Monasteries in Judea: At the Edge of the Desert

By Rubin, Norman A. | The World and I, April 2011 | Go to article overview

Monasteries in Judea: At the Edge of the Desert


Rubin, Norman A., The World and I


"The 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 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 (AD + 529), founders of two of the most famous Christian monasteries--the Laura (hermit settlement) 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 century.

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. …

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