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Women who built Jerusalem: Aelia Eudocia

Updated: Oct 28, 2023

We have no real idea of what the young, beautiful and witty girl, Aelia Eudocia really looked like, when she came over to Constantinople and worked her way up to being an empress. Let us imagine her like this Russian painter did, sitting in her palace overlooking the Bosporus and the Basilica of Agia Sofia.

Come and join me in a Byzantine soap opera, full of love, murder, passion and intrigue. Aelia Evdokia (Aelia Eudocia Αιλία Ευδοκία; AD 401 - 460 AD) The wife of Byzantine emperor Theodosius II. The name is used to this day by many women in the Orthodox world, from Athens to Kyiv and Moscow. She is the third in the series of The Women who built Jerusalem.

Our story begins in Athens in 401 AD. There, Eudocia was born under a different name: Athenais, to the pagan Greek religion, a daughter of Sophist Leontius. Her mother passed away when she was very young, and she devotedly cared for her father and two brothers. Her father was highly impressed by her wisdom, and taught her literature and rhetoric. He claimed "a glorious fate awaited her". According to the traditional story told by historian John Malallas, her father passed away when she was eighteen, and when his will was opened, it became clear his gratitude for her dedication was expressed in leaving her a measly hundred gold coins! The rest of his fortune and properties went to her two brothers because "a glorious fate awaited her"! Her greedy brothers refused to fix the injustice in the will. But no girl like Athenais would give up, so she decided to go to the capital, Constantinople and present her case to the Emperor.

Constantinople in the fifth century CE. The Capital of the Eastern Roman Empire.

Renowned for her great beauty and wit, rumor quickly spread in town about the feisty and beautiful girl from Athens and the injustice done to her. The story reached quickly to the Augusta, the Emperor's sister, Pulcheria, who was only 21 years old, Athenais was 20. Also, the Emperor, Theodosius II was about 20. The young Pulcheria was, in fact, the ruler Empress of the Eastern (Byzantine) Roman Empire. She was in firm control, and also managed her brother, who was more busy with amusements and entertainment than the government. Pulcheria was quick to be enchanted with the new girl in town, for her brother's sake, of course, but there was a problem nonetheless. The beautiful and witty Greek was a pagan. However, the ambitious Athenian converted to Christianity and was baptized and renamed Eudocia. In 421, she married Theodosius II. Her new name had a meaning: 'The Benefactor'. This will be important, later, regarding the city of Jerusalem.

Two years later, after having given birth to a daughter, she was awarded the title of Augusta, instead of the Emperor's sister, Pulcheria! It turns out that peace between these two powerful women could not have survived for long. Roman historians, such as Socrates Scholasticus, say that Eudocia, who was an intellectual, a sophist, the daughter of a well-known philosopher, was more opinionated and liberal than her orthodox sister-in-law could take. Since her position in the palace was diminished, Pulcheria decided to take leave of the Imperial family and moved to a remote abode south of the city. Eudocia had given birth to another daughter and son who died in childhood.

Eudocia as a saint. Alexander Nevsky Church in Sofia, Bulgaria.

After her daughter's marriage to the emperor in Rome, in 437, she probably became estranged with her husband. Therefore, from 438 to 439, she took a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and came back with a number of holy relics. Upon her return to Constantinople, she began to gain strength. Her enemies in the courtyard incited the feeble emperor against his wife and spread libel and rumors of a love affair with Paulinus, her husband's handsome friend. This time she decided to go into exile, and arrived in Jerusalem in 443, where she remained for the rest of her life. It was in good timing. Paulinus was removed from office and executed (probably in 444). The emperor, her husband, sent his commander to trace her operations in Jerusalem. The "spy" murdered two of her escorts, an act that caused him subsequently to be eliminated himself, apparently under her instructions. She still kept the title of Augusta.

Theodosius II died in 450 in a riding accident, and Pulcheria regained her position as Empress in Constantinople. Eudocia continued to wield great influence in Jerusalem and eventually reconciled with Pulcheria in 453 and was reinstated to the Orthodox Church. Pulcheria herself died that year. Both are now saints in most Christian denominations.

Another idealized representation of Aelia Eudocia as a saint

The most important activity of Eudocia in Jerusalem was to build the new ramparts of the city. Jerusalem has been undefended for centuries, probably since the destruction of Jewish Jerusalem in 70 AD. Eudocia's incentive for building the walls was hidden in her name: Evdokía, in Greek -Good will. She read the verse in Psalm 51, 18:

  • In thy good will, make Zion prosper - build the walls of Jerusalem.

  • הֵיטִיבָה בִרְצוֹנְךָ אֶת צִיּוֹן, תִּבְנֶה חוֹמוֹת יְרוּשָׁלִָם" (תהילים פרק נ"א)

  • αγάθυνον κύριε εν τη ευδοκία σου την Σιών και οικοδομηθήτω τα τείχη Ιερουσαλήμ

There are now scant remains of these ramparts, which have been rebuilt and destroyed several times since, but it probably set the general contour of today's Old City walls except the south, on Mount Zion.

Today's ramparts of Jerusalem were built by the Ottoman Suleiman the Magnificent In 1538, South of the Citadel there are traces of more ancient walls, some date back to Eudocia.

Eudocia exerted great influence and had a remarkable capacity to execute projects. She had already founded a university in Constantinople, and influenced the legislation named after her husband, the Theodosian Codex. During her seventeen years in the the Holy City, she built a large palace for her and a bishop, probably in the area of today's Jewish Quarter, and another palace in Bethlehem, where she spent most of her time. She built the Church of Mary near the Siloam Pool, Saint Stephen's Church north of Damascus Gate, to which she transferred the relics of St. Stephen from the Church of Holy Zion. She had also founded hostels, monasteries, shelters for pilgrims and hospitals. She admired and supported the monks of the Jerusalem Desert, especially Saint Euthymius, and donated money to the great monastery he had built in the desert east of Jerusalem. She was also in close contact and consulted Saint Simeon Stylites (of the pillar). Eudokia developed a court life in Bethlehem, and entertained intellectuals from Rome, and wealthy and religious women who settled in Jerusalem, such as Melania the younger (Saint Melania) who is buried at the monastery of the Great Theotokos in Jerusalem. Ekelia, who financed the founding of the church of the Kathisma on Hebron Road) and Poemnia (who financed the Church of the Ascension on the Mount of Olives).

Press photos to enlarge

When Eudocia first arrived in Jerusalem she was hosted by Saint Melania the Younger, and it was probably this experience which made her choose Jerusalem as her permanent exile, a few years later. Saint Melania the Younger is interred with her grandmother, St Melania the Elder, in a monastery called "The Great Theotókos". Center: Icon of Saint Melanie the Younger. She died in 438, just five years after the empress came to Jerusalem. Left: Tomb of Saint Melanie the Younger in the monastery.

One of the more interesting stories is about her relationship with the Jews. She was very sympathetic to Jews and granted them privileges, such as the possibility of praying in the city not only on Tisha b'av, the anniversary and day of mourning for the destruction of the Temple, but also on holidays, allowing a mass pilgrimage, on Sukkot holiday of 438. However, the pilgrimage ended with bloody riots and mobs attacking the Jews, provoked by violent Christian monks and all that took place two hundred years before the advent of Islam! The worship of Jews on Temple Mount always seems to stir up controversy and intense feelings - then and today! At the end of the day, however, she was a politician and due to Eudocia's ties to monastic circles and their allies, privileges granted to the Jews were soon repealed.

Eudocia died in Jerusalem on October 20, 460, after devoting her latter years to literary writing. Among her works were a translation of the first eight books of the Bible in Homeric verses, a translation of the books of Daniel and Zechariah, Cyprian's poem and the story of her husband's triumphs. She was buried on the premises of our contemporary St. Étienne Church, north of Nablus Gate, built on the ancient church established by her.

Maps: left in English, right : Jerusalem 5th century model. Click to enlarge

Byzantine Jerusalem. The broken line on the map indicates the southern wall of today's Old City. The wall going around the Basilica of Holy Zion to the Siloam Church and Pool was probably the one built by Eudocia. In the Byzantine Jerusalem model at St. Peter in Gallicantu church one can observe the southern gate and walls built by Eudocia. Above it is the Holy Zion Church, further on the Nea Church (built by Justinian a hundred years after Eudocia) the large, farthest edifice - the old Holy Sepulcher church. 4 views

Jerusalem on the Madaba map. This ancient mosaic map is found on the floor of a church in the Jordanian city of Madaba, and it has been the basis of research about Byzantine Jerusalem. It dates back to the sixth century AD and shows the walls of Jerusalem as built by Eudocia.

The excavations of ancient Jerusalem walls near the protestant cemetery to the south of Mount Zion. The Southern Gate. Remnants of Eudocia's wall.

Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, which existed already in Eudocia's time

R: The iconostasis of the Basilica of the Nativity. C: Magnificent Byzantine mosaics. L. The stairs leading down to the Grotto of the Nativity.

Church of Saint Étienne (St. Stephen). Aelia Eudocia had the saint's relics moved to a church she had dedicated to him north of Damascus Gate. She was buried there as well when she had passed away in 460 AD. Her church had been long destroyed and a new one, dedicated to the saint, was built at the beginning of the 20th century.

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