Largest Crusader-era Hospital in the Middle East Unveiled in Jerusalem

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A world-renowned Crusader-era hospital in the Old City of Jerusalem will soon be revealed to the public as a decade-long reconstruction operation draws to a close, it was announced on Monday.

Israel Antiquities Authority officials and East Jerusalem’s Grand Bazaar company unveiled parts of the renovated hospital which will reopen as a restaurant, with an adjacent visitors’ center telling the story of Medieval Jerusalem.

With 2,000 beds according to some accounts, the hospital was for centuries the largest in the Middle East. The hospital complex, also known as Muristan (Persian for hospital), spread out over 12 dunams in the Christian Quarter.

It was established before the Crusader conquest of Jerusalem, in the late 11th century, with permission from the Muslim authorities, Dr. Amit Reem of the Israel Antiquities Authority, co-director of the excavation and reconstruction work, told Haaretz. The hospital’s importance, he said, stemmed from the fact that during that time most pilgrims came to Jerusalem to die. It grew after the Crusader conquest in 1099, and was run by the Knights Hospitaller, an order of knights established for that purpose that later spread to other countries.

According to historical accounts, the hospital was run with iron discipline, had wards divided according to the type of illness and a large medical staff. But the level of medicine there, like the level of Western medicine during the Middle Ages in general, was very poor, often doing more harm than good. The 12th-century Muslim knight Osama ibn Munqidh told of a Muslim physician who came to mentor a Crusader colleague and was horrified by what he saw, like a woman who died after her leg was amputated because of a flesh wound, or another woman whose head was shaved and a cross carved into her skull to remove the evil spirit, because she was suffering from a headache.

It is also known that the hospital treated the whole population of Jerusalem, including Jews, and provided kosher food for them. The main hall, which was showcased on Monday, is similar in size and shape to the famed Knights’ Halls in Acre. Researchers believe that the hall, which is 30 by 50 meters, is only a small part of the hospital’s area.

Muristan continued to operate even after Saladin drove the Crusaders out of Jerusalem, in 1187. The famed Muslim warlord let the group of monks remain in the city and continue running the hospital, which in all likelihood operated until the earthquake that shook the city in 1457, when most of the building was destroyed. It remained in ruins until the 19th century, when part of the remaining building was opened as a produce market that operated until 2000.

A hall in the crusader hospital in Jerusalem.Credit: Yuli Schwarz / Israel Antiquities Authority
A hall in the crusader hospital in Jerusalem.Credit: Yuli Schwarz / Israel Antiquities Authority

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