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View series: Jerusalem: The History of a Global City

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Christian and Byzantine Jerusalem

This map is part of a series of 12 animated maps showing the history of Jerusalem: The History of a Global City.

During the first centuries of the Common Era, Christian communities began to multiply in the Roman Empire and notably in Asia Minor, Syria and Palestine. Following the conversion of Emperor Constantine in the 320s, Aelia Capitolina was officially pronounced a Christian city as part of the Roman Empire, and it retained this status under the Byzantine Empire.

Constantine’s conversion was of particular significance for Jerusalem, which would be the setting for the invention of holy sites based on the Gospels. Christian history has established as a founding event the visit of the Emperor’s mother, Helen, who discovered the Holy Cross in a niche under a rock near the Temple of Venus. 

The “invention” of Holy Sites created a new-found fervour for pilgrimages to Jerusalem. The oldest narrative of a pilgrimage available today was written by Anonymous Pilgrim of Bordeaux in 333 CE. His text does not mention the rediscovery of the cross but, for the most part, describes the monuments linked to persons mentioned in the Old Testament, such as Solomon and Zechariah, as if Jewish references were still more important at this time.

However, he does mention the construction of two symmetrical basilicas ordered by Constantine. They stood on either side of Temple Mount: one to the west on the site of what is now the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and the other to the east on the summit of the Mount of Olives, which is thought to be the site of Christ’s Ascension.

These Christian sanctuaries literally frame the main memorial sites of the Old Testament, symbolising the importance being given to the new religion.

Nevertheless, the administrative status of the city did not change: the Roman province’s capital was still the port of Caesarea on the Mediterranean coast.

It was not until the Council of Chalcedon in 451 CE that Aelia Capitolina was renamed ‘Jerusalem’ and the city was raised to the rank of Patriarchate, with its seat located north of Constantine’s basilica.

This period also saw the rise of monasteries inside and around the city, notably thanks to the patronage of the Byzantine empress Eudocia, who lived in Jerusalem between 438 and 460. She ordered the construction of the Church of St Stephen, the first bishop and martyr, north of the city and of another sanctuary near the Pool of Siloam.

During this same period, Jerusalem’s walls were rebuilt and extended along the city’s southern boundary.

These new developments were driven by the need to accommodate the arrival of pilgrims in Jerusalem, which also led to the construction of a ‘new’ church, the Nea, in the 6th century. This church was dedicated to Mary at the request of Emperor Justinian. It was destroyed by an earthquake in 746.

Despite the reconstruction of the walls, defending the city remained a challenge; it was easily captured by the Sassanid Persians in 614 and reconquered by the Emperor Heraclius in 630. Heraclius carried the relic of the True Cross in procession around the walls of the city, before ceremoniously placing it next to the tomb of Christ in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.