During the Byzantine period (4th-7th centuries) Jerusalem was a Christian city with many churches. The most important church was the Holy Sepulcher, on the traditional site of the crucifixion and burial of Jesus, built by Constantine the Great at the beginning of the fourth century. Another large church was the impressive Nea Church, built by the emperor Justinian at the height of the Christian era of Jerusalem in the mid-sixth century. Thousands of Christian pilgrims came to Jerusalem to worship and they left many written descriptions of the city and its holy places. But the most important testimony of Byzantine Jerusalem is the famed Madaba map, made of colored mosaic, part of the floor of a church (in present-day Jordan) which was built at the end of the 6th century.
The map, a beautiful birds-eye-view of Jerusalem, shows in detail the walls, the gates, the main streets and the churches of the city. The main throroughfare, the Cardo maximus (Cardo, in short) was a colonnaded street bisecting the city from north to south, from todays Damascus Gate to the Zion Gate. Along the Cardo in the map, two large church complexes are clearly shown the Holy Sepulcher in the north and the Nea Church at the southern end.
The Madaba Map, the earliest graphic representation of Jerusalem, guided archeologists in their search for the remains of Byzantine Jerusalem. After the reunification of Jerusalem in 1967, excavations were conducted in the Jewish Quarter (located in the southeastern part of the Old City). The Nea Church and the Cardo were discovered, in the locations depicted in the Madaba map.
The Nea Church
In Jerusalem he (Justinian) built a church in honor of the Virgin which is beyond compare. People call this church the New Church (Nea). Thus wrote Procopius, court historian of the emperor Justinian. The full name of the edifice was the Church of Mary, Mother of God. Procopius recounts details of its construction and the names of the various buildings which made up the large church complex.
Portions of the church were uncovered on the southern slope of the Jewish Quarter of the Old City. The church was built on a massive podium supported by thick walls of stone and concrete resting on deep bedrock. It was a very large structure, 115 m. long and 57 m. wide, divided by four rows of columns which supported the roof. The eastern wall was especially broad (6.5 meters) and contained side apses, 5 meters in diameter. Marble pavement covered the floor.
Along the southern side of the church, where the bedrock is at great depth, a very large subterranean water reservoir was found, completely preserved. Some of the annexes of the church had been built above it. The reservoir measures 33 x 17 m. and is divided into vaults supported by arches which rest on huge (5 x 3.5 m.) piers, ten meters high. The interior of the reservoir was coated with a thick layer of hard plaster; it had a capacity of thousands of gallons of water.