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Basilica of St. Stephen

Located a quarter mile outside the Old City Walls, this monastery sits on a slope beside the Garden Tomb. Centuries ago, it was right on the ancient road to Damascus but before this, the entire area used to be a large necropolis. In fact, tombs dating back from the 8th to 7th century BCE (time of the First Temple) have been found under the ruins.

A stately Byzantine monastery was built here by the Empress Eudocia between 431 to 438 to house the relics of Protomartyr Stephen (Greek for the first martyr). According to the Acts of Apostles, Stephen was once a Hellenistic Jew who started to preach the teachings of Jesus to the people of Jerusalem and Hellenistic Jews. A renowned evangelist, he was tried for blasphemy against God and the Jewish laws around 34 CE. According to tradition, he was stoned to death by an angry mob near the Damascus gate, although many Christians believe it happened at St. Stephen’s Gate.

After Eudocia completed the building, it was one of the largest churches in and around Jerusalem for close to a hundred years. It was destroyed by the Persians in 614 and left in ruins.

In 1884, the French Dominicans bought a part of the site and uncovered a crypt. To date, over 15,000 human bones and fragments have been found here, many dating from the 5th to 6th century when the Byzantine Monastery stood. Some beautiful mosaics from this structure can still be seen on the floor of the modern basilica.

Today, the Basilica houses the prestigious French School for Biblical Archeology. And underground, there is a huge library for bible studies with a volume of books that is only second to the Vatican library. A stroll through the gardens and under the cloisters reveals majestic beauty and serenity.

St. Stephen is a saint in the Roman Catholic Church. His feast day is on August 3rd.


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