13.The Palm Tree, the Church of Kathisma and the Dome of the Rock

The Gospel recounts: “Now when they had departed (the Magi), behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there till I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ And he rose and took the child and his mother by night, and retired into Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod” (Matthew 2, 13-15).
The apocryphal account in pseudo-Mathew, which dates from the end of the 6th century or the start of the 7th, recounts that the child Jesus (‘Issa) obtained on the road of the flight to Egypt the miracle that a palm tree bowed and restored with its fruits the holy family. “Then Jesus (‘Issa) told him: ‘Straighten yourself, palm tree, strengthen yourself and be the companion of the trees that I possess in the paradise of my father’ and it was then that the roots of this same palm tree put forth sources of water limpid and sweet, ‘and they drank with their beasts and their servants while giving thanks to God” (Pseudo-Matthew 20,1-2). [1]

We find again in the Koran this tradition of a palm tree in the sura “Maryam” where the child ‘Issa (Jesus) says to Maryam: “Shake toward you the trunk of the palm tree: you will make dates fresh and ripe fall on you. Eat and drink and may your eye be dry! As soon as you see a mortal say: ‘I vow to the Lord a fast and will talk to no human being today!’” (s. 19, 24-25).

A certain place brings together the two traditions, one situating the history of the palm tree during the flight to Egypt, and the other situating it at the moment of the birth of ’Issa [2]. This place is the church of Kathisma which was situated between Jerusalem and Bethlehem and whose foundations have been recently rediscovered.

Palm tree

The search in the church of Kathisma have revealed three levels, the most ancient from the first half of the 5th century, the second from the start of the 6th century, and the third from the start of the 7th century. In one some pieces (at the southeast of the exterior octagon), the mosaic represents a great palm tree, flanked with two smaller palm trees – which makes a direct reference to the apocryphal Christian account and the Koranic story.

Yet more significant: the searches have given us an exact idea: it was an octagon surrounding a rock, the one on which the most holy Virgin Mary (Maryam the very pure) would have reposed herself on the way. This rock is thus the center, just as in the actual Dome of the Rock, another octagon encircles another rock. This Dome, called also the “mosque of ‘Umar,” was constructed at the extreme end of the 7th century (under Abd Al-Malik) and was evidently inspired by the church of Kathisma, which was then razed.

En comparaison kathisme rocher

The archaeology and history of the palm tree must not make us forget the important message. Bethlehem is a holy land, the greatest in the eyes of God and of humanity, because it is the place of the birth of Al-Massih, the Word of God. But because of an incommensurable good from this coming of the Word of God, the hatred of Satan unchained itself. Inspired by him, Herod massacred all the infants of Bethlehem; but Al-Massih and his mother Maryam escaped hm by their flight to Egypt.

 And this message concerns us today. In our time, Shaytan inspires again the massacres of thousands of children under bombs and missiles and other means. Just like 2000 years ago, there is no human compensation possible, and the cycle of vengeance is an impasse. We must follow the way of the shepherds of Bethlehem. Mournful, they knew to await Al-Massih who would take on him the breaking of evil – by the wounds of his Passion and the tears of his holy mother – saving thus the world by the power of Love.


[1] J. Gijsel, in F. Bovon et P. Geoltrain (éds), Écrits apocryphes chrétiens (I), La Pléiades, Paris 1997, p. 138.

[2] Cf. Guillaume DYE, « Lieux saints communs, partagés ou confisqués : aux sources de quelques péricopes coraniques (Q 19 : 16-33) », dans Partage du sacré : transferts, dévotions mixtes, rivalités interconfessionnelles, sous la direction d’Isabelle Dépret et Guillaume Dye, Bruxelles-Fernelmont, EME, 2012, pp. 55-121.