The monastery and its church were built in the 5th century, staying in use throughout the Byzantine period. This being a major pilgrimage site, a number of buildings were built for the accommodation of pilgrims as well as the local monastic community, all surrounded by walls and other fortifications. In 614 the Sassanian (Persian) armies invaded Palestine laying waste to most of its Christian churches and monasteries, including the one at Kursi. The church was later rebuilt, but part of the destroyed settlement was left in its ruined state. The church continued functioning under Muslim rule after the conquest of Palestine in 638-641 until being totally devastated by the 749 earthquake. Arab squatters used the ruins as dwellings and for storage in the 9th century, marking the end of Kursi’s use as a Christian pilgrimage site.
The monastery is surrounded by a rectangular stone wall measuring 145 x 123 metres. The entrance facing the Sea of Galilee was guarded by a watchtower, and a paved road led down to a harbour where Christian boats could berth. Once inside the wall the pilgrims had the choice of going first to a luxurious bath house (excavated area to the left/north of the entrance), or going straight to the centrally placed church. 24 x 45 metre in size, the church was entered through a forecourt opening onto an atrium or inner courtyard, followed by the church proper which was flanked on both sides by chapels and auxiliary rooms.
The church is of the basilica type, with two rows of columns separating it into a nave and two aisles. The mosaic floor of the nave consists of geometrical designs, while the lateral aisles once contained medallions with depictions of the local flora and fauna; most of these have been destroyed, probably after the Muslim invasion, but some are still visible, such as geese, doves, cormorants and fish, citrons, dates, pomegranates and grapes.
The baptistery chapel on the southern side of the central apse has a small baptism font and the mosaic floor includes an inscription indicating that it has been laid in the year 585. A staircase (not accessible to visitors) leads from the southern end of the narthex to a crypt used for burials, where archaeologists found several complete skeletons. Among the rooms on the northern side there is one containing an olive press. The atrium is largely built over a large cistern, as one can see from the two well heads; a ladder leading down to the cistern is not accessible to visitors.
A small Byzantine chapel stood outside the main compound, on the hill to the south. Here a large boulder was probably considered to be the exact site of the miracle. Remains were discovered of what might have been a tower built around the boulder and of a chapel squeezed in between the hillside and the boulder. Three distinct layers of mosaic floor and an apse were excavated here.
The ruins of the monastery were first discovered during road construction in 1970. A major excavation took place between 1971 and 1974 by the Israel Antiquities Authority by the Israeli archaeologist Dan Urman and his Greek colleague Vassilios Tzaferis. They excavated the site which was found to be the largest Byzantine monastic complex found in Israel. Further excavations have since been taking place, the marble-lined bath-house being one of the more recent discoveries.
The church has been reconstructed to a degree which allows the visitor to understand its three-dimensional shape and size.
Christian artefacts from Kursi can be viewed at the Golan Archaeological Museum.
Location: At the junction of Highways 92 and 789
Hours: Sun-Thu. 8:00-17:00
NB: The museum closes one hour earlier on Fridays and the day before holidays, and from October to April.