Father Matt’s Reflections on the Holy Land: Mar Saba “Greatest of the Monasteries in the Judean Desert”
One of the highlights of my 2022 Pilgrimage to the Holy Land was Mar Saba which is rightly referred to as “the Greatest of the Monasteries in the Judean Desert”, and so this post will read a tad more like a journal than past posts. It is often called “The Great Lavra” – the word Lavra means “a type of monastery consisting of a cluster of cells or caves for hermits, with a church and sometimes a refectory at the center.”
A little background on how I got to Mar Saba and why this day was special. My 2022 Holy Land Pilgrimage was broken into two parts. I flew over from New York on March 9 for what I dubbed a mini-Sabbatical (7 years at Christ Church!). I spent the better part of the next two weeks (until March 22) alone until the Christ Church Pilgrims arrived for our “official” pilgrimage with Iyad Qumri who runs the excellent Qumri Pilgrimages with his sons Rami and Sami. My home base throughout was Saint George’s Guest House which is attached to Saint George’s College and Cathedral in East Jerusalem. I arrived with no specific itinerary for my alone time, but the hope that I could do two things: 1) Gain an immersed knowledge of Jerusalem (Old City and beyond), and 2) Explore sites outside of Jerusalem that I had not visited before (I led a group in 2018), would not visit with the group coming on the March 22, and would be unlikely to visit with a group at any point in the future.
Upon arrival, I asked Iyad if he could provide me with an basic itinerary for four days outside of Jerusalem, and I asked if he knew any guides. He did – his son Rami! So, Rami and I went on a four day adventure of driving, hiking, climbing, and visiting places all over Israel. The next photo is from our hike through Wadi Qelt – another post for another day. Rami became a good friend and we agreed that my next trip will include camping for several nights in the Negev together and a taking a multi-day trip to Jordan…. But I degress….
Anyway, one of our day trips included visiting Mar Saba Monastery in the Judean Desert. Our day began with a drive out of Jerusalem towards and through Bethlehem. I took a bunch of video from this drive and throughout the day – you can watch them all here. Since we were driving, I didn’t take many photos in Bethelehem. I would return with the full group the following week, but we did stop to take the below photo of a very famous graffiti drawing by Banksy. There is A LOT of fake / copy Banksy art all over the West Bank, and especially in Bethlehem, but this is one of the legit ones. This piece is not all that easily accessible as it is at a very busy intersection with cars and trucks whizzing by. The advantage of being alone with Rami was that I was able to get out and get a good photo.
After we escaped the traffic of Bethlehem we were on the road in the Judean Desert heading towards the town of Ubeidiya (pictured below) and then to Mar Saba. The desert is quite beautiful and so I am also including two photos of our drive through the wilderness between Ubeidiya and Mar Saba to give you some idea of how “middle of nowhere” Mar Saba really is.
When we arrived at the top of the Wadi Kidron — I wrote an entire post about the Kidron which provides an overview of the entire Kidron Valley from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea — We were greeted with this set of buildings shown below that make up the entire monastic compound of Mar Saba. The tower on the hill is called the Tower of St Simeon, which is also known as the Women’s Tower as it is the only building on the compound that women are allowed to enter. The monastery and church are in the middle of the photo, and as you will see in later photos, they are built into the Wadi Kidron.
I had some advance warning from Rami, Iyad, and several others who knew about or had attempted to visit Mar Saba before we left:
- “Only men are allowed inside.”
- “They won’t let any groups inside, even if it’s just men.”
- “Only Orthodox ever get in. Say you are Orthodox.”
- “I’ve never been inside. I don’t even bring groups there because nobody ever gets in.”
- “It’s beautiful and the valley is stunning, but you’ll never get inside, because nobody gets inside.”
- “Whatever you do, don’t tell them you are a Protestant or an Episcopalian or an Anglican or American or you’ll never get inside the Monastery… but you won’t get in anyway.”
My assumption after talking to half a dozen people who were in the know was that we were unlikely to get inside the Monastery, but it was a stunning view, so I was up for a good hike if nothing else. Rami and I walked from the road down to the Monastery door.
When we arrived where were greeted by Bassam (pictured below). Bassam is not a monk, but he is (at least) the fifth generation of men who have maintained the stonework and steps around the monastery. I did a bit of research afterwards and people like Bassam have been attached to these desert monastic communities for centuries. They do much of the labor and in exchange they get paid, serve as guides (earning tips) from tourists who visit, and have access to the monastery that none of us ever get. The Bassam/Monk setup is a sort of symbiotic relationship that has existed for centuries and allows the religious monks to focus entirely on prayer while faithful – and Bassam was truly a man of faith – lay persons maintain the property.
Bassam encouraged us to ring the bell to the monastery to see if we could get in and visit. Nothing happened. Bassam said we might try waiting to see.
“They might be praying, but they heard the bell.”
“We are Orthodox. Who knows how long we pray?”
I took his answer as rhetorical and so we waited, drank fresh orange juice that Bassam made from oranges he had in his truck, and played with the orange cat when he wasn’t lounging in the 90 degree sunshine (truck and cat are pictures below).
After twenty or thirty minutes the door opened and a monk asked what we wanted. We asked if we could see the monastery.
“The other monks are praying now, but you can take a quick look from the balcony. No photos of the monks. No photos at all.”
Rami explained to me, that this was very unexpected, because “nobody ever gets in to the Monastery.” “Have you been inside?” “No.”
So we went in. He led us to a balcony that overlooked the monastery and church.
“So, you are a Protestant.” (This was stated as a fact, not a question.)
“Yes. I am an Episcopal Priest from New York.” (I was keenly aware that my honesty was ruining any chance that I would have to go further into the monastery, but that’s me, and besides, who lies to a monk?)
We spent the next hour talking to the monk on a balcony. He was from Russia, he was Greek Orthodox, he had been at Mar Saba for ten years. He explained the process of how a monk discerns a call to a place like Mar Saba (it takes a long time). He knew the monk who was living alone in a cave in Wadi Qelt – that’s a story for another post. He explained that in order to be a desert monk, you needed to articulate your call and then wait… and wait… and wait. This reminded me of our ordination process as well, but whereas I was familiar with waiting months or a few years, he meant that it took decades before anyone could be ready for the rigors of monasticism in the desert… and especially alone. At some point some strong coffee and biscuits arrived for us and the conversation continued.
He explained all of the problems with Protestants, Catholics, Americans, Anglicans, New York, and really anything that I was familiar with, but he did it in a nice, theological way, and I would say we had some nice back and forth. My favorite exchange was when he provided a critique of American Protestants.
“You Americans Protestants are always agreeing with everything. You do it politely, even when you don’t agree, but you say you agree.”
“You are doing it now, and you don’t agree with me.”
I don’t have any photos of the monk, but I did ask him at the end of our hour-long conversation if I could take a few photos from the balcony and he allowed me to, so they are below.
After taking the photos he asked what we planned to do next.
“Can we see the church?”
“The monks are praying. Not while they are praying.”
“When will they finished praying?”
“We are Orthodox. Who knows how long we pray?”
“Maybe. Why don’t you explore the valley and come back, and maybe the monks will be done praying.”
“Ok, we will see you in an hour or two.”
“The monks may have started praying again, so you won’t get in, but maybe you will.”
And so, grateful to have even been inside the compound, we left to explore the valley. Below are a few photos of the valley… but don’t stop reading, the story continues below!
The history of Mar Saba monastery explains the photos. My history comes from a mix of sources, but mostly it is from Jerome Murphy-O’Connor’s excellent book “The Holy Land: An Oxford Archeological Guide”.
Saba was born in Turkey in 439 AD. He came to Palestine at age 18 with the specific intention of becoming a monk. Saba, like my new monk friend inside the Monastery named after St. Saba, was the type of Christian who felt that the world was a place where luxury, frivolity, and various distractions of everyday life too easily led one to sin, and so to escape the opportunity of sinning the so-called “desert fathers” literally went into the wilderness to be alone.
Saba was not the first to do this, he was several generations in after Christianity had become the official religion of the Roman Empire and he, like a number of desert father and mothers before him, felt he was called to escape this cosmopolitan version of Christianity for a life of asceticism, prayer, and solitary life. Ironically, he was not alone. It became somewhat popular for (often wealthy) young men and women to renounce their status and move to the desert to live in caves. They built communities on the valleys, like the Wadi Qelt and the Wadi Kidron in caves above rivers. Their example attracted followers who lived in nearby caves. Their holiness attracted supporters (people like Bassam) who helped them with food, supplies, and crafting walkways and stairways between the caves. Their eccentricity attracted tourists. And their obvious faith attracted pilgrims who sought them out for blessings or advice. When large enough groups gathered together they built shared chapel spaces and monasteries for older member and apprentices who were not physically able or spiritually able to be alone. In many of the valleys in the region there are remnants of cave dwellings and usually, not that far away, there was a monastery or convent built into the cliff.
Saba served a 12 year apprenticeship in the monastery of Theoctistus before he was permitted to live in a cave in the Wadi Mukellik where he lived for 12 years. As I noted above, the cave life was not entirely one of solitude. These caves dwellings dot the hillside, and they were located near the monastery, so though Saba was alone, living in a cave, he was not in full solitude. Below are a few photos of the cave dwellings. Note that some are more “Cave Houses” than simply caves. People like Bassam helped the monks build dwellings that were far from comfortable but also ensured that the monk wasn’t entirely exposed to the elements. Other caves are simply basic shelters, like the one Bassam leapt to while we were hiking!
After living in a cave for a dozen years, Saba wandered in solitude for the next five years, living exclusively off plants he could find in the wilderness. At the end of his five years, he settled in Wadi Kidron where the monastery now is. He encouraged visitors, followers, and supporters to come to him, and eventually he built the tower and chapel. By 483 there were 70 monks living in the caves. That number doubled in 490 and Saba dedicated a spacious cave as a new church. A family bequest enabled him to build a hospice in 491.
In 494 two monks arrived who had formerly been professional architects, and they built a bakery, hospital, massive water cisterns, and a large church which was dedicated in 501. This new, larger complex (including the cave dwellings) served as the center for about 300 monks and hermits. Saba was made a Saint and his relics (bones) are in a special chapel inside the monastery. His original cave dwelling was turned into a shrine that the monks maintain and visit daily. The shrine can be seen near the top right of the photo below – look for a red door with a golden cross in the cliffside. That cave is a “duplex”, and we were able to climb to the entrance cave… but it was locked! See the second photo. It’s worth noting that Mar Saba had many famous monks including St John of Damascus who lived there two centuries after Saint Saba.
My conversation with the monk at Mar Saba and the hours long hike with Bassam and Rami along the cliffs gave me a much better understanding of desert ascetic monasticism. I should add that the hike was fairly terrifying. Bassam and his forebears have kept up the many walkways and steps around the cliffs. The initial part of our hike was on the monastery side of the Valley, which included a number of walled in paths. Bassam noted that two benefits of the Covid shutdowns: 1) He and his brothers had been able to repair many of the walls and steps since nobody was around; 2) He also noted that they had picked up lots of refuse left by tourists through the years, and so Mar Saba was far cleaner than it had been – the issue of tourists littering in the Holy Land is probably a post for another day, but for the most part Mar Saba was pristine. The following photos show some of our travels in Wadi Kidron on the Monastery side.
We then traversed the River Kidron (there was a bridge) and headed to the other side for a better view of the monastery. This portion of the hike was far more treacherous, and I took fewer photos along the way because I needed both hands as we were climbing up the cliff side, but below show some shots along the way and the view from the other side.
Saint Saba’s Feast Day is near Christmas and to commemorate that and the Christmas season the cliffs are lit with 5000 votive candles that burn for 10 days. Who sets up the candles and lights them – Bassam and his brothers. We saw some of the used candles along our hike. Below is one of my photos and another two that I found online.
When we finished the hike we ran into a film crew from Jordan doing a documentary on Mar Saba. They asked he if they could interview me. You can watch the Q&A portion of the Documentary that Rami filmed on my phone here. I have no idea when or where to find the actual Documentary, so if you find it, let me know.
A note to any hikers – don’t be afraid of heights! We returned back to the Monastery and rang the bell to see if we could get back in to view the church. While we waited, we had more fresh OJ, pet the orange cat that was still lounging in the sun, and saw a helicopter land across the valley (the photo below shows the helicopter). Our wait ended after about 30 minutes.
The door to the Monastery opened and our friend the monk thanked us for waiting. “The monks are not praying right now, and you can come in and see the church. No photos!” We were led by another monk into Saint Saba’s tomb and shrine which is the small domed building in the bottom of the first photo below. Saint Saba is there – Bassam had several photos that one cannot find online, but I was able to find one photo of the tomb online which is below.
There is a small cave chapel to Saint Nicholas behind the tomb that we were not granted access to, but I was able to find a single photo of online.
We were led into the Church next, which was stunning. The single photo of the church I found online give some idea of its beauty. The church has been restored following a massive earthquake 1834 and, at least to my eyes, the artwork and iconography in the church dates no earlier than that.
Our next stop was the Sacristy next to the church – no photos online. The art work and iconography in the Sacristy is far older than anything else in the church or shrine that we saw. Stunning.
Our final stop inside was on the balcony overlooking the Wadi. We were allowed to take a few photos here – so long as none were of the monks.
As we left the monks were making their way back into the church for prayer. We said goodbye, grateful for their hospitality (food, coffee, a tour, prayers, and much conversation). I’ll end this post with one last photo (seen already above) and a story about it.
This shot was taken far, far up on the other side of the valley across from the monastery. Bassam had led us up a path that was not a path – it was a cliff side – and Rami and I realized at the same time that we literally could not get back down, so we had to keep climbing. As we climbed Bassam pointed out a cave that was about 5 feet off the path – literally a five foot gap over space that he jumped over (I think the drop must have been a couple hundred feet). It is worth noting that Bassam was regularly walking ON the walls, rather than using them as a safety measure.
“Jump! Jump! Come see the cave!”
I can climb up well enough but jumping over an empty span on a cliff side is beyond my expertise! Rami and I both politely declined, though we were assured that we were missing the best view there was of Mar Saba as well as a great example of a cave. Maybe next time!
Don’t forget to watch the videos from this day – you can watch them all here.