Byzantine basilica of St. Mary (red), to the Crusader monuments (blue)

The Byzantine basilica was partly stretched over the two basins and built upon a robust series of piers, of which one is still standing today in its entirety.
Water was always gathering in the southern pool while the church stood there to commemorate the miracle of Jesus. Below: burial stone from the tomb of "Amos, deacon of the Probatica."

Water was always gathering in the southern pool while the Church stood there to commemorate the miracle of Jesus. Below: burial stone from the tomb of "Amos, deacon of the Probatica."

Both pools were completely filled up soon after the renovations carried out by the Crusaders. Before that, the Probatica church continued to exist while passing through different phases of reconstruction.

We owe to the Crusaders the large and beautiful Church of St. Anne, which is situated on the east side of the south pool and dedicated to the memory of the nativity of Our Lady. St. Anne's Church is seen here in the background.

In the south east corner of one pool (the northern one), the Crusaders set up a shrine of lesser size which was intended to be a memorial of the healing of the lame man .

The chapel of the healing of the lame man was called Moustier in ancient French and was built with three floor levels: the main chapel, a crypt and a cistern underneath. Pilgrims used to go down to the cistern to get a taste from the healing water.

Elements of the ancient basilica were included in the Crusader chapel's building. At the end of the Crusader Period, all this area soon fell into complete oblivion.

Excavations in the main area of the basilica were done in 1964 and has been of great interest. Archaeologists succeeded to document the long religious history of the place.

You can still see some remains of the lateral walls and four column pedestals decorated with beautifully sculpted crosses. Only one of the pedestals was found in situ, the remaining three have been repositioned in their most likely place.

The Byzantine basilica had been built over earlier structures pertaining to a pagan shrine dedicated to a healing god like the Egyptian Serapis or the Greek Asclepius. The evidence lays in a batch of votive objects recovered in the course of the excavations.

Votive objects from the pagan shrine:
1. Small edicule with snake and wheat ears.
2. Roman Coin from Jerusalem (Aelia Capitolina) figuring the god Serapis.
3. Stone statuette representing a woman getting ready for bathing.
4. Marble relief with a similar subject.
5. Representation of a ship in stone (two were found).
6. Votive foot with Greek inscription: "Offered by Pompeia Lukilia"

The presence of a number of baths and vats points to the continuous practice of bathing in water taken from the pool. This was most likely practiced not only for hygienical purposes, but also for purification and to seek healing from diseases (cf. Jn:5:4). The excavation area is seen from the south (right) and from the north (below).

The Church of St. Anne remained standing because Salah ad-Din, the conqueror of Jerusalem, ordered it to be given to the Shafiite muslim faction. An Arabic inscription, inserted just above the main gate, states so.

It was a big achievement by Napoleon III, the French Emperor, to have the church given back to the Christians. This was done as an exchange for military help accorded to in the Crimean War (1854-6). Architect M.C. Mauss, which was then sent to do the restoration work, had the luck to recover also the Probatica Pool.

In the crypt, seen here after restoration, pilgrims and Christians of Jerusalem were able to keep alive the memory of the Place of Virgin Mary's birth in the long centuries when the church rested in Muslim hands.

Christians were not permitted to go down in the crypt except trough a small window which is found in the church's south wall (see the red arrow added to the original drawing by E. Horn, 1742).

This small window, through which pilgrims once used to slide down, is seen here from the inside (left) and from the outside (right).

External Links

 SBF main, Index

Biblical Escursions


1. City Walls (North)

2. City Walls (South)

3. City of David

4. Ophel

5. Jewish Quarter

6. Mount Zion

7. Armenian Quarter

8. Holy Sepulchre

9. Via Dolorosa

10. Probatica

11. North Jerusalem

12. Gethsemane

13. Mount of Olives

14. Ascension, Bethphage, Bethany

15. West Jerusalem

16. Ain Karem

17. Bethlehem

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Created/updated: Sunday, December 16, 2001 by J. Abela ofm / E. Alliata ofm
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