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  * Introd.
  * Texts
  * Gospels
  * Byzan. 1
  * Byzan. 2
  * Byzan. 3
  * Pilgrims
  * Mid.Ages
  * Modern
  * Conclusion

Bethany in Byzantine times I

Resurrection of Lazarus: Crusader lintel
which was on the entrance door of the
Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre

About the year 330, Eusebius tells us that it was at Bethany that the "place of Lazarus" was to be found. In 333, the Anonymous Pilgrim of Bordeaux notes that he had seen "the crypt where Lazarus had been laid to rest." Two witnesses of a late period are dealing with a shrine. So doing, they furnish important data as to the time when it was built.

The first item of information here is given in 390 by St. Jerome, already resident in Palestine for four years. When he came to translate the Onomasticon of Eusebius, instead of the last words of the original note on Bethany, "They still show you the place of Lazarus", he substitutes the words, "A new church, now built on this site, has his memorial", that is, the tomb of Lazarus. This evidence is confirmed by the pilgrim Egeria in her Itinerary wherein she describes the liturgy as it was carried out at the "Lazarium" about the year 410.

So, this church was built between 333 and 390. It is therefore to be grouped with the basilica of Gethsemane, the round church of the Ascension and the chapel at Et-Tabgha as amongst the very first places of Christian worship erected in Palestine after the buildings of Constantine's own time.

It was clearly destroyed by an earthquake, as is evident from some of its stones to this day. In the 5-6th century, it was replaced by a new building. In the first years of the 12th century, information about it is given by the pilgrims Saewulf and Daniel. It underwent changes in the period of the Frankish kingdom of Jerusalem.

The site during excavations in 1949

Overall, the Lazarium comprised: to the east, the church; in the middle, a free space which probably served as an atrium; to the west, the tomb of Lazarus. The fact that it is now occupied by a mosque has hindered archaeological examination of the atrium, as likewise of the western Sec of the church, some mosaics of which have come to light. Inside, the church was a little short of 18 meters wide. Nothing from the past gives a clue as to its length.
Left: mosaic of the central nave
of first church
Below: the central nave
at the time of excavations


The sloping nature of the ground where the church was to be built forced the engineers to quarry the rock on the west side and make a fill on the eastern. In the north-east area, the embankment rose to the height of 6.71 meters. Foundation work was entailed and stones used in this have been uncovered in five places. They provide some details of the architecture involved.

The foundations of the side walls were slightly less than 120cm thick. At irregular intervals, they stood out more prominently, as in the case of the Byzantine basilica at Bethlehem. The number of courses naturally varied with the fall of the ground. In the north-east area, seventeen of the original nineteen courses have been brought to light. The first course was of rubble, the others, of dressed stone (30 to 45 cm. high and varying in width: 60, 63, 68, 73, etc.). In the foundations of the apse some parpens were found (123, 130,135 cm. in size). Most of the stones are widely grooved, with a small boss as in the basilica of Constantine at Bethlehem and on the stones which would have belonged to the basilica of Eleona on the Mount of Olives. In the apse, they were bound, here and there, by a generous mortar tie, like those in the towers near the Roman theatre at Caesarea. In some courses cracks were clearly seen, caused by the weight of the superstructure or, more probably, by earthquake.

Excavating the Churches in 1949

The church at Bethany was in the form of a three-aisle basilica. On the east side, it ended with an apse in a solid rectangular block. A sacristy on each side opened into aisles. This plan was often followed by Byzantine architects in Palestine. The dual sacristies served liturgical purposes, while the mass of masonry in the middle strengthened the building against earthquakes which were frequent enough in this Sec of the world.

Nothing is left of the walls which were pulled down when the second church was built. On the north and south sides, they were about 70 cm. thick; on the east side, about 140. The aisles were most likely covered with wood-work and were separated by columns of rose-hued stone from Bethlehem. Fragments of these were used again in later constructions. As at Bethlehem and Gethsemane, the capitals of the pillars were Corinthian-classical in form, with acanthus leaves standing out fairly prominently. Above these were spiral scrolls (volutes) centring an emblem of some kind, probably a cross, which has unfortunately disappeared in the course of time.
Excavations in 1949

The presbyterium took up not only the apse but also Sec of the central aisle. It was surrounded by the usual closure, made up of slabs and small pillars. Amongst fragments of these found, the archaeologists have not been able to decide which belonged to the first church.

The altar was, perhaps, semi-circular (sigmatic) in shape, a style quite common in the Byzantine period. The diggings have brought to light two fragments of tables adorned with horseshoe shaped engravings. It is not known whether they go back to the time of the first or second church. On the north side there was a door. Its threshold was found still in place under the wall of the second church. It led into a room which was probably Sec of the church residence.
mosaics from the
first chuch of St. Lazarus


The church at Bethany had a mosaic floor. Where work was possible, the archaeologists found the flooring fairly well preserved - all except in the sanctuary and the areas between the columns. In these places, the pavement had almost completely disappeared. Because of its purely geometrical pattern, the church floor is to be grouped with other mosaics of the time in Palestine and neighbouring areas where numerous examples have been preserved, especially in the mosaics of Constantine's time in the central nave at Bethlehem. The floor sloped slightly from west to east. Where examination was possible, the variation was found to be about 50 cm. The size of the mosaic cubes varied, in accord with the panels decorated. It was usually about one centimetre.

a) The Middle Aisle

It is likely that the floor of the central nave was made up of one mosaic carpet. In the field were white flowers with twenty four petals with black lance-shaped leaves and red and black crosses, all on a red background. Especially suited for covering large areas, this design is called "shell-panel" by the archaeologists. It was used again in other places.

Left: A byzantine lamp of the with cross and inscription:
"The light of Christ elightens all people. Good evening"
Right: Byzantine glass flasks
The field was surrounded by a border, 115 cm. wide. Framed by rectilinear edges, the central ribbon was made up of circles and rolled-ribbon designs. This was followed again in the panel of the south aisle, but it seems to have been fairly rare in Palestine. The mosaic cubes in the border were white, black, red, yellow and blue.

The panel in the middle aisle rested on a foundation of white cubes. The east Sec of this has been brought to light and it was found to continue to the north and south of the sanctuary. In these latter areas, the mosaic has been destroyed by the pillar-foundations of the second church. This Sec of the floor ended suddenly in an edging which seems to mark the place where the sanctuary began.

b) The Sacristies

The south sacristy was bare of any design. By way of contrast, the north sacristy had a wonderful central panel showing nine stars made up of eight diamond shapes, surrounded by squares, diamonds and rectangles.

Small byzantine jugs
found during the excavations of the sanctuary
c) The North Aisle

Like the central nave, the north was apparently decorated with one continuous panel. To the east, this gave way to a small design of crosses and squares. Enclosed in rectilinear edges, the panel showed a design of interlocked octagons, which, in turn. formed squares. hexagons and triangles. At some unknown date, this panel of white, black and red cubes was damaged by a crack which was repaired with white cubes.

d) The South Aisle

The floor of the south nave was different from that of the north both by reason of its varied designs and by the colour and size of its cubes. Five patterns have been recovered, probably about half of those which were used to decorate the nave. The cubes were smaller than those of the north nave and were white, black, red, yellow and blue in colour.

Starting from the east side, the first panel was made up of fifty-four circles formed by a kind of rope design which served, at the same time, as an outer framework. The edging was made up of a wreath enclosed in rectilinear bands. The second panel represented a concentric arrangement of squares, lozenges and circles, fifty-two in number, around squares and circles, each decorated by a symbol. Unfortunately defaced by a kind of curbing, the third panel showed a development of the star and square design. It was possible to restore it, thanks to a similar panel in the Constantine basilica at Bethlehem. The edging consisted of a series of yellow squares alternating with red, indented diamonds. Graves have been dug through the fourth and fifth panels, doing much damage. Besides, the fourth is surmounted by the west wall of the second and third churches. The panel extends beyond the limits of the excavations.

Byzantine lamps discovered at the site
The background of these various panels was decorated with a line of black crosses to the north and south, and by seven lines of crosses to the east. In this latter area, the slant of the lines towards the north left the eighth incomplete. This is probably the result of freehand work and could have been corrected by use of a cartoon. To the west of the last panel, in front of the door which opened into a large room of the same period as the church, there has been brought to light a fragment of mosaic made up of cubes about two centimetres in size. The archaeologists have not been able to date this flooring, nor explain its relationship to the other mosaics.

© franciscan cyberspot - text written by Albert Storme

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