Most people consider the expression “when pigs fly” to mean, basically, “yeah, right, that’ll never happen.” But while we don’t know the exact origin of the expression, there is a place in Israel where the New Testament says pigs did just that – at least until they landed in the Sea of Galilee and drowned.
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The amazing sight of an entire herd of pigs stampeding off a cliff was so incredible that the how and why of the saga was meticulously recorded in the New Testament story known as the Miracle of the Swine. There are variations in the Gospels and discrepancies in terms of the number of men involved and the name of the closest nearby city, but scholars say this is just a way of saying, after the fact, “never mind the details – it’s the story that counts.”
That story is now commemorated at Kursi National Park on the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee where, in 1969, the remains of a magnificent, nearly forgotten church and monastery were accidently uncovered during road work near a hill believed to be the site of the pigs' fatal plunge.
As the various versions tell it, Jesus spied a man (Mark 5:1; Luke 8:26) or men (Matt. 8:28), lurking near tombs in the region of Gerasa (Luke), or Gadara (Matthew and Mark). The third-century Church Father Origen believed the site in question was a village called Gergesa. A similar-sounding name appears in ancient Jewish sources for a village on the east side of the lake – Gergeshta. This aside, the Gospels do agree that Jesus exorcised demons and placed them into a herd of pigs which, in a craze, ran from their pasturelands off a cliff and drowned. The pagan herdsmen then ran to the nearest city to tell what they had seen.
Over the centuries, pilgrims reported visiting the site. One of them, a 10th-century monk historians call Psuedo-Peter, says he saw a magnificent church there. But as travel became an ever-greater risk for pilgrims, they kept to the main highways and the church marking the Miracle of the Swine, other than being found on one mid-19th century map, seems to have fallen by the wayside.
It was rediscovered accidently by the late Mendel Nunn, a member of the lakeside Kibbutz Ein Gev, fisherman by profession and, for more than 40 years, discoverer and defender of sites illuminating Sea of Galilee lore. As Nunn told the story, he was cycling past a site where a road was under construction when he saw bits of Byzantine pottery and other finds. He pedaled quickly home to the kibbutz, and made the necessary calls to put a stop to the work until excavations could take place.
Those excavations revealed an intricate mosaic floor and other remains of a fine, fifth century colonnaded church and huge monastery. Next to it, on a hill, archaeologists later discovered a chapel, shored up by a wall, which very likely commemorates that cliff as the one from which the demon-plagued pigs flew to their death.
The now restored church at Kursi National Park, with its mosaic featuring flora, fauna and geometric patterns, and an ancient olive press on display, is just off the scenic eastern road around the Sea of Galilee, where a steep path leads up the famous hill to the ancient chapel.
Hours: April-September 8 A.M.–5 P.M.; October–March: 8 A.M.–4 P.M.
On Fridays and Holiday eves, site closes one hour earlier. Tel. 04-6731983.