Rehavia site may be place where ‘God revealed’ stone supply to church builders.
In “The Buildings of Justinian,” the Byzantine historian Procopius of Caesarea wrote at length about the churches the emperor built in the 6th century. He related a miracle that occurred during the construction of the Nea Church, in what is now the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City:
“God revealed a natural supply of stone perfectly suited to this purpose in the nearby hills, one which had either lain there in concealment previously, or was created at that moment,” he wrote, adding, “So the church is supported on all sides by a number of huge columns from that place, which in color resemble flames of fire … exceptionally large and probably second to no columns in the whole world.”
Procopius was recently cited by Prof. Yoram Tzafrir in an article about the Nea church, one of the most important built in Jerusalem, because one of the quarries for these miraculous columns has now been unearthed.
Work on a new building on Abarbanel Street, in the Rehavia neighborhood, has revealed what may have been a source of the monolithic columns. A large, carved stone column was discovered beneath the foundation of an old building that was demolished to make way for the new one.
The Israel Antiquities Authority halted construction and began studying the column, which is 6 meters high and 80 centimeters in diameter. These proportions correspond to building practices of the period.
There were no other finds that could be used to date the column but Evgeny Kagan of the Antiquities Authority it is from the Byzantine era based on the type of stone and the methods used by the stonemasons. Called mizzi ahmar, Arabic for red rock, it is a red limestone that is considered difficult to mine and dress and that could be Procopius’ “flames of fire.”
According to Tzafrir it was hardly used until the introduction of explosives in the 19th century, except during the Byzantine era. The Temple in Jerusalem, for example, was made of softer stone and the columns were not carved from a single stone.
Evidently, the stonemasons in the recently discovered site also had a hard time working with the stone, since the column that was discovered was apparently left connected to the stone from which it was chiseled because it cracked and they feared that it would fall apart on its way to the construction site.
Nearby signs of columns chiseled from the stone were found. Tzafrir believes they were used in the construction of a impressive church, though not necessarily the Nea Ekklesia of Theotokos described by Procopius. One possibility he mentions is the church in the Valley of the Cross. The column in Rehavia is not the only one in Jerusalem found attached to the stone it was being hewn from. The largest and most famous is known as the finger of Og, King of Bashan, in the church near the Russian Compound in central Jerusalem. It is 12 meters high and weighs 60 tons. There had been another, smaller column in the area of today’s Mahane Yehuda market, but it is covered by buildings.
The quarrying of the columns affected the plan of the city, as certain streets were widened to allow for their transport to the site of the church.