Excavations conducted in the southern part of the Cardo in Jerusalem in the 1970s, however, offered a new theory: The Byzantine emperor Justinian I may have taken part in constructing portions of the street. So who built the Jerusalem Cardo? The answer may lie with the magnificent Nea Church, as discussed by Oren Gutfeld in “The Emperor’s New Church on Main Street, Jerusalem” in the November/December 2013 issue of BAR.
Between 1970 and 1981, Nahman Avigad’s excavations on a 600-foot stretch of the southern part of the Jerusalem Cardo uncovered about 60 Byzantine architectural features, including bases, columns and capitals. While some of the column bases were found in situ, most of the architectural features were reused in later structures that lined the Cardo. Additionally, it was discovered that this southern portion of the Cardo was built directly on top of bedrock and showed no signs of earlier Roman construction. This evidence lends weight to the now-widely supported theory that the southern part of the Cardo in Jerusalem was constructed under Justinian.Avigad also uncovered a magnificent basilica identified as the Nea Church. Author Oren Gutfeld believes that Justinian wanted to build the Nea Church in the southern part of the city to balance the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The emperor’s motivation for extending the Jerusalem Cardo southward was to provide a paved processional way from the Nea Church to the Holy Sepulchre.
Justinian’s court historian Procopius described the Nea Church as partly built “on living rock and partly carried in the air by a great extension artificially added to the hill.” Excavations uncovered six massive vaults (called “great extensions” by Procopius) supporting the southeastern section of the Nea Church. The Nea Church revealed itself to be a grand triapsidal basilica measuring 480 by 190 feet (compare this to the famed Hagia Sophia built by Justinian in Constantinople, which measures 253 by 233 feet). The Nea’s interior was divided into a long nave and two side aisles separated from the nave by columns. Cyril of Scythopolis, the noted chronicler of monastic life in the Judean desert, was present at the church’s consecration in 543 C.E. and declared that the church “surpasses all the ancient sites and accounts that men marvel at and the Greeks have recorded in their history.”
Read more in Oren Gutfield, “The Emperor’s New Church on Main Street, Jerusalem” in the November/December 2013 issue of BAR.
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Rediscover the finding of the Nea in Meir Ben-Dov’s 1977 BAR article “Found After 1400 Years—The Magnificent Nea,” redesigned and available for free in Bible History Daily.