12 February 2010

Abracadabra, O My Jerusalem

As you may have heard, archaeological excavation in the heart of the Old City has just revealed Jerusalem's main road during the Byzantine period (4th-7th centuries).

But let's step back for a moment.

Of course, it wasn't really Jerusalem at that time.

Abracadabra # 1

Some sixty years after the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus at the end of the First Jewish Revolt (70 AD), the emperor Hadrian decided to rebuild the city. The imperial initiative was probably a major factor in the outbreak of the Bar Kokhba revolt, which was suppressed in 135 AD. Hadrian's new city was a sharp break with the past. It was named Aelia Capitolina in honour of the emperor (after his nomen gentile, Aelius) and its new chief god, Jupiter Capitolinus, whose temple was built on the site of the razed Jewish temple on the Temple Mount. Those Jews who had survived the massacres and exile were not permitted to settle in the new city or even in its close vicinity. Although we have information about a small Jewish congregation in Aelia Capitolina, the city became effectively pagan.

And pagan it remained until the early 4th century, with the two minority communities of Jews and Christians living somewhere within spitting distance of each other on today's Mount Zion, south of the southern wall of the city.

Abracadabra # 2

The next name change occurred after the conquest of the East by Constantine, the first Christian Emperor, in 324 AD. The pilgrimage of Helena, Constantine's mother, marked the beginning of the project of the discovery of Jesus' Tomb and the building of the Church of the Nativity and the Church of the Ascension (but Helena was probably not the force behind, as often claimed, the lavish basilica of the Holy Sepulchre).

Subsequently, the Christian community of Jerusalem grew at an accelerated pace until it reached its peak in the sixth century. A new Christian Jerusalem was designed. The city's name was now 'Aelia', no longer Capitolina, when this pagan part of the name was eliminated, probably during the fourth century. Aelia remained the official name of the city throughout the Byzantine period.

Digging the Byzantine street

In a land where every shovel might unearth something ancient, Israeli law requires the Israel Antiquities Authority to inspect construction zones for ruins before work begins. Now, because of a municipal plan to build an electric cable system, the municipality is renewing the infrastructure next to the entrance to David Street (known to tourists as the stepped-street with the shops), the main covered market which descends from the Jaffa Gate square toward the Temple Mount. Thus, it is now possible for both archaeologists and the public to catch a rare glimpse of what is going on beneath the flagstone pavement.

Over the years, important buildings in Jerusalem have been uncovered or have survived to this day, but this large street from the period when Jerusalem became a Christian city has not been discovered until now. The archaeologists believe the street was the main entrance to the city and linked to various important sites, like the Holy Sepulchre, the markets and residential areas.

Dr Ofer Sion, the excavation director, explains that "Jerusalem has been explored for 150 years but there have never been excavations in this particular area. This is the first time we could start digging down. We knew we needed to find the street, and we waited for the pick-axe to hit a stone. When we heard a stony sound and uncovered half a pavement tile, we realized we were on an ancient street."

That 'ping' came at 4.5 meters (14') below the current street level.

Now they have cleared a 6-metre (20') long section of the wide, white stone street. Dr Sion remarks, "It's nice to see that today's David Street, a bustling market route, pretty much preserves the route of another bustling street, 1,500 years its senior." The section of street passes from the west into the centre of Jerusalem's Old City, and stands upon a large cistern that supplied water to the city's 30,000 to 40,000 inhabitants of the time.

The Israel Antiquities Authority said that the excavations confirm the accuracy of the famous Madaba map (below left), an ancient mosaic map uncovered in 1894 on the floor of a church in Madaba, Jordan, and dated to the mid-sixth century AD. The map depicts Jerusalem and the Holy Land in the late Byzantine period.

Abracadabra # 3

The walled oval of Jerusalem is the most prominent site on the map. The city is seen as if from the air and is presented in three-dimensional form with a considerable degree of realism. Note that the map is not orientated north-south like modern maps (and our reconstructed map of Byzantine Aelia, above) but east-west -- so that the position of places on the map coincides with actual compass directions.

The inscription at the top of the mosaic (in Greek; top green arrow) reveals the artist's attitude: the city is called by its old-new name -- 'The Holy City Jerusalem'. By calling the city Jerusalem -- and not its official name of Aelia -- the artist locates himself in the realm of Christian topography and ideology. Although big parts of the map are lost, it seems clear that the depiction of Jerusalem was located in the centre of the map, showing that the Holy City was conceived as the very centre of the Holy Land. This is a Christian interpretation of the concept of Jerusalem as the navel of the earth.

Scholars agree that Jerusalem, as it appears in the map, reflects in large part the actual state of late-sixth century Jerusalem. The churches can be identified by the red roofs that are portrayed on the map. Despite the stereotypical design of the buildings and the selectivity in choosing them (for example, the ruined Temple Mount, the largest structure in Jerusalem -- but sacred only to Judaism at this time -- nowhere appears), it gives a tangible depiction of the city's walls, towers and gates, streets and main buildings.

And thus we find that today's Jaffa Gate (lower green arrow) stands very near to a gate of Byzantine times and that the street just excavated corresponds almost perfectly with modern David street which now runs some five metres above it.

That was the state of play until 633 AD.

Abracadabra # 4

The city was one of the Arab caliphate's first conquests and stayed under Islamic rule until the Crusaders conquered it in 1099.

Arab coins of the late 7th and first part of the 8th centuries have the mint name of Iliya; in other words, the Arabic transcription of Aelia.* Whether or not the name 'Aelia' was abandoned officially, the coinage shows that it had entered into and continued in common speech.

But no one should be surprised to hear that it wasn't that simple. The name of Jerusalem, too, persisted into early Islamic times: a late 7th-century coin issue -- contemporary with other Arab issues using the full Greek names of cities -- is stamped IEROCOLYMWN ('Ierosolymon' in Greek letters), evidence for the Graeco-Latin equivalent of Jerusalem.

Abracadabra # 5

Only in the early 9th century does a coin issue appear with the mint name "al-Quds," "the holy," the ordinary non-official Arabic name of the city in historical texts. That, of course, is still the Arabic name today.

And the beginning of quite another story.

'Abracadabra'', a magical invocation thought to be of Semitic origin. It might (or might not) be derived from Aramaic, meaning "I will create as I speak"; or just possibly (or impossibly) combining the Hebrew words for father, son, and a holy spirit. The only thing known for sure is that 'Abracadabra' first surfaced in a Latin medical poem of the 2nd century AD.

* I am indebted to the lively discussion on the Lt-Antiq. list ("Streets of Aelia Capitolina/Jerusalem"), and especially to Michael Bates, Curator Emeritus of Islamic Coins, The American Numismatic Society, for his post on the early Arab coinage of Jerusalem.

I am also indebted to the excellent discussion of the Madaba map and its relation Byzantine Jerusalem by Yoram Tzafrir, 'The Holy City of Jerusalem in the Madaba Map', at Franciscan Cyberspot.


Top left: © 2010 The Associated Press, via Archaeology Daily News.

Second left: Map of Byzantine Jerusalem from Franciscan Cyberspot.

Middle left: Photo by David Silverman/Getty Images Europe via Zimbio.com.

Below left: The Mataba map from Wikimedia Commons (W:en:User:Brandmeister).

Bottom left: Map of Islamic Jerusalem as it appeared 958-1052 according to Arab geographers, from Wikipedia.

1 comment:

  1. The Christian community of Jerusalem grew at an accelerated pace until it reached its peak in the sixth century. A new Christian Jerusalem was designed. The city's name was now 'Aelia', no longer Capitolina,certainly this was great found of this city by Christian community.


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