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15. Kursi: Site of the Miracle of the Swine

Kursi is a picturesque site on the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee, maintained today by the Israel Nature Parks Authority. It was discovered by chance after the Six Day War (June 1967). After the war a plan to construct a road on the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee was executed, but as the tractors were clearing the way, Mendel Nun, a member of the nearby kibbutz Ein Gev, noticed that the tractors were cutting through ancient remains. He persuaded the authorities to halt the work, and an archaeological expedition exposed much of the site between 1970 and 1974. Head of the expedition was Vasilios Tsaferis, a former Greek monk who became an archaeologist working for the state of Israel. It seems that it was directed from above that he would reveal the site where according to Christian tradition Jesus performed “the miracle of the Swine”.

Vasilios Tsaferis

Vasilios Tsaferis, former Greek Monk, led a few important excavations at holy Christian sites in Israel, such as at Capernaum, Caesarea-Philipi, and at Kursi.

After leaving Nazareth, Jesus moved to Capernaum, where he spent a few years. From Capernaum he traveled to nearby sites, as well as distant destinations like Tyreand Sidon, and the Decapolis (Mark 7:31). During one of his journeys, Jesus reached a site on the shore of the sea of Galilee where he was accosted by a person (or two) “possessed by Demons”. Jesus caused the demons to occupy a herd of swine, “and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the sea, and were drowned in the sea. The swineherds ran off and told it in the city and in the country” (Mark 5:13-14).

The location of the site is unclear. Each of the synoptic Gospels provides a different name for the region in which the miracle took place: “The land of theGadareans” according to Matthew; “Geraseans” according to Mark; and “Gergseans” according to Luke. One thing is clear – the event did NOT take place in an area populated by Jews. It is impossible that in antiquity Jews raised swine. For a long time it was believed that no Christian tradition has ever identified and sanctified the location of the miracle.  None of the ancient itineraries of pilgrims from the Byzantine and Crusader periods mention visiting such a site, nor was there ever a local tradition among the Christians in the Holy Land. The expedition of Tsaferis, however, proved there actually was such a tradition, at the site of Kursi.

The most prominent feature at the site is a monastery complex from the sixth century CE, that is, the end of the Byzantine period. The monastery complex included a big tri-apsidal church with a large rectangular courtyard in front of it (Atrium), and many service rooms around it.  In one of the rooms a large oil press was recovered.

This olive press found in the monastic complex in Kursi

This olive press found in the monastic complex in Kursi was perhaps used by the Byzantine monks to produce olive oil which was sold to pilgrims as blessed oil sold in blessed ampula (eulogia). Photo © M Browning.

The whole complex was surrounded by a wall, which covered an area of 18 dunams, making it the largest monastic complex ever found in Israel. The importance of the site, however, was revealed later, in 1980, when Tsaferis surveyed the area around the monastery. On top of the cliff above the monastery he discovered a small chapel in front of a cave. After partial excavation it was clear the cave had been sanctified in antiquity as the cave where the person “possessed by demons” dwelt.

The foundations of this Byzantine church

The foundations of this Byzantine church were found when roadwork was being done in 1970. The church has since been excavated and partially reconstructed. It was probably built to commemorate the miracle of the healing of the demon-possessed men. © L. spitzer.

The location is also in accordance with the version of Matthew, who locates the event in “the land of the Gadareans”. Only 15 km south of Kursi is the ancient city ofGadara (modern Umm Qais). Gadara, which was a member of the Decapolis, was a city of Gentiles, and its herds of swine indeed could have wandered to the area of Kursi.

Today Kursi is a common stop for tourist and pilgrim groups. It offers a unique combination of well preserved remains of a Christian complex, mixed with sanctity on a cliff top, and all located right near the shores of the Sea of Galilee.

On the side of the hill behind the Kursi church was a small chapel

On the side of the hill behind the Kursi church was a small chapel, possibly intended to mark the place where the demon possessed men lived. Photo © M Browning