The Byzantine church

The Byzantine church

In October 1919 the Custody of the Holy Land placed the first stone for the construction of the new church. A number of very particular circumstances allowed one to posit the existence of an even older structure, e.g., the rock that rose in the middle of the choir had traces of chisel marks with a different orientation from that of the Crusader church, suggesting that they had come from an earlier construction.

When the foundation works began, the excavations for the foundation of a pillar brought to light the remains of a mosaic two meters below the level of the medieval church. It was immediately decided to begin new archaeological excavations which took place from 19 April 1922 to 1924, when the new church was consecrated.

The orientation of the Byzantine church was significantly rotated towards the northeast in comparison to that of the medieval Crusader church: according to Father Vincent, who published an article on the excavations in the second volume of “Jerusalem Nouvelle”, the decision to change the orientation of the (larger) Crusader church had been determined by the slope of the rocks descending from the Mount of Olives. For the same reason, the side of the façade was supported by a series of supporting walls and a cistern was made inside the atrium, which was raised above the level of the road in front.

A natural rock formation formed the foundations of the central apse and extended to the nave. It was included in the presbytery. This rock rose 35 cm and probably was exposed to the veneration of the faithful, as a witness to Jesus’ agony at Gethsemane. The remains of the rock were discovered bearing evident traces of the veneration of pilgrims, who had taken fragments of it as a relic. The events that led to the destruction of the church also undoubtedly caused damages to this venerated rock.

The Byzantine church was of modest dimensions, measuring externally 25.50 meters by 16.35 meters, and based on the assessment of the pilgrim Egeria must have been very “elegant”. Its harmonic proportions would have provided the church with a measure of equilibrium. The thickness of the perimeter walls was also modest, approximately 60 cm.
The interior consisted of a nave and two aisles, separated by two rows of seven columns: the width of the nave was 7.82 meters, that of the aisles 3.76 meters. All three ended in semi-circular apses.

The smooth columns of the nave were topped by Corinthian capitals with acanthus leaves that stood out prominently and probably with a cross above the volutes (spiral scrolls), in a style resembling more the Constantinan one of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre than the mature Byzantine. The shafts of the columns had a diameter of 51 cm.

Externally, the side apses were contained within the straight wall, while the central one was extradosed (passing beyond the perimeter of the wall). At the rear of the church vertical walls were cut in the natural rock formation so as to set the apses apart. Along the external perimeter of the church a canal was dug to channel the waters that in winter descended to the base of the mountain. To make best use of this resource the water channels directed the water into cisterns that had been constructed in front of the façade, beneath the atrium.

The church floor was covered by splendid mosaics, which have been preserved particularly in the south aisle and between the columns. On the floor can be seen traces of a violent fire, perhaps the one that destroyed the church. Based on literary sources, scholars have been able to date the event to the year 614, when the Persians entered Jerusalem and demolished a large number of churches.

The mosaics display geometric and floral motifs: one motif with intertwined bands served as a frame for geometric squares decorated with diamonds and, in the center of the panels, a bunch of flowers decorated with a cross. The motifs, on a white background, were made using turquoise, red, yellow and black tesserae.

The few fragments of mosaics preserved in the nave display a rich floral decoration on a black background. The walls would have also been covered with mosaics, since a number of glazed mosaic tiles have been found.

In front of the building, which faces the Kidron Valley along the road running north-south, were stairs leading to the open atrium that was surrounded by porticoes supported by columns on both sides and in front of the façade. The porticoes on the two sides led to two large rooms, one to the north, the other to the south, both having floors paved with elegant mosaics. In front of the large room to the south was a smaller one with an olive press.

In the atrium and around the church several tombs were discovered while, clearly distinct from these, three special burial vaults surrounded by mosaic pavements were discovered in the north apse. In all likelihood, these latter tombs were built for three distinguished people, perhaps clerics, who were buried in a privileged position within the venerated place. In one tomb an elongated iron cross, characteristic of the Eastern liturgy, was found. It should in fact be noted that the entire area of the Mount of Olives and the Kidron Valley, from the Bronze Age to the present day, has been a preferred location for burial grounds.