• Henry Hopwood-Phillips

The Development of Christian Jerusalem

If Rome evolved a stational liturgy in order to connect scattered cemeteries and tituli (which were by the third century accorded specific roles such as baptism and penance) and in Constantinople it developed in response to ecclesiastical divisions (as a form of showing gangland unity), it was only Jerusalem that could boast an obviously organic reason for the stational liturgy, namely, its erratic sprinkling of holy sites.[1]

Yet the Jerusalem that Christ knew was destroyed in AD 135 when Roman troops under Hadrian put down the last major revolt under Bar Cochba. In its place stood a military colony, an unwalled parallelogram named Aelia Capitolina. Indeed, early Christians would have searched in vain for the location of Christ’s crucifixion thanks to the fact the Romans had built a temple of Venus on the site. They also erected a temple to Jupiter on or very near the Old Temple of Herod.

The Christians developed another part of the city after the destruction of the [Second] Temple by Titus in AD 70. It lay just outside the south-west corner of Aelia Capitolina proper but within the former city’s limits. They named it Sion, which had originally been the name given to the original old temple area. Here they built what was the only pre-Constantinian church at Aelia. It may have even escaped Diocletian’s order for the destruction of all Christian places of worship on 24 Feb, AD 303.[2]

In these early centuries, many traditions accrued to Sion including notions that it had been where the apostles had set up their HQ after Christ’s resurrection; that it was where Adam had been buried; and that it had once been Mt Moriah (where Abraham was said to have almost sacrificed Isaac)[3], so that it quickly became one of many holy places that constituted parts of Jerusalem’s unique stational itinerary. What follows are the other important sites that were assimilated to the city’s stational liturgy.



Constantine the Great’s construction projects in the Holy Land mostly resulted from his mother Helena’s trip there in AD 326. Shown a rock tomb in the heart of Roman Jerusalem which was identified as the “Holy Sepulchre,” an imperial rescript soon enjoined the bishop of Jerusalem to build on the site “a basilica more beautiful than any on earth.” A reliable if late source mentions the names of the architects, Zenobius, a Syrian name, and the presbyter Eustathios from Constantinople.

Completed in AD 336, only scant fragments of Constantine’s buildings on Golgotha have survived. The sepulchre was in all likelihood one of a number of tomb chambers of traditional Jewish type in a rocky cliff, its entrance facing the rising sun. The fourth-century builders isolated it, cut it into conical shape, and decorated it with twelve columns supporting a baldacchino. The huge rotunda enclosing the sepulchre whence Christ had risen – hence Anastasis – may not have been planned from the outset, but built only in Constantine’s last year or after his death.

The Rock of Calvary – some thirty metres south-east of the tomb – was shaped into a cube. Between Calvary and the Sepulchre extended a courtyard, enveloped by a portico on three sides. At the eastern end of the complex, the basilica was preceded by an atrium and a colonnaded propylaeum. Eusebia described its nave (with coffered ceiling) as resting on huge marble columns and flanked on either side by double aisles. These in turn were separated by piers or a row of short columns on pedestals. Galleries surmounted both aisles and gilded bronze tiles embellished the exterior.

The apse, flanked by side chambers, was topped by a hemisphairion (a dome or half-dome). But this was not the climax. Propylaeum, atrium, basilica and the porticoed courtyard beyond led to the Tomb of Christ. Services were divided between various sites and led from one to the other. Mass, except during Passion week, was said in the basilica. All parts of the complex served their specific functions within the peripatetic service of the fourth century.


Five miles from Jerusalem, a cave in a grove that had once been dedicated to Adonis or Thammuz was essentially destroyed to make way for a four-aisled basilica which became the destination for Christians hoping to celebrate Epiphany. As early as AD 333, Egeria from Gaul saw a “basilica built on the orders of Constantine.” Apparently its walls but not its decoration had been completed by then. It was replaced in the sixth century by the present structure. The shafts of the present columns are probably spoils from Constantine’s church; certainly their capitals copy fourth-century models.

Attached to the east side of the basilica rose an octagon and in its centre three steps led up to a railing which protected a wide, circular opening. Piercing the rock ceiling of the grotto, it allowed visitors to gaze into the cave where tradition places the birth of Christ. The octagon may have been lit from above by an opening in its pyramidal roof.


Two miles from Jerusalem and home to Lazarus, Mary and Martha, the tomb of Lazarus was a stational church on Saturday preceding the Great Week and during the Octave of Epiphany. Egeria noted that "so many people gathered that they filled not only the Lazarium itself [a three-aisled basilica], but all the fields around." Destroyed in the sixth century by an earthquake, its replacement was slightly larger with an apse thirteen metres to the east of the original.

ELEONA (“Mount of Olives”)

Connected to the Passion and Christ’s apocalyptic discourse (Mt 24:1-26), the cave was also associated with Christ’s ascension by Eusebius and Cyril. The third of Constantine’s basilicas to be built over mystical caves, it was completed in AD 333 and used as a stational site during important Octaves. Sometimes referred to as the Church of Disciples thanks to the tradition that it was where Christ and his disciples often met, it was built on the western side of the crest of the Mount of Olives, facing the Temple Mount. Destroyed by the Persians and rebuilt, the replacement was in turn destroyed by al-Hakim in 1009. The church of Pater Noster that crusaders constructed on site was later destroyed by Saladin too.[4]

IMBOMON (“On the Hill”)

Site of the transfiguration (later the tradition morphed slightly and claimed both ascension and transfiguration occurred at Mount Tabor), its church was built in the late fourth century by Poemenia, a member of the imperial family. Surrounded by circular porticoes and arches, in its centre was a rock that purported to capture the imprint of Christ’s final footprints. By AD 670, the original structure had been destroyed though Arculf could still report back to his compatriots in England that the marks had survived. Used to celebrate the ascension on Pentecost Sunday, it was later surrounded by monasteries and oratories.


Situated at the foot of the Mt of Olives, the church at Gethsemane was associated with a shrine that held the rock of Jesus’ agony. Destroyed by Persians, Egeria also mentions a stational service at a nearby location associated with a place of Christ’s arrest. By the sixth century it was considered to be the Tomb of the Virgin Mary and the “arrest station” had moved to the church at Gethsemane.


The House of Caiaphas (where the present St Peter in Gallicantu stands) and the Virgin Mary called Nea both played parts in Jerusalem’s stational liturgy (though the latter was destroyed in AD 746).

[1] Other cities that also possessed stational rites were Alexandria, Antioch, Milan and Oxyrrhynchus, however, the evidence is too incomplete to offer comment.

[2] Sadly, it didn’t escape the Persian invasion during Heraklios’ reign and had to be rebuilt by Modestus.

[3] These ideas gained such traction that when the bones of St Stephen were discovered in AD 415 they were promptly deposited in the Sion basilica.

[4] A conservative estimate of the Persian death-toll is 34,000, however, it may have been as high as 10,000 people.

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