A village has been here since at least Roman times, and nearby was an Iron Age settlement that is believed to be the biblical Ananiah in the territory of Benjamin (Neh. 11:32) that is called Bethany in the New Testament (Beth Ananiah = Bethany).
There is no record of a church in Bethany in the 4th century, although both Eusebius the historian and the Bordeaux pilgrim (333) mention the tomb of Lazarus in a vault or crypt. Around 490 AD, St. Jerome recorded visiting the Tomb of Lazarus as the guest room of Mary and Martha, which is the Lazarium mentioned by the pilgrim Egeria in her account of the liturgy on Saturday in the seventh week of Lent:Just on 1:00 everyone arrives at the Lazarium, which is Bethany... by the time they arrive there, so many people have collected that they fill not only the Lazarium itself, but all the fields around. (trans. J. Wilkinson)
This structure known as the Lazarium was destroyed in an earthquake and was replaced by a larger Church of St. Lazarus in the 6th century. The church was mentioned by Theodosius before 518 and by Arculf around 680, and survived intact until Crusader times.
During the Crusades, King Fulk and Queen Melisande purchased the village of Bethany from the Patriarch of the Holy Sepulchre in 1143 in exchange for land near Hebron. Melisande built a large Benedictine convent dedicated to Mary and Martha, extensively repaired the old church of Lazarus and rededicated it to Mary and Martha. She also built a new west church to St. Lazarus over his tomb; fortified the monastic complex with a tower; and endowed it with the estates of the village of Jericho.
The convent of Sts. Mary and Martha became one of the richest convents in the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Melisande's sister Joveta was elected abbess at the age of 24. Afer the fall of the Crusader kingdom in 1187, the nuns went into exile. The new west church was probably destroyed at this time, with only the tomb and barrel vaulting surviving; the 6th-century church and tower were heavily damaged but remained standing.
The village seems to have been abandoned thereafter, but a visitor in 1347 mentioned Greek monks attending the tomb chapel. By 1384, a mosque had been built on the site. In the 16th century, the Mosque of al-Uzair (Ezra) was built in the Crusader vault, which initially made Christian access to the tomb more difficult. However, the Franciscans were permitted to cut a new entrance on the north side of the tomb and at some point the original entrance from the mosque was blocked (photo, right).
In 1952-55 a modern Franciscan church dedicated to St. Lazarus was built over the Byzantine church of St. Lazarus and Crusader east church of Sts. Mary and Martha. In 1965, a Greek church was built just west of the Tomb of Lazarus.What to See
The forecourt of the Franciscan Church of St. Lazarus stands over the west end of the older churches, from which parts of the original mosaic floor are preserved. The west wall of the forecourt contains the west facade of the 6th-century basilica, with three doorways.
The cruciform-plan church stands over the east end of the older churches. Trapdoors in the floor just inside reveal parts of the apse of the 4th-century church (the Lazarium), which was shorter than the 6th-century church. The modern church bears a mosaic on its facade depicting Mary, Martha and Lazarus. The interior is decorated with polished stone and mosaics.
Just up the hill on the left is the 16th-century Mosque of al-Uzair. The courtyard is in the Byzantine church atrium and the mosque is built in the vault that formerly supported the west end of the 12th-century church.
A further 25m up the hill on the left is the modern entrance to the Tomb of Lazarus, which is accessed by 24 very uneven stone steps. This probably was a rock-cut tomb, but very little of its original form remains. The rock probably collapsed under the weight of the large Crusader church built above it.
The original blocked entrance can be seen in the east wall of the antechamber; this alignment suggests the tomb predates the Byzantine churches and may well be from the time of Lazarus.
Even further up the hill is a modern Greek Orthodox church that incorporates a wall of the Crusader church built over the tomb. Nearby are substantial ruins that belong to the Orthodox Patriarchate and are traditionally identified as the House of Simon the Leper (where Jesus was anointed) or the House of Lazarus. The remains of a tower belong to the Crusader monastery (c.1144).