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Archaeology in Israel: Kursi Christian Monastery

The Byzantine monastery of Kursi is situated east of the Sea of Galilee at the mouth of a wadi (riverbed) descending from the Golan Heights and creating a small, fertile valley along the shoreline. The remains of the ancient monastery came to light accidentally, during construction of a new road, and they were excavated in the years 1971-1974. The site is now open to the public as a national park.

The location of Kursi, its architectural features and the testimony of early travelers identify it as the site where, according to tradition, Jesus healed two men possessed by demons. (Matthew 8: 28-33) To commemorate the miracle, a monastery was built there, probably at the beginning of the 6th century.

The monastery is surrounded by a protective stone wall which creates a rectangular enclave measuring 140 x 120 m. The entrance, protected by a watchtower, faces west, towards the Sea of Galilee. In antiquity, a paved road led from the monastery to a small harbor which served Christian pilgrims arriving in boats.

A wide, paved path led from the entrance of the monastery complex to a large plaza in front of the church at the center of the complex. The 45 x 25 m. rectangular church consists of a courtyard surrounded by pillars; these formed an atrium through which one entered the prayer hall itself. In its interior, two rows of eight stone columns supported Corinthian capitals of marble with crosses carved in relief. The columns divided the prayer hall into a nave and two side aisles. The whole floor of the church was paved with colored tesserae. Preserved mainly in the aisles, square frames are decorated with floral and faunal motifs, such as grapes, figs, pomegranates, fish, birds and water fowl. The faunal representations were almost obliterated, probably by members of the iconoclastic movement which became active in the early Arab period (7th century). At the eastern end of the church was a raised apse reached by two steps with two square rooms beside it. One was used as a baptistery, attested to by a Greek inscription, dedicating it to the Abbot Stephanos in the time of the Emperor Mauricius (end of the 6th century).

Lateral wings were added to the sides of the church; the northern wing was an oil press, probably providing sacred oil for the pilgrims. To the south of the church there was a chapel with mosaic paving, beneath which was a crypt which contained the tombs of monks who had served in the monastery. Within the grounds of the monastery, living quarters for the monks and a hostel for housing pilgrims, as well as household utilities, were uncovered.

Upon the slope overlooking the monastery to the south were the remains of a small chapel, incorporating a cave with a mosaic floor. In front of it stood a rock, some seven meters high, surrounded by revetment walls to prevent its collapse. This presumably marks the place where, according to tradition, the miracle recounted in the New Testament occurred.

The monastery was damaged by an earthquake in the middle of the 8th century and abandoned.

Sources: Israeli Foreign Ministry