Kathisma means in Greek: ‘seat’ or ‘place of rest’. According to the Proto-Gospel of James, the Holy Couple, while on their way from Nazareth, stopped to rest when already approaching Bethlehem, the place where Jesus shall be born.
A tradition says that the Blessed Virgin Mary seated there at the stone khatisma for a little while and then suddenly some water sprang out of a rock to quench her thirst. Until the 17th century, pilgrims saw there a large tree which, according to the legend, had lowered down its branches to provide shade for the Virgin.
There is also located Bir el Qadismu or the Well of the Magi, called in this way since 16th century. According to another tradition, it was there the Magi saw again the star which had guided them during their journey from the East (Matt. 2:9) Therefore, the well is also named “the well of the star”.
What is interesting, the existence of this unique Kathisma church was known from Byzantine literature, but its location was a mystery. Its ruins were completely buried in the grounds of an olive grove.
It was actually discovered by chance in 1992 after the construction works of the Jerusalem-Bethlehem road hit the edge of the site. The rescuing excavations revealed a large church, so the road was therefore shifted to prevent damage to the site. In 1997 archaeologist Rina Avner and Yuval Baruch continued the excavations and it was only then identified as the long forgotten Kathisma church.
In 1999 the archaeologists reconstructed the foundations of the church, uncovered the beautiful mosaic floors, and conducted other preservation works. However, there is still need of funding in order to prepare the site for a public opening. Nowadays, the area is neglected.
History and Architecture
The unique octagonal church (43 m x 52 m) – Ecclesia Kathismatis, was built in honour of the Virgin Mother of God – Theotokos in 5th century (around 450 – 458 AD) by a rich and pious widow – Iqilia (some sources call her Hicelia). It was the earliest Marian church in the Holy Land and one of the first in the whole Byzantine Empire.
Kathisma was a martyrium, a special structure that functioned as a church (or a mosque) marking the site of a holy event. The church was built over a flat limestone rock in the center – the place where according to the legend, Virgin Mary sat. As in all ancient churches, its main prayer apse was oriented to the east. Its octagonal shape could have been inspired by the Constantinian structure built over the Nativity Grotto in Bethlehem.
Kathisma was enlarged at the end of the 6th century. Probably because of the rising number of pilgrims visiting the site, the second layer over the inner octagon was added. As well, because of the growing demand for the secondary shrines within the big monumental martyria, the exterior ambulatory was divided into chapels and entrance rooms, which were connected by small corner rooms. These enabled worshipers to pass from each entrance room to a next chapel.
Archaeological evidence indicates that during the 8th century the building was used simultaneously as a mosque within the church. A mihrab, or prayer niche facing Mecca was built into the southern wall of the outermost octagon. This means that the church was not destroyed during the Persian conquest (614 AD) and existed at the time of Abd el-Malik who commissioned the building of the Dome of the Rock, which was also built on the octagonal plan with a rock in the middle.
The most remarkable feature of the church is a group of beautiful, very well preserved ancient mosaic floors from the 7th century. Their designs are geometric with palm leaves and flowers. Yet there are still in few places, distinguishable bits from the original 5th century mosaic floor.
Kathisma was destroyed in around 11-12th century, probably after the defeat of the Crusaders. Since then its location was forgotten and discovered just recently.
How to Get There
:Ruins of Kathisma are located near Mar Elias Monastery, on the way from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. Bus no. #24 from Jerusalem to Bethlehem leaves from the bus station next to the Damascus Gate of Jerusalem’s Old City. You will notice the ruins just after passing a gas station when approaching the Mar Elias Monastery.
What to See Nearby
- Bethlehem with its Nativity Church
- Mar Elias Monastery – a Greek Orthodox monastery founded in the 6th century on a hill overlooking Bethlehem and Herodion.
- Tantur Ecumenical Institute
Beata Andonia works for the Bethlehem tourist bureau and blogs regularly about Bethlehem for Travelujah-Holy Land Tours. She is originally from Poland and moved to Bethlehem in 2010.
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