The Greek Orthodox Church of St. John the Baptist in the Old City's Christian Quarter should not be confused with the church of the same name in Ein Kerem. The church in the Christian Quarter is one of the oldest churches in Jerusalem. The above-ground part of the church, bell tower, and dome date back to the 11th century when it served the Crusader Knights Hospitalier while the crypt below ground-level dates back to the 5th century, Byzantine period.
The Church of Saint John the Baptist stands in the area south of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre known as "Muristan." This was the site of the first Bimaristan, meaning a hospital in the medieval Islamic world. The area where the hospital once stood, and where the church stands today, retains the name "Muristan."
John the Baptist
John the Baptist was born to the Virgin Mary's cousin, Elizabeth in Ein Kerem. He grew up to be a preacher, leader of the baptismal movement and he baptized Christ in the Jordan River. He is considered a forerunner or predecessor of Christ. John was beheaded by King Herod Antipas at the request of Herod's daughter, Salome who had asked for John's head on a platter (Mark 6:17-29). The location of his head and other remains is uncertain but some traditions hold that the head was housed in the Church of Saint John the Baptist in Jerusalem's Old City.
History of St. John the Baptist Church
During the Byzantine era (4th-6th century) a structure was built on the site of the present church; it may have been a shrine holding relics, including John the Baptist's head. With the Persian arrival in Jerusalem, the Byzantine building was damaged and then restored after 614AD by John Almoner, Patriarch of Alexandria.
Over the years the structure sunk about 3m below street level. Italian merchants arrived in the 11th century and built a pilgrim hospital and church above the sunken 7th-century structure which became the church basement. During the Siege of Jerusalem in 1099, injured Crusader Knights were treated in the hospital. Some knights stayed on to established the Order of Knights of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem.
The Knights Hospitalier was an order of the Crusader knights dedicated to administering medical care to Crusader knights fighting on route to Jerusalem. Jerusalem was recaptured by Saladin in 1189 and the basement left to accumulate dirt and debris. The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem acquired the church in the late 15th century and turned the basement into a chapel. In 1839 the church and monastery were restored and a reliquary was discovered in the crypt; perhaps the same reliquary that once held John's head.
Features of the Church of Saint John the Baptist, Old City Jerusalem
The church complex has an unremarkable exterior but opens to an enclosed courtyard surrounded by several apartments that are used by Greek Orthodox monks. Inside the church are three apses and a long narthex adorned with elaborate artwork and icons. There is a breathtaking iconostasis screen separating the altar from the area where the congregation stands. This is the longest iconostasis in Jerusalem and dates back to 1853.
One of the church icons depicts Saint John's head and is attached to a relic believed to be a piece of the saint's skull. Another icon features Byzantine Empress Eudocia who was responsible for establishing several 5th-century churches. Near the entrance of the church are the relics of the Greek Saint Paliottis who came to Jerusalem in the 1820s. He was captured, arrested, and martyred at Jerusalem's citadel (Tower of David Museum). His icon depicts him in a traditional Greek costume. The building is topped by a distinctive silver dome supported by four pillars.