Bathhouse Uncovered At Kursi

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Early Pilgrimage Site Marks “Swine Miracle”
Judith Sudilovsky, Jerusalem

Excavators at Kursi, on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee, believe the site may have been the earliest pilgrimage destination for Christians visiting the Holy Land. They have also recently found evidence that Christian pilgrims were slaughtered there in 614 A.D. by the invading Persian army.

A team of archaeologists from the Jerusalem Center for Biblical Studies uncovered a late Roman-period (third-early fourth century) bathhouse complex near a previously excavated Byzantine monastery. Inside the 26-by-36 foot bathhouse were three dozen women’s rings and other pieces of jewelry.

“Why would there be a bathhouse in a monastery? Why women’s rings?” asked excavation co-director Charles Page. “The bathhouse was built for Western pilgrims and the jewelry belonged to them. This is the beginning of a center for Western Christian pilgrimage to the Holy Land. We believe it may have been the largest center other than the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.”

The fourth-century monastery at Kursi (Biblical Gergesa) marks the spot where Jesus is said to have performed his “miracle of the swine,” in which he drove the unclean spirits out of a raving man and into a nearby herd of swine. The presence of the bathhouse at Kursi suggests that there may have been an inn at the site run by the monks, who would have earned income for the monastery by accommodating pilgrims.

Though a typical Roman bathhouse contains four rooms, at Kursi only two rooms—a caldarium (hot bath) and a frigidarium (cold bath)—have been unearthed so far. If there were additional baths at Kursi, they would lie east of excavated structures. However, it is possible that the bathhouse had only two rooms because the monks who built it did not have enough money for a full bathhouse.

In addition to jewelry, archaeologists found coins, glass bottles (two of them intact) and oil lamps, including a rare seven-wick polycandalon lamp. They also discovered a cache of Persian weapons: spears, iron points for spears, arrowheads, a sword and a scythe that was probably used for beheading people.

Page and excavation codirector Vassilios Tzaferis believe the jewelry found at Kursi belonged to the seventh-century pilgrims who were killed by Persian invaders. “When the Persians came it seems they destroyed every church and monastery, and killed the Christians,” said Page. “The presence of all the jewelry suggests that men, women and children sought refuge from the Persians behind the walls of the monastery complex, but the Persians were so strong they broke through.”

Next season, the team plans to investigate rooms under a church on the northeast section of the property, which may be a necropolis. Page is also intrigued by a building entrance north of the bathhouse, discovered at the end of last year’s excavation. This entrance could lead to the inn that may have been at the site.

“Another good ten years’ worth of work lies ahead of us,” Page said.

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