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November 21, 2017

A Church Beyond Compare - The Nea Church, or the Basilica of Saint Mary the New in Jerusalem (543-614)

A proposed reconstruction of the Nea Church

The Basilica of Saint Mary the New, also known as the New Church of the Theotokos or simply The Nea, was erected by the Roman Emperor Justinian I (527–565) in Jerusalem, specifically on Mount Zion near the site of where the Temple of Solomon once stood, and it was the largest church of its time that rivaled Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. The church was completed in 543 and consecrated on November 20th of that year. It was severely damaged or destroyed during the Persian conquest of the city in 614, and was further used as a source of building material by the Umayyads a few decades later. Today much of the site is occupied by Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, though recent archaeological excavations have uncovered portions of the Nea that can be viewed along the Cardo.

Primary Sources

Two contemporary accounts survive that describe the building of the Nea, but neither author has much to say about the shape and organization of the church complex. Cyril of Scythopolis, a Christian monk who lived in the mid-6th century, records that the church was begun by the Patriarch Elias but left unfinished until Justinian allocated funds for its completion at the behest of Saint Savvas in 531. A more detailed account of the church and its construction comes from Procopius, the principal historian of the sixth century and the primary source of information for the rule of the Emperor Justinian. In his De Aedificiis, he writes that “in Jerusalem he [Justinian] dedicated to the Mother of God a shrine with which no other can be compared.” The Nea was situated on Mount Zion, the highest hill in the city, near the Church of the Holy Apostles (built in 347) and the Basilica of Hagia Sion (built in 390). Due to the rugged topography, the architect Theodoros first had to extend the southeastern part of the hill and support the church with huge substructures. This account by Procopius corresponds with the excavations of Yoram Tsafrir, as well as a tablet uncovered on the vaulted subterranean cistern that securely dates the building to 543.


Mount Zion was not a new site in Jerusalem for Christian patrons to erect their monuments, and as a result of past projects, monasteries, churches, and sacred sites already existed there. Consequently, the highest available spot for the Nea to be constructed was on the southeastern slope of the hill, far away down from the hegemonic vistas afforded to the Basilica of Hagia Sion that perched on the mount’s peak. Yet by choosing this site, Justinian was attempting to position the Nea within the hierarchical power structure that was connected to the topographical highpoints of Jerusalem. There are numerous motivations behind establishing a building such as the Nea on a height. The limited accessibility and semiotic significance of heights afford political and ideological control to its inhabitants, who maintain a panoptic view of control over those below. Heights traditionally held religious significance as well, as attested in the numerous theophanic accounts shared by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The decision to build on Mount Zion furthermore situated the Nea within the dialogue of the other two sacred religious buildings that occupied highpoints in the city, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on Golgotha and the Basilica of Hagia Sion on Mount Zion.

Remains of the Nea

Form and function of the Nea

The Nea was a building of great complexity. Although the longitudinal basilican structure was a relatively common typology for sixth-century churches in Palestine, the forecourt’s arrangement, along with the placement of the adjoining hostel, hospital, and monastery remains problematic. According to Procopius, exterior porticoes on the south, west, and northern sides surrounded the structure. Two huge columns stood in front of the western entrance, which was preceded by a colonnaded atrium. In front of the atrium was a round courtyard that opened onto the Cardo. Due to the sparse archaeological evidence and the obscurity of Procopius’ description, this plan is difficult to reconstruct. Despite the obscurity of literary details, Tsafrir has proposed that west of the atrium, there were monumental gates that opened into an area that contained a gatehouse and an arch. Beyond this, Tsafrir has hypothesized two semicircles: one would have connected the church complex to the Cardo, while the other was located across the street and provided access to the hospital and hospice.

In the interior of the church, the nave terminated at a large apse that was flanked by two symmetrical smaller rooms with apses inscribed in their eastern walls. It is unclear whether the nave of the Nea had three or five aisles, but due to the unprecedentedly large dimensions of the church (approximately 100 m long by 52 m wide), archaeologists Yoram Tsafrir and Nahman Avigad both agree that while only two rows of interior columns have been uncovered, two additional rows would have likely been needed to adequately support the roofing structure. In addition to being the largest known basilica in Palestine, the Nea also included a monastery, hostel, and hospital, as attested by Antoninus of Piacenza, who visited the Basilica of Saint Mary the New in 570, “with its great congregation of monks, and its guest houses for men and women. In catering for travelers they have a vast number of tables, and more than three thousand beds for the sick.” It is unclear where these other buildings were located. Based on archaeological finds of a southern revetment wall of the Nea church complex, and assuming that the complex was symmetrical, archaeologists estimate the overall width of the complex at 105 m.

According to Graham (2008), "The Nea gave architectural articulation to a theologoumenon in Jerusalem, and conveyed, architecturally, a message regarding Justinian’s imperial policy, imperial presence in Palestine, and a self-conception as a Christian emperor."

Location of the Nea on the Madaba Map

The Nea and the Madaba Map

In addition to the contemporary literary accounts and archaeological evidence, the Madaba Map preserves a sixth-century perception of the topography, cities, and monuments of the Mediterranean. The mosaic was discovered on the floor of the Church of Saint George in Madaba, Jordan, and has been dated from 560–565, less than twenty years after the inauguration of the Nea in 543, and it is the oldest surviving cartographic representation of the Holy Land. The map depicts the Mediterranean world from Lebanon in the North to the Nile Delta in the South, and from the Mediterranean Sea in the west to the Eastern Desert. The city of Jerusalem is given prominence by its size and the mosaicists’ devotion to the detail of its monuments. No city represented in the map is larger. The central location of Jerusalem in the mosaic further supports Jerusalem’s importance in the minds of the map’s creators.

A closer look at Jerusalem reveals a pictorial representation of the city and its surrounding landscape. It is depicted from a diagonal bird’s eye perspective with no topographical impediments. The city's two cardos extend south from the Damascus Gate, with the main cardo horizontally bisecting the walled city. The street is opened up so that each of its colonnaded sides is equally visible. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is the largest building in the map, suggesting its importance in the city’s architectural hierarchy. It is situated perpendicular to the main cardo on its western side. All components of the church – the rotunda, the basilica, the atrium, the eastern fa├žade, and the exterior stairs – are visible. Although the Holy Sepulchre is geographically located to the north of the Tetrapylon, the main road running perpendicular to the cardo from David’s Gate, on the map it is situated where the decumanus should be. Not only does its size emphasize the church’s importance, its central location on the cardo furthers its reputation as the most sacred and popular pilgrimage site in the Holy City. The Nea is the third most prominent monument in the city after the Holy Sepulchre and Hagia Sion, even though in actuality it was the largest church in Jerusalem. The hieratic scale of monuments leads one to question how the Nea functioned in relation to the other monuments within the topography of the sixth century.

The selective details of Jerusalem’s monuments reveal the Madaba Map to be concerned with providing the viewer with a topographical hierarchy of Old and New Testament places. When viewed as a rendition of Jerusalem that is reflective of the sixth century habitus of Jerusalem, the map reveals a conception of the Christian sacred spaces and their interconnectedness. The shift in Christian topography to the western part of the city is clearly visible. For example, the Temple Mount, the central religious monument to Jewish identity, is relegated to the eastern periphery of the city, eclipsed by the towering Christian monuments that occupy the center of the city. Yoram Tsafrir has identified this area to be an open esplanade, marking the place of the Temple Mount.

The map provides a guide for pilgrims and viewers to the holy spaces, supporting Justinian’s campaign to integrate the Nea as a sacred site that matched the holiness of the Holy Sepulchre and Hagia Sion. In order to provide access to the Nea, Justinian extended the cardo south to the Nea and the newly constructed Zion Gate. This decision undoubtedly had political motivations, for it situated the Nea on the main route for pilgrims traveling between the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Church of the Holy Apostles. Processions, stational liturgies, and individual worshipers passed between the Holy Sepulchre and Hagia Sion, thus including Justinian’s church, but the Nea still failed to gain a place in the Christian collective memory as a site that was as holy as the other two main churches. According to Antoninus of Piacenza, worshipers went straight from the Holy Sepulchre to Hagia Sion, only to double back to the Nea. Furthermore, by the 630s, Patriarch Sophronios does not even mention the Nea in his review of pilgrimage sites in Jerusalem, due to its destruction.

The thickness of the walls of the Nea was over a meter and a half

The Nea and Solomon's Temple

Justinian attempted to leave his imperial mark on Jerusalem by situating a building of unprecedented size and splendor within the context of Jerusalem’s oldest and most sacred monuments. Procopius’s panegyric, the De Aedificiis (English: "The Buildings"), is perhaps the richest source that survives which offers possible motivations for Justinian’s architectural restructuring of Jerusalem. A masterful work of propaganda, de Aedificiis was less concerned with extolling the greatness of the buildings that were constructed, and more so with celebrating the man who built them. In order to situate Justinian within the tradition of grand builders in Jerusalem, Procopius most likely modeled his account after the biblical narrative of Solomon's Temple. There are several literary parallels between the two accounts, the most foremost being that, according to Procopius, both of the building projects were blessed by God. Furthermore, it seems beyond coincidence that the measurements of the Nea are roughly twice the size of the Temple.

Like Herod’s engineers, who had to extend the southern end of the Temple platform, so too did Justinian’s architects; and just as Solomon imported cedars from Hiram of Tyre for the Temple’s roofing, Justinian had cedars brought in from Lebanon. Procopius alludes to the monumental columns Jachim and Boaz that flanked the entrance into the Temple when describing those that decorated the entrance into the Nea. Finally, there is an etymological link between the Nea and the Temple in Procopius’ work. The New Testament uses two different Greek words for "Temple." More frequently "hieron" refers to the general temple precincts (e.g., Matthew 21:14–15). To refer to the actual Temple, or the inner sanctum, the New Testament uses "naos" (e.g., Matthew 23:16–17). This latter term was appropriated and reinterpreted by Procopius, thus relocating the sacred term to apply to the newly built Nea. The implications of creating a new sacred space dedicated to the Virgin that attempted to appropriate the sacred mythology of Solomon's Temple are quite profound. Not only was Justinian’s attempt at producing sacrality charged with political motivations, but for sixth-century Christians, the Nea undoubtedly symbolized the supremacy of Christianity and the Virgin over the abandoned Temple Mount that represented Judaism. Theologically, the Virgin herself was dedicated to the Temple at the age of three, which is celebrated on November 21st by the Church, and she is considered a new Temple of the Lord in whose womb God dwelt and became man.

The Demise of the Nea

The date of the destruction of the Nea Church is not known precisely. According to accounts preserved in The Capture of Jerusalem (Expugnationis Hierosolymae) the conquering Persians and their Jewish allies destroyed the church and killed the clergy in 614. The extent of the damage is unclear, as Patriarch Sophronios delivered his Nativity sermon in the Nea Church in 634. Further damage to the church may have occurred from an earthquake in 746. In 808, a reference to the church appeared in the Commemoratorium de casis Dei and, in 870, it was mentioned by Bernard the Monk who stayed in a hospice next to the church. In the tenth century, Eutychius, the Melkite Patriarch of Alexandria, noted the Nea Church ruins. The damage by the Persians, in 614, may have been severe as the Persians may have searched for treasure believed stored within the church as speculated from Procopius' report of the Emperor Justinian sending sacred items to Jerusalem.