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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.

A mosaic Floor at the church of Kursi

“Market of Knowledge” on the Temple Mount.

The Temple Mount in Jerusalem is sacred to millions of people and may be described as the holiest mountain on earth. According to Jewish tradition the rock in its centre is the foundation stone for the whole world, and in the days of the patriarchs, Isaac was almost sacrificed by Abraham on the same rock.

Historically David constructed an altar on this mountain, and Solomon built a temple on the site. The temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE, rebuilt, and destroyed again, this time by the Romans, in 70 CE. In the late Roman period, sculptures of the Roman emperors may have been displayed on the mountain, and a pagan shrine was built there, but it was mostly in ruins until the end of the 7th century CE.

The Muslims restored the sacred mountain by identifying the rock in its centre as the one from which Muhammad ascended to heaven to receive the daily prayers of Islam. Accordingly a monumental memorial structure was built around the rock (the “Dome of the Rock”), and a mosque nearby. In 1099 CE the Crusaders conqueredJerusalem. They identified the Dome of the Rock and the mosque as “temples” and refurnished them as a church and a palace respectively. In 1187 CE the Muslims recaptured Jerusalem and returned the monuments to their original Muslim use.

In 1967, after nearly a millennium, the Jewish people of the state of Israel took control over the old city, but the state of Israel decided to leave the Temple Mount and its Muslim monuments under the authority of the Muslim religious authority, the Waqf. Israel insisted on controlling the security of the Temple Mount, and specified that no excavations be made without scientific supervision.

During the recent tension between the Palestinians, (mostly Muslims), and the state of Israel, the Waqf carried out illegal construction work in the south eastern part of the Temple Mount. Because there was no archaeological supervision of the work, there is no way of knowing exactly what was found there, or the exact stratigraphy(the composition of layers) at the site.  Yet in spite of the poor documentation, archaeologist Dan Bahat recently published in the Hebrew periodical

Qadmoniot an account of the work as best as he could record it, and suggested that the Muslim “market of knowledge” (“Suq el-Ma’rifa”) institution stood above “Solomon’s Stables” at that area.

Bahat also added an artist’s reconstruction of the area, drawn by artist Mark Kunin. Perhaps further research with more scientific tools will illuminate this interesting suggestion.

Artists' rendition of the Muslim "Market of knowledge" ("Suq al-Ma'rifa") institution which stood above the Crusader building known as "Solomon's Stables"

Artists' rendition of the Muslim "Market of knowledge" ("Suq al-Ma'rifa") institution which stood above the Crusader building known as "Solomon's Stables"

Owner of a Biblical Sceptre Found

Motza is an ancient site 10 km west of Jerusalem. In Biblical days it was in the lot of the tribe of Benjamin. In the Roman period it was known as a village for veteran Roman soldiers. As in antiquity, the site is on the main road to Jerusalem.

When the modern highway from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem was constructed in the 1960’s, it passed around the ancient site in order not go over antiquities and modernMotza. The result is a sharp curve in the road, which proved to be so dangerous that it is known by drivers as “the death curve”. Finally a decision has been made to alter the alignment of the highway in this section. In order not to damage antiquities and modern site, a bridge will be built over it, but even so, salvage excavation is required at the bases of the planned bridge.

Although the area excavated is small, archaeologists Alon De-Groot and Tsvi Greenhut of the Israel Antiquities Authority found evidence of occupation at the site in many periods, as far back as the Neolithic period. The most intriguing find, in my view, is a small stamp seal bearing the name of “Tsafan son of Nasas”. The name “Nasas” is unknown in the Bible, but the term “Nasas” could be an adjective: “the sceptre carrier”. This is definitely not a common profession, and so it could be thatTsafan was declaring his father’s profession rather then mentioning his name. Intriguingly in a previous season of excavations in Motza, in 1993, among many finds, a broken piece of a scepter was found. It is made of an artificial composition also known as “Egyptian blue,” consisting of quartz, calcium carbonate, and copper. The style of the scepter resembles similar finds from Syria and Mesopotamia, while the material of which it is made is typical in Egyptian art. Such an eclectic nature is not rare in Biblical finds, as the Israelites were influenced by both neighboring cultures.

Due to the new stamp seal found, perhaps it is possible to suggest that the father of Tsafan from Motza was the owner of this scepter, or an official in charge of it?

A broken piece of sceptre found in Motza in 1993

A broken piece of sceptre found in Motza in 1993