A Christian City
The next major historical period in the history of Jerusalem, the Byzantine* era, began in 324 AD when Constantine, the first Roman ruler to adopt Christianity, extended his rule to the Eastern Roman Empire, of which Palestine was a part. Due to his impact, Jerusalem emerged as a sacred city to Christians.
*The name Byzantine is derived from Byzantium, on the shores of the Bosporus, the narrow straits dividing Europe from Asia, which Constantine made his new capital and renamed Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey). The Byzantine Empire is the name given to the continuation of the Roman Empire, which — converted to Christianity and using Greek as its principal language — flourished in the eastern Mediterranean for more than 1,000 years until its fall in 1453.
On May 1, 305 AD the emperor Diocletian — weary, in his own words, of being "secluded from mankind" by his "exalted dignity" — abdicated to spend his remaining years raising cabbages in Dalmatia on the Adriatic Sea (formerly part of Yugoslavia). A civil war ensued among several claimants to the imperial throne. After his victory over Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge in 312 AD Constantine became emperor in the West; in 323 AD he defeated Licinius, emperor of the eastern provinces, and became sole ruler of the Roman empire. Constantine attributed his rise to the God of the Christians and, in gratitude, he dedicated his empire to the new faith.
The foundation of Constantine's project to reconsecrate Jerusalem to Christ was laid in 325 AD at the council of Nicea (modern Iznik, Turkey). It was here that he summoned the bishops of the Christian world to reconcile a number of pressing doctrinal questions that threatened to tear the church apart. One of the bishops, Macarius of Jerusalem, sought out the Empress Helena, Constantine's mother, whose influence at her son's court had grown with her advanced age. Macarius told Helena of the neglect that had shrouded the sites of Jesus' birth, crucifixion and resurrection for some 300 years. Persuaded by the bishop's passion, the eighty-year-old Queen Mother set out for Jerusalem with Macarius as her guide, and supplied with sufficient funds to start the necessary work. Together they identified a rocky grotto in Bethlehem as the site of the Nativity, climbed the Mount of Olives to stand where Jesus had instructed his disciples, and decided that Hadrian's temple to Aphrodite was the location of Golgotha, where Jesus hung on the cross. More astounding, while excavating the site of the crucifixion, Helena also found — or so it was later attributed to her — the very cross used to crucify Jesus. Upon her return to Constantinople, Helena detailed her findings to her son who ordered the destruction of Hadrian's pagan temples and the erection of appropriate Christian shrines in their place: the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, while on the Mount of Olives he constructed the Church of Eleona. Helena's discoveries confirmed Jerusalem as the holiest city of the Christian world, Jerusalem now became a focus for pilgrimage for millions of Christians who came contemplate the important events in the lives of Jesus, the Apostles and the early martyrs of the faith...
Sites and archaeological finds related to the reign of Constantine
Church of the Holy Sepulcher
Even though Constantine built the church 300 years after the Crucifixion, many believe it houses both the actual hill of Golgotha (Latin "Calvary") and the tomb of Christ.
The original Church of the Holy Sepulcher was built on a site that, in the 1st century AD, consisted of a small, rocky rise just outside the city walls, in an abandoned stone quarry into whose rock face tombs had been cut. Constantine's builders dug away the hillside to isolate the presumed rock-hewn tomb of Christ, leaving enough room to build a church around it. They also had to clear the remains of Hadrian's temple to Aphrodite from the site, along with the material with which the old quarry had been covered to provide a foundation for the pagan temple. In so doing, the rock of Golgotha was also discovered.
Constantine's original church complex, started in 326 AD, was dedicated in 335 AD. It was laid out on an east-west plan, and is described in great detail by Eusebius in his "Life of Constantine."
Remains of Constantine's original church
On Suq Khan es-Zeit, the main market street of the Old City, near the start of the the stairs going up to the 9th Station of the Cross and the Ethopian monastery, is a quaint pastry shop called Zalatimo Sweets (Halawiyat Zalatimo). The specialty is Mutabak, a sweet with cheese filling baked in an oven. The shop is mentioned in several guidebooks on Jerusalem, and it is well worth a visit, but not just for the pastries.
At the back of the shop you will find extraordinary archaeological finds from the original Church of the Holy Sepulcher, built by Constantine in 335 AD and destroyed by the Caliph Hakim in 1009. There you will see the remains of a door, about 8 feet high, and braced by a massive stone wall on both sides. This door was once part of the three-door monumental entrance that entered the church's atrium from the Cardo Maximus, the Byzantine city's main north-south street.
Church of Eleona and Church of the Ascension
These two churches were built on the Mount of Olives at the initiative of Helena. Buildings of later eras now stand at both sites:
The Eleona Church was built over a cave associated with the teachings of Jesus as recorded in Matthew 24 and 25. "Eleona" is a corruption of the Greek elaion, meaning "olives." Located some 230 feet from the summit of the Mount of Olives, on the steep western slope, commanded a magnificent view of the Holy City. The Persians destroyed the church in 614 AD. While the cave is still there, along with a second crypt called the Grotto of the Creed, all that remains of the elaborate Byzantine church is a bit of the foundation, a couple of stones and the bases of a few pillars. Even less remains of a more modest Crusader chapel, which was probably destroyed by Saladin's forces in 1187. An attempt by the French government to construct a church there ended abruptly in 1927 when the funds ran out. All that remains of that endeavor are a stone altar and a chair — seemingly out of place in the open air. As in the days of Helena, the view of the Holy City to the west is still magnificent.
When the Crusaders arrived, the site was associated specifically with the Lord's Prayer, as recorded in Luke 11:1-4 (in Matthew it is part of the Sermon on the Mount addressed to a large crowd in the Galilee). In the 1870's, the Convent of the Pater Noster (Latin, "Our Father") was built near the site of the ruined Eleona Church. It was sponsored by Aurelia Bossie, an Italian woman who, on her second marriage, wed a member of the French royalty and became the Princess de la Tour d'Auvergne. Large tiled panels along the walls around the courtyard display the Lord's Prayer in 62 languages. Immediately inside the convent's iron gate, the first panel you see is in Icelandic; two more plaques are in Hebrew and Aramaic; other languages include: German, Samaritan, Guarani, Maltese, and the interesting Chaldean language whose letters have a curious resemblance to Hebrew. Several of the tongues in which the Lord' Prayer is written are truly exotic, including Tagalog, Pampango, and Ojibway.
At one end of the walkway around the courtyard is a mausoleum where the princess is entombed. For nearly a decade, until the convent was well established, she lived nearby in a wooden cabin. She loved the site so much that she prepared her own sarcophagus and asked to be buried within the convent. Atop the sarcophagus is a life-size effigy, a fitting memorial to a princess whose favorite and most comforting litany was the Lord's Prayer.
Chapel of the Ascension
Just north of the Convent of the Pater Noster is the Chapel (or mosque) of the Ascension. Erected in the 4th century AD by Helena as part of the vast Eleona Church and Monastery complex, it marks the traditional site of Jesus' ascension into heaven. According to the Luke and Acts, forty days after the Resurrection, Jesus led his disciples "out to the vicinity of Bethany" (Luke 24:50), to "the hill called the Mount of Olives" (Acts 1:12), and "he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight." (Acts 1:9)
Since the time of it's construction, the octagonal shrine has undergone many facelifts. Destroyed by the Persians in the year 614 AD, it was eventually reconstructed in its present form by the Crusaders. The site was ultimately acquired by two emissaries of Saladin in the year 1198 and since then it has remained in the possession of the Muslims who consider Jesus to be one of the great prophets. The Crusader building was converted to a mosque but was never used by Muslims since the overwhelming majority of visitors were Christian. Two years later Saladin ordered the construction of a second mosque next door as a gesture of compromise and goodwill. In the center of the main dome is a stone said to a contain a footprint left by Christ as he ascended to heaven.
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