Kathisma – A place of rest on the way to Bethlehem

The existence of this unique Kathisma church was known from Byzantine literature, but its location was a mystery.

Kathisma (photo credit: Travelujah)
(photo credit: Travelujah)
For further information on Christian tourism contact Travelujah-Holy Land tours
The ruins of Kathisma, an important Byzantine church and monastery, are located near Mar Elias Monastery, on the side of the ancient road from Jerusalem to Bethlehem.
Kathisma in Greek means “seat” or “place of rest.” According to the Proto-Gospel of James, the Holy Couple, while on their way from Nazareth, stopped to rest when already approaching Bethlehem, the place where Jesus was born.
A tradition says that the Virgin Mary sat there at the stone ofkhatisma for a little while and then suddenly some water sprang out of a rock to quench her thirst. Until the 17th century, pilgrims saw a large tree which, according to the legend, had lowered down its branches to provide shade for the Virgin.
Interestingly, the existence of this unique Kathisma church was known from Byzantine literature, but its location was a mystery. Its ruins were completely buried in the grounds of an olive grove.
It was actually discovered by chance in 1992 after the construction works of the Jerusalem-Bethlehem road hit the edge of the site. The rescuing excavations revealed a large church, so the road was therefore shifted to prevent damage to the site. In 1997 archaeologistsRinaAvner and Yuval Baruch continued the excavations and it was only then identified as the long forgotten Kathisma church.
In 1999 the archaeologists reconstructed the foundations of the church, uncovered the beautiful mosaic floors, and conducted other preservation works. However, there is still a need for funding in order to prepare the site for a public opening. Nowadays, the area is neglected.
History and architecture
The unique octagonal church (43 m x 52 m) - Ecclesia Kathismatis, was built in honor of the Virgin Mother of God – Theotokos in 5th century (around 450 – 458 AD) by a rich and pious widow – Iqilia (some sources call her Hicelia). It was the earliest Marian church in the Holy Land and one of the first in the whole Byzantine Empire.
Kathisma was a martyrium, a special structure that functioned as a church (or a mosque) marking the site of a holy event. The church was built over a flat limestone rock in the center – the place where according to the legend, Virgin Mary sat. As in all ancient churches, its main prayer apse was oriented to the east. Its octagonal shape could have been inspired by the Constantinian structure built over the Nativity Grotto in Bethlehem.
Kathisma was enlarged at the end of the 6th century. Probably because of the rising number of pilgrims visiting the site, the second layer over the inner octagon was added. In addition, because of the growing demand for the secondary shrines within the big monumental martyria, the exterior ambulatory was divided into chapels and entrance rooms, which were connected by small corner rooms. These enabled worshippers to pass from each entrance room to a next chapel.
Archaeological evidence indicates that during the 8th century the building was used simultaneously as a mosque within the church. A mihrab, or prayer niche facing Mecca was built into the southern wall of the outermost octagon. This means that the church was not destroyed during the Persian conquest (614 AD) and existed at the time of Abd el-Malik who commissioned the building of the Dome of the Rock, which was also built on the octagonal plan with a rock in the middle.
The most remarkable feature of the church is a group of beautiful, very well preserved ancient mosaic floors from the 7th century. Their designs are geometric with palm leaves and flowers. Yet in few places there are still distinguishable parts from the original 5th century mosaic floor.
Kathisma was destroyed in around the 11-12th century, probably after the defeat of the Crusaders. Since then its location was forgotten and discovered just recently.

How to get there:
The ruins of Kathisma are located near Mar Elias Monastery, on the way from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. Bus no. 24 from Jerusalem to Bethlehem leaves from the bus station next to the Damascus Gate of Jerusalem’s Old City. You will notice the ruins just after passing a gas station when approaching the Mar Elias Monastery.
Beata Andonia works for the Bethlehem tourist bureau and blogs regularly about Bethlehem for Travelujah-Holy Land Tours. She is originally from Poland and moved to Bethlehem in 2010.

For further information about Christian tourism and Holy Land tours contact [email protected]