The reign of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian saw a flourishing of the arts and a burst of construction to mark his military successes and solidify the Christian character of his empire. One of those buildings was the Nea Ekklesia of the Theotokos (“New Church of the God-Bearer”), dedicated to the Virgin Mary as the Mother of God and built on one of the high points of Jerusalem. (It was constructed in an area of Jerusalem called Mount Zion, although the exact location of Mount Zion has been fluid throughout history.) Completed in the 6th century, and destroyed by an earthquake 200 years later, the Nea was designed along the pattern of Solomon’s Temple, but twice as large.
We know about the Nea from Justinian’s court historian Procopius (he of the infamous Secret History), who wrote The Buildings of Justinian, a lengthy work detailing all of the building projects of the emperor. In that book we find the following passage about the construction of the Nea (important passages are in bold):
16 These things the Emperor Justinian accomplished by human strength and skill. But he was also assisted by his pious faith, which rewarded him with the honour he received and aided him in this cherished plan. 17 For the church required throughout columns whose appearance would not fall short of the beauty of the building and of such a size that they could resist the weight of the load which would rest upon them. 18 But the site itself, being inland very far from the sea and walled about on all sides by quite steep hills, as I have said, made it impossible for those who were preparing the foundations to bring columns from outside. 19 But when the impossibility of this task was causing the Emperor to become impatient, God revealed a natural supply of stone perfectly suited to this purpose in the near by hills, one which had either lain there in concealment previously, or was created at that moment. 20 Either explanation is credible to those who trace the cause of it to God; 21 for while we, in estimating all things by the scale of man’s power, consider many things to be wholly impossible, for God nothing in the whole world can be difficult or impossible. 22 So the church is supported on all sides by a number of huge columns from that place, which in colour resemble flames of fire, some standing below and some above and others in the stoas which surround the whole church except on the side facing the east. Two of these columns stand before the door of the church, exceptionally large and probably second to no column in the whole world. 23 Here is added another colonnaded stoa which is called the narthex, I suppose because it is not broad. 24 Beyond this is a court with similar columns standing on the four sides. From this there lead doors to the interior (metauloi thyrai) which are so stately that they proclaim to those walking outside what kind of sight they will meet within. Beyond there is a wonderful gateway (propylaia) and an arch (apsis), carried on two columns, which rises to a very great height. 25 Then as one advances there are two semi-circles (hemikykla) which stand facing each other on one side of the road which leads to the church, while facing each other on the other side are two hospices, built by the Emperor Justinian. One of these is destined for the shelter of visiting strangers, while the other is an infirmary for poor persons suffering from diseases.
Archaeologists digging in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Rahavia believe they may well have found this quarry, complete with a stone pillar that wasn’t used. The pillar is 20 feet long, of reddish color, and is marked with the Arabic words “Mizi Achmar” (“red stone”).
This kind of stone is considered very difficult to work with. According to Prof. Yoram Zafrir it was hardly used until the introduction of explosives in the 19th Century, except during the Byzantine era. The builders of the Jerusalem Temple for example used a softer stone.
Evidently, the stonemasons in the site also had a hard time working with the stone, since the column that was discovered was apparently left connected to the stone from which it was chiseled because it cracked and the they feared that it would fall apart on its way to the construction site.
The find is extremely suggestive of a link to the Nea, but as of now there is no conclusive proof. Very little is known about the Nea outside of the writings of Procopius and some possible remains.