Jerusalem -- The caretaker of a parking lot on the Hebron Road needed water to wash his trucks, so he ran an underground pipe through an adjacent olive grove to the nearest tap. That soon brought the Israel Antiquities Authority. In an area where you can't poke into the ground without disturbing some shard of ages past, no digging can be done without a preliminary check by the agency.
Two yards down, archeologists came upon fine Byzantine osaic floors. The dig uncovered the shape of an octagonal church centered on a large, flat rock. Last week, two months after they began, the archeologists grandly announced they had discovered the site of the church at the Kathisma, Greek for "seat," the stone early Christians had venerated because of the tradition that the Virgin Mary rested there on her way to Bethlehem to give birth to Jesus Christ.
The Kathisma became a way station for pilgrims taking the Hebron Road to Bethlehem. In the 5th century, a devout and wealthy Greek woman named Ikelia donated funds for a church on the spot, and a monastery arose narby. The floors found last month included a well-preserved rendering of a palm tree in rich yellows and greens, which are unusual colors for the period, according to Rina Avner and Yuval Baruch, the archeologists who led the excavation. The octagonal shape itself was uncommon for the Holy Land, prompting the experts to speculate that it might have served as the inspiration for the Dome of the Rock, the magnificent octagonal shrine raised by theUmayyad caliphs over the rock from which the Prophet Muhammed dreamed to ascending to heaven. By the 12th century pilgrims reported that the church was gone.
A Problem of Funds
So after identifying the Kathisma, the archeologists prepared to rebury it. The problem was not ideology or religious sensitivity or lack of interest. On the contrary, Ms. Avner spoke with escitement about how she suspected that the site was the Kathisma in 1993 while researching a corner of it in advance of the widening of the Hebron Road.
The problem was simply money.
In a land where civilizations and religions have thrived and struggled for four millennia, the earth is so richly layered in artifacts, buildings and bones that archeology often seems less a science than a frantic race against road-building and construction (the Kathisma site was being considered for a service station).
"About 90 percent of all excavations in Israel are not research oriented," said Raphael Greenberg, an archeologist with the Antiquities Authority. "They're salvage operations." Israeli law requires anyone doing any excavation to coordinate it with the Antiquities Authority, and if anything ancient turns up, the work is supposed to stop until archeologists investigate. But there is little Government money for extensive digs; most comes from universities or foundations.
Contractors, who resent the stoppages, press for work to resume as soon as possible. Ultra-Orthodox Jews, who consider any disturbance of Jewish bones to be a violation of Jewish law, are another constant obstacle. They battle fierceley - sometimes violently - if they suspect anyone is digging up a burial site. When archeologists mistakenly believed that they had found a burial site of the ancient Hasmoneans in November 1995, thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews staged a demonstration in which they put a ritual curse on the Minister of Education, who oversees archeology, that his hand might wither if he carried on.
Even with all these obstacles, Mr. Greenberg said, there are between 200 and 300 excavations every year, "more than anyone can really digest."
The Kathisma church is fortunate. There are no Jewish bones for the ultra-Orthodox to defend, no contractors losing money. There is also full support from the landowner, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, the descendant of the ancient Byzantine church and owner of the nearby St. Elias Monastery and its olive groves.
Metropolitan Timothy of the Greek Patriarchate proudly noted that the discovery confirmed the ancient tradition of the church: the Patriarch always stops to rest at St. Elias on his annual Christmas visit to Bethlehem. "This excavation supports our tradition and our presence here, and how faithfully we have kept them," he said.
None of that would have saved the Kathisma from reburial had money not ben found. The Minister of Tourism, Moshe Katsav, was persuaded that with the approach of 2000, the year in which millions of pilgrims and tourists are expected in the Holy Land, the Kathisma could provide a powerful added attraction.
Thus it came to pass in a time of great strife in the Holy Land that the past arose from the ashes of time and brought together the forces of science, religion and government to chalk up a fleeting victory against the present. Only the old gnarled olive trees would have to go - and the trucks would remain unwashed.