The Crusader church

The Crusader church

The imposing walls of the church, which were extraordinarily thick (2.35 meters), were covered by a layer of debris that had built up over the centuries.

Once the debris was removed the Crusader church reemerged, with its floor plan of a central nave separated from the two lateral aisles by rows of three cruciform pillars, with the nave and aisles terminating in semicircular apses. The exterior of the largest apse had a polygonal form.

The imposing walls had been nearly completely destroyed and many of its stones were probably reused in later constructions. Marks left by medieval stonecutters can still be seen on a number of the stones, marks that had been used for fitting the blocks or for identifying those who had worked at the building site or, in some cases, for indicating the quarries from which the blocks had come for purposes of making payments. The entrance door in the façade was 1.80 meters wide, and an access step was found along with part of the external pavement belonging to the church courtyard. A marble column was discovered among the debris covering the pavement of the courtyard.

The presbytery, where the altar stood, had been built in the area of the nave and extended to the center of the church. Formed by a natural platform 63 cm above the level of the floor, it was surrounded by a perimeter wall. Three steps in the nave permitted direct access to the presbytery, while additional steps on its northern and southern sides, near the apses, allowed lateral access. At the center of the presbytery the bare rock rose approximately 10 cm, carefully formed into a regular shape on its sides. Natural rock could also be seen in the north apse, while in the south apse the rock had been irregularly cut and served as a foundation for the walls of the apse.

The pillars, nearly all of which were plundered, had been of cruciform shape above a square base, with half-columns projecting on each side. From several blocks that were recovered, and from traces left in the floor during the removal of the pillars, it has been possible to deduce their original form.

A restoration, which took place at a time that cannot be identified precisely, involved a renovation of the pavement and strengthening the pillars. The pavement that has been discovered was made from stone cubes of coarse tesserae, alternating with irregular slabs of marble of various colors and dimensions; in some cases the marble fragments, coming from ancient slabs that had been reutilized, preserve traces of Greek and Arabic inscriptions or of sculptural work. During this renovation the original pavement, which had probably been entirely in the form of marble slabs, was replaced. The cruciform pillars were encased within a rough masonry structure having an octagonal form. The walls with Crusader decorations were also covered and whitewashed.

A Crusader tomb was found outside the polygonal wall of the principal apse, containing an intact ossuary. Other Christian tombs were found inside the church. In one a skeleton and a small copper cross was preserved, in another a female skeleton with rings and part of a shroud, and in a third a skeleton and a terra cotta pot.

The few architectural elements recovered from the excavations convinced Father Orfali that the pillars had supported low vaulted arches. Along with fragments of an architrave and brackets, a small column was found, leading to the conclusion that there had been mullioned windows on the façade and sides.

The high quality of the architectural and decorative elements suggests that the Romanesque church had rich French patrons who during the Crusader period provided for the construction of the Church of the Savior. The church was the spiritual center of the Confraternity of Charity, which collected funds for the hospital of Our Lady of Josaphat adjoining the abbey of the Tomb of the Virgin.

The medieval restoration of the building, well-documented from the excavations, reveals the impoverishment of building techniques and the limited resources available for the restoration. With the defeat of the Crusaders and the abandonment of Jerusalem by the Franks, the Church of the Savior undoubtedly suffered heavy damage that, in all probability, was repaired during the restoration: despite its decline the building surived, as recounted by medieval pilgrims, at least until the beginning of the 14th century.