Christian Jerusalem 324-638, Teddy Kollek and Moshe Pearlman, Jerusalem: Sacred City of Mankind, Steimatzky Ltd., Jerusalem, 1991.
Constantine the Great was the first Roman emperor to adopt Christianity. Through his conversion he assured the future of this religion. From a minority sect it became the official religion of the Roman Empire.
Constantine started administrative life as ruler of western parts of the empire, with the junior title of caesar, in the year 306. The empire had grown up piecemeal over the centuries, and to streamline unwieldy rule the Emperor Diocletian, who abdicated in 305, had organized it into four large regions, each with its own sovereign. Two held the senior title of emperor; the other two were called caesar. Diocletian took the eastern region, which covered the area of today’s Turkey and the Middle East. His capital was Byzantium (which Constantine was to rebuild and rename Constantinople in 330), and Byzantium was to become the name of the eastern empire when the Roman Empire split into east and west divisions later in the century.
With Diocletian’s departure, there were bitter struggles between the various sovereigns, and after twenty years, Constantine emerged as the sole emperor. He was to retain unrivalled power from 324 until his death in 337. His direct rule now included Jerusalem.
He had by this time become passionately involved with Christianity and, reluctantly, in ecclesiastical controversy, and bishops from all parts of the empire, west and east, began to come to him to judge upon doctrinal differences. Understanding little of theological niceties, he called a kind of ecumenical council of all the churches in Nicaea, near Byzantium, in the year 325. Present with him at this Council of Nicaea was his like-minded mother, pagan turned Christian, the Empress Helena. One of the delegates was Bishop Macarius of Aelia Capitolina, as Jerusalem was still called. He met the Empress and spoke at length with her about the sad state of the sites hallowed by the steps of Jesus. So absorbed did she become in this sorrowful tale of neglect that, when the Council was over, she resolved to visit Jerusalem. She left in 326 with blessings, authority and funds from her son, the emperor.
Her voyage was one of discovery. She and Macarius identified the locations of the crucifixion and burial of Jesus, and of other events associated with his last days on earth. They also discovered—or, at least, the discoveries were attributed to Helena later in that century—relics associated with the crucifixion. Such discovery and identification started the traditions of the main Christian sites which are followed to this day. Other locations, adding to the traditions, were marked throughout the period of Byzantine rule which was interrupted with the Persian invasion in 614 and which came to an end with the Moslem conquest in 638.
Constantine decided to erect appropriate shrines on the sacred sites, worthy of the cradle of Christianity to replace the pagan temples; and to enhance the city hallowed by Jesus. The most magnificent of his monuments, and of immeasurable importance as a sacred site of future Christian pilgrimage, was the one marking the rock held to be Golgotha, the hillock of the crucifixion, and the nearby tomb known as the Anastasi, Greek for the place of the Resurrection. The shrine was the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
It was then, and in its two major reconstructions in the early seventh and eleventh centuries, a group of buildings within a rectangular architectural framework lying from east to west. The most outstanding, and still the principal feature of this shrine, was the rotunda of the Anastasis, a circular church with the sepulcher in the center, surrounded by columns and topped by a huge dome. Adjoining it on the east was a cloistered open court; in this court was the traditional rock of Calvary. East of that was the church, called the Martyrium, where the services were held. Two rows of pillars on either side of the nave gave the basilica four aisles. The apse was, unusually, at its western end, so that it lay in the direction of the Sepulchre. The church was entered from east through a covered portico, the atrium, and this in turn was entered also from the east through three portals, reached by steps from the street. In front of the steps were some of the columns lining the Cardo Maximus, the main north-south city road of Roman Aelia Capitolina. Beneath the church was a disused cistern which later became, and is called to this day, the Crypt of the Finding of the Cross, commemorating the discovery attributed to Empress Helena of the actual cross on which Jesus had been crucified.
Standing on this site was the temple of Venus which Hadrian had erected. It was this pagan shrine which is said to have led Helena and Macarius to locate the sacred burial place, for it was believed that Hadrian had chosen precisely that spot for pagan worship so as to obliterate all association with the doubly hated Jesus—Jesus the Jew, and Jesus the founder of Christianity. The temple of Venus was the clue. It was torn down. Upon the site whose memory it was to have to effaced rose the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, preserved, in part, to this day. Still to be seen are the foundations of the rotunda and part of the entrance and steps of the church.
The main structure was destroyed by the Persians in 614, but restored on a smaller scale a few years later by the abbot Modestus. In the year 1010 it was again destroyed, this time by the Caliph Hakim of Egypt. It was rebuilt in 1048 by the emperor Constantine Monomachus during the brief period when it came under Byzantine protection. The Crusaders in 1144 were the first to reconstruct the entire shrine so that all was under a single roof, and the present church follows largely their plan. Additions to the earlier churches were a marble covering to the rock of Calvary; a marble enclosure for the sepulcher; a bell-tower; the Stone of Anointing (on which the body was anointed before burial); and sundry chapels and oratories. The dome was rebuilt several times. The existing one is a hundred years old. Constantine’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre became the most venerated site in Christendom, and the most powerful focus of pilgrim attraction.
The other outstanding basilica built in Jerusalem by Constantine, or rather by his maternal representative, was the Church of Eleona on the Mount of Olives. The site of Eleona (Greek for “on Olivet,” as the Mount of Olives was known), was marked by Empress Helena as the grotto where Jesus “reveled to his disciples inscrutable mysteries.” The remains of this church were discovered in 1910 during archaeological excavations and over them now rises the Basilica of the Sacred Heart. It lies close to the Carmelite Convent and Cloister of the Pater Noster, and a short distance south of the Church of the Ascension, believed by the faithful to be the place from which Jesus ascended to heaven.
Incidentally, the original Church of the Ascension was also built in the fourth century, some fifty years after the death of Helena, and also by command of a woman, a pious Roman lady named Pomenia. Its remains, too, may be seen today. It was a round building, open to the sky, and was called the Imbomon, Greek for “on the hill.” The existing octagonal structure is Crusader.
Basilicas were not the only Christian buildings erected by Constantine and other wealthy Christians later in the century who followed his example. The growing Christian community, the rising number of monks and nuns and pilgrims called for the construction of monasteries, convents and hospices. Gradually the city began to abound with these structures, and these in turn attracted more and more visitors. By the end of the fourth century, with Jews still barred except for one day a year, Jerusalem became an exclusively Christian city, the only one in the country. The Jewish centers were still in the Galilee.
The process continued in the fifth century. Contemporary records report the visits and settlement of distinguished Christian families, notably pious—and wealthy—women form Rome and Byzantium who spent their money on buildings and their time in civic service. One, who was also powerful, made a lasting impact on the city. She was the Empress Eudocia, the lady who was responsible for getting the ban lifted on Jewish entry into Jerusalem. Widow of a former emperor and expelled from the court of Byzantium in 438, she found a haven in Jerusalem—as had many aristocrats from Rome with the invasion of that city by the Barbarians. We know that Eudocia built a magnificent palace and we know of at least one church she erected, the Church of St. Stephen, in honor of the first Christian martyr. Remains of this church were discovered at excavations just north of today’s Damascus Gate. Eudocia is also said to have been responsible for an extension of the city wall so that it now ran further to the south, enclosing within the city once again Mount Zion on the west and Ophel on the east. Archaeological excavations have exposed the remains of this work too.
More Christian shrines were added in the sixth century, the most noted being the Church of St. Mary Nova, not far from the Wailing Wall, constructed by the outstanding Byzantine emperor, Justinian I (527-65). Indeed, how crowded the city was with churches and monasteries at this time is clearly seen in a most remarkable “document” discovered in 1897 in the ruins of a church at Madeba, in Jordan, southeast of the Dead Sea. The “document” is a pictorial map of the Holy Land, with a special panel for Jerusalem, done in mosaics set in the floor of the church. It gives a bird’s eye view plan of the city. Its date is the latter part of the sixth century. It is thus the oldest representation we have of Jerusalem.
The Madeba map shows us the city walls—including Eudocia’s enlargement to include Mount Zion. We see Eudocia’s palace, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Justinian’s St. Mary Nova, and the Church on Mount Zion. Dividing the map is the north-south road of Hadrian, with pillars on either side, some of them flanking the entrance to Constantine’s basilica. Also shown is what forms today’s Damascus Gate. Hard by the west gate, the Jaffa Gate of today, are two of Herod’s three original towers, one of them evidently Phasael whose base is preserved today on the “Tower of David.” And in amongst the outstanding structures are thick clusters of smaller churches and hospices.
This was the city of Jerusalem at the height of Byzantine glory some fifty years before its fall. In 614, an army of the reborn Persian Empire under Chosroes II, overran the country and took Jerusalem after a siege lasting only twenty days. The Persians were much aided by the Jews of Galilee, many of them joining the ranks of the invader as auxiliaries. They had suffered an additional hardship at Byzantine hands only a short time before when the emperor Heraclius had ordered the Jews of the empire to accept baptism, and their sympathies were therefore with the Persians. With the capture of Jerusalem, many Christians were killed and churches destroyed and damaged. The Patriarch Zacharias, thousands of other Christians and the True Cross were taken captive to Persia.
It seems to have been the Jewish hope that Jerusalem would now be turned over to them. But after a few years the Persian attitude changed and local authority was handed to the priest Modestus. He is remembered principally for his rebuilding of some of the ruined churches, notably the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, though on a much reduced scale.
The Persian occupation was shortlived. In 629, Heraclius gained the upper hand; Chosroes II was defeated, and Palestine reverted to the Byzantines. The Patriarch and the True Cross were brought back to Jerusalem. As for the Jews, historians say that while Herclius was inclined to spare them for having allied themselves with the Persians, he was considerably roused by local accusations against them of having participated in the killing of Christians at the time of the Persian entry. A massacre of the Jews followed, and the survivors were expelled.
The Byzantines may well have thought that they were in for another long spell of rule in the Holy Land. But while Heraclius was celebrating his reconquest, the followers of a new religion in Arabia, headed by its prophet Mohammed, were completing their hold on Mecca. Mohammed died in 632, and his old friend and successor, Abu Bakr, spent the next two years consolidating Moslem authority over the Arabian Peninsula. The second caliph, Omar, carried the war to Byzantium and Persia in 634 and two years later entered Palestine. In 638 the Moslems reached Jerusalem and besieged the city. Negotiations followed which resulted in its peaceful surrender. Christians were unmolested and permitted to follow their worship. Jews once again were allowed return, the caliph Omar overruling the objections of the Christian Patriarch Sophronius. The Moslem occupation had begun.