The Kathisma: The most important ancient church you never heard of
Rediscovered by chance, this evocative spot marks the place where heavily pregnant Mary is said to have rested on the way to Bethlehem.
Christmas means Bethlehem to both Israel visitors and armchair Holy Land travelers. But on the way to Bethlehem is a site oft neglected: the scant remains of a Byzantine-era church that for Christians of ancient times, was nearly as important as the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.
Did we say scant? Well, if you blink, you’ll miss them. And yet this was one of the largest fifth-century churches in the Holy Land, and unlike other churches it was dedicated not to an event in the life of Jesus, but rather to Jesus’ mother Mary – probably the first such church to do so anywhere in the world.
This is the Kathisma – “seat” in Greek. It was found by accident during road construction in 1992 and initially excavated by Dr. Rina Avner of the Israel Antiquities Authority.
Later the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Jerusalem – which owns the property it’s on – and the University of Athens helped with the dig, in the hope of turning it back into what it once was – one of the most important pilgrimage stops in the Jerusalem area.
Sadly, the reconstruction never got off the ground – literally. You’ll have to pick your way over to the ruins on the rock-strewn edge of an olive grove. But you’ll still easily discern the octagonal form of the church – among the world’s first, impacting even the shape of the Dome of the Rock as well. And the “seat,” a rough piece of bedrock, still rises from the center of the octagons.
Traditions, going back to the second century, say that the heavily pregnant Mary sought rest halfway between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, and this, the ancients said, what the very spot. Mary and Joseph continued to Bethlehem to give birth and the Church of the Nativity is still there since the fourth century, while the Kathisma eventually fell into ruin, disappeared and its location remained a mystery until the 1992 chance discovery.
The church on the site where the ancient tradition holds that Mary rested halfway between Jerusalem and Bethlehem was built by a Roman widow named Ikelia in the early fifth century. Over the years pilgrims also marked other traditions here, including Rachel’s Tomb (not far from here).
You’ll also be able to see the two octagonal hallways surrounding the rock, which pilgrims would circumnavigate to catch a glimpse of the stone seat, pause in its chapels, and take some holy water (each visitor was limited to four liters, according to the sixth-century Piacenza Pilgrim) from the spring believed to flow from the rock (the archaeologists found a clay pipe near the rock that may have helped this miracle along somewhat).
One of the Kathisma’s dozens of magnificent, multi-colored mosaics – for now, until the hoped-for reconstruction, covered by a layer of sand to protect them – depicts three elaborate date palms. It recalls a legend, apparently first set down in writing in the eighth or ninth centuries, that as Mary rested, a date palm bent down miraculously to nourish her. That story also found its way into the Koran.
Few tour groups stop here – it’s not even officially open – but those who do are captivated by the story and have been known to just rest a moment on the rock to try to channel the sense of the sacred the untold thousands of ancient pilgrims had at this site.
To reach the Kathisma, head south out of Jerusalem on Hebron Road and watch for the turnoff east to Har Homa (if you pass the Mar Elias Monastery, you’ve overshot it). Turn there and park wherever you can safely do so – the ruins are at the northeast corner of Hebron Road right at that turnoff.
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