Volume 8, March 2004, Section H041

Byzantine Monasteries at the Edge of the Desert

Norman A. Rubin
Journalist, Independent Scholar

Rest your cursor on the images to view the legends

Receptable of the Most, Monastery of Mars SabaThe mystery of faith that attracts Men of God to the harsh conditions of the Judean Desert, in the Holy Land, is one of solemn duty in His Name. Hark, to the written words of their devoted history.

From the Byzantine period till the present day, Israel's Judean Desert was the home of hundreds of monks, who sought a monastic life, either as hermits or in communal monasteries. The special character of the Judean Desert made, in varied periods of history, a sanctuary for those seeking tranquility of the soul and purification of the spirit.

Christian monks began to settle in the Judean Desert in early 4th century A.D. as a respite from the secular world. Scholars and saints: St. Euthymius, St Sabas, St. Theodisus and St. Chariton from Cappadocia founded a large number of monasteries in the desert; several of which are still functioning to this day, despite changes of prevailing religion and rule in the country. Among the oldest functioning monasteries in or near the Judean Desert are the Monastery of the Cross, Jerusalem; Monastery of Choziba (now known as St. George) in Wadi el Qilt, near Jericho; Mar Elias on the road to Bethlehem; Mar Saba and Theodisius, southeast of Jerusalem; Monastery of the Temptation along the Jordan River, near Jericho.

St. Hilarion, who established a monastery in Gaza in AD 329, was the first that brought the monastic life, with its forms of discipline and vows, to the Holy Land. It was followed by St. Chariton who founded a laura (hermit settlement) in the picturesque gorge of Wadi Farah, near Jericho; shortly after he founded monasteries on the Quaratine and in the gorge south of Bethlehem. Some of the early founders were native, but the majority were immigrants like the Armenians St. Euthymius (AD 377 - 473) and St. John the Silent (AD 443 - 558), or the Cappadocians St. Sabas (AD 439 - 532) and St. Theodisius (c. AD 529), founders of two of the most famous Christian monasteries - the laura Mar Saba in the Kidron Valley and Koinobion (community monastery) Mar Theodisius 5 kilometers from there, closer to Bethlehem.

In AD 614 the Persian conquerors destroyed all the Christian churches and monasteries. Modestus, the Superior of St. Theodisius, restored many of them and in time became the Patriarch of Jerusalem.

Monastery of the Cross, Jerusalem
Located in the parkland of the Valley of the Cross between the Israel Museum and the residential neighborhood of Rehavia, the buttressed, fortress like monastery is one of the oldest Christian buildings in the Holy Land (founded in the 6th century in the then arid lands outside the walls of Jerusalem). From the annals of Christian lore, the monastery and the surrounding valley acquired its name; Christian tradition has it that here grew the tree from which the Cross was prepared for the crucifixion of Jesus.

Edge of the Judean Desert
On the road to Bethlehem from Jerusalem is the Greek Orthodox Monastery, Mars Elias, named after the prophet Elijah. Built in the late 6th cent., it was destroyed by an earthquake and rebuilt in the 14th cent.

Fourteen kilometers east of Bethlehem is the spectacular vista of the "Laura of St. Sabas" clinging to the walls of the Kidron Valley. A visit to the Greek Orthodox monastery of Mar Saba is not one of curiosity but a true pilgrimage of knowledge which will bring to mind the glorious epoch of the Eastern Church. The Laura founded by St. Sabas in the 6th century had been repeatedly destroyed and pillaged many times since the Byzantine era. In AD 1840, with the help of the Russian Orthodox Church, the monastery was restored to its full glory.

Some 350 meters north of St. Sabas on the western slopes of the Kidron Valley is a small monastery dedicated to St. Sophia, mother of Mar Saba. According to tradition, she was a nun in the convent of St. Paula in Bethlehem. After her death her remains were brought here and the church built in AD 657. Its church has wall paintings of the 12th cent. and of the 18 + 19th centuries, but unfortunately they are in poor condition.

'Shepher'ds Rod, from one of the Judean Desert MonasteriesThe remains of the Monastery of St. John Silentiarius are stituated to the south and opposite of the Church of St. Sophia on the east side of Wadi en-Nar. Two large openings mark the site of the monastery of which there is ruins of a tower probably three stories. St. John Silentiarius was the Bishop of Colonia in Armenia.

From the road to Beit Sahur from Bethlehem is a track through Wadi Mukelik leading to the ruins of the Monastery of St. Theodisius. At the beginning of the 5th cent., the Cappadocian St. Euthymius arrived in Wadi Farrah, and some years later founded, with St. Theodisius, first a monastery in the inaccessible gorge of Wadi Mukelik in the Judean Desert. Later he founded the great Laura of St. Euthymius, the ruins of which stand at Khan el-Amar, along the Jericho Rd. (Both monasteries were destroyed in the Persian invasion in AD 614.)

Along the old road to Jericho is the deep gorge of Wadi Qelt (Ein Fara). The Greek Orthodox Monastery of St. George and St. John of Cosiba is clasped precariously halfway up the gorge. Built near the site where tradition has it that the prophet Elijah was fed by ravens, "he went and stayed in the ravine of Kerith east of the Jordan, and the ravens brought him bread and meat..." (I Kings 17:2-10). As with most Christian places of worship, the original monastery was destroyed during the Persian invasion. Evidence of their orgy of violence can be seen in a cave nearby which contains unnumbered skulls and bones of Christians who were assembled within and massacred. (In the 19th cent. the monastery was restored, and monks till today serve in His name.)

The Monastery of Temptation stands out conspicuously on the slope of a high cliff rising west of Jericho. According to Christian belief this is the spot to which Jesus was brought to be tempted by the devil, "Jesus was then led away by the Spirit into the wilderness, to be tempted by the devil. For forty day and nights He fasted..." (Matt 4; 1-17). In the Middle Ages this mountain was known in Latin as 'Mons Quarantana' - Mount of the Forty (Jebel Quruntul - Arabic).

Cyril of Scythopolis
There are quite a few written sources that supply information about the lives of these holy men in the desert. One of the primary sources is the account of Cyril of Scythopolis (Beit Sh'ean) who was born AD 514 and entered monastic life in AD 543. A biographer of the church fathers, he reported many fascinating details about the founders of the monastic communities. Thanks to Cyril, who wrote in middle of the sixth century, historians are able to enter the daily lives of the monks and gain insight into their routines...

The main routine of the monks was praying and meditation, supplemented by reading of the Bible. Fasting was also important and they attempted many other rigorous feats such as standing for hours while praying. Some of the prayers were rather mechanical, involving the repetition of short set formulas. (Some hermits went to unnatural extremes, such as living at the top of pillars, or walling themselves up in caves.). The accent was on conspicuous self-torture or deprivation. St Hilarion himself ate only half a measure of lentils a day, later of bread, salt and water; later still, wild herbs and roots, and after the age of sixty-four he never touched bread again.

The prolonged loneliness and the shortage of food and sleep fostered hallucinations as well as growth in the spiritual awareness of God. Conflicts with demons were frequent. Many of the visions, trances and strange experiences of the desert monks and hermits have obvious physiological explanations (For example, the appearance of the devil as a seductive woman could be the result of repressed sexual feeling.) Those who retreated to the desert inevitably abandoned family life, and celibacy was the rule.

St. James CathedralLiving off the Land
According to Cyril and other writers, the monks of the Judean Desert were almost entirely dependent on their surroundings for food. They cultivated extensive vegetable gardens and fruit trees. Irrigation of farming plots in the desert was provided by spring water when available, or by rainwater which they collected in immense rock-cut cisterns and reservoirs. However, they also utilized edible wild plants.

In fact, one of the main sources of livelihood for the monks of the Judean Desert was the gathering of edible wild plants. The written sources mention four types of plants which were gathered systematically by the monks: salt bush, wild onion, caper and a plant termed manouthion - thumbling thistle. There are many accounts of the use of thumbling thistle as food. The plant is cut in mid-spring; its stalks are cut from the plants, peeled and their juicy inner section is eaten raw. The leaves of the plant are trimmed and used in the veins as vine leaves. Blossom globes are picked, trimmed and fried in spices with a delicacy of flavor resembling artichoke hearts. Surplus manouthia (plural of mamaouthion) were pickled and stored and the remainder of the plant dried and used as kindling.

The plant most commonly eaten by the hermits in isolated caves was melagria, identified as asphodel, a plant common in the Judean Desert, with edible tubers. When the asphodel plants were not available, the hermits ate wild onion, which were bitter and could be eaten if boiled. The Bedouin labeled the hermits, who subsisted on wild plants, as "Grazers". A delicacy for the hermits was hearts of cane harvested during the winter months.

The monk's ability to identify edible plants was apparently gained over their long years or residence in the desert. They are also likely to have received information from their neighbors, the villagers and shepherds who lived on the margins of the desert. To this day, wild plants are an important component of the diet of villagers in the Judean Hills.

It is impossible to count the number of visitors and pilgrims, who from the 7th century onwards, who have received hospitality in varied monasteries in the Judean Desert (and in the Holy Land). The majority of them were noted in the register known as "Navis Peregrinorum" (Travelers from abroad) - these were small groups, coming from Christian countries, without distinction between Catholic, Protestant or Eastern Orthodox. Some of these visitors and pilgrims left their mark namely their names were cut on the entrance door of the laura, as can still be seen.

Today, the monasteries of the Judean Desert (and the Holy Land) continue in offering hospitality to both visitor and pilgrim. In the past, people have been drawn to the Judean Desert as it has always been a crucible for the purification of the spirit. Today, man still goes to the desert to enjoy its freedom from noise and the problems of daily life. The stillness of the desert is a primeval hush that is both calming and tantalizing.

Who can count the sand of the sea, the drops of rain, or the days of unending time? (Eccl 1:2- 3)

1) A History of Christianity - Paul Johnson - Atheneum, Macmillan Publishing Co. - New York
2) Guide to the Holy Land - Eugen Hoade o.f.m. Franciscan Printing Press, Jerusalem.
3) Israel Land and Nature - The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, Tel Aviv.

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