COVER STORY

Palestine


The Memory
of that Journey

 

Even today, at Christmas, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem stops every year on his way to Bethlehem at the resting-place of the Virgin Mary. Interview with Diodoros I

by Gianni Valente


     The Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, 74-year-old Diodoros I, is the leader of the largest Christian community in the Holy Land. Over the past few weeks he was filmed by international television networks as he pointed with his crook to the rock of repose, the place where according to Tradition Our Lady took a brief rest on the road that was to lead her to Bethlehem just before the birth of Jesus.

     You were the only Christian authority to visit the archaeological excavations of the Church of the Kathisma. What special devotion binds the Orthodox Church of Jerusalem with this place?
     DIODOROS I: As Patriarch of Jerusalem, carrier of the ancient Tradition of the Church and leading the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, We are responsible for all monasteries and holy places which are rooted in the early Christian Church. The excavation of the Kathisma Church was executed out of our concern and with our blessing on this land which is under the ownership of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate. In the local Orthodox Tradition the resting place of the Virgin Mary has been known since the early centuries and is still practised today.

lineaR.gif (47 byte) Additional major Christian excavations launched

Paul at the Port of Caesarea

     Of all the recent archaeological digs regarding Christian memory, a major excavation is under way at the port of Caesarea where large sections of a building complex dateable at between the first and third centuries have come to light, believed to have been the ancient Roman Praetorium.
     The Acts of the Apostles recall that Saint Paul was led before the Roman governor in a tribunal at Caesarea and imprisoned before being sent to Rome. Yosef Porat, director of the Caesarea excavations, told 30DAYS: "The tribunal and the prison where Paul was held can be reasonably presumed to have been in the administrative section of the Praetorium, not yet uncovered. In order to bring it to light, the area of the dig will have to be extended. To date, the work has been financed by the Israeli Government and was suspended at the end of October because of a lack of funds. So any financial sponsorship to continue would be very welcome".

     Are there any traces and commemorations of Mary's resting-place on the road to Bethlehem in the liturgical tradition and Marian devotion of the Jerusalem Church?
     DIODOROS I: The episode of the Virgin Mary's repose on the stone on her way to Bethlehem is mentioned in the apocryphal Gospel of Jacob (3, 17) and witnesses of this tradition are mentioned by the Church historians Eusebius and Simeon Metafrast in Acta Sanctorum in reference to the life of St. Theodosius and by Cyril of Skythopolis.
     Is the memory of this place and of this episode still alive in popular devotions?
     DIODOROS I: The Orthodox Church has authentically maintained this tradition to the present day. Every year on Christmas Eve the Greek Orthodox Patriarch stops with his entourage at this place to rest on his way to Bethlehem for the Feast of Christmas (cf the magazine Nea Sion 1994, pages 227-238).
     Are there any frescos or paintings depicting this repose of Mary on the stone?
     DIODOROS I: As far as we know there are specific icons or paintings representing the episode which took place in the Kathisma.
     The Monastery of Saint Elias was built close to the place of the Kathisma. Does monastery life conserve any special memory of devotion at the Kathisma?
     DIODOROS I: The monks of this nearby Orthodox Monastery of the Prophet Elias maintain only the memory of the episode as it is presented in the old tradition by the early Church historians and by Christmas Eve custom.
     The excavations have now been suspended, yet there is still work to be done on the site. Would it be of use if Christians from other countries were to provide financial support so that the dig could continue?
     DIODOROS I: The Greek Orthodox Church may accept donations from anyone who would like to contribute to the revival of this holy place. Donations should be offered directly to the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate for the continuation of these works which were recently suspended.

lineaR.gif (47 byte) THE ARCHAEOLOGIST. Interview with Rina Avner whose dig uncovered the Kathisma Basilica

A Place of Interest also for Jews

Rina Avner, the Israeli Antiquities Authority archaeologist, led and coordinated the excavation of the Basilica of the Kathisma.

     What were the most interesting elements to emerge in the dig at the Kathisma site?
     RINA AVNER: The plan of the church includes a central octagon and at its heart there is a rock which is still slightly raised today with respect to the surrounding terrain - to about eight centimeters. The central octagon is bordered by two circles of columns forming a sort of corridor where pilgrims probably walked when they came to pray at the rock of Mary's resting-place. Towards the exterior, there are four chapels at the four corners, north-east, south-east, north-west, south-west. The principal apse is projected eastwards outside of the octagon. The entire structure was 43 meters broad and 52 meters long. In the last phase of the excavations we discovered that there are three floor levels with mosaics. The upper level has geometric mosaics and in one room the mosaic design represents a palm tree. These mosaics seem to be similar in style to those of the Mosque of the Rock, built by Moslems on the site of the ancient Jewish temple of Jerusalem. These similarities could be indications that the church of the Kathisma was still used in the first Arab period, and that it might have served as a model for the construction of the Mosque of the Rock, which is also a polygon. The church of the Kathisma is mentioned often in the early accounts of the travels of Christian pilgrims. Topographically, too, it was built along the most obvious and easiest route for a road between Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
     The excavations have now been suspended because of a lack of funds. How do you think to continue?
     AVNER: We have had to close the site, covering it up because there have been attempts to steal the remains brought to light and because the rainy season was on the way. Now we are planning to hold a series of meetings on how to go about getting donations in order to start work again, to complete the dig and to preserve what has been found so that the site could be opened for pilgrims to visit; this, also in view of the Holy Year. In my experience, this place is not only of interest to Christians. In the course of the excavations, many orthodox Jewish colonists came and showed great interest.
     Were the Kathisma excavations carried out with the collaboration of the Orthodox Patriarchate?
     AVNER: The site of the Kathisma is on land owned by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate. We worked in total collaboration with them and we will also join forces in planning the next phase of the work. I also hope that they will help us find financing. We have also received a letter from the Israeli Ministry of Tourism guaranteeing us its support.

Edited by Lorenzo Bianchi