During the Byzantine Period (4th- 7th cent. AD), Jerusalem flourished as an international Christian centre. Churches, monasteries and public facilities were erected all over the city, the most famous being the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Many pilgrims wrote accounts of their pilgrimage and by combining these documents with the archaeological record, we have a pretty good idea of the shape of Jerusalem at that time. Yet one monastery, known as the “Monastery of the Virgins”, had not been identified, till now.
The existence of a “monastery of the Virgins” is documented by only one pilgrim, Theodosius, who visited Jerusalem at the beginning of the sixth century CE. He wrote: “Down below the pinnacle of the Temple is a monastery of virgins, and whenever one of them passes from this life, she is buried there inside the monastery. All their lives they never go out of the door by which they entered this place. The door is opened only for a nun or a penitent who wishes to join the monastery, but otherwise the virgins are always shut in. Their food is let down to them from the walls, but they have their water there in cisterns”.
Prior to the excavations at the southern wall of the Temple Mount the exact location was only assumed. Professor Y. Zafrir suggested it was located on the Temple Mount, at the area known as “Solomon’s Stables”. but no finds supported this theory.
Excavations along the southern wall of the Temple Mount began after the Six Day war (1967), when the site became under Israeli control. They continued for 15 years, but only now are the finds being fully published, by Dr. Eilat Mazar, an archaeologist, but also the granddaughter of Professor Benjamin Mazar who conducted the excavations along the southern wall but passed away before publishing the results of his work.
Eilat recently published the preliminary analysis of the finds from the Byzantine period abutting the southern wall of the Temple Mount. The architectural finds are of a large two-storied building in front of the triple gate. The artifacts within that building included chancel screen fragments, parts of an altar table, and a Reliquarium (a box for relics). The finds indicate a religious building, and the location matches Theodosius’ description of “The Monastery of the virgins”. The building itself has been reconstructed to the height of the firs floor, and is currently open for visitors.
Guided tours on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority (arranged by your humble servant) are given in English every Friday at 9:00 am. Next time you’re in Jerusalem, you are welcome to join the tour!.