An account of the newly discovered church, north of the Damascus Gate, Jerusalem, appears in the Quarterly Statement of the Palestine Exploration Fund. The author is Dr. Selah Merrill. The ruin has proved to be one of great extent, and of special interest. The way in which it was brought to light is worth recording. In an uneven field, which rose considerably above the land about it, parts of which appearing, indeed, like little hillocks, the owner of the soil tried to maintain a vegetable garden, but the ground was so dry that neither grain nor vegetables would flourish, and even irrigation did little or no good; besides, here and there large holes appeared in the ground which could not be accounted for. At last the owner determined to dig and see what there was below the surface of his field, and to his surprise he very soon came upon fine walls and a pavement. The excavations being followed up have laid bare a church with some of the surrounding buildings. The amount of débris which had accumulated above the floor of these buildings was 10 to 20 feet in depth. To remove this mass of earth has required much time and labor, and the work is not yet completed.
The piece of ground in question has about 60 yards of frontage on the main road, and extends, so far as the excavations go, about the same distance back from the road, that is, to the east.
The church itself is situated on the south side of this plot, and is very near the street. The ground in front of the church is paved with fine slabs of stone. The steps by which the church was entered were 5 feet wide, but the doorway itself was somewhat wider. From the entrance to the altar step, or platform, the distance is 55 feet, and from that point to the back of the apse 15 feet 6 inches; the width of the apse is 16 feet 6 inches. The width of the church is 24 feet 6 inches. Nine feet in front of the altar step a wall has been thrown across the church in a manner similar to that in the church of the Nativity at Bethlehem. This wall, also those of the church, of which several courses remain, and the interior of the apse, show that the building was originally painted, and some of the figures and designs can still be traced. At the southeast corner of the church, leading from the apse, there is a narrow but well built passageway to the buildings in the rear. The character of these buildings is not very evident; certainly they did not stand on a line with the church, but at an angle of 25° with that line. Between the church and what appears now to have been the main building in the rear, there was a passage not over 3 feet wide.
The main building in the rear of the church is 47 feet 6 inches long, but to this must be added 20 feet more of a special room, which seems to have belonged to it, and which had a beautiful mosaic pavement. Thus the extreme length from the entrance of the church to the (present) east side of this mosaic floor is 140 feet.
On the west side of this mosaic floor, where it joins the wall of the main building, there is a threshold of a single stone, 9 feet 6 inches long, with a step 6 feet 9 inches in the clear. This is considerably wider, it will be seen, than the steps, and even the entrance of the church. Several patches of mosaic pavement have been found, but in one place two or three square yards have been preserved, enough to show that the work was extremely beautiful. The colored tracings resemble those in the church on the Mount of Olives, and on one side are the large Greek letters Θεον. North of this mosaic floor, and of the main building which joins it, and running alongside of both, there is a watercourse or channel cut in the solid rock, which has been leveled to accommodate the buildings above. This can be traced in an east and west line for a distance of 37 feet; it is 2 feet 3 inches deep, 20 inches wide at the top and 12 at the bottom. From about the middle of the mosaic floor this channel turns a right angle and runs 20 feet or more to the north; it is possible that it led from the north, and at the point indicated turned a right angle and ran to the west.
Piles of stones and debris prevent us at present from deciding as to the length of the channel or where it comes from. In the bank of debris, which rises on the east side of the mosaic floor to a height of 20 feet, there is, about 6 feet above the floor, a watercourse formed of cement, running north and south at right angles to the line of the church and the other buildings, which must have belonged to a much later period. In fact--and this is an interesting circumstance--the mosaic pavement appears to extend under and beyond this canal and the mass of debris which is yet to be removed.
In the northwest corner of the room, where the mosaic floor is found, very near the angle (already mentioned) of the rock-cut channel, there is a tomb about 6 feet below the surface or level of the floor. The tomb is 10 feet long and 9 feet wide, and is entered by a doorway 26 inches wide, which is well built, and in the sides of which are grooves for a door to slide up and down. On the wall of the tomb at the east end there is a raised Greek cross, 22 inches long and 13 inches wide. One cannot stand erect in its highest part, but it is to be considered that the loculi are two-thirds full of debris, composed chiefly of decayed bones and bits of glass. Those in charge of the excavations have not, up to the present time, allowed the tombs to be cleared out. The loculi are 2 feet in depth.
What Captain Conder speaks of as "vaults north of the church," turn out to be the tops of houses. They are four in number, each 75 feet long by 28 feet wide, and faced the street. They were divided (one or two of them at least) into apartments by means of arches. The lower courses of the walls, to the height of several feet, are of squared stones, while the upper portions and the roofs are of rubble work, which was covered with a heavy coating of plaster. The threshold of one has been exposed, which is 6 feet in the clear, and the sides of the doorway show excellent work.
Among the ruins there are two sections of marble columns, each 33 inches in diameter. Three large cisterns have been found, two of which were nearly full of water; the mouths of these, which were closed, were many feet below the surface of the ground before the excavations began, hence no one knows how old the water in them may be. Some of the slabs with which the church was paved were 6 feet long by 2½ feet wide. In the church two pieces of cornice were found, each 8 feet in length. One is entire and quite plain, while the other is broken in the middle. It is upon this that the figures of Christ and his twelve apostles were painted. They can still be traced, although exposure has nearly obliterated the colors. Pottery and a considerable quantity of broken glass have been found and some small articles in marble of no great value. The top of a certain block of marble has been formed into a basin, and a hole drilled the entire length of the block for the water to run off.
South of the mosaic floor and of the east end of the main building there is a large underground chamber with seven openings (each the size of a man's body) to the surface. The chamber is 12 feet wide and nearly 20 feet long, but the depth is not yet ascertained, owing to the accumulation of debris on the bottom. On the west and north sides a wall of solid rock appears to a depth of 6 feet, showing that the chamber was excavated in part at least in the solid rock. The use of this chamber does not appear evident, unless it may have been a store room. The place within the city shown as "Peter's Prison" consists of a similar chamber (not dug in the solid rock, however), with similar openings in the ceiling or roof. The ruins extend underground some distance to the east of the mosaic floor, and efforts are being made to purchase the land in that direction, in order to allow of the excavations being extended there. It is almost equally certain that the buildings extended to the south and southeast of the present plat of ground.
But the owners of the land are jealous, and everybody is superstitious; consequently, excavations must be abandoned, or move with aggravating slowness.
Dr. Selah Merrill, in a note describing a late visit, says that the west wall of what he called the "main building," toward the apse of the church, has been removed and the floor cleared, exposing a fine pavement. This pavement, the threshold before mentioned, and the mosaic floor all belong to one period, and to a structure very much older than the date of the "main building." It puzzled the doctor, because the threshold west of the mosaic floor was not square with the east wall of the "main buildings," but the reason is now clear. Captain Conder says of this church with such of the ruins about it as were exposed when he was there, that "the whole is evidently of the Crusading period." As regards the church itself, this is not clear, and the mosaic floor especially may belong to a time many centuries previous to that era. At the south side of the floor of the "main building" a new mouth to the largest cistern has been discovered; over the mouth there is a thick stone 5 feet in diameter. This was eight sided, and was built against the wall, so that five sides are exposed.
The stone was cut in such a way as to leave on two of its sides small brackets shaped like the two halves of the utensil called a "tunnel." It may be of interest to state that this piece of land was offered for sale a few years since, and for a long time went a begging for a purchaser; at last it was sold for 40 Napoleons. During the present year it has passed into the hands of the French for 2,000 Napoleons.