Part of an enormous Old City of Jerusalem hospital building dating to the Crusader period from the years 1099-1291 has been revealed to the public following excavations and research by the Israel Antiquities Authority.
Records show that the Christians provided Jewish patients with kosher food. The building, owned by the Muslim Waqf religious authority, is situated in the heart of the Christian Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem, in a region known as “Muristan,” a corruption of the Persian word for hospital. It is located near David Street, the main road in the Old City.
Until a decade or so ago the building served as a bustling and crowded fruit and vegetable market. Since then it stood there desolate until the Grand Bazaar Company said it wanted to renovate the market as a restaurant, when the Israel Antiquities Authority began to conduct archaeological soundings there.
The structure, only a small part of which was exposed in the excavation, seems to extend across an enormous area of nearly four acres.
Its construction is characterized by massive pillars and ribbed vaults and it stands more than 19 feet high, suggesting an image of a great hall composed of pillars, rooms and smaller halls.
Excavation directors Renee Forestany and Amit Re’em said, “We’ve learned about the hospital from contemporary historical documents, most of which are written in Latin. These mention a sophisticated hospital that is as large and as organized as a modern hospital. The hospital was established and constructed by a Christian military order named the ‘Order of St. John of the Hospital in Jerusalem’ and known by its Latin name the Hospitallers (from the word hospital). These righteous warriors took an oath to care for and watch over pilgrims, and when necessary they joined the ranks of the fighters as an elite unit.”
The hospital was comprised of different wings and departments according to the nature of the illness and the condition of the patient – similar to a modern hospital. In an emergency situation the hospital could accept as many as 2,000 patients.
The Hospitallers treated sick men and women of different religions. There is information about Crusaders who ensured their Jewish patients received kosher food. All that notwithstanding, they were completely ignorant in all aspects of medicine and sanitation: an eyewitness of the period reports that a Crusader doctor amputated the leg of a warrior just because he had a small infected wound. Needless to say, the patient died.
The Muslim Arab population was instrumental in assisting the Crusaders in establishing the hospital and teaching them medicine.
The size of the hospital can be learned from contemporary documents, one of which recounts an incident about a staff member who was irresponsible in the performance of his work in the hospital. That person was marched alongside the building awhile, and the rest of the staff, with whips in hand, formed a line behind him and beat him. This spectacle was witnessed by all of the patients.
The Ayyubid ruler Saladin lived near the hospital following the defeat of the Crusaders, and he also renovated and maintained the structure. He permitted ten Crusader monks to continue to reside there and serve the population of Jerusalem.
The building collapsed in an earthquake that struck in 1457 CE and was buried beneath its ruins, which is how it remained until the Ottoman period. In the Middle Ages parts of the structure were used as a stable and the bones of horses and camels were found in excavations, alongside an enormous amount of metal that was used in shoeing the animals.
According to Monser Shwieki, the project manager, “The magnificent building will be integrated in a restaurant slated to be constructed there, and its patrons will be impressed by the enchanting atmosphere of the Middle Ages that prevails there.”
“The place will be open to the public later this year,” he added.