The Nea Church & the Cardo
During the Byzantine
period (4th-7th centuries) Jerusalem was a Christian city with many churches. The most important church was the Holy Sepulcher, on the
traditional site of the crucifixion and burial of Jesus, built by
Constantine the Great at the beginning of the fourth century. Another large
church was the impressive Nea Church, built by the emperor Justinian at the
height of the Christian era of Jerusalem in the mid-sixth century. Thousands of Christian pilgrims came to Jerusalem
to worship and they left many written descriptions of the city and its holy
places. But the most important testimony of Byzantine Jerusalem is the famed Madaba map,
made of colored mosaic, part of the floor of a church (in present-day
Jordan) which was built at the end of the 6th century.
The map, a beautiful birds-eye-view of Jerusalem, shows in detail the
walls, the gates, the main streets and the churches of the city. The main
throroughfare, the Cardo maximus (Cardo, in short) was a colonnaded
street bisecting the city from north to south, from todays Damascus Gate
to the Zion Gate. Along the Cardo in the map, two large church complexes
are clearly shown – the Holy
Sepulcher in the north and the Nea Church at the southern end.
The Madaba Map, the earliest graphic representation of Jerusalem, guided archeologists in
their search for the remains of Byzantine Jerusalem. After the reunification
of Jerusalem in 1967, excavations were conducted in the Jewish Quarter
(located in the southeastern part of the Old City). The Nea Church and the
Cardo were discovered, in the locations depicted in the Madaba map.
The Nea Church
In Jerusalem he (Justinian) built a church in
honor of the Virgin which is beyond compare. People call this church the
New Church (Nea). Thus wrote Procopius, court historian of the emperor
Justinian. The full name of the edifice was the Church of Mary, Mother of
God. Procopius recounts details of its construction and the names of the
various buildings which made up the large church complex.
Portions of the church were uncovered on the southern
slope of the Jewish Quarter of the Old City. The church was built on a
massive podium supported by thick walls of stone and concrete resting on
deep bedrock. It was a very large structure, 115 m. long and 57 m. wide,
divided by four rows of columns which supported the roof. The eastern wall
was especially broad (6.5 meters) and contained side apses, 5 meters in
diameter. Marble pavement covered the floor.
Along the southern side of the church, where the bedrock
is at great depth, a very large subterranean water reservoir was found,
completely preserved. Some of the annexes of the church had been built
above it. The reservoir measures 33 x 17 m. and is divided into vaults
supported by arches which rest on huge (5 x 3.5 m.) piers, ten meters high.
The interior of the reservoir was coated with a thick layer of hard
plaster; it had a capacity of thousands of gallons of water.
A surprising discovery was a dedicatory inscription
placed in the water reservoir. Found high on the southern wall, the Greek
inscription, in red-painted plaster relief letters, reads:
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 inscription provides evidence for the identification
of the remains with the Nea Church, its location corroborated by the Madaba
The remains of an elaborate north-south colonnaded
street – the Cardo – were found in the center of the Jewish Quarter,
exactly as depicted in the Madaba map. A 200-meter-long section of the
street, four meters below present-day street level, was exposed. Its
northern part was laid upon several meters of earth fill, whilst the
southern end was on leveled bedrock, which created a six-meter-high rock
scarp on its western side.
The Cardo was 22.5 m. wide, divided by two rows of stone
columns into a broad street flanked on either side by five-meter-wide
covered passageways. A wooden beam construction supported the roofing,
probably of ceramic tiles. Bordering the street on its eastern side was an
arcade of large arches supported by piers built of ashlars. Shops lined the
street along its southwestern part; more shops were located behind the
arcade of arches.
The monolithic columns, of hard limestone, were found in
fragments, incorporated into later structures. The bases are in Attic
profile, while the capitals are carved in the Corinthian style. The
columns, five meters high, have been reconstructed in their original
positions in the Cardo. The well-hewn paving stones, laid in parallel rows,
are smoothed and cracked with age.
The southern part of the Cardo, uncovered in the Jewish
Quarter, was built during the reign of the emperor Justinian (527-565), as
a continuation of the earlier, Roman, northern part, thus linking the two
main churches of Byzantine Jerusalem – the Holy Sepulcher and
the Nea Church.
Along the reconstructed part of the Cardo one can walk
today, as did people some 1500 years ago. In the twelfth century, the Crusaders built a covered bazaar over a
section of the Cardo; from this section, the debris of centuries have been
removed and modern stores offer their wares to shoppers.
Sources: Israeli Foreign Ministry