The mystery of the Kathisma – where the Virgin Mary sat down, and almost no one visits
And Joseph also went up from Galilee... unto ... Bethlehem... with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.
- Luke 2: 4-5
Hidden in plain sight in an olive grove in southern Jerusalem by the side of the road to Bethlehem and Rachel’s Tomb are the ruins of a unique Christian holy site called the Kathisma – Greek meaning “seat.” Here according to tradition, the very pregnant Virgin Mary sat down to rest on her way by donkey from Nazareth to Bethlehem – where she gave birth to Jesus in fulfillment of the biblical prophecy that the messiah will be born there (Micah 5:2). Extraordinarily, though one of the most sacred locales in Christianity and one of the largest Byzantine-era churches in the Holy Land, close to zero pilgrims today visit the ruins. Even more extraordinarily, archaeologists believe the overlooked octagonal shrine and its decoration were the inspiration for the eight-sided Dome of the Rock.
Why the absence of visitors to such an important if neglected site which 1,500 years ago vied in importance with Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher and Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity?
Certainly thanks to Jerusalem’s embarrassment of riches for tourists to explore, the obscure Kathisma remains far down on their must-do list. As well, the site’s importance is belied by the paucity of its ruins which have been minimally restored. But seemingly the main reason for the mystery is that the site was discovered relatively recently, and word simply has not percolated down to tourists, or even guides.
The story begins in 1992 when Rte. 60, also called Hebron Road, was being widened. A bulldozer uncovered and damaged a mosaic floor forcing the highway to be re-routed. After a five-month salvage dig by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) which uncovered the western section of the ancient church nearest the road works, the newly revealed mosaic floors were covered over to ensure their preservation.
In 1997 during the laying of a pipeline to the new neighborhood of Har Homa, further damage was caused to the site engendering a second emergency excavation. This was followed by a third season headed by IAA archaeologist Rina Avner. Only then was the site properly identified as the long-lost Kathisma, the only church in the Holy Land not dedicated to an event in the life of Jesus but rather to his mother Mary.
Avner recognized the building as a martyrium — a structure intended to bear witness to the Christian faith by commemorating an event in the life of Christ, a martyr or some other holy person – in this case Mary, known in Greek as Theotokos (God-bearer).
According to 6th century Life of Theodosius, the magnificent structure was erected around 456 CE by a rich widow named Iqilia. The structure measured 52 x 43 meters. While Byzantine churches were typically built in the rectangular form of a basilica, the Kathisma has an unusual eight-sided plan surrounding the two-meter wide flat protruding limestone rock on which tradition says Mary rested. This “seat” on the bedrock was the shrine’s focal point. Surrounding it were two octagonal hallways. The inner one served as an ambulatoria walkway from which the worshippers could view and circumnavigate Mary’s stone perch. The second ring, which Avner identified as an addition from the end of the 6th century, was divided into a series of chapels. The church was covered with elaborate colored mosaic floors in a variety of floral and geometric designs, some added in the 8th century.
Both the grandeur of building and the sophistication of its mosaics made of tiny tessarae attest to the Kathisma’s importance. One of those multi-colored mosaics (which is currently covered by sand for protection) is the source for the second half of the Kathisma unusual story; it depicts three date palms. According to the 5th century apocryphal book the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, a date palm miraculously bent over to offer Mary shade and fruit as she rested. That story found its way into the Koran (Sura Maryam 19:22-26).
According to Avner, the date palm legend and the Kathisma’s octagonal design inspired Ommayad caliph Abd al-Malik when he built Jerusalem's unusually-shaped Dome of the Rock between 687 and 691. Under the Islamic shrine’s gilded copula is a depiction of a palm bending over. (Both the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque have been closed to non-Muslims since 2000.) Abd al-Malik built his octagon marginally wider than the Kathisma to express that Islam had surpassed Christianity.
Avner’s study “The Dome of the Rock in Light of the Development of Concentric Martyria in Jerusalem: Architecture and Architectural Iconography” published in Muqarnas: An Annual on the Visual Culture of the Islamic World 27 (2010): 31-49, overturned previous theories about the architectural precedents of the Islamic shrine.
After the Arab conquest in 637, the Kathisma was converted into a joint church and mosque. A mihrab was added to indicate the direction of prayer toward Mecca. Sometime thereafter, the ecumenical shrine was destroyed, presumably in the massive earthquake of 749 that rocked the country.
Restored by the Crusaders after they came to Jerusalem in 1099, the Kathisma was destroyed again in the 12th century, presumably after the Franks were expelled. Since then its location became forgotten in the mists of time.
The site today is owned by Jerusalem’s Greek Orthodox Patriarchate. In the 1990s volunteers came from the University of Athens to help with the dig and begin the restoration. But with Greece mired in a deep financial crisis, the ambitious plans to bring back the Kathisma to its glory days – when it was one of the most important pilgrimage stops in Jerusalem – remain frozen.