Two New Testament Scriptures mention Bethany. Each of these are commemorated on the walls of the Franciscan Church of Lazarus situated on the main road to Jerusalem. The most important of the three scripture to Christians- the resurrection of Lazarus by Jesus after he had laid in his grave for 4 days (John 11:1-47). This is considered the greatest miracle by most scholars and the faithful alike of Jesus. It not only amazed the town-multitudes, but also angered and create fear to the Sanhedrin, and according to the Gospel of St. John led to the decision to plan a end to Jesus life (John 11:53).
The second Scripture is associated to the visit of Jesus to the house of Simon the Leper in Bethany, and the anointment of his feet, according to John (John 12) with precious oil by a woman, that being Mary Magdalene (Matthew 26:6-13, John 12:1-8). In the Scriptures, the disciples were indignant that precious oils had been wasted, as they believed the oil could have been sold for a good sum of money that could have been given to the poor, but instead Jesus praised the act of Mary Magdalene, foreseeing the future of anointing Jesus body in anticipation on his death on the cross.
Bethany began as a holy site destination in the beginning of the Beyzantine period, and since the birth of the Church, being mentioned by it’s founders, especially in connection with the traditions with the grave of Lazarus. The Church built above the grave in the late 4th century and then after restored in the 5th and 6th century after being destroyed in an earthquake. Pilgrims have traditionally made important ceremonies over the years, such as the gathering for the procession that re-enacts Jesus entry into Jerusalem celebrating Palm Sunday.
During 638-1099, the first period of Muslim governing in Palestine the popularity of the holy site decreased a great deal, and in the 11th century the Caliph el Hakim did not allow processions from Bethany to Jerusalem to be celebrated. After, during the Crusader period the ceremony was re-instated and two churches were constructed commemorating the holy event which occurred in Bethany. Management of the Church of St. Lazarus was later given to the Benedictine nuns of the Church of St. Anne in 1138, which in turn received great support from the Crusader royal family.
Queen Melisend, a sister of Yvette a nun from the order, took it upon as a service to rebuild the damaged portions of the church. However, Christian pilgrims accounts of their travel to the holy land from early 4th century note that the Church of St. Lazarus had been converted into a mosque. Not until the 7th century, Christian presence to the holy site was allowed to the Franciscans, whom managed to get access buy creating a staircase leading down to Lazarus’s grave, but only in 1952-1953, the Franciscans succeed in building the present church and monastery that you see today.
The church which stands today was designed by Antonio Barluzzi, a famous Italian monk architect and designer of his times. The church was constructed in a form of a Greek cross. Its walls have no windows or other openings, therefore the pilgrims visiting the church have the feeling that he has entered a catacomb. The sunlight that comes from the top of the dome, symbolizes the resurrection of Lazarus. The churches walls are adorned with beautiful mosaics, commemorating the two scriptures which occurred and the important tradition of the processions occurring in Bethany. Holy Land pilgrims also will find the remains of churches and monasteries from the Byzantine and Crusader periods have been uncovered in the area adjoining the church.
On a small slope above the modern church is the actual site of Lazarus’ tomb, currently under the Muslim authority. a passageway with 42-steps lead pilgrims to the tomb’s entrance. Entry into the burial room was blocked, described in the New Testament, by a stone which Jesus asked to be moved so that he could resurrect Lazarus (John 11:38-39). The spot where Jesus stood has been made into a chapel. The altar is still used by the Franciscans, who commemorate the resurrection of Lazarus on September 7 at the church. There are many crevasses in the walls of the room for inserting candles. Electric lighting was installed only before the visit of Pope Paul VI in 1964. A narrow, passageway leads to the small burial room. In this room there were three graves; according to tradition the grave on the right is Lazarus. During the Crusader period the burial site was part of a Crusader church erected on the site where the mosque stands.
The mosque, dedicated to El-Azar, a Muslim alternate name Lazarus, was built by the Muslims in the 6th century on the foundations of the Crusader church. The Muslims believed that Lazarus could resurrect their sons and used to make pilgrimages to this holy spot. The passageway leading in to the tomb was only added in the 7th century after a very high sum was paid to the Muslims. It allowed Christian pilgrims to the holy site entry to the grave in a way that circumvents the mosque.
Going up the slope, above the tomb, pilgrims traveling to the holy land find a Greek Orthodox church which commemorates the same holy event at the site, the church was built only in 1965, however is not open to pilgrim visitors. Behind this church you can see remains of a Crusader era tower built to protect the monastery and church. In 1152, during the rule of the Crusader King Baldwin III, the tower proved its worth when the monks hid inside the tower while being attacked by brigands. The site around the ruined tower is under the control of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate.