Along the road from Jerusalem down toward Jericho, behind the Mount of Olives is the Arab village of al-Azarìya, the Bethany mentioned in the Gospel (from the Hebrew word Bet ‘Ananya, which means the house of Ananìa). In Jesus’ time, much like today, Bethany was a suburb of Jerusalem, a small town just on the edge of the Judean desert, where some of his closest friends lived, such as Martha and Mary with their brother Lazarus. Today the route from Jerusalem is interrupted by the Separation Wall. So, people are forced to take a much longer route to get there.
In Biblical times, Bethany was among the villages rebuilt by members of the tribe of Benjamin after returning from exile in Babylon (Nehemiah 11:32). The ancient name Bethany can be interpreted as a simplification of Bet Hananya, or the home of an unspecified Ananias. It was during the Byzantine period that the original name of the town was replaced with that of the village of Lazarus, resulting in the current Arabic name al-Azariya.
In the center of the village, a Franciscan church remembers the house of Martha and Mary and the miracle of Lazarus’ resurrection; it is superimposed on three previous churches, the remains of which have come to light following the excavations carried out at the beginning of the 1950s by Fr. Salle, OFM. The archaeologists also discovered a necropolis and a little farther up, to the west of the tomb, the remains of the ancient village, as well as a variety of materials that cover a period of time from the sixth and fifth centuries BC to the sixteenth century AD.
The first and second Byzantine churches: the first church was built in Bethany in the fourth century and was part of a real complex, the Lazarium, built near Lazarus’ tomb in memory of the events related to Jesus’ presence in Bethany.
The place is mentioned in the notes of the first pilgrims, including Eusebio di Cesarea (330), the Anonymous [pilgrim] from Bordeaux (333) and the pilgrim Egeria (380), who speaks of the liturgical celebrations that took place there.
The first church followed the style of the basilicas from the age of Constantine: it had three naves, with mosaics in the floor that were very similar to those of the Basilica in Bethlehem. Destroyed by an earthquake, it was rebuilt in the fifth century; this second Byzantine church was built further east and therefore was farther from Lazarus’ tomb.
The third Crusader-era church: during the Crusader period, at the behest of King Fulk of Anjou and his wife, Queen Melisenda, renovation work was begun on the second Byzantine church; this completely transformed the original structure giving it a completely new look, and that is why scholars speak of a third church. The crusaders also built a monastery for the Benedictine nuns and a church right on Lazarus’ tomb, which likely served as a chapel for the nuns.
In 1187, with the advent of Saladin’s rule, the complex suffered considerable damage and gradually fell into disrepair. The few items that remain are kept by the Franciscan Fathers. The minaret of the mosque now occupies the area where the apse of the church stood.
The Shrine of Friendship
The present church was built by the Franciscans, who entrusted the building to the architect Antonio Barluzzi. The sanctuary, which was consecrated in April of 1954, is superimposed on the remains of the three previous churches, which [the builders] tried to protect as much as possible; in fact, both inside the building and in the front courtyard you can see fragments of the floor mosaics of the two Byzantine churches, while parts of the apse of the first church are visible at the entrance, underneath the floor.
The structure is a Greek cross and gets light from above; it indicates the resurrection and the life offered by Christ, as we read in the Latin inscription under the dome “Whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live” (John 11:25). The mosaic crescents of the four arms of the church summarize the events of Bethany, with Gospel messages. In fact, various evangelical events are set in Bethany.
Jesus at Martha and Mary’s house
As they continued their journey he entered a village where a woman whose name was Martha welcomed him. She had a sister named Mary [who] sat beside the Lord at his feet listening to him speak. Martha, burdened with much serving, came to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me.” The Lord said to her in reply, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her” (Luke 10: 38-42).
The passage from the Gospel of Luke allows us to contemplate a serene moment in Jesus’ life, far from the dangers of his enemies, in an atmosphere of cordial hospitality that reveals itself to be teaching moment, as his word helps us distinguish between the most true and essential life values: “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.” The dinner of the anointing and Lazarus’ resurrection also took place in Bethany.
The anointing dinner
Six days before Passover Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. They gave a dinner for him there, and Martha served, while Lazarus was one of those reclining at table with him. Mary took a liter of costly perfumed oil made from genuine aromatic nard and anointed the feet of Jesus and dried them with her hair; the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil. Then Judas the Iscariot, one [of] his disciples, and the one who would betray him, said, “Why was this oil not sold for three hundred days’ wages and given to the poor?” He said this not because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief and held the money bag and used to steal the contributions. So Jesus said, “Leave her alone. Let her keep this for the day of my burial You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me” (John 12:1-8).
Now a man was ill, Lazarus from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who had anointed the Lord with perfumed oil and dried his feet with her hair; it was her brother Lazarus who was ill. So the sisters sent word to him, saying, “Master, the one you love is ill.” When Jesus heard this he said, “This illness is not to end in death, but is for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when he heard that he was ill, he remained for two days in the place where he was. Then after this he said to his disciples, “Let us go back to Judea.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just trying to stone you, and you want to go back there?” Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours in a day? If one walks during the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. But if one walks at night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.” He said this, and then told them, “Our friend Lazarus is asleep, but I am going to awaken him.” So the disciples said to him, “Master, if he is asleep, he will be saved.” But Jesus was talking about his death, while they thought that he meant ordinary sleep. So then Jesus said to them clearly, “Lazarus has died. And I am glad for you that I was not there, that you may believe. Let us go to him.” So Thomas, called Didymus, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go to die with him.” When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, only about two miles away. And many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went to meet him; but Mary sat at home. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. [But] even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise.” Martha said to him, “I know he will rise, in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus told her, “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.” When she had said this, she went and called her sister Mary secretly, saying, “The teacher is here and is asking for you.” As soon as she heard this, she rose quickly and went to him. For Jesus had not yet come into the village, but was still where Martha had met him. So when the Jews who were with her in the house comforting her saw Mary get up quickly and go out, they followed her, presuming that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping and the Jews who had come with her weeping, he became perturbed* and deeply troubled, and said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Sir, come and see.” And Jesus wept. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him.” But some of them said, “Could not the one who opened the eyes of the blind man have done something so that this man would not have died?” So Jesus, perturbed again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay across it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the dead man’s sister, said to him, “Lord, by now there will be a stench; he has been dead for four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believe you will see the glory of God? So they took away the stone. And Jesus raised his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you for hearing me. I know that you always hear me; but because of the crowd here I have said this, that they may believe that you sent me.” And when he had said this, he cried out in a loud voice,* “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, tied hand and foot with burial bands, and his face was wrapped in a cloth. So Jesus said to them, “Untie him and let him go” (John 11:1-44).
Outside the courtyard of the Franciscan church, about 50 meters away along the road that leads to the Mount of Olives, we find what, according to Tradition based on the first-hand accounts of fourth-century pilgrims is Lazarus’ Tomb.
The tomb, as it appears today, dates back to the medieval period and the entrance, which is located outside the mosque, dates back to the sixteenth century when, having closed off the original door, this solution was adopted so as to access it. A staircase composed of 24 steps leads to the atrium, where there is a walled door that probably corresponds to the original entrance. Three steps adjoin the atrium to the lower room, which is very small and has a square shape.
In front of Lazarus’ tomb, other tombs have also been discovered. A little farther up from the tomb of Jesus’ friend now stands the new Greek Orthodox church. Nearby are the remains of a watch tower built by Queen Melisenda for the safety of the nuns. A series of archaeological surveys have revealed that originally the village of Bethany was located higher up than the tomb of Lazarus; and besides, a Jewish tomb would not have been placed within the perimeter of a town.
The Greek Orthodox Church
Built in 1965 and divided into an upper and lower floor, this church also recalls the miracle of the Lazarus’ resurrection, which is depicted in two icons created by Greek cabinet makers.
Terra Santa Monastery
P.O.B. 186 - 9100101 Bethany
Tel: +972 2 2799291
Fax:+972 2 2797493