Ingeborg Rennert Center for Jerusalem Studies
Bar-Ilan University Ramat-Gan, Israel

Jerusalem: Life Throughout the Ages in a Holy City

Internet Educational Activities <>
March 1997
Yisrael Shalem     7/12

Sancta Hierosolymitana - Jerusalem in the Byzantine Period (324 C.E. - 638 C.E.)


This lecture focuses on Jerusalem becoming a Christian city for the first time in its history. The religious transformation was to alter the physical and human landscape of Jerusalem for the next 1500 years.

The Roman empire was still pagan at the beginning of the fourth century C.E. Christianity, however, was rapidly gaining adherents. While Christianity still remained an illegal religion in the Roman empire, Christians began to wield considerable influence. Several differing accounts describe the Emperor Constantines decision to adopt, or prefer, Christianity as his religion. Some attribute it to revelation, while others claim it derived from miraculous success in a battle on the banks of the Tiber river in 312 C.E. Regardless of his motivation, in 313 C.E. Constantine issued the 'Edict of Milan' declaring Christianity to be (religio licita) a legal religion. In practice this meant that Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire. This, however, did not alter the status of Jerusalem, which was still called Aelia Capitolina, for another 11 years. In 324 C.E. Constantine vanquished his political rival, Licinius, and brought the eastern portions of the Roman empire, including the Land of Israel, under his control, establishing his capital in Byzantium, soon to be Constatinople.

In 325 C.E. the first General Council of the Church was held in Nicaea, near Constatinople. The purpose of the conference was to sort out differences in religious dogma. It was attended by 318 bishops from all over the Roman empire, including Marcarius, Bishop of Jerusalem. Marcarius told Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine, about the dilapidated state of Jerusalem's holy places, sites associated with events in the last week of Jesus' life. Helena visited Jerusalem and shortly thereafter various religious relics began to be 'discovered' in and around the city, the most significant of these being several crosses. Numerous legends abound concerning the discovery and authentication of the 'true cross'. Of the various, often conflicting, versions the fourth century church father Eusebius provides an important description of the location of the rediscovered cross. Eusebius describes the cross as being discovered in a cave buried beneath the Temple of Venus-Aphrodite. This description is significant because it accounts for the location of Christianity's holiest shrine in Jerusalem, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

The discovery of these relics in Jerusalem at a time when Christianity had just become the official religion of the Eastern Empire had important repercussions for the city's development. Jerusalem was transformed from a relatively insignificant, provincial city in the Roman empire to the focus of pilgrimage and adoration by another major religion in addition to Judaism. This would be the beginning of inter-religious rivalry in the city, which would be joined three centuries later by the advent of Islam.

In recognition of the city's new found importance, Constantine, together with his mother Helena, commissioned the construction of the Anastasis -the Church of the Resurrection (the precursor of today's Church of the Holy Sepulchre) and later the Eleona Church on the Mt. of Olives. The construction of these churches had a significant effect on the physical landscape of Jerusalem for several reasons:

  1. The dismantling of major/large pagan sites in the city and the construction of these monumental churches greatly altered the urban skyline of Jerusalem. - More on this when we describe the Anastasis and Eleona.
  2. Building the Church of the Holy Sepulchre heralded a wave of construction of other churches, monasteries, convents and hostels which transformed the city's physical landscape both vertically and horizontally. - We will expand on this subject when we discuss the Empress Eudokia and the Madaba Map.
  3. The wave of construction and intensified pilgrim traffic, must have greatly improved the local economy, after years of relative dormancy during the period of Aelia Capitolina.
  4. The focal point of cultic activity in Jerusalem shifted away from the Temple Mount. In fact the Temple Mount became the local dump. This situation was not accidental, but theologically desireable, perhaps even essential, to the Christian rulers of Byzantine Jerusalem. Jesus predicted that Jerusalem and the Temple would be totally destroyed and that 'no stone would remain unturned' (Luke 21, 6; Mark 13, 2; Matt. 24,2). During the Byzantine period Jerusalem was rebuilt on a monumental scale by Christians. Consequently, leaving the Temple Mount in ruins took on a religious imperative, so much so that Cyril, Bishop of Jerusalem, expressed fear, in his Catechism, that the Jews would try to rebuild the Temple in order to refute Jesus' prophecy.

The Anastasis and Eleona

The Anastasis and Eleona were the most important churches built in fourth century Jerusalem. They owe their importance to the fact that they were erected in the very beginning of the Byzantine period by the Emperor Constantine and his mother Helena. As such, they constitute two of four churches built by Helena and Constantine in the Land of Israel.

The archeologist Michael Avi Yonah provides us with a concise description of the fourth century Anastasis in his Saga of the Holy City: 'The grave at the Anastasis' ('Place of the Resurrection') was surrounded by columns and domed over by a rotunda, the predecessor of the rotunda in the present-day Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Golgotha was left in an open courtyard; a splendid basilica the normal type was built east of it for the services connected with the Holy Sepulchre. It was approached by a flight of stairs ending before three great doors. This basilica was distinguished from all other Christian churches because it faced towards the West...The entire building was decorated lavishly in marble, gold and mosaics. The capitals of the twelve columns surrounding the Sepulchre...were of pure silver'.

The Eleona was erected on the Mount of Olives in 326 C.E. It commemorates the place where, according to Christian tradition Jesus taught his disciples the most basic prayer in Christianity, which is known as 'the Lord's Prayer'. The early 20th century French archeologist, Father L.H. Vincent sketched a reconstruction of the Eleona on the basis of archeological remnants of the original fourth century structure in the court of the Pater Noster church on the Mt. of Olives. Vincent describes a basilica divided into three halls: a narrow narthex; an open atrium; and a sanctuary with an altar and apse in the east.

Jews in Byzantine Jerusalem

The Roman Emperor Hadrian forbade Jews to live in Jerusalem (Aelia Capitolina) or its general surroundings. Despite this prohibition, rabbinic and Christian sources indicate that there was a Jewish presence in and around Jerusalem during the Roman period. In the Byzantine period we hear of a similar prohibition. The Byzantine historian Euthycius reports that Constantine forbade Jews to live in Jerusalem or even pass through the city. It is unclear whether this is the continuation of an already existing Roman ordinance or the promulgation of a new policy by the Emperor Constantine. Hadrian's prohibition specifically mentions the surrounding region of Jerusalem, in addition to the city proper. Euthycius mentions no such prohibition regarding the city's periphery.

Apparently Jews received special permission to enter Jerusalem on the Ninth of Av, the traditional day of mourning for the destruction of the Temple. The Bordeaux Pilgrim writes in his Itinerary that the Jews came to a certain 'perforated stone...once a year', where they would 'lament with wailing and tear their clothing'. The fourth-fifth century church father Jerome also mentions this practice. Where did these Jewish mourners come from? Midrashic literature refers to Jewish mourners coming from the Galilee, but Professor Joshua Schwartz of Bar Ilan University cites Christian sources which show that they came from the nearby region of Judea, as well.

Julian the Apostate - An Attempt to Rebuild the Temple or Why it pays to buy earthquake insurance!

In 361 C.E. a dedicated pagan, known today as Julian the Apostate, became emperor. He ruled for two years and actively sought to bring back Roman paganism at the expense of Christianity. For a combination of religious and political reasons Julian decided to allow Jews to return to Jerusalem and ordered them to rebuild the Temple. The church father Sozomenous claims that he even provided 'public money' to fund the construction and renew the sacrificial cult. By reconstructing the Temple Julian may have sought to discredit Jesus' prophecy about its destruction, as Sozomenous claims in his Ecclesiastical History; or he may have also been motivated by the strategic consideration that 'his enemy's enemy was his friend', and sought to develop a political alliance with the Jews.

Regardless of the motives, Jews returned to the city and, according to the church father Philostorgious, even erected a synagogue near the site of the Temple. Another church father, Rufinus, claims that Jews came to Jerusalem from 'every place and every province'. Construction began in earnest. Sozomenous states that the Jews brought 'skillful artisans, collected materials, cleared the ground...even the women carried heaps of earth, and brought their necklaces and other female ornaments towards defraying the expense'.

At this time we may find the beginnings of Jewish reverence for the Western Wall. Graffiti carved on the Western Wall bearing a messianic verse from Isaiah may have been written at this time. In Exodus Rabba, Rabbi Aha states that 'the Shechina (divine presence) never departed from the Western Wall'. Another midrash from this period claims that the Western wall was built with donations from the poor and therefore could not be destroyed, while the other walls, which were built by the rich, didn't escape destruction.

Construction did not continue for very long. In May 363 C.E. an earthquake, and subsequent fire, caused local officials to halt work on the Temple. At the same time Julian's death in a war with the Persians, and replacement by a Christian Emperor named Jovian, brought the restoration project to an end. Excavations conducted by Prof. Benjamin Mazar at the southwest corner of the Temple Mount, uncovered buildings containing a thick layer of ash, indicating their destruction by fire. Associated coins show that the last period of occupation for these buildings was at the end of Julian's reign (362-363 C.E.).

The Empress Eudokia Expands City

The fifth century was a tumultuous time in Jerusalem's history. While the city's population swelled, (the archeologist Prof. M. Avi Yonah estimates its population to have been 50,000 - 70,000), a doctrinal dispute in the church resulted in a rebellion by local monks against the Patriarch, which had to be supressed by imperial troops. The Barbarian invasion reached Rome and some of that city's aristocratic families sought refuge in the east, including Jerusalem. Family matters in the Byzantine court were likewise; when the Empress Eudokia separated from the Emperor Theodosius II, she settled in Jerusalem and embarked on several ambitious construction projects. Just outside of today's Damascus gate she built a church in honor of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr. However, her most significant contribution to Jerusalem's urban form resulted from the construction of a different church above the Siloam Pool. (Some of its ruins can be still be seen there today). As a result of the construction of this church, the city's walls were extended dramatically to the south, encompassing the hill of the Ophel and Mt. Zion. Portions of this wall were discovered in excavations conducted F.J. Bliss and A.C. Dickie in 1896.

At this time Jews from the Galilee petitioned Eudokia for permission to visit Jerusalem. Their request was granteed and they may have even been allowed to settle in the city. Apparently a Jewish community was reestablished and continued to exist throughout the rest of the Byzantine period, because we hear of various attacks upon Jews in Jerusalem by local Christians.

Justinian Jerusalem - Splendor Before The Fall

The sixth century had a turbulent beginning in the Land of Israel. There was a series of Samaritan rebellions and as a result several churches on the outskirts of Jerusalem were destroyed. The aftershocks of a major split in the Church, between Orthodox and Monophysites Christians was still being felt throughout the Byzantine empire. Against this background Justinian became emperor in 527 C.E. Justinian was a strong ruler. He restored order and embarked on a massive program of building through out the empire. In Jerusalrm he was responsible for two major edifices; the Nea Church and the Byzantine Cardo.

The 'Nea', officially called the New (nea) Church of St. Mary, was the largest Byzantine church erected in the city. Procopius, a Byzantine court historian, tells us that Justinian chose the 'highest of the hills' for this structure. When the land area at its crest proved insufficient for a building of this scale, he errected an elaborate system of vault to sustain the church's southern section. These vaults were discovered by Prof. Nahman Avigad during archeological excavations next to the parking lot of the Jewish Quarter, where it can be seen today. Two minor apses of this church may be viewed nearby. The Cardo 'Maximus' was the main street of Roman Jerusalem. Justinian extended the Cardo south into the area of today's Jewish Quarter, (where it may be visited). This extension was important to Jerusalem's urban development, since the smaller Roman city never reached this area. The Byzantine Cardo is depicted on the Madaba Map as a wide collonaded avenue, with a red tile roof, which crossed the city from north to south. It was one of the widest (22 m.) city streets in the Byzantine empire and the site of numerous religious processions ( between the Holy Sepulchre and the Nea), in addition to being a major marketplace.

The Madaba Map

The Madaba mosaic is the oldest known map of Jerusalem. It was the floor of a sixth century Byzantine church. The map depicts the entire Holy Land, with Jerusalem, at its center, displayed larger and in greater detail than any other settlement. The city appears as an oval, surrounded by a wall, towers and gates. At the city's northern gate is a square with a large pillar. The Cardo Maximus and Cardo Minimus are depicted as two collonaded streets leading away from the square. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Nea Church a presented in pictorial form alongside the Cardo Maximus. The artisan who constructed this map was, apparently, a Byzantine Christian, and he exaggerated things which were important to him. As a result the Church of the Holy Sepulchre appears in the maps center and has taken on the proportions of a small sky-scraper. Despite this and other subjective elements the map gives us an important portrayal of sixth century Jerusalem and even 'assisted' archeologists searching for the Cardo 1400 years later. The Persian Invasion - The End of Byzantine Jerusalem

In May 614 C.E. the Persian army under the leadership of King Chosroes II conquered Jerusalem, destroying all the chuches and monasteries in the city and its immediate vicinity. Persian control of the city didn't last long; in 629 Jerusalem reverted to Byzantine rule, after the Emperor Heraclius waged a successful campaign against the Persians. This too proved to be a brief interlude. In 638 C.E. the city was conquered by the Moslem Caliph Omar.

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