The Christian connection
The Greek Compound is of profound religious, historical and cultural significance to Christians, Jews and Muslims, who have lived side by side in this area for centuries. It has long been a place of pilgrimage; monasteries and convents have existed here since the beginning of the Christian era. The last monastery ceased activity only during the Second World War, when the Church was unable to bring enough monks to Palestine from Nazi-occupied Greece.
According to Christian tradition (based on religious and pilgrim sources), it was on this site that:
- Ancient Kings of Israel were anointed.
- The Three Wise Men first saw the star that led them to Jesus’ birth place in Bethlehem.
- The Jewish High Priest Caiaphus and his associates agreed to hand over Jesus to the Romans – a decision that changed the course of history and gave rise to the site`s name, the “Hill of Evil Counsel”.
- An early church dedicated to the disciple Luke may have been erected.
- Procopius, an early 4th century martyr and alleged Judeo-Christian, reputedly prayed in the still-extant underground cistern that was converted into an early church. His bones are said to have been interred here after his death in Caesarea.
The famous 7th century Greek Patriarch Modestus, who rebuilt the Holy Sepulcher after its destruction by the Persians in 640 AD, erected a Byzantine Church. Its ruins are still visible, although its mosaic floor has been covered to protect it.
- The bones of Modestus are said to have been interred, alongside those of Procopius, in an underground burial chamber beneath the Byzantine Church.
For Christians, the Greek Compound – which encloses the summit of the hill that rises from the Hinnom Valley – is closely associated with events in the life and death of Christ.
(a) The star of Bethlehem and the Three Wise Men
The earliest association of the Greek compound with Christianity begins with the faith’s very origins and the birth of Jesus Christ. According to tradition, it was on this summit that the Three Wise Men first saw the star that was to lead them to Bethlehem. Although some sources had placed this event further south, the 15th century traveler, Louise de Rochechourt, summing up the many legends from 1000 years of pilgrimage literature, writes: “This is the place where the priest began plotting to lay hold of Jesus by deceit and to the present day it is called the House of Evil Counsel. Some say it is the place to which the star awaited the Magi when they went in to the city to Herod. In antiquity, a church was founded here …. They say, moreover, that Gihon [another name for the summit] is the hill on which Solomon was anointed King.”
(b) The Hill of Evil Counsel
According to legend, Caiaphus, the Jewish High Priest at the time of Jesus, had his country villa on the summit of the hill. Here Caiaphus, along with fellow priests and advisors, came to the decision about the fate of Jesus which would alter the course of history. The decision was recorded for posterity in the Fourth Gospel: “One of them, Caiaphus by name, the high priest that year, said ‘you don’t seem to have grasped the situation. You fail to see that it is better for one man to die for the people than for the whole nation to perish’”. (John 11, 47).
Caiaphus‘ residence thus became known to Christians as the “House of Evil Counsel,” coining an interpretation from Isaiah which was popular in the early church including in Christian Palestine. “..They have taken evil counsel against themselves saying let us bind the righteous” (Isaiah 3: 9, 10).
Since the14th century and possibly much earlier, pilgrim literature has located this infamous event as occurring on the summit of Abu Tor, which subsequently became known as the “Hill of Evil Counsel.”
There are other contenders in Jerusalem for this dubious title, notably the UN compound at the end of the ridge, south of Abu Tor. This was the seat of the British mandatory authorities and was dubbed the Hill of Evil Counsel by pre-state Zionists in the 1930s because it was from here that White Papers were issued limiting Jewish immigration to Palestine. For almost 1,000 years, however, it is the Greek Compound that has been a place of pilgrimage, devotion and remembrance of these events.
(c) A Convent dedicated to the disciple Luke
In very early Church literature, a convent or monastery dedicated to Jesus’ disciple Luke may have stood on this sacred site. Father Eugene Hoade – one of the leading commentators on holy sites in Israel – reached this conclusion both from pilgrimage literature and from the very name “Abu Tor”. Abu Tor means ‘Father of the Ox’ in Arabic. The Ox was the symbol of St Luke and its image appears frequently in places dedicated to him.
(d) Procopius and one of the earliest Christian Churches in the Holy Land
There are no above-ground remains of Caiaphus` residence. However, the Greek Compound does contain two important sites strongly connected to the New Testament account and of great significance in early Church history.
During building works in 1914 to construct the church that still stands, a large, ancient, subterranean structure was discovered. In his account “A Catacomb Church on the Hill of Evil Counsel”, the archaeologist James Montgomery described the walls of the underground structure, some of which exposed the natural rock from which they had been carved, while others were covered with fine dressed stones. He wrote of the arched roof, which reached a height of more than three meters.
At an unknown – and possible very early date – this chamber had been converted into an underground church. At its eastern end, a small altar and a table for gifts had been hewn out of the rock.
The archeologist also discovered an ancient burial niche containing the inscribed lid of an ossuary (bone box). While the remains of the occupant had long disappeared, the name on the lid suggested that this may have been the final resting place of Procopius, an early Christian Palestine martyr.
According to some sources, Procopius, who lived in the early 4th century, was from a notable house “whose mother Theodosia (a pagan) was from a senatorial Jerusalemite family” (Acta Sanctorum). Other, Greek sources, say, however, that Procopius, a convert to Christianity, was of Jewish ancestry and that his family owned much of the surrounding land.
The underground structure – which may once have served as the water cistern for Caiaphus’s villa – is thought to have been used by Procopius and his fellow Christians as a secret church, hidden from the vengeful eye of the authorities. In 303CE, during the Christian persecutions under the Emperor Diocletian, Procopius was martyred in Caesarea and his body – according to some accounts – was brought back for burial to this sacred site, a place long associated with the life and death of Jesus.
For many centuries after, a famous Church of Procopius on Mount Gihon (the ancient name for the Hill of Evil Counsel), was described by early Christian travelers to Jerusalem. It was a place of pilgrimage and devotion for the monks and nuns who served in its monastery and convent.
If, as records suggest, this ancient subterranean structure is associated with the Christian martyr Procopius , then it represents one of the earliest churches ever discovered in the Holy Land – predating the Constantine era and potentially (in view of Procopius`s Jewish connections) a rare and potentially unique, intact, Judeo-Christian site.
(e) Modestus, Church Father, builder and restorer
Today, the ruins of a 7th century Church can still clearly be seen within the Greek compound. They include a semi-circular apse, nave, crumbling walls, fragments of marble columns and probably two large stone columns which stand very close by. This Byzantine structure, half hidden in the undergrowth, commemorates not only Procopius, but also the man responsible for its construction, Modestus, one of the greatest Church fathers in the history of the Holy Land.
Abba (Father) Modestus first appears on the world stage during the bloody siege of Jerusalem in 614 AD, when more than 60,000 inhabitants were slaughtered by the army of Chosro, King of Persia.
Modestus , known for his bravery and profound faith, was summoned by the beleaguered Christians to bring help. This modest man, renowned for his piety and his love of nature and animals, eventually became Patriarch. He helped to rebuild the Holy Sepulcher and innumerable other churches damaged or destroyed in the fighting.
One of these was the church whose ruins lie in the Greek compound. The church was named after him and built above the burial cave where the bones of Procopius had been interred 300 years before. In the 1930s excavations, Avi-Yonah and the German archaeologist Schneider discovered an elaborate, geometrically-designed mosaic running along the southern aisle of the Church before disappearing under the wall of the Greek compound and adjacent road. The mosaic was subsequently covered over.
Despite its long neglect, the Church of Modestus and Procopius is of great importance. Modestus himself is thought to have been buried here, alongside Procopius, and for more than 1000 years, monasteries and convents sacred to both have stood on this site. Indeed, a Greek convent, then known as Dayr Mar Qibus (Arabic for Procopius) formed part of Saladdin’s gift to his general Abu Tor (see under The Muslim Connection).
Centuries ago, the bones of these two saints disappeared from the burial cave. Said to have been taken for safe keeping to Cyprus during the Islamic conquest, they have been coveted for hundreds of years as holy relics in many countries. Today, small fragments of bone said to have belonged to both men feature among the treasures of the Holy Sepulcher church. Protected in glass cases, they are dutifully visited by the faithful of many nations
The Jewish connection
The Greek compound has been given several names through its long history. The most recent is Hananya Hill, which has been applied to the whole Jewish part of the Abu Tor neighborhood since Israel’s Independence in 1948.
The name commemorates the High Priest Hananya (known in Greek as Ananias ben Nebedus)– father-in-law of Caiaphus. According to the 1st century historian Josephus Flavius, Hananya was buried and had a great monument erected on or close to this hill.
“Titus [during the siege of Jerusalem, 70AD] began the wall from the camp of the Assyrians, where his own camp was pitched…………and it went down to the valley of the Fountain, beyond which it went up again at the monument of Ananus the high priest encompassing that mountain where Pompey had formally pitched his camp” (Josephus Flavius, Jewish Wars).
A stairway leading down from the current, early 20th century church into the cistern below may – like sections of plaster on the wall – date back to Second Temple period times.
In an area long associated with priestly families and ancient military camps, the accidental discovery in 1990 of the family tomb of Caiphus in the present day “Peace Forest” below the Haas promenade, just south of Abu Tor, places this area and the Greek Compound firmly at the heart of these ancient legends. During these excavations, several ossuaries were found bearing the roughly-scratched names of various members of this priestly family, along with coins, nails and oil lamps.
Once known as the Hill of Graves because of the number of ancient Jewish tombs found on its slopes, Abu Tor was an important Jewish site for more than 2,000 years. According to Pilgrim literature, it was here, in antiquity, that the Kings of Israel were anointed. Perhaps Hananya’s tomb will still be found.
Today, the hill is home to small Sephardi synagogue, none of whose members know what their community’s future is, should the development be approved.
The Muslim Connection
Today, the Greek compound and the neighborhood surrounding it are known as Abu Tor. This Arabic name, meaning ‘Father of the Ox’ commemorates the famous Sheikh Abu`l- Abbas Ahmed also known as “Abu Tawr”. The story goes that Abu Tawr – a general under Saladin in the 12th century – rode into battle against the Crusaders on the back of a white ox. As a reward for his services, he was given the Greek convent on this site – then known as Dayr Mar Qibus – Arabic for Procopius – along with its surrounding village.
Today, the spirit of Sheikh Abu Tawr can still be felt in the neighborhood named after him. An old stone building now located in the grounds of a private house, just beyond the walls of the Greek compound, is thought to be his tomb. An old legend popular in the Arab section of the neighborhood tells how in times of trouble, the Sheikh`s white ox appears to protect him and them.
The Canaanite connection
A small synagogue, which during Mandate times housed the British army`s chief medical officer, is located just beyond the gate to the compound on Avigail Street. Rising up from the undergrowth just behind the synagogue is a large serpentine rock that geologists describe to their visiting students as a natural flint and limestone outcrop. The outcrop has been identified as a possible altar from the Canaanite period 3-4000 years ago and perhaps earlier. Its sides have been manually hollowed out to form a series of symmetrically-aligned alcoves, visibly blackened by fire. This may well be the place where Baal, the principal Canaanite deity, was worshipped; idols of Baal have been found nearby during excavations.
The existence of such a cultic site would be geographically logical. The Greek compound overlooks the Hinnom Valley and the biblical “Tophet”, where idol worship and child sacrifice was condemned by the prophets.
Perhaps there’s a specific connection between the god Baal and the name Abu Tor. For the ancient Canaanites , the ” Father of the Bull” was El, or his son Baal , described in this excerpt from a 3000-year-old epic Canaanite poem, discovered at Ras Shamra – the ancient city of Ugarit in northern Syria.
“Let Bull El my father, (tor `il aby), answer me” (From “The Goddess Anath”, translated by U. Cassutto)
A few meters south of this rock lies another subterranean antiquity that may once have served either the Canaanite cultic site and /or later Jewish and Christian inhabitants. Below a relatively modern octagonal stone structure, constructed by monks from the adjacent monastery (now a private house) as a place for quiet contemplation, another large water cistern was found. It is now neglected and filled with refuse – a casualty of the monastery`s closure in 1942, apparently because of problems bringing new monks to Jerusalem during the wartime Nazi occupation of Greece. In all events, this ancient structure is of uncertain date and awaits further exploration to discover what other secrets it may contain.
A Paleolithic connection?
It is possible that the flint and limestone outcrop behind the building that functions as a synagogue today connects back to the very first inhabitants of Jerusalem.
In 2009, excavations in nearby Ramat Rachel revealed enormous quantities of flint tools dating to the Paleolithic period, some 300,000 years ago. Joe Zias, (anthropologist, paleopathologist and former curator of archaeology/anthropology at the Israel Antiquities Authority) connects this discovery with the presence of other, rare, flint formations on hilltop sites in Jerusalem, close to Abu Tor, and suggests that the outcrop in the Greek compound may have been used for the production of early flint tools as well.
Excavations in and around the compound`s rocky outcrop have not been performed. However during a recent initial examination of the compound by the Israel Antiquities Authority, at the behest of the developers, evidence of a quarry was revealed some 100 meters east of the rock.
Little excavation has been carried out at the Greek compound, despite the site’s proximity to the Hinnom Valley and the Temple Mount. That said, there is ample evidence of human activity on the site, dating back to Canaanite times, and possibly even earlier.
The evidence of human activity on the site is as follows.
An early 20th century church.
Beneath this church are two underground cisterns.
a) An underground, catacomb church was created at an unknown time in history out of one of the two cisterns. This cistern was excavated in 1914 when preparations were being made to build the existing, modern church. The catacomb church is accessible from the modern church via a rock-hewn passage, and from a rock stairwell which connects it to the ruins of the Byzantine church. One wall is partly dressed with Crusader-period stones.
b) A second underground cistern, next to the catacomb church, and also accessible from the 20th century church building.
The steps and sections of plaster below possibly date back to Second Temple period times. Other areas of plaster are Byzantine. Experts say a cistern of this size would have served the house of an affluent individual or a public building.
Ruins of a Byzantine Church built in the 7th century by St Modestus and excavated by the Israel Antiquities Authority in 1970. The ruins are visible at ground level and are adjacent to the 20th century church. Pillars from the ruins have been removed and placed elsewhere on the site.
An octagonal ‘stage’ which served the monks who lived on this site until the 1940s. The stage sits atop a third cistern. The octagonal shape is connected with baptism and it is possible that this was used as a baptismal site.
Limestone and flint outcrop into which arches have been cut. This was possibly an ancient Canaanite cultic site. This is located behind a building which serves as a neighborhood synagogue today.