For many years researchers have looked for the traditional place where the Virgin Mary sat down to rest on her way to Bethlehem, to deliver Jesus. Though not mentioned in the gospels this event is mentioned in the apocryphal gospel of James and in historical sources of the Byzantine period. According to the apocryphal gospel of James, when Mary and Joseph reached the third mile from Jerusalem, on their way to Bethlehem, Mary asked to stop. She dismounted from her donkey and sat down to rest. Joseph noticed her odd behavior, appearing sad and happy at the same time. To his question she replied that she felt ambivalent because she sensed that her baby would bring happiness to some and misery to others (alluding to the babies of Bethlehem, which were slaughtered by Herod when Jesus was born).
Byzantine period sources even mention the site where Mary allegedly rested, and call it “Ktisma” (Seat in Greek). Theodosius, a 6th century pilgrim, states that the rock where Mary sat, was indeed at the third mile from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, and that a church and monastery complex were built at the site. Abbot Daniel of the 12thcentury claimed that at his time the site had been abandoned and the stones looted “by the heretics”, but he could still see it. Later sources however do not mention the site, and apparently it disappeared.
19th century research suggested that a monastery named “Mar Elias” (S. Elijah”) was built over the remains of the resting place of Mary. It was indeed located betweenJerusalem and Bethlehem.
But In 1992, while widening the road from Jerusalem to Bethlehem near Mar Elias monastery, the tractors hit through a wall and revealed a mosaic floor nearby. Work was stopped and a salvage excavation team was put to work. They revealed an octagonal building – constructed around a rock. It seems that the resting place of Mary was not buried under the Mar Elias monastery after all!.
Unfortunately despite world media coverage and great Christian interest in the discovery, no organization was willing to finance the recovery of the whole site, and so after careful documentation of the initial discovery – the site was covered, for its protection.
Last year excavations were renewed at the site after a financing agreement was signed between the Ministry of Tourism and the University of Athens. Additional parts of the octagonal building were found, and it looks like the site is bigger then thought. But in December 1999 all work stopped again. It appears that the Ministry of Tourism has not been keeping its word – only the University of Athens was paying for the dig so far, and so they decided to stop work until the Ministry of Tourism paid its share. I visited the site on the last day of the dig. Towards noon the workers revealed a fragment of an inscription embedded in a mosaic floor. The only wordRina Avner, leader of the IAA team, and I could decipher was spoudh (monk). More of the inscription may be found nearby-but we had to cover the whole site by the end of the day! The thought was heartbreaking.
But then came some good news!. The directors of the University of Athens expedition agreed to leave the site exposed and guarded for two more weeks in the hope of reaching an agreement with the Ministry of Tourism to put in their share. I can only hope the work will be resumed soon, and that the site will also be developed for visits.