An “Unknown” Christmas Site Near Bethlehem

KathismaMap02All Christian tour groups will make the bus trip from Jerusalem south to visit the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.  Along the short 5 mile journey there are so many things to see that buses race past the remains of an important octagonal church that is located just along the east side of the busy highway—just inside of pre–1967 Israeli Jerusalem.

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View looking south at the foundations of the Kathisma Church

The usually unnoticed excavations are the remains of the  “Kathisma Church” that is located about half way between New Testament Jerusalem and Bethlehem.  It was built around A.D. 456 to commemorate the spot where, according to the Protoevangelium of James, Mary rested (Kathisma, Greek for “seat” or “chair”) on the way to Bethlehem (text below).

KathismaOctagon400-0104

It is octagonal in shape with three concentric octagonal walls and a large apse area on the eastern side.  This type of church is called a martyrium.  Its octagonal design probably facilitated processions in the building.  Examples from Israel include churches from Capernaum, built over St. Peter’s house, and one at Caesarea (another is found at Hierapolis in Turkey).

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View looking northeast at the foundation walls of the octagonal
Kathisma Church — Place where Mary rested on the way to Bethlehem
Click on Image to Enlarge and/or Download

Between the two outer octagonal walls are four good-sized chapels—on the northwest, northeast, southeast, and southwest.  The floors of the chapels were covered with geometric and floral mosaics (now covered with sand).  In the center of the octagon is a large stone (bedrock?) that was probably venerated as the spot where Mary rested.

The church was turned into a mosque when the Muslims conquered Palestine in the seventh century.

“And they came into the middle of the road, and Mary said to him [Joseph]: Take me down from off the ass, for that which is in me presses to come forth.  And he took her down from off the ass, and said to her: Whiter shall I lead thee, and cover thy disgrace? for the place is a desert.  And he found a cave there, and led her into it; and leaving his two sons beside her, he went out to to seek a midwife in the district of Bethlehem”
(Protoevangelium of James 17 and 18)

To view more images of the Kathisma Church Click Here.

For a convenient description of this church see Hershel Shanks, “Rediscovering the Kathisma—Where Mary Rested.” Biblical Archaeological Review 32, no. 6 (November/December, 2006): 44–51.

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