Crusader Jerusalem is seen at its best in the simple strength of St Anne’s (AD 1140), certainly the loveliest church in the city. According to Byzantine tradition, the crypt enshrines the home of the Virgin Mary and her parents Joachim and Anne. Next to it are the ruins of miraculous medicinal baths where clients of the god Serapis (Asclepius) gathered in hope of healing; Jesus there cured one, a man ill for 38 years (John 5:1-13).
In the C8 BC a dam was built here across a shallow valley to capture run-off rain-water. It became known as ‘the upper pool’ (2 Kings 18:17; Isa 7:3). There was a vertical shaft in the centre of the dam with sluice gates at various heights. Thus controlled, water flowed south in a rock-cut channel to the City of David. The high priest Simon added a second pool on the south side of the dam about 200 BC, transforming the channel into a tunnel.
Sometime in the next century a number of natural caves east of the pools were adapted to serve as small baths; their function can only have been religious or medicinal, and at this time the two were inseparable: health was a gift of the gods. The site was then outside the walled city and the founders were probably soldiers from the pagan garrison of the Antonia fortress. The twin pools were taken out of commission when Herod the Great (37-4 BC) dug the Pool of Israel closer to his new temple, but they continued to fill with water during the winter rains.
John begins his account of Jesus’ miracle with the words, ‘Now at the Sheep Gate in Jerusalem is a pool with five porches, its name in Hebrew is Bethesda’ (5:2). The name may mean ‘House of Mercy’, a very appropriate designation for a healing sanctuary.
Church of St. Anne
By the middle of the C5 AD a church commemorating the miracle had been built; its west end projected out over the dike dividing the pools. The name of the Virgin Mary appears for the first time in the next century; it may have been the title of a second church.
How a church might have survived the destructive edict of the Fatimid sultan Hakim in 1009 is a mystery, but one certainly existed at the very beginning of the Crusader occupation. In 1104 Baldwin I committed his repudiated wife, the Armenian princess Arda, to the care of the community of Benedictine nuns who served it, and endowed the convent royally. They first erected a small chapel in the middle of the large Byzantine church: a stairway down to a corner of the northern pool permitted pilgrims to venerate the miracle of John 5. Sometime between 1131 and 1138 the convent church was replaced by the beautiful Romanesque church of St Anne. Soon too small for the growing community, which included members of the royal family, the church was enlarged by moving the façade out 7m.
The church deserves silent contemplation.
Source: The Holy Land by Jerome Murphy- O’Connor