A huge building which during the Crusader period was the largest hospital in the Middle East has been discovered in the heart of Jerusalem, the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) announced on Monday.
Located in the Christian Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, the 1,000-year-old hospital was identified following a decade-long reconstruction operation.
"Until a decade or so ago the building served as a bustling and crowded fruit and vegetable market. Since then it stood there desolate," the IAA said in a statement.
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According to Renee Forestany and Amit Re'em, the IAA excavation directors, the structure, only a small part of which was unearthed in the excavation, spread out over more than 150,000 square feet.
It featured massive pillars, ribbed vaults, rooms, smaller halls and ceilings as high as 20 feet.
The hospital was established between 1099 and 1291, with permission from the Muslim authorities, by a Christian military order called the Kinghts Hospitaller. Its members vowed to care for pilgrims who came to Jerusalem to die.
"We've learned about the hospital from contemporary historical documents, most of which are written in Latin," Re'em and Forestany said.
The accounts mentioned a sophisticated structure that was "as large and as organized as a modern hospital," the archaeologists said.
Indeed, the building had different wings and departments for patients suffering from different medical conditions. In times of emergency, it could take in up to 2,000 patients from all religions.
"There is information about Crusaders who ensured their Jewish patients received kosher food," said the archaeologists.
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However, the level of medical skills wasn't as good as the hospital's organization.
"They were completely ignorant in all aspects of medicine and sanitation," Re'em and Forestany said.
Examples ranged from crosses carved into skulls to remove evil spirits and headaches to legs amputated just because of small infected wounds.
"The Muslim Arab population was instrumental in assisting the Crusaders in establishing the hospital and teaching them medicine. Arab culture has always held the medical profession in high regard and Arab physicians were famous far and wide," the IAA archaeologists said.
It was the Muslim hero Salah a-Din, who conquered Jerusalem from the Crusaders, who helped preserve the structure, allowing 10 Crusader monks to run the hospital.
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The gigantic building also served as an orphanage. Mothers who did not want their offspring would come there with covered heads and hand over their infants. Often, when twins were born, one of them was given to the orphanage. All orphans joined the order of the Hospitallers as adults.
Remains of horse and camel bones, as well as metal for shoeing the animals, indicate the structure also served as stables in the Middle Ages.
In the earthquake of 1457, the building collapsed. During the Ottoman Empire, what remained was used as a fruit and vegetable market that operated until 2000.
Similar in size and shape to the Knights' Halls in Acre, the hospital's main hall brought to light by the excavation will be integrated in a restaurant which will open to the public by the end of the year.
"Its patrons will be impressed by the enchanting atmosphere of the Middle Ages that prevails there," Monser Shwieki, manager of the restaurant project, said.
Image: A hall in the Crusader hospital in Jerusalem. Credit: Yoli Shwartz, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority.