The Greek Church of St. John the Baptist in Jerusalem's Christian Quarter (not to be confused with the Franciscan church on the Mount of Olives) can be easily spotted due to its distinctive silvery dome.
Although not regularly open to visitors, this church is worth seeking out, for it is the oldest church in Jerusalem and is the original "Hospital of St John" for which the Knights Hospitallers were named.
The Church of St. John the Baptist was founded in the 5th century, probably around 450-60 under the empress Eudokia. It is possible the church was built due to the presence here of the relics of John the Baptist, which were sent to various cities in the 4th century including Jerusalem.
A tradition that this is the site of the house of Zebedee, father of the apostles James and John, is first mentioned in the 14th century by the pilgrim Nicolas of Poggibonsi. The identification likely arose from a confusion between John the Evangelist and John the Baptist.
The church was restored by the Patriarch of Alexandria after its destruction by the Persians in 614. The church was extensively rebuilt over the original foundations in the 11th century. Aside from the modern facade with its two small bell towers, the Church of St. John the Baptist has remained mostly unchanged for almost 1,000 years.
The present church was built by the merchants of Amalfi and became the headquarters of the Knights Hospitallers. In 1099, many Christian knights who were wounded during the seige of Jerusalem were cared for in this church. After their recovery, some of the grateful knights dedicated themselves to helping the sick and protecting pilgrims to the Holy Land. Calling themselves the Knights of the Hospital of St. John, they later developed into the military order of the Hospitallers, who played a key role in the defense of the Holy Land.
The crypt of the church was apparently filled with debris and abandoned in 1187, after which only the upper church (the present church) was in use, probably by Greek Orthodox priests. The church seems to have become a mosque in the 16th century, but was soon returned to Greek ownership. In 1660, a large hospice for pilgrims was built adjacent to the church.
In the 19th century, the crypt was cleared out and a splendid reliquary was discovered in the masonry of the altar (it is now in the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate Museum). Excavations also uncovered various architectural fragments from the Byzantine and Crusader eras.What to See??
The Church of St. John the Baptist is situated in a pleasant small courtyard with trees. Adjacent to the church is a modern Greek Orthodox monastery, whose priest (if present) will open the church if it is locked.
Some alterations were made to ensure the stability of the church, but the original plan of the 5th-century church is still evident today. It is in the shape of a trefoil, with three apses and a long narthex. A modern window is cut in the upper wall of the east apse. The dome, supported with four pillars in a central square, has eight windows and is painted silver on the exterior. A good view of the east exterior of the church can be had from the central square of the Muristan.
The crypt lies about 6.5m below ground level and is approached from the south where steps descend to the narthex. The central area of the crypt is roofed by groined vaulting. The iron grille over the altar may be 12th century.