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The Sites

Israel and Palestine – In Jerusalem

Israel and Palestine – Outside Jerusalem

Jordan

Egypt

Extras

Jerash

Jordan

 

Jerash, one of the largest and best-preserved Roman cities in the Middle East, lies in a broad valley among the biblical mountains of Gilead, about 50 kilometres north of the Jordanian capital, Amman.

Ruins of ancient Jerash with modern city in the background (Britchi Mirela / Wikimedia)

Ruins of ancient Jerash with modern city in the background (Britchi Mirela / Wikimedia)

Under the name of Gerasa, it was one of the 10 cities of the Decapolis. This league of Greek cities, which came under Roman control in the 1st century BC, is mentioned in the New Testament.

People from the predominantly pagan Decapolis followed Jesus during his ministry in Galilee (Matthew 4:23-25). Although Jesus visited the region (Mark 7:31), there is no evidence that he entered Gerasa.

The city became Christian in the Byzantine period, when its 25,000 inhabitants had more than 20 churches and bishops who took part in early Church councils. Ruins of most of the churches can still be seen.

Conquests by Persians and Muslims in the 7th century, followed by devastating earthquakes in the 8th century, caused the city to be abandoned. It was rediscovered only at the beginning of the 19th century, remarkably preserved after being buried in sand for centuries.

 

Triumphal arch stands outside city

Hadrian’s Arch (Zairon / Wikimedia)

Hadrian’s Arch (Zairon / Wikimedia)

Jerash is divided by the Wadi Jerash, with the ancient city on the west side of the valley and the modern city — dating from the first half of the 20th century — on the east.

Outside the ancient city’s South Gate stands a grand triumphal arch with three openings, built to mark a visit by the emperor Hadrian in AD 129-130.

Adjacent to this is a hippodrome, constructed in the 2nd century for horse and chariot races, with a seating capacity of 15,000.

This 245-metre by 52-metre arena is now the venue for the twice-daily (except Tuesdays) Roman Army and Chariot Experience, in which authentically dressed actors perform as legionaries, gladiators and chariot drivers.

Oval Plaza at Jerash (Zairon / Wikimedia)

Oval Plaza at Jerash (Zairon / Wikimedia)

Inside the ancient city, the Temple of Zeus at the south end of the cardo overlooks a vast colonnaded Oval Plaza that served as Jerash’s forum. Nearby is the South Theatre, seating more than 3000 spectators and still in use.

The main street, the Cardo Maximus, extends for 800 metres in a northerly direction from the Oval Plaza.

Halfway along the Cardo, a monumental staircase leads to an esplanade with the remains of an open-air altar. Beyond are the tall Corinthian columns of the hilltop Temple of Artemis, which dominated the city. To the right is the North Theatre.

An abundance of churches

Jerash had more than 20 churches, all built between AD 368 and AD 611, with some even sharing walls. Their abundance may be due to a practice of the Byzantine Church — still the custom in some Eastern churches — to permit only one eucharistic service at each altar every day.

Gateway to the Roman temple which was rebuilt as the church now called the Cathedral (Dennis Jarvis)

Gateway to the Roman temple which was rebuilt as the church now called the Cathedral (Dennis Jarvis)

Most of the ruined churches are to the west of the Cardo Maximus, between two side streets, the South Decumanus and the North Decumanus. They include:

The so-called Cathedral (though there is no evidence that it was the seat of the bishop). The oldest church in Jerash, it was built on the ruins of a Roman temple, on the southern side of the esplanade leading to the Temple of Artemis.

Its outdoor atrium contains a small pool, believed to have been filled with wine when the miracle at the wedding in Cana was celebrated.

Against an outer east wall is a shrine dedicated to the Virgin Mary, with an inscription mentioning Mary and the archangels Michael and Gabriel.

The Church of St Theodore is to the west of the cathedral, and on a higher level.

An inscription that was over the main door reads: “The one passing by this place used to close his nose because of the bad smell; today he raises his right hand and draws the sign of the Holy Cross.” This is probably a reference to the sacrifices previously burnt on the nearby altar in front of the Temple of Artemis.

General view of the Church Complex (Fadi Shawkat Haddad)

General view of the Church Complex (Fadi Shawkat Haddad)

The Church Complex, west of the Church of St Theodore, has three adjoining churches that share an atrium. All were built between AD 529 and AD 533.

The Church of St George, on the south side, was still in use in the 8th century, when its mosaics were destroyed by iconoclasts opposed to the representation of humans and animals.

The mosaic floor of the Church of St John the Baptist, in the middle, is also damaged, but images can be seen of the four seasons, plants and animals, and the Egyptian cities of Alexandria and Memphis.

The Church of Sts Cosmas and Damian, twin brothers who were doctors, is on the north side. Its mosaic floor, the most splendid in Jerash, has survived. Besides gazelles, rabbits, peacocks, sheep and other animals, the images include the churchwarden Theodore and his wife Georgia, praying with outspread arms.

West of the Church Complex is the Church of St Genesius, built in AD 611 — just three years before the Persian invasion that was the beginning of the end for Jerash.

 

Tel.: 962 2 635-1272 (Visitors’ Centre)

Open: Apr-Oct 8am-6pm; Nov-Mar 8am-5pm. Last entry to site one hour before closing time.

 

References

Bourbon, Fabio, and Lavagno, Enrico: The Holy Land Archaeological Guide to Israel, Sinai and Jordan (White Star, 2009)
Caffulli, Giuseppe: “Jerash, Pompeii of the East”, Holy Land Review, spring 2010
Dyer, Charles H., and Hatteberg, Gregory A.: The New Christian Traveler’s Guide to the Holy Land (Moody, 2006)
Freeman-Grenville, G. S. P.: The Holy Land: A Pilgrim’s Guide to Israel, Jordan and the Sinai (Continuum Publishing, 1996)
Haddad, Fadi Shawkat: A Christian Pilgrimage Journey in Jordan (published by author, PO Box 135, Amman 11733, 2015)

 

External links

Jerash Map and Details (AtlasTours)
Jerash (VisitJordan)
The Roman Army and Chariot Experience

Kathisma

Israel

 

Weeds surround the low rock on which Mary is believed to have rested (Seetheholyland.net)

Weeds surround the low rock on which Mary is believed to have rested (Seetheholyland.net)

Midway between Jerusalem and Bethlehem lie the largely ignored remains of one of the Holy Land’s biggest churches — and probably the first of them dedicated to the Virgin Mary.

The Kathisma church was built around a rock where early Christian tradition says that Mary rested while on her way with Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem.

The church was built by a wealthy widow named Ikelia in AD 456 on what was already a major pilgrimage site. It was enlarged in the 6th century, but destroyed around the 11th century.

Its existence was known from Byzantine literature, but the location was a mystery until 1992 when a bulldozer dug into a mosaic floor buried in an olive grove during widening of the Jerusalem-Hebron highway.

Highway traffic passing ruins of Kathisma church (Seetheholyland.net)

Highway traffic passing ruins of Kathisma church (Seetheholyland.net)

The site is about 6 kilometres from Jerusalem, on the left side of the highway — just before the route 398 turnoff to the Har Homa settlement and Herodium, and 600 metres before the Mar Elias monastery.

Passing traffic glimpses scattered stonework and weeds between the multi-lane highway and the olive trees, but on the site the octagonal outline of the church is evident. At its centre protrudes the limestone rock on which the pregnant Mary is believed to have rested.

 

This was more than just a church

Kathisma (the name is Greek for seat) was more than just a church. Archaeologists describe it as a martyrium — a structure intended to bear witness to the Christian faith by commemorating an event in the life of Christ, a martyr or other holy person.

The importance of the structure is shown by its width of 43 metres — only 10 metres less than the octagonal Dome of the Rock, built more than 230 years later and also enclosing a holy rock.

Mosaic floor uncovered at Kathisma (Gabrielw.tour / Wikimedia)

Mosaic floor uncovered at Kathisma (Gabrielw.tour / Wikimedia)

Three concentric walls surrounded the Kathisma rock. The first two formed a walkway leading to a large apse at the eastern end. The third wall encompassed four chapels and adjacent rooms.

Most of the floors were paved with colourful mosaics, in geometric and floral designs. These are well preserved, but covered with sand to protect them.

Excavators found a clay waterpipe near the rock. An early tradition says a miraculous spring appeared there to quench Mary’s thirst, and a 6th-century account tells of pilgrims drinking sweet water at the site.

 

Building may have been shared with Muslims

Broken column from Kathisma church (Seetheholyland.net)

Broken column from Kathisma church (Seetheholyland.net)

The Kathisma church escaped destruction during the Persian and Islamic conquests of the 7th century. But evidence of a prayer niche facing Mecca indicates that part or all of the building was used as a mosque in the 8th century.

Bearing in mind the respect shown by the Koran for Mary, experts speculate that this may have been one of a few churches that were shared by Christians and Muslims during the Arab period.

Such harmony did not exist in the middle of the 20th century when the site was in no man’s land during hostilities between Jordan and Israel. The 1949 armistice agreement line (“green line”) runs across the property.

In the 1990s the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, which owns the site, had plans to develop a major pilgrimage centre but these have not eventuated.

 

 

References

Prag, Kay: Jerusalem: Blue Guide (A. & C. Black, 1989)
Shanks, Hershel: “Where Mary Rested — Rediscovering the Kathisma”, Biblical Archaeological Review, November/December, 2006
Vamosh, Miriam Feinberg: “The Kathisma: The most important ancient church you never heard of”, Haaretz, February 24, 2014

 

External links

Kathisma — Place of Rest on the Way to Bethlehem (Travelujah)
Kathisma (BibleWalks)
The Church of the Seat of Mary (Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs)

Inside an Eastern church

 

Melkite Church of the Annunciation, Jerusalem

Bright frescoes and gilded iconostasis in Melkite Church of the Annunciation, Jerusalem (Seetheholyland.net)

For Western Christians unfamiliar with the rich church decoration and elaborate worship of the Eastern Church, a visit to the Melkite Church of the Annunciation in the Old City of Jerusalem offers a useful introduction.

This unobtrusive building — not to be confused with the towering Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth — is the patriarchate church of Jerusalem’s Greek Catholics.

Usually overlooked by both mapmakers and pilgrims, it is tucked into the patriarchate property in the Christian Quarter. (Entering the Old City through the Jaffa Gate, take the third street on the left — Greek Catholic Patriarchate Road — and the patriarchate is about 50 metres on the right. Descend the stairs to the left of the reception desk and the church door is on your left.)

Melkite Church of the Annunciation, Jerusalem

Road sign near Melkite Church of the Annunciation, Jerusalem (© Joseph Koczera)

The separate existence of the Greek Catholic Church dates from 1724, when a split occurred in the ancient Greek Orthodox patriarchate of Antioch and a small group chose communion with Rome rather than Constantinople.

Now numbering 1.6 million worldwide, the Greek Catholics form the second largest Christian church in the Holy Land (after the Greek Orthodox). An Arab church, it has big numbers in the Galilee and a small community in Jerusalem.

Melkite Church of the Annunciation, Jerusalem

Door to Melkite patriarchate, Jerusalem (© Joseph Koczera)

Melkite, meaning “royalist”, was originally an uncomplimentary term applied to Eastern Christians who accepted the authority of the 451 Council of Chalcedon and the Byzantine Emperor. The term is no longer used by the Eastern Orthodox.

 

Frescoes in ‘symphony of colour’

The Church of the Annunciation, built in 1848, is arguably the most representative Byzantine church in Jerusalem.

From the dome down to pew-height, its interior is richly adorned with frescoes in vibrant colours. As writer George Martin puts it, the church “seems alive with prayer even when silent. The vaults and walls . . . are covered in a symphony of colour.”

Melkite Church of the Annunciation, Jerusalem

Christ the Pantokrator in dome of Melkite Church of the Annunciation, Jerusalem (Seetheholyland.net)

The frescoes, which simulate the stylised motifs of Byzantine icons, were added during renovations in 1974-75. The artists were two brothers from Romania, Michael and Gabriel Moroshan.

In Orthodox tradition, the frescoes follow a clear theological plan. At the top, in the dome, is Christ the Pantokrator, the Ruler of All. Depicted below him, around the dome, are the central act of worship, the Divine Liturgy; the Twelve Apostles; and major prophets and other figures of the Old Testament.

From there, clockwise around the church, the entire life of Christ — from the Annunciation to the Resurrection — is illustrated with profound symbolism. Below is a layer depicting saints, to remind worshippers that these holy people are present during worship.

Melkite Church of the Annunciation, Jerusalem

Birth of Jesus, in Melkite Church of the Annunciation, Jerusalem (Seetheholyland.net)

This description of the scenes from Christ’s life comes from Living Stones Pilgrimage: With the Christians of the Holy Land, co-authored by Alison Hilliard and Betty Jane Bailey:

“Each scene is interconnected: Take the scene of Christ’s birth, painted directly opposite the scene of the Resurrection. Both symbolise why Christ came to earth.

“In the first icon, Christ is born into a stone coffin, a sarcophagus, a symbol of death. His mother is kneeling next to him, dressed entirely in red.

“This is unusual: In the East, the Virgin Mary is normally painted in blue and red — the blue stands for heaven, the red for earth — symbolising the one who combines heaven and earth by giving birth to the God-man. In this scene, however, Mary’s dress is explained by looking across the church at the icon of the Resurrection.

Melkite Church of the Annunciation, Jerusalem

Resurrection of Jesus, in Melkite Church of the Annunciation, Jerusalem (Seetheholyland.net)

“Here Christ is shown standing on the shattered gates of hell in the form of a cross bridging the mouth of hell. He is resurrecting out of the sarcophagus Adam and Eve, symbolic of mankind. Eve is dressed in red, just as Mary was, showing that the first Eve, who sinned, is replaced by the second one who gave birth to Christ who overcomes sin and raises us to life.

“The second icon therefore completes the scene of the Nativity and explains it theologically. Make the connection from manger to coffin, from swaddling clothes to shroud, from cave to tomb and from birth to death and the new birth of Resurrection.”

 

Suggestion of final glory

Melkite Church of the Annunciation, Jerusalem

Below icons of saints, curtains are drawn over today’s holy people, in Melkite Church of the Annunciation, Jerusalem (Seetheholyland.net)

Powerful symbolism continues around the church. Below the icons of saints, down at pew level, the artists have painted drawn curtains. The suggestion is that, on the last day, the curtains will be pulled back and worshippers will see their own faces glorified.

Across the front of the church, the iconostasis separates the nave from the sanctuary. This screen is richly embellished with gilded icons, Christ depicted on the right of the central doors and the Virgin Mary with the Christ child depicted on the left.

The central doors, known as the Royal Doors, open out to the congregation three times during the liturgy: When Christ comes in the form of the Gospel and a deacon stands in front of the doors to read the text; when the unconsecrated gifts of bread and wine are taken to the altar; and at Communion time when the priest brings out the Eucharist to distribute it to the congregation.

Melkite Church of the Annunciation, Jerusalem

Royal Doors in iconostasis of Melkite Church of the Annunciation, Jerusalem (Yoav Dothan)

To quote Hilliard and Bailey: “The opening of the Royal Doors is therefore seen to be symbolic of how God erupts into human history — through his Word and his Sacrament.”

As worshippers leave the church, a fresco of the dormition of the Virgin Mary reminds them that they are going back into the world where, inevitably, they will die. Mary’s death is presented as a model for their own deaths as her soul, in the form of a small baby, is being taken to heaven by Christ.

 

Byzantine liturgy and Orthodox traditions retained

While the Melkites have adopted some Roman Catholic practices, they have essentially retained the Byzantine liturgy and many other Orthodox traditions. Arabic is the main language of worship.

Like the Orthodox clergy, Melkite priests may marry before their ordination.

Melkite Church of the Annunciation, Jerusalem

Sts Peter and Paul embracing, in Melkite Church of the Annunciation, Jerusalem (Seetheholyland.net)

Melkites make the Sign of the Cross in the same way as the Orthodox — forehead to chest, then from right to left, with the thumb, index and middle fingers joined in honour of the Trinity. The other two fingers are pressed to the palm, in honour of Christ’s two natures, divine and human, in one Person.

Veneration of icons is a common Byzantine practice, respect being paid not to the painting itself but to the person it represents. Some icons are believed to be the means of obtaining miracles, and people pray in front of them for healing or other assistance.

For a sense of the colourful mosaic of Eastern Christian traditions, a small museum in the hallway near the entrance to the church has exhibits of dress, vestments, liturgical items and photos from all of the Oriental churches present in Jerusalem.

 

Administered by: Melkite Greek Catholic Church in the Holy Land

Tel.: 972-2-6282023 or 972-2-6271968/9

Open: 8.30am-3pm (sometimes later); services Monday-Wednesday and Friday 7am, Thursday and Saturday 6pm, Sunday 9am. Museum open 9am-12 noon daily (except Sunday) and on request.

 

Related article:

Churches in the Holy Land

 

 

References

Anonymous: Griechisch-Katholisch-Melkitisches Patriarchat (Greek Catholic Patriarchate leaflet, undated)
Hilliard, Alison, and Bailey, Betty Jane: Living Stones Pilgrimage: With the Christians of the Holy Land (Cassell, 1999)
Macpherson, Duncan: A Third Millennium Guide to Pilgrimage to the Holy Land (Melisende, 2000)
Martin, George: “The Melkites of Jerusalem” (Catholic Near East, November-December 1995)

 

 

External links

Melkite Greek Catholic Church Information Center
Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East, of Alexandria and of Jerusalem
Brief video of church interior (YouTube)

 

St Catherine’s Monastery

Egypt

St Catherine's Monastery

St Catherine’s Monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai (© St-katherine.net)

St Catherine’s Monastery in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula is believed to enshrine the burning bush from which God first revealed himself to Moses. It also contains a treasure trove of icons and ancient manuscripts.

St Catherine’s, an Orthodox establishment, is one of the oldest Christian monasteries in the world and has been the centre of monastic life in the southern Sinai.

Monks have lived here, in the shadow of Mount Sinai, almost without interruption since the Byzantine emperor Justinian built the monastery in the 6th century. An earlier chapel on the site is said to have been erected on St Helena’s orders in 337.

Since the location was difficult to protect from marauders, Justinian surrounded the monastery with a high wall of close-fitting granite stones, about 2 metres thick. Most of what can be seen on the site today dates back to the 6th century.

 

The bush still lives

St Catherine's Monastery

Burning bush at St Catherine’s Monastery (Seetheholyland.net)

The holiest part of St Catherine’s Monastery is the Chapel of the Burning Bush, a small chamber behind the altar of the basilica. It is often closed to the public and those who enter must remove their shoes, just as Moses did when he approached the burning bush (Exodus 3:2-5).

Under the chapel’s altar is a silver star which is believed to mark the site of the bush from which God called Moses to lead his people out of Egypt.

The reputed bush was transplanted several metres away. The pilgrim Egeria, who visited between 381 and 384, described it as “still alive and sprouting”, and situated within a pretty garden.

The bush or its successor, now sprawling over a protective stone wall, still lives and is carefully tended by the monks. Since the Bible narrative says the bush was not consumed by the flames, the Orthodox name for it is the Unburnt Bush.

The bush is a bramble of the rose family called Rubus sanctus, which includes the raspberry and blackberry. A native of the Holy Land, it is extremely long-lived. The monastery’s bush neither blooms nor gives any fruit.

Moses’ well still gives water

St Catherine's Monastery

Moses’ Well, traditional place where he met Jethro’s daughters (Seetheholyland.net)

St Catherine’s Monastery also encompasses the Well of Moses, also known as the Well of Jethro, where Moses is said to have met his future wife, Zipporah.

As recounted in Exodus (2:15-21), Moses was resting by the well when the seven daughters of Jethro (also called Reuel) came to draw water. Some shepherds drove them away and Moses came to their defence.

In gratitude, Jethro invited Moses to his home and gave him his daughter Zipporah in marriage.

The well is still one of the monastery’s main sources of water.

 

Icons escaped destruction

St Catherine’s Monastery is renowned for its art treasures. Its collection of more than 2000 icons is probably the largest in the world. Its library of 4500 ancient Christian manuscripts is second only to that of the Vatican Library in Rome.

St Catherine's Monastery

Detail of portrait of Moses in St Catherine’s Monastery (Wikimedia)

The monastery’s isolation saved its oldest icons during the 8th century when the Byzantine emperor Leo III ordered the destruction of any imagery depicting Jesus or one of the saints. These early icons are naturalistic and free from stylisation and the rules that later icons followed.

A selection from the icon collection is always on display in the basilica.

The ancient manuscripts are mainly in Greek, but also in Arabic, Armenian, Coptic, Georgian, Slavonic and Syriac. Only one is in Latin. Some are exquisitely illuminated.

The monastery no longer contains its most precious manuscript. This was the Codex Sinaiticus, a 4th-century copy of most of the Bible in Greek. It was discovered in 1844 by a German biblical scholar, Friedrich Constantin von Tischendorf, who obtained it for Tsar Alexander I of Russia.

Whether the codex was to be returned is disputed. Most of it is now in the British Museum, to which it was sold by the Soviet Russian government in 1933 for $100,000. In 2009 an international project placed the full text online.

 

Basilica has unusual mosaic

The most outstanding art treasure in the monastery is an unusual mosaic of the Transfiguration of Jesus, above the altar in the apse of the basilica.

This well-preserved mosaic from the 6th century can be glimpsed behind the gilded iconostasis that dates from the 17th century.

Christ is shown in glory in an almond-shaped panel of greys and blues, wearing a white mantle edged with gold. His halo has a gold cross on a white and gold backing.

St Catherine's Monastery

Bell tower at St Catherine’s Monastery (Seetheholyland.net)

Around him are the prophets of the Sinai, Moses and Elijah, and the disciples John, Peter and James.

The inside rim of the arch is decorated with medallions of the 12 apostles, with Paul, Thaddaeus and Matthias replacing those in the Transfiguration composition.

The monastery is actually dedicated to the Transfiguration, but it was renamed for St Catherine of Alexandria, a 3rd-century martyr. According to tradition, this happened after monks found her incorrupt body, which had been transported by angels to the top of Mount Catherine (Jebel Katharina), the highest mountain in the Sinai.

To the right of the altar in the basilica is a marble sarcophagus with two silver caskets containing the saint’s skull and left hand.

Monks’ bones are collected

Because the ground is rocky, the monks created the monastery garden by bringing soil from elsewhere. It contains fruit trees including olives, apricots and plums, and produces a variety of vegetables.

Nearby are the cemetery and charnel house. When monks die they are first buried in the cemetery. After their bodies decay, their bones are exhumed and transferred to the charnel house.

In the charnel house can be seen the bones of thousands of deceased monks, with separate piles for legs, hands, feet, ribs and skulls. Martyrs and archbishops are in open coffins. Inside the door, dressed in purple robes, sits the skeleton of Stephanos, a 6th-century guardian of the path to Mount Sinai.

An unusual feature of the monastery compound is a mosque. Originally built in the 6th century as a hospice for pilgrims, it was converted to a mosque in 1106 for the use of local Bedouin, some of whom work at the monastery.

Of the monastery’s four original gates, three in the northwestern wall have been blocked for hundreds of years. Until the middle of the 19th century, access was by basket and pulley to a gate about 9 metres above ground level in the northeastern wall. Then a new gate was opened in the northwestern wall.

Related site:

Mount Sinai

 

In Scripture:

Moses defends the daughters of Reuel (Jethro): Exodus 2:15-21

Moses encounters God in the burning bush: Exodus 3:1-6

God gives Moses the Ten Commandments: Exodus 20:1-17

God gives Moses the tablets of stone: Exodus 31:18

The Transfiguration of Jesus: Luke 9:28-36

 

Administered by: Holy Brotherhood of Sinai

Open: 9am-noon (closed Fri, Sun and feastdays)

 

 

References

Freeman-Grenville, G. S. P.: The Holy Land: A Pilgrim’s Guide to Israel, Jordan and the Sinai (Continuum Publishing, 1996)
Gonen, Rivka: Biblical Holy Places: An illustrated guide (Collier Macmillan, 1987)
Inman, Nick, and McDonald, Ferdie (eds): Jerusalem & the Holy Land (Eyewitness Travel Guide, Dorling Kindersley, 2007)

External links

 

St. Katherine and the Sinai High Mountain Region
Mount Sinai (official monastery website)
360×180° Panorama of St Catherine’s Monastery (1001wonders.org)
St. Catherine Monastery (Geographia)
The Icons of St Catherine’s Monastery (Tour Egypt)
Codex Sinaiticus online
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