The Hospital of the Order of St. John in Jerusalem

C. Savona-Ventura

The earliest description of the first hospital of the Sovereign Military Order of St. John in Jerusalem was written by a German pilgrim John of Wurzburg who visited Jerusalem in about the year 1160 AD. The description recounts that "Over against the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, on the opposite side of the way towards the south, is a beautiful church built in honor of John the Baptist, annexed to which is a hospital, wherein in various rooms is collected together an enormous multitude of sick people. Both men and women. Who are tended and restored to health daily at very great expense. When I was there I learned that the whole number of these sick people amounted to two thousand, of whom sometimes in the course of one day and night more than fifty are carried out dead, while many other fresh ones keep continually arriving. What more can I say? The same house supplies as many people outside it with victuals as it does those inside, in addition to the boundless charity which it daily bestowed upon poor people who beg their bread from door to door and do not lodge in the house, so that the whole sum of its expenses can surely never be calculated even by the managers and stewards thereof. In addition to all these moneys expended upon the sick and upon other poor people, this same house also maintains in its various castles many persons trained to all kinds of military exercises for the defence of the land of the Christians against the invasion of the Saracens." [1]

The area in the vicinity of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre has a long hospitaller tradition dating to the days of Judas Maccabaeus (2nd century BC). The legend is based on incidents recorded in the second book of the Maccabees, though the story has been modified significantly [2]. The legend maintains that the King Antiochus proceeded to Jerusalem to punish the high-priest for plundering the Tomb of David. While on the Golgota, the king was directed in a divine vision to pardon the high-priest, and to build a hospital for the care of the sick and poor on that spot. The legend assumed a historical form after 1496 when William Caoursin, Vice-Chancellor of the Order, records Judas Maccabaeus and John Hyrcanus as the founders of the hospital, which they had instituted for the benefit of pilgrims on a visit to the Temple of Solomon [3].

More probable origins of the first hospice at the site have been attributed to about 600 AD when Pope Gregory the Great sent Abbot Probus to the Holy Land with specific instructions and funds to found a hospice in Jerusalem for the use by pilgrims [4]. This hospice was most likely destroyed about fourteen years later when Jerusalem fell to the Persian army and the Christians were slaughtered in their thousands, while the churches and convents were destroyed. The building was probably again restored after Jerusalem again fell under Roman dominion in 629 AD. The Arab rule after 637 AD allowed freedom of worship, and the restored hospice was probably allowed to continue serving its original purpose. The hospice for Latin pilgrims, founded by Pope Gregory, was in the 9th century AD supported by funds sent out to Jerusalem by Emperor Charlemagne. The hospital was placed in charge of a community of Benedictines. The Benedictine Hospital close to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is mentioned by Bernard the Monk who wrote an account of his visit to Jerusalem in 870 AD. In 993, Hugh Marquis of Tuscany and his wife endowed the hospital with considerable property in Italy. During the reign of the Caliph of Bagdad el-Hakim, systematic destruction of the Christian churches and properties, including presumably the Benedictine Hospice, took place throughout Palestine [5].

In about 1050 AD (1048-1070 AD), a group of Amalfi merchants obtained from the Caliph of Egypt Abu Tamin Bonesor the privilege of building a church, a monastery, and living quarters just "a stone throw from the Holy Sepulchre" in Jerusalem. These were designed for the use of their compatriots on pilgrimages to the Holy Land. The Amalfitans restored the old buildings and made considerable additions to them. To the east of this hospital, separated from it by a lane, a new hospital for women pilgrims was built. Both hospitals remained under the control of the Benedictine Abbot. In 1078, Jerusalem was captured by the Seljuk Turks who ill-treated the Christian pilgrims and insulted them, made them pay heavy tolls to visit the Holy Places, desecrated the Sacred Shrines and even kidnapped the Patriach of Jerusalem. In spite of the persecution, the Benedictine Hospital continued with its hospitaller functions. John Archbishop of Amalfi records that during his pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 1082, he visited the hospital. Towards the end of the Turkish occupation (circa 1099), the Hospital for Women was being managed by a noble Roman Lady, named Agnes, while the Hospital for Men was under the monk known as Blessed Gerald who led the "poor Brethren of the Hospital of St. John" [6]. During the siege of Jerusalem during the First Crusade, the Turkish governor thrust Brother Gerard into prison. When Jerusalem fell to the Crusader Godfrey of Bouillon, Brother Gerard was set free and re-assumed independent management of the Hospital for Men, its resources now augmented by Godfrey. The hospital from the first adopted the policy of receiving all needy patients - Christians, Mohammedans and Jews - irrespective of religion. While the Hospital for Women remained under the control of the Benedictines, Brother Gerald broke off from that Order, adopted Augustinian rule and organised the Fratres Hospitalarii into a regularly constituted religious Order under the protection of St. John the Baptist. The members of the Order thus became known as Knights of St. John or Hospitallers. The Order was formally recognised by Pope Paschall II in 1113. Raymond du Puy, who succeeded Brother Gerard in 1118, further developed the Order and increased its role from a defensive hospitaller one to that of also defending the invalids and pilgrims against the Saracens. The Statutes adopted by the Order during the mastership of Raymond du Puy included details as to "How Our Lords the Sick Should be Received and Served. And in that Obedience in which the Master and the Chapter of the Hospital shall permit when the sick man shall come there, let him be received thus: let him partake of the Holy Sacrament, first having confessed his sins to the priest, and afterwards let him be carried to bed, and there as if he were a Lord, each day before the brethren go to eat, let him be refreshed with food charitably according to the ability of the House…". [7]

Several contemporary descriptions of the Hospital of the Order of St. John in Jerusalem are in existence. John of Wurzburg described the hospital in 1160, the year of Raymond du Puy's death as an edifice of vast dimensions accommodating 2000 patients and covering an area of 150 sq. metres [8]. A second chronicler who visited Jerusalem in 1163, Rabbi Benjamin from Navarre described the hospital in Jerusalem "which support four hundred knights, and afford shelter to the sick; these are provided with everything they may want, both during life and death". He also described the hospital of the Knights Templars in Jerusalem [a rival order founded circa 1118] [9]. Theodorich visiting Jerusalem in 1187 before the Order's expulsion from the city wrote that "Here on the south side of the church, stands the Church and Hospital of St. John the Baptist. As for this, no one can credibly tell another how beautiful its buildings are, how abundantly it is supplied with rooms and beds, and other materials for the use of poor and sick people, how rich it is in the means of refreshing the poor, and how devotedly it labors to maintain the needy, unless he has had the opportunity of seeing it with his own eyes. Indeed, we passed through this palace, and were unable by any means to discover the number of sick people lying there; but we saw that the beds numbered more than one thousand. It is not every one even of the most powerful kings and despots who could maintain as many people as that house does every day; and no wonder, for, in addition to its possessions in other countries (whose sum total is not easily to be reached), the Hospitallers and the Templars have conquered almost all the cities and villages which once belonged to Judaea, and which were destroyed by Vespasian and Titus, together with all their lands and vineyards; for they have troops stationed throughout the entire country, and castles well fortified against the infidels." [10]

The Christians were driven out of Jerusalem by Sultan Saladin after the battle of Tiberias in October 1187. The Christian garrison was allowed to leave Jerusalem in three parties: the first conducted by the Templar Knights, the second escorted by the Hospitallers, and the third group by escorted by the Patriarch and Balian of Ibelin. The Hospitallers were permitted to leave ten of their number in the city to care for their wounded until they were able to travel. Thus ended an approximate hundred and forty years of links of the Hospitallers with the Holy City [11].

After Saladin took the Holy City, he converted the Hospitallers buildings to the endowment of the Mosque of Omar. His nephew in 1216 instituted a lunatic asylum in what had been the conventual church, and the area became referred to as the Muristan [12]. The Hospital continued to be used for the care of the sick and wounded. Sir John Maundeville in 1322 wrote that "Before the Church of St. Sepulchre, two hundred paces to the south, is the great hospital of St. John, of which the Hospitallers had their foundation. And within the palace of the sick men of that hospital are one hundred and twenty-four pillars of stone; and in the walls of the house, besides the number aforesaid, there are fifty-four pillars that support the house. From that Hospital, going towards the east, is a very fair church, which is called Our Lady the Great; and after it there is another church, very near, called Our Lady the Latin." [13]. In 1336-41, Ludolph von Suchen wrote that "Near the Church of the Holy Sepulchre once dwelt the brethren of Saint John of Jerusalem, and their palace is now the common hospital for pilgrims. This hospital is so great that 1000 men can easily live therein, and can have everything that they want there by paying for it. It is the custom in this palace or hospital that every pilgrim should pay two Venetian pennies for the use of the hospital. If he sojourn there for a year he pays no more, if he abide but one day he pays no less." [14]

The strife in Jerusalem during the subsequent centuries took their toil on the hospital and the surrounding buildings. In 1869, the eastern half of the area was presented by the Sultan of Turkey to Crown Prince Frederick of Prussia who was then the Master of the Johanniteroden, a former branch of the Order. The German Knights built a road through the Muristan from north to south, calling it Prince Frederick William Street, dividing their property from the Greek section. At the entrance in David Street, they erected a gateway bearing the German eagle. On the site of Santa Maria della Latina, they built the Lutheran church of the Redeemer. The hospital of the Order was situated north of this church while to the south-east lay the quarters of the Knights. They also restored the cloisters and refractory of the medieval Benedictine convent for women. The southern half of the Muristan was acquired in 1925 by the independent British Order of St. John [15].

At the turn of the twentieth century, excavations in the Muristan area showed that the Hospitaller Convent in Jerusalem occupied an approximately square area measuring 160 yards (east-west) and 143 yards (north-south). It was situated almost in the centre of Jerusalem immediately to the south of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. During the Medieval period, the area was bounded by Palmers Street (north), David Street (south), Patriarch Street (west) and a line of bazaars and cook-shops for pilgrims (east). In the early decades of the twentieth century little was left of the Hospitaller Convent. The remains included the Church of Mar Hanna, a series of arches in David Street, and the remains of the north door of St. Mary Major incorporated in the modern Church of the Redeemer. The Hospital was described as being in ruins, with only a few massive walls still remaining, with several rows of stone pillars, and the main entrance of the ancient hospital. Some of the foundations had been excavated and were visible. The remains of 116 pillars of stone (out of the 124 described by Mandeville in 1322) could be identified. A diagram of the remains published in 1940 showed the remains of a two-storey angled wall leading to a series of arched corridors and rooms. The majority of the archways in the lower storey were completely sealed up or partially sealed to leave small windows [16].


What remains of the hospital today is a modern memorial situated in a small recess barred from the street with an iron gate down the Muristan Road past the Church of the Redeemer and an enclosed yard. This memorial reads "Here in the Muristan was situated the first hospital of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. In 1882 the Grand Priory in the British Realm of the most Venerable Order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem established an ophthalmic hospital in the Holy City in emulation of the humanitarian and charitable efforts of its Medieval predecessors. For the eleven years from 1949 to 1960 this work was centered in the adjacent properties known as Watson House and Strathearn House. To commemorate these events the most venerable Order owner of this site constructed this garden and inscribed this stone in 1972. Pro Fede Pro Utililale Hominum In 1900 the work was moved to a new hospital in the Sheirh Jaweh Quarter of Jerusalem" [18].

The ruins of the original hospital are represented by a series of four arched single storey structures partially blocked with stone walls leaving open windows in three of the arches bordering the left-hand corner of the yard.


The Jerusalem hospital was the first of a series of magnificently built and provisioned hospitals of the Order. After their expulsion from Jerusalem, the Order proceeded to Acre where they converted a building into a hospital and hospice for pilgrims. In 1291 Acre was captured by the Saracens, and the Order lost its hold on the Holy Land. Since the nineteenth century, the Order of St. John has attempted to revive its medical links with its original home-city Jerusalem. In 1859 a hospice was established in Jerusalem at the house of Mustapha Agha Beirakdar. In 1866, a new site for the hospice was erected in the Via Dolorosa. The chief purpose of this hospice was the care of travellers to the Holy Land. In 1882 a piece of ground on Bethlehem Road about eight minutes walk from Jaffa Gate was granted to the British Order for the establishment of a hospice for the gratuitous treatment of the poor. The British Knights decided to devote their hospital to the treatment of eye disease and the Hospice and Ophthalmic Dispensary at Jerusalem came into existence. This building was partially destroyed during the First World War and rebuilt in 1919 [19].

1.  Description of the Holy Land by John of Wurzburg. Palestine Pilgrims’ Text Society, London, 1896, vol.5, p.44. In: E.E. Hume: Medical work of the Knights Hospitallers of Saint John of Jerusalem. John Hopkins Press, Baltimore, 1940, p.8,14-18; & E.J. King: The Knights Hospitallers in the Holy Land. 1st ed. 1931, Methuen, London, p.67

2.  The Story of Heliodorus. 2 Maccabees 3:v.1-40. The Struggle of Judas against the neighbouring peoples and against Lysias, Minister of Antiochus V. 2 Maccabees 6:v.43 In: The New Jerusalem Bible. standard ed. 1985, Darton, Longan & Todd, London, p.721-723, 740

3.   W. Caoursin: Stabilimenta Rhodiorum militum, Ulm, 1496. In: E.J. King: op. cit., p.4-5

4.   D. Le Roulx: De prima origine Hospitalariorum Hierosolymitanorum, p.133. In: E.J. King: op. cit., p.5

5.  E.J. King: op. cit., p.5-11

6.  E.E. Hume: op. cit., p.4-5; E.J. King: op. cit., p.11-14

7.  E.E. Hume: op. cit., p.4-10,27-28; E.J. King: op. cit., p.21-22; J. Riley Smith: The Knights of St. John in Jerusalem and Cyprus c.1050-1310. London, 1967, p.17-59

8.  "hedificium magnum et mirabile, ita quod impossibile videretur nisi quis videret".  vide footnote 1

9.  T. Wright: Early Travels in Palestine. London, 1848, p.83; E.E. Hume: op. cit., p.15

10.  Theodorich's Description of the Holy Places. Palestine Pilgrims' Text Soc., London, 1896, p.22. In: E.E. Hume: op. cit., p.15-16

11.  E.E. Hume: op. cit., p.8-10; J. Riley Smith: op. cit., p.17-59; E.J. King: op. cit., p.131

12.   E.E. Hume: op. cit., p.6

13.  T. Wright: Early Travels in Palestine. London, 1848, p.168; E.E. Hume: op. cit., p.16; E.J. King: op. cit., p.67

14.  Palestine Pilgrims' Text Soc., vol.XII, p.106-107. In: E.E. Hume: op. cit., p.17-18

15.  E.E. Hume: op. cit., p.6,308-310,325

16.  C. Schick: The Muristan. Palestine Exploration Fund Quarterly Statement, January 1902, p.47-51. In: E.J. King: op. cit., p.64-68

17.  Cartographic Division: The Old City of Jerusalem. National Geographic Society, Washington, 1996, map.; A.H. Murken: Krankenpflege unter dem Banner des Malteserkreuza. Zur Geschichte des Johanniter- und Malteserordens (1099-1798) und iher Hospitaler. Historia Hospitalium, 1995-97, 20:p.57

18.  photographs credit C. Savona-Ventura, 1998, 9352/14-15

19.  E.E. Hume: op. cit. , 1940, p.308-311,319-325