Kursi – The Gerasene Site of Jesus’ Miracle on the East Side of Lake Galilee by Vassilios Tzaferis

Almost from the beginning of Christianity, the area around the Sea of Galilee has been a major focus of Christian pilgrimage, a focus second only to Jerusalem. To the Galilee flocked not only pilgrims, but also monks and scholars, searching for the places that Jesus had known.

Sites such as Capernaum, the center of Jesus’ mission before he left for Jerusalem; Bethsaida, the birthplace of the apostles Andrew, Peter and Philip; Magdala, the home of Mary Magdalene; Tabga, where the miracle of the multiplication of loaves and fishes occurred; and the Sea of Galilee itself—all are places that to the Christian recall events connected with Jesus’ life, the miracles he performed and the sacred words he uttered.

Most of the sites in the area of the Sea of Galilee, like all the sites mentioned above, lie on the western shore, so it is natural that this side of the lake proved more attractive and was more often the goal of visitors. This is true even today. Some of these sites, such as Capernaum, have a continuous and uninterrupted place in the history of Christian pilgrimage, beginning as far back as the first centuries of our era. Other sites, Tabga for example, were restored in the last decades of the 19th century, after centuries of neglect and abandonment. Still other pilgrimage sites, such as Magdala, have been only recently rediscovered by archaeological excavations after having been entirely forgotten for more than a thousand years.

In contrast to the western shore, the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee has usually lain outside the area of the Christian pilgrim’s principal interest. Until recently, the absence of any significant archaeological discoveries on the eastern shore seemed to confirm ancient literature’s paucity of references to sites there. As a result of excavations by the Israel Department of Antiquities and Museums, however, it is becoming quite clear that the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee also played an important role in early Christian pilgrimages.

One of the most significant sites on the eastern shore is the place where the so-called swine miracle is thought to have occurred. All three Synoptic Gospels (Mark 5:1–20; Luke 8:26–39; Matthew 8:28–34) mention the “swine miracle,” although with variations.

After stilling the storm while crossing the Sea of Galilee, Jesus lands with his disciples on the eastern shore of the lake. There he meets a man seized with an unclean spirit (Mark) or with demons (Luke). (In Matthew, the story tells of two demoniacs.) According to Luke, the demoniac wears no clothes and lives among the tombs. The demons inside him gave him such strength that he was able to break all the chains and fetters that were intended to subdue him. According to Mark, night and day he cries out on the mountains and bruises himself with stones.

When he sees Jesus, the demoniac begs Jesus not to torment him. Jesus commands the unclean spirits to come out of him. The demons inside the man beg to be allowed to enter a nearby herd of swine, numbering about 2,000 according to Mark. Jesus agrees, so the demons or unclean spirits leave the man and enter the swine, which then “rushed down the steep bank into the lake and were drowned.”

The cured demoniac begs to accompany Jesus, but Jesus tells him to go home instead and “declare how much God has done for you.” The cured demoniac then declares to all “how much Jesus had done for him.” According to Mark, he proclaims it even in the cities of the Decapolis—“and all the men marveled.”

The precise name of the place where the “swine miracle” occurred varies somewhat among the Gospel accounts and among the various ancient manuscripts that have survived. Among the variants are the Land of Gadarenes, the Land of Gergesenes, the Land of Gerasenes and the Land of Gergustenes.

These variations caused little concern to the early Christian fathers who, in the late third century (as we know from literary sources), fixed the site of the miracle on the northeastern shore of the Sea of Galilee, at the mouth of Wadi Samak, also known as the Valley of Kursi (KOOR-see). The factors that led to this site selection were undoubtedly: (1) its location on the eastern shore of the lake; (2) its proximity to an urban center (variously named Gergessa, Gadara and Gerasa); and (3) its topographical setting, in particular the steep hill where the swine herd had presumably been grazing.

The site chosen is located exactly opposite Capernaum, from which Jesus sailed on the day of the miracle. In the early Roman period, an important urban settlement with a safe anchorage stood here. Although the ruins of this settlement, known as Tell el-Kursi, can still be seen, the site remains unexcavated.

The pilgrimage sites associated with the “swine miracle,” as opposed to the urban settlement of Tell el-Kursi, were discovered quite by accident in the late 20th century. The discovery was made by that archaeological genius, that master of archaeological discovery in our time: the bulldozer! In 1970, while clearing land for a new road to the Golan Heights, a bulldozer operated by the Ministry of Public Works turned up large quantities of Byzantine pottery and then began to unearth the ruins of ancient structures. The bulldozer was stopped and the Department of Antiquities and Museums was called in to excavate scientifically. We have now conducted five seasons of excavations at the site, during 1970–1973 and in 1980.

From the beginning of our work, it was clear that we were excavating the remains of a large, walled settlement of a religious character, undoubtedly a monastery that included a well-built basilica of exceptional quality. Nearby, halfway up the steep slope was a separate towerlike structure. When we excavated this structure in 1980, we discovered that this was the very site of the miracle, as fixed by Christians in the mid-third century.

The Valley of Kursi, or Wadi Samak, is still rich in fertile farming land. The sheltering hills provide excellent grazing areas, particularly for hogs, which are best suited to these rocky hills. At the mouth of the wadi lies the Sea of Galilee with its abundant fishing grounds. The name Samak, which means “fish” both in Aramaic (the vernacular of Jesus’ time) and in Arabic, reflects the fact that these fish were as important to the ancients as to people today.

A relatively large tell, no doubt the urban center of the area, stands about 300 yards from the monastery discovered by the bulldozer. In the small bay nearby, we can still see the remains of a well-constructed harbor used both for sea travel and by the fishing industry during the Roman period (first to fifth centuries A.D.). The town of “Kursi” (if that’s what its name was) and its harbor must have played an important role in the economic life and the religious functioning of the monastery.

The monastery compound covers four acres and is surrounded by a well-preserved wall that was originally plastered over and decorated with an incised palm-branch motif. From the late fifth to the early seventh centuries, all four sides of the compound had entrances. However, later, probably after the Persian invasion in 614 A.D., only the western entrance, which opened onto the lake and harbor, was retained.

Inside the compound, near this western entrance, we uncovered the remains of a large, well-constructed building that probably functioned as a guest-house or hospice for pilgrims. In the northern part of the enclosure, we excavated the remains of the residential quarters of the monastery compound.

The settlement was quite well planned and carefully organized. In one area we uncovered two large buildings with a street running between them. Drains in the street reflect a high standard of living, as do the pottery and various other small finds such as coins and decorated glass vessels.

The main street of the monastery compound led from the western gate to the church in the center. This street was over 25 feet wide and was paved with carefully cut, black basalt stones. The street terminated at the courtyard in front of the church. This courtyard provided an impressive space to meet, talk and rest—perhaps on the low benches whose remains we found on the western side.

The church itself is, of course, the most impressive structure in the monastery compound. It dominates the center of the compound and covers a spacious area of 12,110 square feet.

Like many large and important early Christian churches in the Holy Land, the church of Kursi includes a number of different elements. At the center is a large prayer hall in the form of a basilica. Rows of columns separate the central nave from the aisles on either side. At the end of the nave is a semicircular apse. Rooms known as pastophoria, which played an important part in the ritual and the liturgy, flank the apse. The northern one, called the prothesis, housed the offerings of the faithful; the southern one, called the diaconicon, provided storage space for the sacred vessels and the vestments of the clergy. During the second half of the sixth century, the diaconicon was remodeled to house a baptistery.

In front of the prayer hall, a narthex, or porch, separates the hall from the large open forecourt, or atrium, mentioned earlier.

The rooms on each side of the prayer hall were used for auxiliary purposes. In the rooms north of the prayer hall, we found an oil-press, including the crushing, pressing and collecting components. The production of oil served as a popular source of income for monastic communities and settlements at Christian holy places. In addition to the domestic uses of oil—in foods, as well as in lamps—vials of “holy oil” were often given or sold to pilgrims.

Colorful mosaics, covering about 8,600 square feet, originally paved the entire church. Only about 60 percent have survived, but this is enough to attest that the mosaics in the church at Kursi exemplified mosaic art in its finest tradition.

Unfortunately, the most severe damage to the mosaics occurred in the nave. Fragments of an elaborate border, however, remain intact. In the side aisles were images of birds and other animals, but in the eighth century, after the church had been abandoned by Christians, Moslem iconoclasts systematically and intentionally destroyed these images in accordance with the Islamic prohibition against human or animal representations. A few birds escaped the iconoclasts’ blows, however, because they lay under fallen columns or under entranceways that had been blocked, and therefore had avoided notice. We discovered these images when we lifted the columns and reopened the blocked doorways.

Most of the mosaic motifs at Kursi are typical of the Byzantine period. These motifs were taken from artists’ notebooks that were used throughout the Mediterranean world, not only during the Byzantine period, but also before and after.

Only the mosaic in the baptistery can be dated with certainty. A dedicatory inscription contains the date 685 A.D. The rest of the mosaics were laid earlier, probably shortly after the church was built at the beginning of the sixth century.

The monastery compound lies at the foot of a hill, on a plain by the Sea of Galilee. About halfway up the hill is the towerlike structure mentioned earlier. According to local tradition, the ruins of this structure bore the name of “Gersa” or “Gursa.” The walls of the structure are more than 3 feet thick. The structure itself consists of two parts.

The lower part simply encloses a huge boulder, over 22 feet high. In some places, the wall actually touches the boulder. It is as if this chamber (which once had a tower) was built to protect or preserve the boulder. On the upper terrace of the hill is the structure’s second element: a small chapel paved with a colorful mosaic floor. The chapel has an apse constructed within a natural rock shelter. Smooth plaster covered the rock walls of the apse. Within the apse is a bench subdivided into semicircular, plastered seats. A person seated on this bench beholds, through the chapel’s small prayer hall, an excellent view of the enclosed rock on the terrace below, and, from there, of the monastery at the bottom of the hill and the Sea of Galilee beyond.

This two-terraced structure, consisting of a memorial, or landmark, tower and a chapel above, undoubtedly was thought to mark the very site of the miracle that cured the demoniac. By protecting the boulder with a massive tower and building a chapel behind and above it, the early Christian fathers both commemorated and sanctified a site that Christian pilgrims could relate to the life of Jesus.

Based on the archaeological evidence, the history of the site may be summarized as follows:

The monastery compound with the large church, as well as the tower and the chapel of the miracle, were built in the late fifth or early sixth century. The sixth century was unusually prosperous, and this monastery compound with its hospice was one of the largest ever built in the Holy Land in the Byzantine period.

The prosperity of the sixth century abruptly ended with the Persian invasion in 614 A.D. Although the site was severely damaged, life continued as before, but with a lower living standard. Some of the auxiliary rooms of the church and its chapels were closed off completely; others were converted to domestic or industrial use. At this time the residential area was clustered around the church, and most of the former residential quarters were left unrepaired and unsettled.

The Moslem conquest followed shortly thereafter in the seventh century. Pilgrimage was cut off and with it a major source of income.

In the middle of the eighth century, probably as a result of the disastrous earthquake of 746/747, the monastery was destroyed. Its Christian residents then abandoned it. Nevertheless, life continued at Kursi. The Moslems who took over were not sensitive to the religious importance of the site. Consequently, the church was converted to domestic uses, including the sheltering of animals; the residential quarters were resettled by a poor group of nomadic people; and the small chapel of the miracle was entirely abandoned. Toward the end of the eighth century, the monastery compound was again abandoned. Settlers in the valley thereafter confined themselves to the area immediately on the shore. Soon after the site’s final abandonment, alluvial soil from the Wadi Samak covered this important Christian holy place. Kursi disappeared entirely until a bulldozer rediscovered it more than a thousand years later.