Israel Antiquities Authority Unveils Crusader-Era Hospital

August 6, 2013

4 min read

crusader hospital

“Jerusalem remembereth in the days of her affliction and of her anguish all her treasures that she had from the days of old” (Lamentations 1:7)

crusader hospital
Part of an enormous structure dating to the Crusader period (1099–1291 CE), which was a busy hospital, has currently been revealed to the public following excavations and research by the Israel Antiquities Authority there in cooperation with the Grand Bazaar Company of East Jerusalem (Photo: Part of an enormous structure dating to the Crusader period (1099–1291 CE), which was a busy hospital, has currently been revealed to the public following excavations and research by the Israel Antiquities Authority there in cooperation with the Grand Bazaar Company of East Jerusalem. (Photo: Yoli Shwartz/Israel Antiquities Authority)

An ancient hospital in the Old City of Jerusalem which was unearthed by the Israeli Antiquities Authority in March, was open to the public for the first time on Sunday. The hospital, which contains a largely well-preserved portion,  dates back to the Crusader period (1099-1291 CE) according to the Jerusalem Post.

“We always knew it was in this area, but its remains were covered with paint, plaster and garbage, so we weren’t sure of the exact location,” said Antiquities Authority (AA) excavation director Amit Re’em Sunday afternoon. “It was so neglected you couldn’t see the glory of the place.”

According to the Post “The building housing the hospital, owned by the Wakf and the Grand Bazaar Company of east Jerusalem, is located in the heart of the Christian Quarter in a region known as “Muristan” (Persian for hospital).” According to Re’em, it collapsed during an earthquake in 1457 and was buried beneath rubble until the Ottoman period.

The bones of horses and camels and large amounts of metal for shoeing the animals, lead archaeologists to believe that the area was used as a stable during the Middle Ages.

However, it was not until the Grand Bazaar Company began renovation of the area, with hopes of building a new restaurant on the site, that  the AA team conducted archeological tests determining its history.

Re’em said “rediscovering” the hospital was no easy feat.

“We didn’t find a sign saying ‘Welcome to the hospital,’” he said with a laugh. “We used historical sources, including mentions of the hospital’s general location and descriptions of it being large with lots of space – and I thought this building was the perfect candidate to be the hospital.”

The original hospital, only a fraction of which was exposed in the excavation, extended across an area of at least 1.5 hectares, said Re’em. Its architecture was characterized by massive pillars and ribbed vaults, extending more than six meters, the Post reported.

“The image we have is that of a great hall composed of pillars, rooms and smaller halls,” the archaeologist said.

Re’em noted that the archaeological team – which was also led by Renee Forestany – learned of the hospital primarily from celebrated German archaeologist Conrad Schick, who painstakingly mapped out its ruins in Jerusalem prior to his death in 1901.

Numerous sources in Latin and French also documented the once thriving sanatorium, he said.

“They mention a sophisticated hospital that is as large and as organized as a modern hospital,” said Re’em. “The hospital was established and constructed by a Christian military order named the ‘Order of St. John of the Hospital in Jerusalem’ and was 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,” he added.

According to Re’em, the hospital was comprised of different wings and departments – designated by the types of illnesses and severity of conditions of patients – similar to contemporary standards.

In an emergency situation, the hospital would accept as many as 2,000 patients of different religions, and even serve Jewish patients kosher food, he added.

Re’em said the Muslim Arab population was instrumental in assisting the Crusaders in establishing the hospital and teaching them proper medical practice, which at the time was more advanced in the East than in the West.

“The Crusaders studied the profession of medicine from Arab doctors, for whom it was a well-known science,” he said. “Back then, Western medicine compared to the East was primitive, but when they built the hospital they learned from the Arabs.”

To illustrate the vast differences in sophistication between the Crusaders and Arab doctors, Re’em cited a couple harrowing examples.

“In one instance a patient came in while a Muslim doctor and Crusader doctor were present and told the Crusader doctor he had a wound in his leg,” he said. “The Crusader doctor said he must cut off the entire leg, while the Muslim doctor said an antiseptic cream could be used to make it go away.”

The Ayyubid ruler Saladin, who lived near the hospital following the defeat of the Crusaders, renovated and maintained the structure, permitting 10 Crusader monks to continue to reside there and serve the population of Jerusalem, Re’em said.

The magnificent find is slated to become part of a restaurant and coffee shop via a construction project later this year, said Monser Shwieki, a project manager for the Grand Bazaar Company.

“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,” he said. Until that time the site will re-closed to the public.

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