IAA uncovers hospital from Crusader period in Jerusalem

Israel Antiquities Authority: Destroyed in earthquake, elaborate hospital once occupied over 15 dunams.

Ancient crusader hospital rediscovered by the IAA 370 (photo credit: Yoli Shwartz/Courtesy of IAA)
Ancient crusader hospital rediscovered by the IAA 370
(photo credit: Yoli Shwartz/Courtesy of IAA)
A well-preserved portion of a once thriving hospital in Jerusalem’s Old City – dating back to the Crusader period (1099-1291 CE) and rediscovered in March – was displayed to the public on Sunday.
“We always knew it was in this area, but its remains were covered with paint, plaster and garbage, so we weren’t sure of the exact location,” said Antiquities Authority (AA) excavation director Amit Re’em Sunday afternoon. “It was so neglected you couldn’t see the glory of the place.”
The building housing the hospital, owned by the Wakf and the Grand Bazaar Company of east Jerusalem, is located in the heart of the Christian Quarter in a region known as “Muristan” (Persian for hospital).
According to Re’em, it collapsed during an earthquake in 1457 and was buried beneath rubble until the Ottoman period.
During the Middle Ages, parts of the structure were used as a stable, as evidenced by bones of horses and camels found in excavations, as well as an enormous amount of metal used to shoe the animals, said Re’em.
The building also served as a popular fruit and vegetable market until 2000, when it finally became dormant.
It was not until the Grand Bazaar Company decided to renovate the area into a restaurant that the AA team serendipitously conducted archeological tests determining its history.
Re’em said “rediscovering” the hospital was no easy feat.
“We didn’t find a sign saying ‘Welcome to the hospital,’” he said with a laugh. “We used historical sources, including mentions of the hospital’s general location and descriptions of it being large with lots of space – and I thought this building was the perfect candidate to be the hospital.”
The original hospital, only a fraction of which was exposed in the excavation, extended across an area of at least 1.5 hectares, said Re’em. Its architecture was characterized by massive pillars and ribbed vaults, extending more than six meters.
“The image we have is that of a great hall composed of pillars, rooms and smaller halls,” the archeologist said.
Re’em noted that the archeological team – which was also led by Renee Forestany – learned of the hospital primarily from celebrated German archeologist Conrad Schick, who painstakingly mapped out its ruins in Jerusalem prior to his death in 1901.
Numerous sources in Latin and French also documented the once thriving sanatorium, he said.
“They mention a sophisticated hospital that is as large and as organized as a modern hospital,” said Re’em. “The hospital was established and constructed by a Christian military order named the ‘Order of St. John of the Hospital in Jerusalem’ and was known by its Latin name the ‘Hospitallers’ (from the word hospital).
“These righteous warriors took an oath to care for and watch over pilgrims, and when necessary they joined the ranks of the fighters as an elite unit,” he added.
According to Re’em, the hospital was comprised of different wings and departments – designated by the types of illnesses and severity of conditions of patients – similar to contemporary standards.
In an emergency situation, the hospital would accept as many as 2,000 patients of different religions, and even serve Jewish patients kosher food, he added.
Re’em said the Muslim Arab population was instrumental in assisting the Crusaders in establishing the hospital and teaching them proper medical practice, which at the time was more advanced in the East than in the West.
“The Crusaders studied the profession of medicine from Arab doctors, for whom it was a well-known science,” he said. “Back then, Western medicine compared to the East was primitive, but when they built the hospital they learned from the Arabs.”
To illustrate the vast differences in sophistication between the Crusaders and Arab doctors, Re’em cited a couple harrowing examples.
“In one instance a patient came in while a Muslim doctor and Crusader doctor were present and told the Crusader doctor he had a wound in his leg,” he said. “The Crusader doctor said he must cut off the entire leg, while the Muslim doctor said an antiseptic cream could be used to make it go away.”
According to Re’em, the Crusader doctor insisted on cutting off the man’s leg, and the patient died shortly thereafter.
In another example, Re’em said a woman came to see both doctors complaining of a headache. While the Muslim doctor diagnosed her as dehydrated, the Crusader doctor said the “devil was in her,” and proceeded to shave her head and carve a cross in her skull, resulting in her death.
Apart from treating patients, the hospital also functioned as an orphanage, where abandoned newborns were frequently brought.
“Mothers who did not want their offspring would come there with covered heads and hand over their infants,” said Re’em.
“In many instances, when twins were born, one of them was given to the orphanage,” he added.
Re’em noted that the orphans were treated with great devotion, and when they reached adulthood they frequently worked for the hospital or served in the military order.
He added that historical accounts showed that punishment for negligence at the hospital was swift and severe.
“One of the documents I read recounts an incident about a staff member who was irresponsible in the performance of his work in the hospital,” he said. “That person was marched alongside the building and the rest of the staff, with whips in hand, formed a line behind him and beat him.”
The spectacle was witnessed by all of the patients, he added.
The Ayyubid ruler Saladin, who lived near the hospital following the defeat of the Crusaders, renovated and maintained the structure, permitting 10 Crusader monks to continue to reside there and serve the population of Jerusalem, Re’em said.
The uncovered section of the former hospital is set to become part of a restaurant and coffee shop via a construction project later this year, said Monser Shwieki, a project manager for the Grand Bazaar Company.
“The magnificent building will be integrated in a restaurant slated to be constructed there, and its patrons will be impressed by the enchanting atmosphere of the Middle Ages that prevails there,” he said.
Shwieki added that the building will not be open to the public again until the restaurant is opened.