Travel to northern Israel, to the eastern bank of the Sea of Galilee at the foot of the Golan Heights, and visit Kursi National Park, the site of the largest Byzantine monastery complex and basilica excavated in Israel. Protected within the Kursi National Park is a treasure trove of ancient structures dating back approximately 1,500 years.
Tradition holds that Kursi was the site where Jesus performed the Miracle of the Swine and the excavations indicate that a Judeo-Christian community lived here in c. 500 AD. The Jewish Talmud tells of Rabbi Jacob Ben Kurshi who came from a town called Kurshi and it lists Kurshi as one of the towns inhabited by gentiles during Jesus’ lifetime.
The Miracle of the Swine
During his ministry in Galilee, Jesus went from village to village preaching the word of God and it was in Kursi that Jesus performed one of his many miracles. Mark 5:1-20, Matthew 8:28-34, and Luke 8:26-39 tell how Jesus went into the land of Gadarenes, on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee, and was approached by a man who implored Jesus to rid him of the evil spirits that possessed him. Jesus performed an exorcism, driving the evil spirits out of the man and causing them to possess a herd of swine that was grazing nearby. The herd then charged into the sea and drowned.
Archaeological Discoveries at Kursi
Ruins of the ancient settlement of Kursi were accidentally found during the construction of the road that circles the Sea of Galilee. The most important findings included the remains of a monastery and church dating back to the Byzantine era of the 5th-6th century. The church’s mosaic floor was beautifully preserved and revealed geometric mosaic designs, depictions of animals, and an inscription indicating that the floor was laid in 585 AD during the reign of Emperor Mauricius.
The Christian compound was damaged during the Persian invasion of 614 AD and in 741 AD an earthquake destroyed the structures. 7th century Arabs rulers allowed Christians to renovate the monastery and continue living in Kursi but after the Great Earthquake of 749, the monastery was abandoned for the final time. Excavation to the east of the basilica revealed a small chapel built into a cave. This is now known as the Holy Rock and may have been where Jesus performed the Miracle of the Swine. From the Holy Rock, there are views across the Samakh River Valley and the Sea of Galilee. North of the basilica is the remains of a Byzantine Era bathhouse.
In further excavations, a structure was uncovered that may have been a synagogue. It held a shattered slab of marble inscribed in Aramaic; this was the first marble tablet of its kind ever discovered in an ancient synagogue in Israel and confirmed that Jews and Christians shared the Kursi settlement.
The Kursi Monastery
The Byzantine monastery compound was surrounded by a large wall that separated the Christian inhabitants from the surrounding Jewish settlement. The monastery courtyard had houses, farming facilities, homes, public buildings, and a pilgrims’ hostel for Christians who came to see the site of Jesus’s miracle.
The basilica had two rows of six columns with marble Corinthian capitals. Archaeologists uncovered a stone chest for relics where the altar would have been; a baptistery room and a burial cave beneath the church containing the remains of 30 males. The most outstanding feature to survive is the mosaic floor. It depicts flora and fauna including fruit trees, vines, geese, cormorants, doves, and cockerels.
The remains of the Kursi monastery complex have been tastefully restored so that visitors to Kursi National Park can get a good understanding of the layout and size of this impressive Byzantine monastery and basilica.