Bust of Constantine

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.


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.


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.