Who Built the Cardo in Jerusalem?

Oren Gutfeld explores the chronology of the Jerusalem Cardo

The sixth-century C.E. Madaba map shows the red-roofed Nea Church (indicated with an arrow) down the street from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on the Jerusalem Cardo. Emperor Justinian I built the Nea Church—did he also build the Cardo in Jerusalem? Photo courtesy Todd Bolen/BiblePlaces.com.

On the sixth-century C.E. Madaba map, the Jerusalem Cardo, the city’s main street, can be seen running from the Damascus Gate through the middle of the city. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre lies along the Cardo at the center of the city. At the far end of the Cardo in Jerusalem sits a red-roofed church identified as the New Church of the Holy Mother of God and Ever-Virgin Mary, often simplified as the Nea Church. The Byzantine map depicts the Jerusalem Cardo as a Roman-style thoroughfare flanked by colonnades. Traditionally it was believed that the construction of the entire length of the Jerusalem Cardo was attributed to the Roman emperor Hadrian when he established Jerusalem as a Roman city called Aelia Capitolina after the Second Jewish Revolt in 135 C.E.

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.
 


 
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.
 

 

Author Oren Gutfeld believes the magnificent Nea Church was built to balance the venerated Church of the Holy Sepulchre on the Cardo in Jerusalem. Drawing courtesy Anna Yamim.

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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Justinian’s reign was marked by both glory and devastation. A plague claimed the lives of tens of millions of people in the 540s. Learn more about the plague, including extensive excerpts from Justinian’s court historian Procopius.

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