Church on the Mount of Olives (Eleona)
The original Church on the Mount of Olives (Eleona) was amongst three early churches in Palestine. Its construction was initiated during the early fourth century by St. Helen, the mother of Constantine the Great. The name Eleona comes from the Greek meaning olive grove. The church was built over the cave where Christ taught his disciples during their visits to the Mount of Olives.
Until the new era of Church freedom under Constantine, Christians assembled and worshipped in private buildings, each called a ‘‘domus ecclesia’‘, or “church house”. An example of such a church house can be found at Dura-Europos. After the Edict of Milan, however, large structures for public worship began to appear. These public churches can divided into two classes based upon their function and architectural form. One was a special class of churches that architecturally were suited for commemorative purposes (e.g., a specific place important in the life of Christ). Thus they were centered around a point of interest emphasized within a circular, octagonal, or square structure. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is an example. The other style were churches based upon the Roman basilica. Sometimes the two styles were combined at a particular site, of which the Eleona Church was an example.
Construction of the Eleona Church was initiated in 326 by Helen following her visit to Palestine and was completed in 333. The Eleona Church was a basilica, but one which was placed, according to Tradition, over the cave where Christ and his disciples often met. From this, the church is sometimes referred to as the Church of the Disciples. Thus, while a basilica, the church also served a commemorative purpose.
Based upon archaeological studies, the Eleona Church was a large building with the traditional nave, two side aisles, and an apse at the eastern end. At the western end an atrium served as an extension of the main structure. The church was built on the western side of the crest of the Mount of Olives, facing the Temple Mount.
Entry to the church was from the west through a peristyle court into the atrium, which measured about 81 feet (25 meters) long by 62 feet (19 meters) wide. From the atrium, there were three doors entering into the basilica itself. This basilica was about 97 feet (30 meters) long and the same width as the atrium. The semicircular apse was about 29 feet (9 meters) wide and 15 feet (4.5 meters) deep.
The Eleona Church is mentioned in the writings of Egeria, which detail her pilgrimage to Palestine in the later part of the fourth century. In them she described the Palm Sunday procession into Jerusalem from the Eleona Church. The church, along with most Christian places in Jerusalem, was destroyed by the Persians when they swept through Palestine in 614. Although the basilica was rebuilt in later years, it was finally destroyed by Caliph al-Hakim, the Fatimid ruler of Egypt, in 1009.
During the Crusades in the twelfth century, a chapel called “Pater Noster” (Our Father in Latin) was built by the crusaders on the site of the Eleona Church. The name was derived from the association of the Mount of Olives with Christ’s teaching of his disciples in this area, especially of his teaching them the “Our Father.“ This chapel later passed into disuse with the departure of the crusaders and possibly was destroyed in 1187 by Saladin’s armies. In 1874, a convent of Carmelite nuns from France was established on the site of the Pater Noster chapel. In 1910, the foundations of the original Eleona basilica were discovered by the French, who in the 1920s began construction of a new basilica near the old foundations based upon the model of the Constantinian church. Because funds for the construction soon ran out, the construction was never finished.
Yoram Tsafrir. The Development of Ecclesiastical Architecture in Palestine, Ancient Churches Revealed. Yoram Tsafrir, ed. Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1993. (ISBN 965-221-016-1)