The Church in Jerusalem, as mentioned in an ancient lectionary written in the Georgian language (7-8th century), celebrated a feast on August 28: “In the city of Encharim, in the church where the memory of just Elizabeth is honored.” According to a tradition (affirmed in the 9th century) this place witnessed the birth of St. John the Baptist. A church was constructed in remembrance of the event as recounted in St. Luke’s Gospel. “Zechariah’s house is situated at the foot of a hill to the west of Jerusalem. In Zechariah’s house the Holy Virgin came to greet Elisabeth… In that same house John, the precursor of Jesus Christ was born. A church now is constructed upon this place. Inside, to the left of the main altar, one can see a small cave where John the Precursor was born” (Russian Abbot Daniel, beginning of 12th century). Today the original church can still be seen, since it was never totally destroyed. Instead it served as a stable for four centuries until the 1600’s, at which time the Franciscans took possession.
Thus far the excavations performed have been outside the church (Sylvester Saller OFM 1941-2). Evidence shows that the area was inhabited by Jews of the first century (ritual baths) and subsequently by pagans (presses and statue of Aphrodite). During the Byzantine period (starting from the 4-5th century) the area was used as a Christian cemetery around the venerated burial places of two unknown persons “Martyrs of God”, mentioned in a mosaic inscription discovered in 1885. In front of these burial places were found the remains of a chapel paved with mosaics, while another chapel was found adjacent to the south. Each of these elements, although not directly related to Saint John the Baptist, are witnesses to a long cultic tradition in this area of Judaea.