through the Ages
by Yishai Elder
A survey of historic Christian architecture in Jerusalem is a study of
continuity and survival despite the ravages of time, war, schism, earthquake
and fire. It is also a study of the continuing influence of custom and
established tradition on style, design and ornamentation.
Many of the churches, monasteries, convents and shrines mark sites
associated with the earliest years of Christianity and the life and ministry
of Jesus and his disciples. Even in later centuries, the design of these
buildings was influenced as much by the religious traditions of the individual
Christian community as by the building methods and styles current at the time
of construction. Differences in tradition also affected the design of the
sanctuaries. Simply stated, the Western churches tended to have an open, high
altar; whereas the Eastern churches placed the altar behind an iconostasis, a
wall separating the sanctuary from the main body of the church.
Building in Jerusalem also made repeated re-use of older stone work and
architectural elements. Herodian- and even Hasmonean-cut stones can be found
in buildings of the Byzantine, early-Islamic and Crusader periods; and a
stone-carved rosette window from a Crusader church is incorporated in the 16th
century Ottoman fountain opposite the Bab
al-Silsila (Gate of the Chain)
entrance to the Haram esh-Sharif (the temple Mount).
The earliest buildings used by Christians as places of residence and
worship in Jerusalem were probably constructed in the contemporary Herodian
and Roman styles. While no identifiable Christian structure survives from
either of these periods, a sense of the architectural character of the
surroundings in which Jesus and his disciples lived can be seen in the ruins
of two buildings in Jerusalem destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE: the Burnt
House in the Jewish Quarter, and the barrel-vaulted rooms found during
archeological excavations at the Armenian Orthodox Church of the Holy Saviour
on Mount Zion.
Roman - Byzantine Period (70 - 638)
Almost all early Christian architects borrowed heavily from the Romans,
whatever the regional culture of the individual community. The principal
feature of Roman architecture was the arch and the vault in domed roof
construction. The Byzantines further developed this in the construction of
great domed buildings, such as Hagia Sophia in Constantinople.
The basic design in early church construction was the basilica, the large,
usually rectangular public halls used by the Romans for public meetings.
Entrance to such churches was often through a large, colonaded courtyard,
called atrium, and a vestibule, called narthex. The church itself was
built in the shape of a "T". The vertical consisting of a nave,
usually flanked by two or more side-aisles. A recessed, semi-circular,
half-domed apse (usually at the eastern end of the church) contained the main
altar. Such churches sometimes had the addition of two transepts, forming the
arms of the "T".
This design was employed in the construction of the 4th century Church of
the Holy Sepulcher, which was originally composed of five basic elements: a
Rotunda over the place of the Tomb; a chapel built on Golgotha, the place of
the Cross; a Courtyard; a great, five-aisled Basilica, with apse and altar at
the western end, toward the Tomb; and an Atrium at the eastern entrance to the
Basilica from the Cardo Maximus, the colonaded main street that ran south from
the present Damascus Gate. (A partially restored section of the Byzantine
extension of the Cardo can be seen in the Jewish Quarter.)
A visit to the present Church of the Holy Sepulcher reveals little of the
original Byzantine structure. The church was burned and looted by the Persians
in 614, partially rebuilt by the Patriarch Modestos, damaged by earthquake in
808, and destroyed in 1009 by order of the Fatamid Caliph al-Hakim. A portion
of the Church was again rebuilt by the Byzantine Emperor Constantine
Monomachus in 1048, but most of the present building is the result of 12th
century Crusader enlargement and reconstruction, as well as later renovations
(the most recent preservation work was begun in 1959). The Crusader architects
incorporated what survived of the original Byzantine fabric in the area of the
Rotunda, Golgotha and the Courtyard into their church. (The present columns
and piers of the Rotunda replicate the approximate shape and design of the 4th
century original, but at half the height.) The Basilica and Atrium were never
rebuilt. However, a portion of the eastern entrance from the Cardo Maximus can
be seen in the nearby Russian Orthodox Hospice on al-Dabbaghin Street.
Since the Crusades, the precincts and fabric of the Church of the Holy
Sepulcher have come into the possession of the three major denominations - the
Greek Orthodox, the Armenian Orthodox and the Latin Roman Catholics - whose
rights of possession and use are protected by the Status Quo of the Holy
Places, as guaranteed by Article LXII of the Treaty of Berlin (1878). The
various chapels and shrines within the building are furnished and decorated
according to the customs and rites of the religious community holding
The Egyptian Coptic Orthodox, the Ethiopian Orthodox and the Syrian
Orthodox also possess certain rights and small properties within the
Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The Coptic Chapel on the western side of
the edicule enshrines a fragment of stone molding from an earlier
monument, which can be seen beneath the altar. The Syrian Orthodox
have a chapel on the west side of the Rotunda in which a portion of
the original 4th century outer wall can be seen. The Ethiopian
Orthodox have a monastery on the roof of the Armenian Chapel of St.
Helena, amid the ruins of a 12th century Crusader cloister and
A common and recognizable Byzantine building technique was the use
of alternating courses of stone and brick in the construction of
walls. This can be seen at various places in the Church of the Holy
Sepulcher: in the Greek Orthodox Chapel of Adam beneath Golgotha, and
in the support piers for the 11th century Arch of the Emperor between
the rotunda and the Greek catholicon. The visitor should also note the
Crusader re-use of Byzantine "basket-weave" capitals.
The oldest surviving church building in Jerusalem is the 5th
century crypt of the Greek Orthodox Church of St. John the Baptist (Prodromos)
in the Christian Quarter of the Old City. Now below street level, the
structure is trefoil-shaped, with three apses (on the north, east and
south), and a narrow, long narthex on the western side. Four piers
support the dome. The upper storey was destroyed by the Persians in
614. It was rebuilt by St. John the Almoner, Patriarch of Alexandria,
and later, in the 11th century, by Italian merchants from Amalfi. The
present facade and small bell tower of the upper storey are modern.
The church is reached through a courtyard from the Christian Quarter
Another important architectural ruin from the Byzantine period is
the apse and foundation walls of the monumental Nea Church, the
"New Church of St. Mary, Mother of God" built by the Emperor
Justinian in 543. These were uncovered in 1970 and 1982 during
archeological excavations in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City.
Little of the superstructure of the building was found, but one of the
large underground cisterns can still be seen.
The Golden Gate in the eastern wall of the Old City may also date
from the Byzantine period. There are references to a gate in the
eastern wall of the Temple Mount during the Second Temple period, used
by the priests in the biblical Ceremony of the Red Heifer; according
to a later Christian tradition, this was the gate through which Jesus
entered the city on Palm Sunday. The rounded arches with floral relief
moldings are very similar to the Herodian double gate on the south
side of the Temple Mount, and archeological investigations carried out
during the British Mandate suggested that the present structure could
be situated on the site of the original Herodian gateway. It is
possible that the present gate was built in the mid-5th century by the
Empress Eudocia to commemorate St. Peter's miraculous cure of the lame
man (Acts 3:1-10).
Romanesque Architecture (500 - 1100)
A transitional style of architecture called Romanesque developed
during the 6th century; it incorporates the earlier Basilica style and
some elements of the later more complex Gothic style. A
parallel development occurred in Armenia.
The finest examples of surviving Romanesque architecture in Jerusalem are the 11th century church of the Greek Orthodox Monastery
of the Holy Cross, located near the Israel Museum, and the restored
12th century Church of St. Anne, near the Lions Gate in the Old City.
The fortress-like Monastery of the Holy Cross was built in the 11th
century by the Georgian King Bagrat on the site of an earlier
sanctuary. The church, entered through a narthex, has a nave and side
aisles, with a dome supported by four pillars. The 12th and 17th
century frescoes decorating the pillars and walls of the church
recount the legend of the tree used to make the cross upon which Jesus
was crucified. One of the frescoes commemorates the 13th century
Georgian national poet Shota Rustaveli, who lived in the monastery.
Since the 16th century, the monastery has been in the possession of
the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate. It is open to visitors most days of
the week. The floor contains sections of mosaic flooring from an
earlier 5th century church.
The Church of St. Anne, a domed basilica with a nave and two
aisles, is considered one of the most beautiful churches in the city.
The interior is plain, perhaps attesting to the fact that after 1192
the building was used as a madrasa, a Muslim religious academy. (It is
curious that none of the capitals on the interior columns are of the
same design. One even portrays a cow - or an ox, a symbol perhaps for
St. Luke?) In 1856, the Ottoman sultan gave the property to the Roman
Catholic "White Fathers" in gratitude for French support
during the Crimean War.
The walled Armenian Quarter (actually the Armenian Convent of Saint
James) in the southwestern part of the Old City contains several
churches and chapels dating from the Middle Ages. The most imposing is
the Armenian Orthodox Cathedral of St. James the Great, acquired from
the Georgians in 1141. The present structure incorporates earlier
elements, including the Chapel of St. Menas, which may date from the
5th century. The interior design of the cathedral - a wide nave and
narrow aisles, separated by four square pillars supporting vaulting
dome - is similar to already existing churches in Armenia. The
original entrance was on the south side of the church, but in 1670 the
portico was closed in to create the Chapel of Etchmiadzin.
The nearby Armenian Orthodox Church of the Holy Archangels, dating
from the 13th century, is similar in plan to St. James, though on a
much smaller scale. Both churches are decorated with 18th century
blue-on-white Kütahya tiles. The walls of the entrance courtyard to
the cathedral also contain katchkars, stones carved with crosses and
inscriptions that were donated by pilgrims. The earliest is dated
A well-preserved Crusader church was discovered only a few years
ago on Aqabat al-Khalidiyya Street near the Suq al-Qattanin (Market of
the Cotton Merchants). It is presumed that this is the Church of St.
Julian, though this is uncertain. Like several other religious
Crusader buildings, it was later put to other uses; most recently it
has been used as a carpentry and furniture shop. A three-aisled
basilica with three apses, the plan is similar to that of St. Mary of
the Germans, a 12th century church and hospice of the German-speaking
Knights of St. John, the preserved ruins of which can be seen on
Misgav Ladakh Street in the Jewish Quarter.
Other Romanesque and Crusader churches have survived as mosques and
Muslim religious and educational institutions, but these are not open
to casual visitors.
The outline of the 11th century Church of St. Mary of the Latins is
preserved in the present German Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, built
in 1898. The present building also incorporates the medieval north
porch with its decorations of the Zodiac. Parts of the medieval
cloister are preserved in the adjoining Lutheran Hospice.
Not all Crusader architecture was for religious purposes. The
Triple Suq - the three parallel covered market bazaars in the center
of the Old City - is mostly from the Crusader period. Some of the
piers between the shops still bear the cipher "S. A." for
"Santa Anna" signifying that they were the property of the
Church of St. Anne.
The Great Greek Orthodox Monastery, which adjoins the Church of the
Holy Sepulcher on the west, should also be mentioned. The monastery is
a labyrinth of rooms, courtyards, chapels, steps and lanes from
various periods. Its main Church of St. Thecla dates from the 12th
century, but the monastery itself may be older. The flat roof of the
monastery overspans Christian Quarter Road and extends to join the
roof of the Holy Sepulcher.
Gothic Architecture (1100 - 1500)
The Gothic style of architecture developed from the Romanesque
during the 12th century. It is distinguished by a predominance of
vertical lines, the use of "broken" (or pointed) arches,
clustered columns, and large decorated windows. Gothic architecture
also used intricate and richly developed stone-carving, including
fanciful or grotesque designs.
For historical, political as well as financial reasons,
late-Medieval Christian architecture in Jerusalem did not develop into
the soaring architectural styles found in the Gothic cathedrals and
churches of Western Europe. Even so, elements of early-Norman Gothic
can be found in the Crusader-built choir and ambulatory of the Church
of the Holy Sepulcher (in and around the present Greek Orthodox
catholicon); in the groined, ribbed-vaulting of the south transept;
and in the two pointed, depressed-arch portals of the main entrance,
with their distinctive columned door jambs and ornamental arch
moldings. (The two 12th century Gothic lintels with intricately carved
scroll-work and figures that once adorned the doorways are now in Jerusalems Rockefeller Museum.)
Similar 12th century depressed-arch portals can be found in the
entrance to the small Syrian Orthodox Church of St. Mark, near the
Jaffa Gate; and in the buttressed Crusader facade for the underground
Tomb of the Virgin Mary in the Kidron Valley.
Following the Muslim re-conquest, there was little new construction
of Christian religious buildings. The work that was carried out or
permitted was mostly repair and maintenance. One notable exception was
the Coenaculum, the Upper Room, on Mount Zion, built by the
Franciscans on their return to the city in 1335. The ribbed vaulting
of the ceiling is typical of Lusignan or Cypriot Gothic. The sculpted
mihrab, the Muslim prayer niche, was added in 1523, when the
Franciscans were expelled from the building and the room converted
into a mosque.
19th century Pastische
Until 1833, the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land was the only
Western Christian representation permitted to reside in Jerusalem.
This changed during the ten-year military occupation of the city by
Ibrahim Pasha, son of the ruler of Egypt, Mohammed Ali, when the major
European powers established consulates in the city. Ottoman political
and administrative control was restored in 1844, but the major
European powers now regarded themselves as protectors of the local
Christian communities: France as protector of the Roman Catholics;
Russia as protector of the Eastern Orthodox; and Great Britain and
Prussia as protectors of the Protestant communities. The national
churches of Great Britain and Prussia took advantage of the situation
to establish a Protestant presence. Similar activities were carried
out by the Russian Orthodox Church and by the Catholic churches and
religious orders of Austria, France, and Italy.
As a rule, these groups tended to favor architectural designs
expressing their own national culture and history. The result has
graced Jerusalem with an English country cathedral, an Italian
Renaissance palazzo, a Rhine Valley hunting lodge, and a Scottish
castle. Some of the builders attempted to achieve a more indigenous
effect by including "Moorish" and neo-classical elements in
their designs. Some of these attempts were more successful than
others. All the designs, however, had to contend with local materials
and traditional building methods. For their part, the indigenous
Eastern Churches continued to use traditional designs. An example of
this is the Coptic Khan on the northern side of Hezekiah's Pool. Built
in 1836 as a hospice for Egyptian Christian pilgrims, it has the
classic layout of a medieval caravanserai with an entrance gateway and
a central courtyard.
The first Western ecclesiastical building constructed in Jerusalem at this time was the Anglican Christ Church compound inside the Jaffa
Gate of the Old City. Built in 1849 and designed in mock-Tudor style,
it is the first and oldest Protestant church in the Middle East. It
lacks a bell tower because it was fictiously built as a private chapel
for the British consul-general.
A similar image of "merrie England" is found in the
Anglican Cathedral of St. George the Martyr on Nablus Road,
constructed in 1898. A scaled-down version of a rural English
cathedral, it could easily be a stage set for one of Trollope's
novels. Entered through a mock-Tudor gatehouse, the Cathedral Close
includes apartments for the dean and bishop, a guesthouse for
pilgrims, a school for boys, and in recent years an adult education
college run by the affiliated Protestant Episcopal Church of the
In 1852, the Roman Catholics began to build the Latin Patriarchate,
following the restoration of that dignity in 1847. The actual
residence was completed in 1858, the con-cathedral in 1872. The rather
plain facade is neo-gothic.
Greek Orthodox building at this time tended to favor the
Ottoman-Baroque, as can be seen in the facade of the Greek Orthodox
School on St. Dimitri Street, and in the design of the bell tower in
the Monastery of the Cross.
A sort of northern-Baroque style was favored in the construction of
the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, consecrated in
1871 within the walled Russian Compound. Built outside the Old City,
the complex of buildings included a consulate, hospital, hospices and
kitchens for Russian Orthodox pilgrims. A more traditional
"Muscovite" style was used in the onion-domed design of the
Russian Orthodox Church and Convent of St. Mary Magdalene at
Gethsemane, built in 1888.
One of the more curious buildings is the Florentine-style Italian
Hospital (which today houses offices of the Ministry of Education) on
the Street of the Prophets. A startling apparition, it combines
elements from the Palazzo Vecchio and the Medici Chapel.
A plainer neo-Renaissance look is found in the Franciscan-built
Terra Sancta College building on King George Avenue, and the older
Ratisbonne Monastery of the Fathers of Zion.
The Germans preferred the neo-Romanesque, of which there are four
imposing examples: the German Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in the
Muristan section of the Old City, built in 1897; the Roman Catholic
Dormition Abbey on Mount Zion, built in 1901; the Roman Catholic St.
Paul's Hospice across from the Damascus Gate, built in 1910 (which
today houses Schmidt College); and the German Lutheran Church of the
Ascension on the Mount of Olives, also built in 1910 as part of the
Augusta-Victoria Hospice. The interior decoration, frescoes and
mosaics of the Church of the Ascension are important to students of
19th century German art, as they are patterned after those of the
Kaiser Wilhelm I Memorial Church in Berlin, which was destroyed during
World War II. Similarly important late 19th-century decorations were
used in the chapel of the Roman Catholic Austrian Hospice across from
the 4th Station of the Cross on the Via Dolorosa.
One of the most successful of the Western architects working in Jerusalem during the mid-19th century was the German-born engineer and
pioneering biblical archeologist Dr. Conrad Schick, whose design for
St. Paul's Anglican Chapel on the street of the Prophets is a gem of
Victorian "gingerbread", even though constructed of local
limestone. (A similar use of stone to build Northern European-style
houses is found in the German Colony, in the Emek Refaim neighborhood
south of the Jerusalem Railroad Station.)
Several buildings constructed at this time sought to incorporate
designs adapted from recent archeological finds. Such designs can be
seen in the ornamentation on the French Hospital and the Convent of
St. Vincent de Paul. However, in the case of the Convent of the
Sisters of Zion, archeology became the architectural center of focus
following the discovery in 1851 of a portion of what seems to be a 1st
century city gate built by Herod Agrippa I, and later rebuilt as a
Roman triumphal arch during the reign of the Emperor Hadrian (about
the year 135). When the present convent was built in 1868, the
recently discovered eastern arch of the monument was incorporated into
the design of the chapel of the convent as a dramatic setting for the
Archaeology also influenced the design of St. Stephen's Church,
built in 1900 by the French Dominicans as part of the Ecole Biblique
et Archéologique Française. The design is patterned on that of a
classical basilica and, indeed the present structure is built on the
site of an earlier Byzantine sanctuary. Remnants of the 5th century
mosaic paving can be seen in the atrium and in the nave of the
That 19th century European architecture in Jerusalem could be
functional as well as decorative is evidenced by Conrad Schick's own
residence, Thabor House on the Street of the Prophets. Built in 1882,
it today houses the Swedish Theological Institute. One of the first
modern dwellings outside the Old City, it was built by traditional
building methods, including rubble-filled walls (as was discovered
during recent renovations), but the rooms in the main house have flat
European ceilings. Other historic 19th century buildings along the
Street of the Prophets are the tin-cupolaed roof of the former German
Deaconess Hospital (today an annex to the adjoining Bikur Holim
Hospital), and the semi-circular radiating pavilions of the former
English Hospital (today the Anglican School).
Nearby, on Ethiopia Street, is the walled compound of the Ethiopian
Cathedral and Monastery built in 1896. The church is built in the
round. The screened sanctuary is in the center of the building,
encircled by an ambulatory where the congregation stands.
The most distinctive architectural feature of modern Jerusalem is
the fact that all buildings are faced in stone - even the public
toilets! This is the result of an aesthetic decision made in the early
1920s by the first British governor of Jerusalem, Sir Ronald Storrs,
who made it a city ordinance.
The result has given the city a certain uniformity of character.
And though there can be startling incongruities between design and
material, the requirement has, for the most part, tended to have a
moderating effect on more radical designs.
Jerusalem has three examples of the work of the Roman Catholic
architect Antonio Barluzzi, who created a series of churches and
shrines for the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land:
- the ornate Church of All Nations at the Garden of Gethsemane,
built in 1924;
- a Romanesque-style church tower designed for the Franciscan church
at Bethphage during renovations in 1954;
- and the small Chapel of Dominus Fleuvit on the Mount of Olives,
built in 1955.
A radical departure from his usual conservative style, Barluzzi
designed the chapel as a stylized tear-shaped building built in the
form of a Greek cross.
The clean, plain lines of St. Andrews Scots Memorial Church and
Hospice standing on the edge of the Valley of Hinnom, evoke images of
a Highland castle and keep. This is appropriate since the church was
built as a memorial to Scottish soldiers who fell fighting in this
region during World War I.
The church was built in 1927 to the design of Clifford Holliday.
The large, Crusader-style windows in the sanctuary use small, round
panels of blue Hebron glass.
More eclectic is the lofty Jerusalem International YMCA. Opened in
1933, it was designed by A. L. Harmon, the architect of the Empire
The archangel, in bas relief, on the carillon tower was designed by
the Bezalel artist Ze'ev Raban. The capitals along the loggia are
carved with representations of local flora and fauna, as are the
capitals along the arcades leading to each of the two domed
extensions, one of which contains the Byzantine-ornamented auditorium,
the other the gymnasium.
Very modern are the clean lines and comfortable functionalism of
the new sanctuary of the Narkis Street Baptist Congregation, a design
that blends well with the "Bauhaus" international style of
the surrounding neighborhood.
An equally modernistic approach was used in the design of the Jerusalem Center of Middle Eastern Studies, built in 1988 as a branch
of the Mormon Church affiliated Brigham Young University. Situated on
the southern slope of Mount Scopus, its architecture takes advantage
of situation and view, especially in the glass-walled concert hall,
where the audience looks out onto the Old City and the Temple Mount.
The Eastern churches, however, have continued to follow traditional
designs, especially in the construction of new churches.
An example of this can be seen in the recently constructed Greek
Orthodox Church of Bethphage, which is classically Byzantine.
It is perhaps appropriate for the new Millenium that the most
recent work of Christian construction in Jerusalem has involved the
renovation and restoration of the dome of the Rotunda in the Church of
the Holy Sepulcher. The first shall be last and the last shall be
first, as it were.