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Decades after discovery, Jerusalem’s Byzantine masterpiece may open to public

The underground vaults of Jerusalem’s Nea Church, a large complex erected by Emperor Justinian in the sixth century, have remained closed to visitors since their excavation in the 1970s.

One of Jerusalem’s great archaeological wonders, long closed to the public, may soon be open to visitors for the first time since it was excavated in the 1970s. The New Church of the Theotokos, commonly referred to as the Nea Church, was a large Byzantine church constructed in sixth-century Jerusalem that has sat in ruins for a thousand years.

Byzantine Emperor Justinian I ordered the construction of the church in A.D. 534 as part of a vast imperial construction campaign, which was considered an engineering triumph by contemporary and modern historians but has been ignored by the general public.

When it was first constructed, the Nea Church was a massive edifice, rivaling the nearby Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the holiest site in Christendom, where Jesus is believed to have been crucified and buried. Both churches appear on the Madaba Mosaic, a sixth-century map depicting Jerusalem, in Jordan’s Church of Saint George in Madaba. Emperor Justinian’s chronicler, Procopius of Caesarea, said the emperor built the church “with which no other can be compared,” and detailed how Justinian “gave orders that it be built on the highest of the hills, specifying what the length and breadth of the building should be.”

Now, almost half a century after Israeli archaeologists plumbed its depths, a group of activists is pushing for the church's restoration and opening to visitors. Emek Shaveh, an Israeli nongovernmental organization that defends the cultural heritage of all faiths in Israel, petitioned March 3 the quasi-governmental Company for the Reconstruction and Development of the Jewish Quarter, which manages the Nea Church ruins, to “make the site presentable and safe for visitors and open the church’s gates to the general public all week long.”

Although the company describes the Nea Church as a “unique architectural monument in Jerusalem,” most of the enormous site has remained closed to visitors since Nahman Avigad's archaeological excavations ended in 1981. Avigad’s study of the site was part of a large number of excavations carried out by Israeli archaeologists in the Jewish Quarter after Israel captured Jerusalem's Old City in the 1967 war. Unlike other discoveries, such as a Roman-era neighborhood and marketplace and ancient fortifications, the Nea Church was never developed for tourists.

The church complex included a hostel for Christian pilgrims to the holy city, a monastery and a hospital. Like King Herod’s Temple Mount, atop which the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque stand today, Justinian had massive stone vaults constructed to provide the church a level foundation. These were plastered over and used as enormous underground cisterns. Archaeologists discovered a Greek inscription exalting the emperor inside the cisterns.

“This work too was donated by our most pious Emperor Justinian, through the provision and care of Constantine, most saintly priest and abbot, in the 13th year of the indiction,” reads the inscription that is now found in the Israel Museum.

Trying to enter the church’s ruins today is no simple task, which required wrangling with the Jewish Quarter development company’s bureaucracy. Only a tiny section of the church — a portion of its northeast apse — is open to the public, and there is little information for prospective visitors to make the necessary arrangements or find the entrance. Visiting the apse requires coordinating a visit with the company between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. on weekdays and retrieving a key from the company’s unmarked office in the Old City. The entrance to the apse is situated inside the courtyard of an ultra-Orthodox kindergarten across the Jewish Quarter from the office, requiring navigation through the labyrinthine alleys of Jerusalem’s Old City and correctly identifying the entrance.

Inside is a chamber containing a few photographs of the Nea Church excavations overlooking a low wall, a small remnant of the once magnificent building.

The Nea Church’s subterranean vaults remain closed to the public but are tantalizingly visible from a park abutting the Old City walls. A third section of the church is fenced off, though a break in the fence allows the adventurous to venture inside the crumbling remains.

But Daniel Shukrun, secretary of the Company for the Reconstruction and Development of the Jewish Quarter, told Al-Monitor that the Nea Church vaults are presently unsafe for the general public. In late 2017, the company conducted a major clean-up operation inside the subterranean chambers to clear out years of accumulated bat droppings and refuse, but the area remains unsuitable for tourists, he said. 

“The sanitation problems were so severe down there that we couldn’t even understand what we were up against,” he added. Nonetheless, Shukrun said that in light of Emek Shaveh’s petition, the company has gotten the ball rolling on evaluating a development plan for the Nea Church ruins.

He cautioned that while the company is interested in developing the church, and the wheels are now in motion, the Nea Church restoration project would cost an enormous, as yet indeterminate sum.

“The first thing we intend to do over the course of 2019 is to commission a comprehensive preservation survey,” Shukrun said. “Then we will see where things lead.”

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