CHURCH OF SAINT JOHN THE BAPTIST

Greek Orthodox
Located on Christian Quarter Road, Old City
[#15 on the Old City map]


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"The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Christ. John answered them all, 'I baptize you with water. But one more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.' And with many other words John exhorted the people and preached the good news to them."

LUKE 3:15-18

Tucked away snugly behind a row of shops in the Old City marketplace, the Church of St. John the Baptist is hardly an impressive sight. Its unpretentious facade is relieved only by a few ornamental stones and a blue-framed picture of St. John's head. That's why the richly decorated interior comes as such a tremendous surprise; indeed the green and gold iconastasis inside St. John's Church is one of the most ornate in Jerusalem - and the artwork on walls and ceiling is absolutely stunning!
The Church of St. John the Baptist was built over one of Jerusalem's earliest sanctuaries. In fact the original church, restored over the last two centuries, is located more than seven meters below street level! And although it wasn't constructed on a New Testament site, the church harbors a bone believed to be part of St. John's skull.
It all began with the Byzantine empress Eudocia, estranged wife of Theodosius II. Criticized for letting his wife influence state decisions, the emperor first tried murder, then eventually banished Eudocia permanently to the Holy Land. There she became involved in good works and was instrumental in the establishment of several fifth-century sanctuaries, including the Church of St. John the Baptist.
The contemporary house of worship was erected over Byzantine ruins sometime between the eighth and eleventh centuries. Prosperous merchants from the southern Italian port city of Amalfi apparently restored the ancient shrine and added a more modern edifice as well. In the twelfth century it was renovated by the Crusaders.
During the Crusader period a group of knights operating a hospital within the church walls adopted St. John as its patron. They were part of a military religious order called the Knights Hospitaler, and members cared for sick and needy pilgrims of all denominations. It is believed that after the fall of Jerusalem in 1187, when other Crusaders left the city, a few knights remained to guard the church. Today St. John's belongs to the Greek Orthodox, who had it thoroughly repaired in the nineteenth century.
Above the market entrance is a silver-framed picture of the saint's head in its characteristic position - lying on its side. You may have to lean over to walk through the low wooden door leading to the church's open courtyard before finally entering the narthex.
Themes and icons featuring St. John are found everywhere in the cross-shaped church. One of the church's most prized possessions is located just beyond the entrance, to your right. This is an icon of the St. John's head, conjoined with a gold and jewel rimmed relic thought to be a piece of his skull. Worshippers often kiss the icon before entering the church proper...


A glimpse into the sanctuary.

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. . . Beneath the glistening silver dome - a well-known Jerusalem landmark - is a symbolic representation of the Holy Spirit. Eight small, stained-glass windows and charming paintings fill the lower portion of the dome.
To reach the old, fifth century church you must leave the modern sanctuary, turn the corner, and descend a staircase. At the bottom, way below the modern sanctuary, is a dank vaulted stone chamber that practically reeks of antiquity. On one wall hangs a small icon of Queen Eudocia. Some call Eudocia the second St. Helena because like that other Byzantine queen she, too, erected churches over holy Christian sites. Eudocia is believed to have passed into eternal sleep at the age of 59, in the year 460.


Worship in Saint John the Baptist Church.

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Visiting Hours: Tuesday during worship - sometime between 6:30 and 8:30.

Extra bonus: The service includes some heavenly chants.

You need special permission to visit the underground church

(These were excerpts from "Beyond the Walls: Churches of Jerusalem")

Return to "Beyond the Walls: Churches of Jerusalem"