Archaeology

Where the Rest Is History – Literally

This Christmas, let’s make an armchair visit to a humble rocky outcrop on the road to Bethlehem. It marks the place where Mary, about to give birth, sought respite, a storied site of miracles and celebration, where one of the largest churches in the Holy Land once stood majestic.

Just a few days from now pilgrims will be making their way from Jerusalem to Bethlehem to celebrate the nativity. All eyes are turned to the famous little town where colorful spiritual pageantry abounds. But that’s not where I’m going to take you now. We’re going to little known site on the road to Bethlehem.  No church stands there now, no lines of pilgrims wait to enter – that’s because there are no doors and no roof. Virtually all you see above ground is a mound of bedrock reaching up to the endless sky and a few fallen pillars. And yet, about a millennium and a half ago, no Christian would pass by here without looking up in awe and stopping to pray, praise and proclaim.

a view of the Kathisma – “Mary’s seat.” Here it looks a bit forlorn. But look at the next picture! (Photo: Miriam Feinberg Vamosh)

A view of the Kathisma – “Mary’s seat.” Does it seem a bit forlorn?  Look at the next picture! (Photo: Miriam Feinberg Vamosh).

It’s the Church of Kathisma – that word means “seat” in Greek – and it marks the place where tradition says Mary rested on the way to Bethlehem, just before giving birth to Jesus.

Mary’s pre-partum rest was mentioned often in ancient texts as far back as the second century, and eventually, so was the church that marked it, which became world-famous. Yet it managed to disappear, seemingly without a trace. And though archaeologists knew of significant Christian ruins lacing this hillside, the location of Kathisma might still be a mystery if not for its accidental discovery during road construction in 1992, and its excavation, by Dr. Rina Avner of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

The ruins are located in an olive grove on the northeastern corner of the intersection of the main Jerusalem-Bethlehem road, with the road leading east to Herodium.  They’re not officially open to the public, though…see above…there’s no door to stop you. The ancient rock where Mary rested is unmistakable – rising from the ground about 60 inches high, 6 feet long and 11.4 feet wide. And once you’ve spotted it, you then can’t miss the remains of the octagonal walls and a few of the columns, now fallen, which once surrounded it.

Here we are – a group of Marys, Maries, Marias, Mary Janes… and one Miriam – everyone in our group with a version of the famous name, invited to sit on the rock for a photo to commemorate our visit. Photo: Dr. Bill Creasy

Here we are – a group of Marys, Maries, Marias, Mary Janes… and one Miriam – everyone in our group with a version of the famous name, invited to rest on “Mary’s Seat” for a photo to commemorate our visit. Photo: Dr. Bill Creasy

The building was huge – it measured 114 feet long and 123 feet wide. As ancient pilgrims circumnavigated its three concentric octagonal corridors, they could glimpse the famed stone seat, and could break off from time to time to pray in a number of chapels along the hallways. The chapels were carpeted with multi-hued mosaics in intricate patterns – geometric designs, leaves, vines, fruit and flowers galore, along with motifs from the world of jewelry and even textiles, the later ones bearing a remarkable resemblance to the mosaics of the Dome of the Rock.

These gorgeous mosaic floors have all been covered up to protect them until such time as they can be properly displayed. In the early days after the discovery, I was sure that the powers that be – ecclesiastical, political and academic – would get together right away to reconstruct this once-magnificent building. You guessed it…I’m still waiting.

Detail of a mosaic from the Kathisma (courtesy of Dr. Rina Avner).

Detail of a mosaic from the Kathisma (courtesy of Dr. Rina Avner).

And now, a little history and tradition: The first mention of Mary resting just before Jesus’ birth goes back to the second-century Gospel of James, and was associated (and continued persistently over the centuries to be so) with the story of another biblical birthing mother –  Rachel the Matriarch – only a few miles to the south, where her tomb still stands, meaningful to all three monotheistic faiths. Legends about the rock abound (you can read more about them in the resources I list below). By the fifth century, the Feast of Theotokos (“Mother of God”), had been instituted, probably the earliest celebration devoted to Mary, Scholars say it took place at a specific site on the road to Bethlehem where the Kathisma was eventually built, endowed by a wealthy widow named Ikelia. Later the building was expanded and parts were remodeled. In the eighth century part of the church was converted into a mosque, with Marian veneration persisting here at least until the ninth century.

The jewel in the crown of the Kathisma’s many magnificent mosaics is one that symbolically recalls the oft-repeated legend of an exhausted and thirsty Mary sustained by a date palm that bent its branches toward her so she could eat its fruit, and a miraculous spring that emerged from its roots. The Muslims adopted this tradition as well; a version of the story is also found in the Quran.

The date palm mosaic at the Kathisma (courtesy of Dr. Rina Avner)

Kathisma date palm  (courtesy of Dr. Rina Avner)

At the Kathisma, don’t let appearances deceive you. Viewed with the eyes of the soul and imagination, this is one powerful place! I still hope that such an evocative site, which weaves together some of the most beloved of our different religious traditions – will someday be restored as a monument to our shared human spirit.

Merry Christmas to one and all.

Detail of a mosaic from the Kathisma (courtesy of Dr. Rina Avner).

Detail of a mosaic from the Kathisma courtesy of Dr. Rina Avner).

Learn more in the resources below:

Rina Avner, “The Recovery of the Kathisma Church and Its Influence on Octagonal Buildings.” Offprint from One Land–Many Cultures, Archaeological Studies in Honor of S. Loffreda (Studium Biblicum Franciscanum Collectio Maior 41). Jerusalem 2003.

And in the same offprint, Leah Di Segni, A Greek Inscription in the Kathisma Church.”

Rina Avner, “The Kathisma: A Christian and Muslim Pilgrimage Site.”  ARAM Offprint, Volume 18­-19 (2006–2007).

Miriam Feinberg Vamosh, “The Most Important Ancient Church you Never Heard of.”

http://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/travel/tourist-tip-of-the-day/1.564737

No author cited, “The Church of the Seat of Mary” http://www.mfa.gov.il/mfa/israelexperience/history/pages/the%20church%20of%20the%20 seat%20of%20mary%20-kathisma-.aspx.

Rina Avner, “Jerusalem: The Kathisma Church.” New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land. Vol. 5 (Israel Exploration Society 2008), pp. 1831–1833.

Vered Shalev-Hurvitz, Holy Sites Encircled: The Early Byzantine Concentric Churches of Jerusalem. (Oxford University Press 2015), pp. 117–141.

My Judean Mountains Home

I live in Har Adar, a community of approximately 1,100 families (about 4,000 people) in the Judean Mountains about 8 miles northwest of Jerusalem. It doesn’t appear on most maps, but you can find the nearest two communities, the Arab town of Abu Ghosh (see more below) and Kibbutz Ma’aleh Hahamisha.

My husband Arik and I moved to Har Adar from Jerusalem about 25 years ago with our two little girls when the community was just getting started. In those days it was still called Givat Ha-Radar – that’s Hebrew for Radar Hill, which got its name because there was a radar station here during the British Mandate. The community chose the name Har Adar because it sounded something the previous name, but also had a nice ring to it in that Har means mountain and Adar comes from a root meaning “grand.”

Har Adar was a battle site in two of Israel’s wars, in 1948, when Israel failed to capture the site (which was a military outpost) and in 1967, when we did. Israel tried so hard to capture the site because it is one of the high points along a strategic ridge north of the Jerusalem. When we had the dedication ceremony of the community in around 1985, the late Maj. Gen. Uri Ben-Ari, who fought at Har Adar in both wars, moved the audience very much when he told us he never could have dreamed that children would be playing where once there was only the thick smoke of battle. Har Adar is located very close to the Green Line, the pre-1967 border. Our closest Palestinian neighbors are the villages of Bidu, Beit Suriq, Katana and el-Qubeiba. Har Adar’s old Arabic name is Jebel Kawqab, which means “Mount of the Star.”

My biblical neighborhood

I wish I could take you on a guided tour around my neighborhood,  so I could show you how we can see a biblical landscape or archaeological site from almost any vantage point. Looking west, across the mountains we can see the Valley of Ayalon, near where Joshua defeated the five kings of the Amorites, when Joshua made his immortal call: “Sun, stand thou still upon Gibeon; and thou, Moon, in the valley of Ayalon” (Josh. 11:12). We can also see the Beth Horon Valley down which Joshua chased his enemies to the Coastal Plain. Beyond the Valley of Ayalon, by the way, is the sea the Bible calls the Great Sea, and of course we now call the Mediterranean. On a clear day we can see ships in the port of Ashdod and as far south as Ashkelon and the outskirts of Gaza from our porch. But that’s cheating just a little bit. The country’s so small you can see just about anything from anywhere!

So, let’s get much closer to home. Still looking west of Har Adar, the tell (archaeological mound) of Chephirah stands out. That might not sound familiar to most folks, but I bet you do remember the trick the Gibeonites played on Joshua, pretending they had come from far away and making a treaty with them under false pretenses (Joshua 9). The cities of the Gibeonites are mentioned there Gibeon and Chephirah and Beeroth and Kiriath-jearim (Josh 9:17).

Another Gibeonite city, Kiriath-jearim, is nearby too. It’s probably more familiar to you though as the city where the Ark of the Covenant was moved to after it returned from Philistine captivity (1 Sam. 6:21–7:1). Kiriath-jearim is now a town where our Israeli Arab neighbors live, called Abu Ghosh, and a 19th-century church stands on the hill where tradition says the house of Abinadab (1 Sam. 7:1) stood in ancient times. There is a magnificent Crusader church in Abu Ghosh as well.

On to the New Testament, Abu Ghosh is also one of the possible sites for Emmaus, where Jesus appeared to the disciples after the resurrection (Luke 24:13–35).

Questions the ancients had as to the exact distance Emmaus was from Jerusalem gave rise to several sites. Another is also a stone’s throw from my home, the site called el-Qubeiba west of Har Adar, with a beautiful little church and archaeological excavations nestled in an old pine grove.

Moving back once again in time, north of el-Qubeiba is Nebi Samuel, the traditional burial place of Samuel the prophet. Some scholars believe this is also the site called Mizpah, where Samuel gathered the people to confirm Saul as king, and the site of several other biblical stories.

Sometimes when I stand and look out at Nebi Samuel I think about my favorite tradition about it – that it is the “great high place,” above Gibeon where the Lord appeared to King Solomon in a dream right after he became king, and told Solomon he could ask for anything he wanted. And Solomon replied: “Give Thy servant therefore an understanding heart to judge Thy people, that I may discern between good and evil.” (1 Kings 3:9). I would like to start a new tradition – that after being sworn in, the prime minister of Israel and the entire cabinet will be required before entering their offices for their first day’s work to go up to what is now Nebi Samuel and have a little prayer time, beseeching god for that all-important “understanding heart.”

But I digress…

To conclude, I’d like to tell you about the ancient history of Har Adar itself. The archaeologist Michael Dadon, who excavated it, wrote people first began living here in the fifth century BC – a time when the Persians ruled this land. They built a fort, probably one of a series of such forts were built along Judah’s northern border. Dadon and his team also found a courtyard and a rock-cut cistern from this period. Our town created a little archaeological park where we can still see the cistern; a very beautiful little fountain now emerges from it. They found a bronze ring from this period depicting an altar and a seated figure, perhaps a deity. During the Hellenistic period (the time when the Greeks ruled the land), they found this area was used as a farmhouse. Later on, in the Ottoman period (beginning in the 16th century) they found stoves, a furnace for melting metals, a house and a wine press. We can still see the treading floor of this wine press in the little archaeological park.

The fountain at our archaeological park

The fountain at our archaeological park

In future articles I look forward to telling you about Abu Ghosh and the special bond that developed between this Arab-Israeli town and the surrounding Jewish communities from the time of Israel’s War of Independence to this day.

 

Our synagogue; the doors contain the symbols of the Twelve Tribes of Israel

Our synagogue; the doors contain the symbols of the Twelve Tribes of Israel

The famous snowstorm of December 2013...the snowplow cometh...finally!

The famous snowstorm of December 2013…the snowplow cometh…finally!

 

 

 

 

Purim: Queen Esther of Har Adar and her kindergarten friends

Purim: Queen Esther of Har Adar and her kindergarten friends