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Bath House at a Pilgrimage site? (2002)

Between the council of Nicaea in 325CE and the Muslim conquest 638 CE, the Land of Israel, then known as “Terra Sancta”—the holy land—flourished as a pilgrimage center for Christians from all over the Roman-Byzantine Empire. Pilgrims traveled long distances, by land and sea, yearning to visit the famed places where Jesus and other Biblical figures lived. One of the most attractive areas for pilgrims was the Sea of Galilee, the Kinneret Lake in northern Israel. The New Testament documents many events in the life of Jesus taking place around the Sea of Galilee. He spent much of his time in Capernaum and performed many miracles there; he preached on a mountain near the village; he knew nearby Khorazim and Beit-Saida, and he probably visited Ginnosar, all sites on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.

Many of the places where Jesus was active, and especially the places where he performed miracles, became holy sites in the Byzantine period. Venerated by pilgrims, in most cases the places were maintained by monks who lived on the site, much as in modern times. One such site on the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee was a hill where the New Testament reports that Jesus performed the “miracle of the swine” (Mark 5:1-19), during which two demon-possessed men were cured of their affliction and the demons fled into a herd of pigs.  The pigs, numbering about 2,000, rushed down a hill overlooking the lake and hurled themselves into the sea.

In the Byzantine period a large monastery complex was built near the hill to commemorate the event. Its name was apparently “kursi”. After the Muslim conquest the site and the nearby monastery were abandoned and even forgotten.

The revival of the site happened by accident. In 1970, while constructing the eastern part of the ring road around the Sea of Galilee, a bulldozer unearthed ancient remains. The Israel Antiquities Authority was then a small department and did not supervise most construction projects. Fortunately Mendel Nun, a member of the nearby Kibbutz Ein-Gev, noticed the antiquities and called in the archaeologists. The bulldozer gave way to three years of careful excavation during which the Kursi site was re-exposed. Checking the construction plan in retrospect, the road was planned to go right over the apses of the main church! The complex includes a large church, service rooms, and enclosure wall, and a nearby chapel built on a cliff, most likely at the supposed place where the “swine miracle” took place.

Following the excavations the 1970’s conservation and partial reconstruction work was done at the site, and now many tourists and pilgrims visit the place while touring northern Israel.

Prof. Vasilius Zafiris, a Greek monk in his youth and now a veteran archaeologist of the IAA, recently resumed archaeological work at the site. North-west of the main church he unearthed an exceptionally large bath house. It included three marble-tiled hot water rooms (caldaria). Nearby were the other components of the bath house, the tepidaria and the frigidaria. Close to the bath house was a staircase with 22 steps leading to an underground area still awaiting excavation. Three other subterranean rooms were burial places. A bath house on such a scale seems out of place in a monastery, but research at other pilgrimage and monastic sites in Israeland elsewhere indicates that it is actually not an exceptional find. Although these sites obviously attracted Christians, it did not appear to upset the secular activity of taking a bath, including its hot sauna like rooms, all in the nude.