Kursi (also known as Gergesa) is an ancient settlement and a national park on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee. It is traditionally recognized as the place where Jesus’ “Miracle of the Swine” took place. According to the New Testament of the Christian Bible, Jesus performed an exorcism on a man who was possessed by demons. Jesus drove the demons out the man and into a herd of swine, causing the animals to run into a lake and drown themselves.
Kursi used to be a major pilgrimage site. A large monastery and its church were built during the Byzantine period, and other buildings were constructed to accommodate the pilgrims as well as the monastic community.
The church was destroyed by the invading Persians in 614 A.D. It was later rebuilt and continued functioning for many years under Muslim rule until it was devastated by an earthquake in 749 A.D.
In the 9th century A.D., Arab squatters used the church’s ruins as their home and also as storage and dwelling for their animals. Eventually, the ruins were abandoned, marking the end of Kursi’s reputation as a Christian pilgrimage site.
Byzantine-era monastic complex
Kursi’s renewed status as an archaeological site and national park is pretty recent. It was re-discovered in 1970 when the ruins of the Byzantine monastery were unearthed by a construction crew. Together, the crew members performed several further excavations, which later revealed a Byzantine monastic complex. Covering 1.8 hectares, the monastic complex was the largest of the kind found in Israel – and it still is.
Situated behind the monastery are the ruins of a nearby chapel, built into a cave overlooking a huge boulder that is enclosed by a stone wall. It was later identified as the site where Jesus’ “Miracle of the Swine” probably took place.
Further excavations revealed a church (discussed earlier), a baptistery, an oil press, and a number of fortifications. In 2002, the skeletons of around 30 monks were discovered – they were buried in a crypt beneath the central chapel. Bronze bracelets, bronze buckles, an assortment of weapons, bone plaques, intricately engraved iron rings and a bell were also discovered from the tombs.
The presence of the olive oil press in the complex suggests that olive oil production was likely to be the monastery’s major source of income.
One of the significant discoveries at the ancient monastic complex is the intricate and beautiful mosaic floor, whose designs depict animal and plant life. Doves, fish, geese, roosters, bananas, figs, grapes, pomegranates and watermelons have all been spotted.
When the Arabs used the ruins of the church as their dwelling, all of the precious animal and plant mosaics were obliterated, probably as a compliance with the Islamic prohibition against human or animal representations in art.
Hostel for the pilgrims
Apart from the monastic complex, archaeologists have also unearthed a guesthouse and bathhouse for the pilgrims. Numerous household utilities – pottery, bowls, cooking pots, and oil lamps, among others – have also been uncovered.
In 2015, archaeologists excavated another building, which was assumed to have been part of a synagogue. Large slabs of shattered marble, also found in the same building, were inscribed in Aramaic.
Shortly after excavating the fragments, archaeologists deciphered the two words: “amen” and “marmaria,” with the latter word literally meaning “marble.” Some scholars interpret it as probably linked with the cult of the Virgin Mary. They assume that the words mean “Maria’s (great) rabbi,” since “mar” means “rabbi.”