Join Our Mailing List

Sponsor Us!

Jerusalem Architectural History:
Christian Architecture through the Ages

by Yishai Elder


Architectural History: Table of Contents | Umayyad Period | Modern Israel


Print Friendly and PDF

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 possession.

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 refectory.

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 Road.

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 and a
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 1151.

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 Jerusalem’s 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 United States.

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 altar.

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 sanctuary.

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.

Modern Architecture

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 State Building.

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.


Sources: Israeli Foreign Ministry

Back to Top