Tag Archives: martyrium

Blessing on Mount Gerizim

When we drove up to experience the Samaritan Passover sacrifice at Kiryat Luza we had hoped to also visit the site at Mount Gerizim but it was closed. Now the Israel Nature and Parks Authority with the Judaea and Samaria Civil Administration have completed the work to enable daily access to the archaeological site on Mount Gerizim.

Mount Gerizim is one of two mountains that overlook the West Bank city of Nablus (in Hebrew Shechem, of which there are many Biblical references). Mount Gerizim at 886 meters above sea level (higher than Jerusalem) is one of the highest mountains in Israel. In Deuteronomy 27:2-13 Moses and the Elders command the nation to build an altar of large, natural white-washed stones on Mount Ebal (the mountain across from Gerizim) and to make peace offerings on the altar, eat there and write the words of the Law on the stones when they cross the Jordan River into the land of Israel. The Israelites are then to split into two groups of six tribes each, one stays on Mount Ebal and pronounces curses, while the other goes to Mount Gerizim and pronounces blessings.

Mount Gerizim is sacred to the Samaritans. According to the Samaritan version of Deuteronomy and a scroll fragment found at Qumran, God instructs the people to build the altar on Mount Gerizim not Ebal. According to the Samaritans God chose Mount Gerizim as the location for the Holy Temple, rather than the Temple Mount or Mount Moria in Jerusalem (Make me a sanctuary and I will dwell among you – Exodus 25:8).

At the end of the 5th century BCE, Sanballat, the governor of Samaria, constructed a temple on Mount Gerizim and a large city grew around it and flourished during the Hellenistic period. Religious tensions between the Jews and the Samaritans led John Hyrcanus to destroy the temple on Gerizim in the 2nd century BCE according to Josephus (in the Talmud, it is destroyed by Simon the Just). In the 4th century when Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire, the Samaritans were barred from worshiping on Mount Gerizim. In 484 CE the Byzantine ruler Zenon constructed a fortified monastery with a Christian octagonal martyrium inside, in honor of Mary Mother of God (Theotokos). The plan of the martyrdom is almost identical to the Kathisma church on the way from Jerusalem to Bethlehem.

There are the remains of quite intricate mosaic floors in some of the areas.

In 529CE, Emperor Justinian made Samaritanism illegal, extended the enclosure to the north (destroying the Samaritan temple to its foundations) and built a protective wall around it.

According to Muslim tradition, the tomb of Sheikh Ghanem one of Salah al-Din’s commanders was built on the foundations of the northeastern tower.

In the excavations of the city both public and residential buildings were uncovered as well as olive presses.

Kathisma Church

Aerial photo of Kathisma site, IAA

Despite the many people traveling along the main road to Bethlehem (or Gilo or Gush Etzion) before the turnoff to Har Homa and Herodium few notice the ruins of a 5th century Byzantine church and monastery. Discovered by chance in 1992 when the road was paved and excavated briefly in 1999 by Rina Avner, the site is worth exploring but lies abandoned due to lack of money, time and initiative. Called the Kathisma church, after the word in Greek for seat (καθισμα), according to Christian tradition it is where Mary rested on the way to Bethlehem just before giving birth to Jesus.

Most Byzantine churches are in the shape of a basilica, a rectangular plan with a central nave and two aisles, with a semicircular apse at the far end. Not exactly a church, the Kathisma is a martyrium, a special structure that functions as a church (or mosque) and marks the site of a holy event. Rather than a basilica, the church is octagonally shaped and built over a flat, protruding rock in the center. There are 3 concentric octagons, the innermost one around the rock, the second a walkway (ambulatoria) with one chapel and the outer one made up of 4 chapels and smaller rooms.

The floors are covered in mosaics in geometric and floral designs in white, black, yellow, green and red stone tesserae. The mosaics have been mostly covered with felt mats and sand to protect them.

Kathisma palm mosaic from Arab period, IAA

One of the finest mosaics is from the Arab period, an ornate mosaic of a date palm in the southeastern corner. According to the Koran, Mary sat and rested under a palm during the onset of her labor.

There are ruins of another octagonally shaped church at Capernaum. The remains of a 5thC church were uncovered that consist of a central octagon with eight pillars, an exterior octagon with thresholds still in situ, and a portico. Later an apse with a pool for baptism was constructed in the middle of the east wall. The central octagon was placed directly on top of the walls of Simon Peter’s house with the aim of preserving its exact location.

The floor of the portico is a geometric patterned mosaic. In the area of the external octagon, the mosaics represented plants and animals in a style similar to that found in the Basilica of the Heptapegon at Tabgha. In the central octagon, the mosaic was composed of a strip of flowers, a field of fish with small flowers and a circle with a peacock in the center.

Another church that is octagon-shaped and crowned by a copper dome though enclosed in a rectangular envelope is the church on the Mount of Beatitudes. The church is from 1938 and was designed by the Italian architect Antonio Barluzzi in neo-Renaissance (Byzantine) style.

He chose the octagonal shape to match the eight beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1-5) and on the eight stained glass windows beneath the dome are verses from the Sermon.

There are only a couple of other churches that have been built over a rock, the Basilica of the Agony and the Basilica of the Heptapegon but neither is an octagon.

According to our understanding the Kathisma church was renovated in the 6thC and used as a mosque in the 8thC after which it was destroyed. 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 and existed at the time of Abd el-Malik who commissioned the building of the Dome of the Rock, a martyrium in octagon shape over a rock – it may have been the inspiration for what has been called the earliest example of Islamic architecture.