Byzantine Period


The Byzantine Empire was the natural continuation of the Roman Empire, after the latter's fall in the 3rd century CE.The Empire began around 324 CE, with the establishment of the new capital, Constantinople, named after the Emperor Constantine.

During Constantine's reign, Christianity was declared the official religion of the empire (324 CE), and Jerusalem --which at the end of the Roman era was mainly a housing facility for soldiers of the Roman legion -- became a prosperous city. The Land of Israel itself, and the city of Jerusalem in particular, began to take a central role in Christian beliefs. It was the city where Jesus was crucified and buried and possessed great significance in the events of the New Testament.

The first church built by Constantine in Jerusalem was a large basilica (a long rectangular structure, which was originallya Roman public building), and a rotunda, located where, according to tradition, Jesus had been buried. The site was chosen as a result of a dream experienced by Constantine's mother. This church became the center of life in Jerusalem. The Temple Mount, the center of Jewish Jerusalem, was completely deserted. After completion of the basilica and the rotunda, Constatine embarked on a monumental effort to build churches throughout Jerusalem and the surrounding area.

The planning of Byzantine Jerusalem was based upon the standard Roman city. This is evidenced by the way the city was rebuilt upon the ruins of Jewish Jerusalem, which the Romans renamed "Aelia Capitolina". From this period we find remnants of many Byzantine and Roman structures.

The Roman style, and later the Byzantine style, are centered around the existence of two main streets -- a "Cardo" which runs from north to south, and a "Decumanus" which intersects it, and runs from east to west. In addition to the two central thoroughfares, other smaller streets ran in similar directions.

Disagreement exists among scholars as to the exact date the Byzantine 'Cardo' in Jerusalem was actually built. Some claim that the Byzantines did not build the Cardo's wide elegant streets with pillars (on the contrary -- there are many known cases in which Roman streets were narrowed in Byzantine times). In their opinion, the Cardo was originally built by the Romans during the "Aelia Capitolina" period. Other scholars are of the opinion that at least the excavated southern part is an original Byzantine creation because the Roman city did not even extend to that area. Thus, the Romans had no reason to build a Cardo there. From this later viewpoint, the Cardo was built only in the 6th century, by the Emperor Justinian, to connect the religious center of the city (The Church of the Holy Sepulcher), with the new church built in the southern part of the city, the Nea Church.

Byzantine Jerusalem was intended to absorb thousands of pilgrims, and from inception was built with the intention of providing for their accommodation. However, the earliest available documentation regarding the structure of the city is from a period about 200 years later, and is known as the Medeba Map.

In 1884, a floor map mosaic (picture at top of page) depicting Israel and the surrounding area was found in Medeba, Jordan. While the different cities depicted on the map are only symbolic representations of one or two buildings, Jerusalem is depicted in relatively intricate detail. These details have helped to determine when the map was created. In the map, the city is surrounded by a wall, which includes Mt. Zion. From written historical sources researchers know that this wall was built by the Empress Eudocia in the 5th century; the Nea Church, which appears on the map, was built in the 6th century by Justinian, thereby supporting the claim that the map is no older than the middle of the 6th century.

When archeological excavations began in 1969, part of the Byzantine Cardo and surroundings buildings were excavated. In other excavations, different residences and agricultural equipment from the same period were uncovered. The combination of the archeological findings, the Medeba map, and written historical documents, provides us with a clear and fascinating picture of life in Byzantine Jerusalem.

Click here to return to the Historical Tour of Jerusalem Homepage.