NGO fights to open forgotten Byzantine church in Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter

The abandoned ruins of the church had been discovered during an excavation in the Jewish Quarter in the 1970s by Prof. Nahman Avigad.

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March 1, 2019 10:11
3 minute read.
Remains from the crusader church

Remains from the crusader church . (photo credit: EMEK SHAVEH)

 
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An Israeli NGO is pushing for the city of Jerusalem to reconstruct and open to the public a massive Byzantine-era church that has been long forgotten in ruins in the Jewish Quarter.

Emek Shaveh reached out to the Company for Reconstruction and Development of the Jewish Quarter, the entity responsible for the Jewish Quarter’s revival, to conserve and reopen the gates of the New Church of the Theotokos, also known as the Nea, according to a statement released by the NGO.

The Nea, thought to have been completed in 543 CE by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, has been described by ancient historians as a rather massive complex that sat on Mount Zion. The site included a hostel, a hospital and a monastery, while the church itself measured approximately 100 m. long by 52 m. wide, making it one of the largest known basilicas – if not the largest – in Byzantine Palestine.

A vault in the cellars of the Nea. (Emek Shaveh)

The Company for Reconstruction’s response indicated that the request was taken seriously, although the company indicated that a significant amount of funding was necessary to undertake the project, according to Emek Shaveh’s statement.

“We are pleased that the Company for Reconstruction and Development of the Jewish Quarter understands that a structure of international historical and archaeological importance like the Nea Church cannot remain closed to the public,” Emek Shaveh said in response to the company. “We welcome the company’s decision to look into the matter and hope that it will ultimately allow the public to enjoy one of the city’s most important sites. Since the government announced very recently that it has transferred more than 2 million shekels to the Company for the Reconstruction and Development of the Jewish Quarter for the purpose of developing tourist sites in the Jewish Quarter, we are convinced that the company will be able to recruit the funds necessary for the preservation and development of a church which is so historically important.”

The abandoned ruins of the church had been discovered during an excavation in the Jewish Quarter in the 1970s by Prof. Nahman Avigad, while archaeologist Yoram Tsafrir had also done work on the site and published a proposal for the reconstruction of the Nea.

However, for a more complete picture of the site’s entire complexity and layout, as well as conservation, more archaeological work is necessary.

Emek Shaveh, which describes itself as an NGO that works to defend cultural and heritage rights of different groups and faiths, argued in its release that other significant sites have undergone conservation and opened as touristic sites, like the Herodian Quarter, the Nea has “remained in obscurity.” The site cannot be easily accessed and its gates remain locked to the public.

The vaults, reinforced with modern concrete. (Emek Shaveh)

The site’s location on Mount Zion, the highest hill in the city also placed the church near the Church of the Holy Apostles and the Basilica of Hagia Sion, both dated to the fourth century CE. Given its grandiose size and significant placement in the city, scholars have argued that the Nea was a noteworthy achievement for Justinian to assert his imperial presence in the region and the role early Christianity held in confirming imperial power.

The Nea Church is thought to have likely been destroyed during the Persian conquest of Jerusalem in 614 CE, although its final destruction and abandonment is not completely certain. Historical accounts placed its destructed and the killing of its clergy during the conquests, while an earthquake rocked the region, perhaps causing more damage, in 746 CE. By the tenth century CE, Christian clergy who visited Jerusalem, had already noted the church was in ruins by then.

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