JERUSALEM-the 50 sites you may overlook

In a historic and religious city like Jerusalem there is so much to see no matter how much you tour. When time is a limiting factor, even the most efficient tour guides have to compromise while deciding what to incorporate in the itinerary. Although it depends on the interest of the individual visitor as well, there is still a huge must-see-list in Jerusalem that cannot be avoided. At every stop so much information is thrown on a visitor that sometimes s/he tends to forget the details after leaving the place.

I remember when I first visited the Church of Holy Sepulcher, it appeared to me more like a small museum than a church. I was virtually clueless inside a dark and dull overcrowded massive complex of more than 25 chapels with several curious artifacts and antiques scattered under some dusky arches and dingy columns. It took me at least three visits with a proper map in hand to understand the Church complex. A normal visitor for instance would be satisfied with Golgotha, the ‘Stone of Unction’ and the ‘Holy Sepulcher’, but the oldest part of the complex, viz. the first century tombs inside the Syrian Orthodox Chapel could be easily missed.

In the upcoming posts I plan to upload 50 such sites from Jerusalem that I believe can be easily overlooked or go unnoticed by an average visitor. I am incorporating the following sites from my previous visits, again with no specific order of importance. I am sure that a serious traveler who loves history, traditions and the Bible has noticed or been to most of them.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

THE NEA CHURCH OF ST: MARY-THEOTOKOS (543 AD), JERUSALEM. The Largest Church ever existed in Jerusalem (375 ft x 185 ft; larger than a football field)

One of the most sought after venues in the archaeological history of Jerusalem is the 6th Century Nea Church built by Emperor Justinian. Byzantine historian (6th Cent AD) Procopius describes in much detail about how the Church was constructed by Justinian on the highest hills of Jerusalem. According to Procopius, the stones were so big that special wagons driven by 40 oxen were needed to transport even a single stone!

The Church was discovered after 1300 years by modern archaeologists, based on a 6th century (AD) map called the Madaba Mosaic Map! Till date, Madaba Map is the oldest known map of Jerusalem. It was discovered in 1894 as the floor of a 6th century Byzantine church from Jordan. Ever since the discovery of Madaba Mosaic, the map had become a precious tool for archaeologists to discover some very important ancient monuments in Jerusalem. Never had archaeologists any clue for the existence of such a magnificent Church in Jerusalem before the discovery of Madaba Mosaic. Since, the map has yielded some vital information for rediscovering ancient structures; its authenticity has been generally accepted. The quest had a final outcome in 1970s, when the late Israeli archaeologist Avigad Nahman rediscovered the Nea Church almost 1300 years later, exactly at the same spot where Madaba Map marks the Church.

The largest church ever constructed in Jerusalem, the Nea, was an impressive engineering feat. Built as a standard Roman basilica with four rows of pillars, a nave with two to four side aisles; the complex also had a monastery and hospital with 3000 beds for the sick. When the monument was designed, the southern end of the Church was to rest on a slanting hill. In other words, on one side, the church has to be built on a solid rock and on the other it should be suspended in the air. As the ground level was much below the hill, huge underground vaults, nearly 35 feet high, were needed to support a platform on which the Church was constructed. These vaults formed a massive cistern (33 x 17 m) with a capacity for thousands of liters of water. Today, this massive cistern and two apses of the original Nea Church have been unearthed.

From the walls of the cistern a Greek dedicatory inscription was discovered in 1977, identifying this as the work of Justinian and even mentioning the exact date of construction. The reading goes as:"And this is the work which our most pious Emperor Flavius Justinian carried out with munificence, under the care and devotion of the most holy Constantine, priest and Hegumen, in the 13th (year of the) indiction"(549/550 AD). The discovery put an end to the much debated question if the identified site is Nea Church itself.

Just a few comments to add: It took me more than five trips to Jerusalem to even locate the coveted site. For me least, all the online maps and guide books were not helpful to pinpoint the location. Thanks to the directions provided in Jerome Murphy O'Connor's classic "The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide", which ultimately guided me to the remains of the Church, deep inside the Jewish Quarter. Although it took quite a long time to find the Church, I had the opportunity to learn more about some rare archaeological sites nearby. I am still clueless if I have seen all the excavations from Nea Church, but for sure the Church will remain special among my adventures in Jerusalem.

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