The monastery of the Gerasene swine

The ancient site of Geshur has attracted Christian pilgrims since the third century CE.

basilica golan 88 248 (photo credit: Stephen G. Rosenberg)
basilica golan 88 248
(photo credit: Stephen G. Rosenberg)
On the east side of the Sea of Galilee lay a Jewish fishing village of pre-mishnaic times, at the mouth of Nahal Samak, the upper reaches of which were overlooked by the synagogue of Umm el-Kanatir. The village's name was Kursi, and today it would have stood alongside the sun-drenched beach of Hof Kursi, on the shores of the lake. But in Byzantine times of the sixth century, the village had already disappeared and been replaced by a monastery, the largest known in Israel. The monastery was there because of what was supposed to have happened in the Jewish village when it was visited by Jesus in the first century. According to the Gospels, when Jesus came off the boat at the fishing village, he was confronted by a sick man emerging from the village tombs, who pleaded with Jesus not to torment him. Jesus saw that the man was possessed by several devils and he was able to heal him by commanding the evil spirits to pass into a herd of nearby swine which, once possessed by these devils, rushed headlong down the hillside and into the lake, where they and their devils were drowned. This story appears three times in the Gospels, always with a different name to the place. In the Gospel of Matthew it is called the country of the Gadarenes, in Mark it is the land of the Gerasenes and in Luke it is the country of the Gergesenes. Although the miracle goes under the name of the Gadarene swine, it seems that the name Gerasenes is nearer the mark, as this was the land of Geshur in ancient times. Geshur is well-known from the Bible. King David married Maacah, the princess of Geshur, in the early years of his reign. That will have been for political reasons, to ensure a security pact with Geshur, which could shield David from the power of Aram (Syria) to the north, but this lady must have been powerfully beautiful as well. Her two children by David, Tamar and Absalom, are both described as being unusually good-looking. Tamar was "beautiful" and as for Absalom, "there was none in Israel to be so much praised for his beauty." Tamar's beauty attracted her half-brother Amnon, and when Absalom heard that Amnon had raped his sister, he took Amnon's life and, to escape justice, he fled to his mother's homeland, Geshur, until David's wrath should subside. The suicidal flight of the "Gerasene swine" into the lake fits the hilly topography of Kursi pretty well, which no doubt persuaded the early Christian pilgrims to come to this place to celebrate the miracle performed by Jesus. It was in the third century that the pilgrims started coming and, as their numbers increased over the next 200 years, the local monks founded the monastery that catered to religion-based tourism, as well as for worship and spiritual contemplation. It also catered to their bodily well being. The monastery contained residential quarters, a refectory and a splendid bathhouse, with underfloor heating in the Roman style. These facilities would have been a godsend for the weary pilgrims who had worked their way eastward along the shores of the Kinneret, from Tiberias to Magdala, to Tabgha, to Capernaum, to Bethsaida and finally to Kursi. In the center of the walled monastery stood a basilica church and around it the residential area for the monks and visitors. The remains were first discovered when the eastern Kinneret road was constructed after the Six Day War. Details were uncovered in four seasons of excavations from 1970, directed by Vassilios Tzaferis and Dan Urman on behalf of the Department of Antiquities and Museums, and the impressive reconstructed remains have now been incorporated into one of the country's finest national parks. From the surrounding wall of the monastery there is a main street leading to the basilica, which faces east and is built of black basalt with white limestone columns, to dramatic effect. The entry is from the west, through a colonnaded atrium (open-air courtyard) with 11 openings, some of which were later walled up to form additional rooms. Under the atrium there is a cistern to collect rainwater that can still be accessed by two well-like pits. In the church itself, the floor of the nave, the main hall, was covered with mosaics, but these have survived better in the aisles on either side, and in the secondary rooms beyond the aisles. The mosaics consist of colorful medallions showing fruits and animals, except that the animal figures have been defaced by the iconoclasts of later periods, or perhaps by the overzealous Arabs who conquered the site in the seventh century. At the east end there is an impressive semicircular apse with seats for the priests around the wall, and on each side another room laid with mosaic floor tiles. The southern room was a baptistery with an inscription at the entrance dated to 585 CE. The side wings each contained two chapels, and in one of these there was an oil press for church use, while the other was built over a crypt that contained six burial troughs of important priests or church wardens. The buildings were started in the late fifth century, the whole built as one unit, including the bathhouse, for the use of resident monks and the pilgrims. Changes were made 100 years later, when the oil press was installed, and the large gateway on the west side was increased to two stories to become a watchtower. Although the complex was damaged by the Persian invaders of 614, it was repaired and remained in use until the catastrophic earthquake of 749 that destroyed many sites around the Kinneret and also the synagogue of Umm el-Kanatir. The monastery was then abandoned, but Arab squatters took over the ruins later in the eighth century and rebuilt sections of it, making rather ugly alterations. As for the site of the miracle, the excavators found a ruined chapel and tower on a hill 200 meters southeast of the monastery. Both are built around a huge pillar of natural rock with the chapel behind it, partly in a cave and partly hewn into the rock. It boasted three layers of mosaic floor, demonstrating its rich importance to the monks and pilgrims. This chapel may have been built before the monastery and it supports the location of the miracle at this site, as from here the incline of the mountain could indeed be the slope down which the swine were bedeviled into their headlong suicidal flight. The national park has made this a beautiful green site ideal for relaxation, and with a wonderful view over the Kinneret to the west and the hills of the Golan to the east, as seen from the summit of the hill by the chapel. The national park is easily approached by a turning to the east from Route 92, just 5 km. north of Kibbutz Ein Gev. For those interested in miracles, they can test one out in the grounds. One of the older park benches, to the north (left) of the entry street to the basilica, is dubbed "bewitched" and is claimed to have special powers that may affect those sitting on it. People say that if one sits on this bench and makes a wish, in many cases it has been known to come true. And of course, if the day is hot and sticky and the sun is high, and if one sincerely wishes it, perhaps one will also be propelled to rush headlong into the waters of the nearby lake. The writer is a senior fellow of the W.F. Albright Institute of Archeological Research in Jerusalem.