Revealed: Where Mary rested on her way to Bethlehem

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Archaeologists claim to have uncovered the rock that was venerated throughout the first Christian millennium as the place where Mary, pregnant with Jesus, rested on her journey to Bethlehem. Eric Silver in Jerusalem visits a likely place of pilgrimage for the start of the third.

The Greek Orthodox patriarch of Jerusalem, Diodoros, scratched the sign of the cross on a nobbly outcrop of limestone just east of the Jerusalem-Bethlehem road yesterday, and blessed the Israeli archaeologists who had unearthed it.

The stout, white-bearded cleric was setting his seal of approval on a new pilgrim focus for the millennium. What Rina Avner and her excavating team had rediscovered was a rock revered from 1st to 11th centuries as the spot where the weary Virgin Mary rested on her five-mile trek from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, a few hours before giving birth to Jesus. It is known in Greek as Kathisma, the Seat.

"This is the rock," the patriarch asserted with the confidence of his faith, and led priests in a hymn to the mother of Christ. Whether Mary ever sat on it is beyond proof, but there is enough evidence to convince the Church, the archaeologists and a sceptical press conference that this is indeed the rock which early Christians identified as the place where she rested.

The rock, about 7ft by 10ft, is at the centre of a massive octagonal Byzantine church that is also being uncovered for the first time since it was destroyed in 1009 by the notoriously anti-Christian caliph, el Hakim. The limestone sticks up a few inches above the surrounding floor.

"This was the centre of veneration," Patriarch Diodoros explained. "Our ancestors transmitted to us from mouth to mouth down the centuries that this was the place of the Kathisma."

The tradition has persisted to the present day, though the precise location was not known. Every year, the Greek patriarch pauses here, in an ancient olive grove north of the Mar Elias monastery, to honour the Virgin during his Christmas procession from Jerusalem to Bethlehem.

The church, one of the biggest, earliest and most magnificent shrines dedicated to Mary in the Holy Land, was built in the mid-5th Century with money donated by a rich widow called Iqilia. It covered about 180 sq ft, with a central apse, pillared walkway from which worshippers could view the Kathisma, and a cluster of outer chapels with decorated mosaic floors.

The site was first identified in a salvage dig when the Jerusalem-Bethlehem road was being widened in 1992, but there was neither will nor money to investigate further. The Israeli Antiquities Authority, and the Greek church, which owns the land, is determined now to complete the excavation and develop the site in time for the Holy Land 2000 celebrations.