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E07914: Theodosius, in his On the Topography of the Holy Land, describes the impressive church of *John (the Baptist, S00020), built by the emperor Anastasius by the river Jordan, where John baptised Jesus, and, nearby, a memorial (memoria), with a church built over it, of *Elisha (Old Testament prophet, S00239). Written in Latin, perhaps in Africa, 518/540.

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posted on 2020-06-21, 00:00 authored by Bryan
Theodosius, On the Topography of the Holy Land/'De situ terrae sanctae', 20

Extract from §20 describing the Jordan, where John baptised Jesus:

In loco, ubi Domnus baptizatus est, ibi est columna marmorea, et in ipsa columna facta est crux ferrea; ibi est et ecclesia sancti Iohannis Baptistae, quae fabricauit Anastasius imperator, quae ecclesia super cameras maiores excelsa fabricata est pro Iordane, quando implet; in qua ecclesia monachi morantur, qui monachi senos solidos per annum de fisco accipiunt pro uita sua transigenda. Vbi Domnus baptizatus est trans Iordanem, ibi est mons modicus, qui appellatur Armona; ibi sanctus Helias raptus est. Memoria sancti Helysei, ubi fontem illum benedixit, ibi est super ipsa memoria ecclesia fabricata est.

'At the place where our Lord was baptised is a marble column, and on top of it has been set an iron cross. There also is the church of saint John the Baptist, which was built by the emperor Anastasius. It stands high, on great vaulted chambers, because of the Jordan, when it is in flood. The monks who reside at this church each receive six solidi a year from the treasury for their livelihood. Where our Lord was baptised there is on the far side of the Jordan a small hill, called 'Armona'; there saint Elijah was taken up. The memorial of saint Elisha is there, at the place where he blessed the spring, and a church has been constructed over the memorial.'

Text: Geyer 1965, 121-122. Translation: Wilkinson 2002, 112, modified.


Evidence ID


Saint Name

John the Baptist : S00020 Elisha, Old Testament prophet : S00239

Saint Name in Source

Iohannes Helyseus

Type of Evidence

Literary - Pilgrim accounts and itineraries


  • Latin

Evidence not before


Evidence not after


Activity not before


Activity not after


Place of Evidence - Region

Latin North Africa Palestine with Sinai

Place of evidence - City name in other Language(s)

Carthage Carthago Karthago قرطاج‎ Qarṭāj Mçidfa Carthage Caesarea Maritima Καισάρεια Kaisareia Caesarea Kayseri Turris Stratonis

Cult activities - Places

Cult building - independent (church)


Nothing certain is known about Theodosius beyond his name, which is preserved with the title of his work in some of its manuscripts; in its present form the work lacks any kind of introduction or postscript that might shed light on him and his purpose in writing. However, as he wrote in Latin, we can safely assume that he came from the West. The only possible clue to a more precise geographical location comes in §14 (E07925), where he refers to Arianism as religio Wandalorum, 'the religion of the Vandals', which might point to his being from Africa. The date of his text can be placed with some confidence between the years 518 and 540. This is because Theodosius mentions two completed major building projects by the emperor Anastasius (r. 491-518) - a church at the site on the Jordan where John baptised Jesus (§20, see E07914), and military works at Dara (§29) - and tells us in §28 (E07934) that the praepositus Urbicius died sub Anastasio imperatore, 'under the emperor Anastasius', a phrasing that would be very strange if Anasatasius were still alive; but, at the same time, Theodosius does not mention any of the building-projects of the emperor Justinian (r. 527-565), such as his great church, the Nea, in Jerusalem, dedicated in 543. The reference to 'the religion of the Vandals' might point to a date before 534 (the fall of their kingdom in Africa). The work is held together by its interest in sites that would interest a pious Christian; but is otherwise chaotic. It opens with a number of itineraries in the Holy Land, all starting out from Jerusalem, listing the distances between places, noting why they would be of interest, and all involving several days travel (§1-5); it then moves to a listing of sites in and around Jerusalem itself (§6-11). Thereafter, and for the rest of the book (§12-32), any semblance of structure disappears: in §12-16 we are transported without warning to a seemingly random collection of distant holy places (such as the Crimea, and Memphis in Egypt); in §17-22 some sense of order briefly returns, with chapters about sites in and around Jerusalem and eastwards to the Jordan valley; but from §22 onwards it is hard to see any logic in the ordering of the chapters. Sometimes we are back in Jerusalem, but most of the time we are flitting across the east Christian world, as far afield as Ephesus and Persia. In some passages, particularly those that describe sites in Jerusalem and down into the Jordan valley, there is enough detail to show that Theodosius had almost certainly himself visited the places he describes, but this is certainly not the case in his literary forays to distant places, and much less clear in the itineraries that open the work (§1-5), which are little more than lists of places, with the distances between them and a brief reference to the biblical events that took place there. These itineraries have been studied in detail by Tsafrir (1986), who suggests that they were constructed with the help of a map specifically created for Christian pilgrims. [Tsafrir's article, though focused on the itineraries, offers an excellent introduction to Theodosius' overall text, and has very helpful maps to illustrate the itineraries.] As with all the pilgrim texts from the Holy Land, it has been difficult to decide what to include, and what to exclude from our database, focused as it is on the 'cult of saints'. We have necessarily excluded the vast number of sites associated exclusively with the life and miracles of Jesus, and have, of course, included all obvious references to cult sites of Christian saints: their graves, churches, and references to important places in their lives, such as their place of martyrdom. A problem, however, arises when our pilgrims write about sites associated with figures from the Old Testament, since in time many of these certainly acquired Christian cult, but it is generally impossible to tell whether our pilgrims regarded these figures as saints in the Christian tradition, whose power and aid they might invoke, or whether they record the holy sites associated with them through a broader and looser biblical curiosity and veneration. The compromise position we have taken with regard to these Old Testament figures is to include all references to places associated with them where our Christian writers record miraculous occurrences or where there was a church or oratory, and also all references to their graves (though with these latter there is often no explicit reference to Christian cult).


The account of the church of John the Baptist built by the emperor Anastasius (r. 491-518) is important as one of two reference by Theodosius to building-works by Anastasius (the other, in §29, is to military works at Dara, and so not included in our database); these provide a solid terminus post quem for the writing of Theodosius' text, which cannot predate 495. The spring that Elisha blessed is presumably the same spring near Jericho, visited at the end of the fourth century by Paula (E06523) and in the later sixth century by the Piacenza pilgrim (E00455). Theodosius is the only text to mention a church at the site. The place from which Elijah ascended to heaven was also visited by the Piacenza pilgrim (E00450), but in his text, as in Theodosius, there is no explicit evidence of Christian cult at the site.


Edition: Geyer, P. (ed.), Theodosii De situ terrae sanctae, in Itineraria et alia geographica (Corpus Chistianorum, series Latina 175; Turnhout: Brepols, 1965), 113-125. [A reprint of Geyer's edition for Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum, Wien 1898.] Translation: Wilkinson, J., Jerusalem Pilgrims before the Crusades, 2nd ed. (Warminster: Aris and Phillips, 2002), 103-116. Further reading: Tsafrir, Y., "The Maps Used by Theodosius: On the Pilgrim Maps of the Holy Land and Jerusalem in the Sixth Century C. E.",Dumbarton Oaks Papers 40 (1986), 129-145.

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    Evidence -  The Cult of Saints in Late Antiquity



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