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BY Jim Cosgrove
JERUSALEM-Israeli archeologists have found the remains of a large Byzantine church on the site where Mary is believed to have rested on her way to Bethlehem.
Known as the Kathisma Church, the structure has mosaic and marble floors, as well as a holy stone, “The Seat” (kathisma, in Greek), where Mary rested on her way to Bethlehem from Jerusalem, according to early Christian tradition. The church dates to the fifth and sixth centuries A.D. and is the largest of its type ever discovered in Israel. The excavation was conducted on land belonging to the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, which gave its blessing to the project.
Archeologists Rina Avner and Yuval Baruch, who directed the excavation on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority, called the structure “the earliest and largest major church dedicated to Mary, Mother of Jesus.”
They noted that the church's octagonal plan also served as the basis for a smaller and simpler church on Mt. Gerizim. Its influence can also be seen in the octagonal Dome of the Rock Mosque on the Temple Mount.
The church and nearby monastery are believed to have been built by a donation from Iqilia, a rich widow, in the mid-fifth century A.D. on the spot where Mary rested on her journey to Bethlehem before giving birth to Jesus.
Surrounding the “seat” is an octagonal area with large corner pilasters and two outer octagonal rings: The interior ring served as a walkway (ambulatoria) from which worshippers could view the stone seat. Between the chapels on the east stood a large central apse with a raised prayer platform. A large monastery stood to the south.
Jerusalem Region Archeologist Gideon Avni said that the Antiquities Authority is hoping to raise funds toward continuing the development of the site for visit by tourists and pilgrims. (Michele Chabin)