Isolated in the Wadi en Nar, Mar Saba sits perched over the Kidron stream. (photo: Gerald Ring)
Tiered fortress in the wilderness, with the Women’s Tower in upper left. (photo: Gerald Ring)
Caves are centuries-old abodes for monks and hermits. (photo: Gerald Ring)
Mar Saba’s domes add welcome color to the desert’s sandy tones. (photo: Gerald Ring)
For thousands of years the Judean wilderness has been a refuge for the oppressed as well as a haven for contemplatives. O that I would wander far away, I would lodge in the desert. I would hasten to my place of refuge. Davids psalm (55:7-8) expresses his feelings about this place where he hid from Sauls anger. The prophet Elijah fled here from Queen Jezebel. Taking refuge in one of its many caves, he was fed by ravens for three years. This same wilderness saw Jesus fast for forty days and forty nights, and saw Satan tempt him.
Since the early years of their faith, Christians have also sought spiritual purity in this mystical desert. They found solitude in caves, but would still come together for communal liturgy. These colonies of monks, known as lauras, developed as the common form of Palestinian monasticism in the fourth century. Among those prayerful communities that survive today are the Greek Orthodox monasteries of St. George of Koziba, built on the traditional site of Elijahs cave, and the Monastery of the Temptation, cut from the rock of a bare mountain-top overlooking Jericho.
The largest and most striking of the lauras in the vast wilderness of bare hills and peaks is Mar Saba. Founded in the fifth century by the sainted Sabas, it rests only twelve kilometers east of Bethlehem. Nonetheless, hidden by the rugged ranges of sand-colored peaks typical of this desert, it sits in perfect isolation from the world.
Mar Saba overhangs a deep ravine called Wadi en Nar, cut by the Kidron River, which is now merely a narrow stream running from Jerusalem through the Judean Desert to the Dead Sea. Muslims, Jews, and Christians identify the Kidron Valley with the Valley of Jehoshaphat, where the Book of Joel says the final judgment of the nations will take place. While many place this site nearer Jerusalem thousands of Muslims and Jews are buried there in anticipation of that reckoning the monks of Mar Saba believe Wadi en Nar is the place mentioned in Joel 4:1-2: For behold, in those days and at that time when I restore the fortunes of Judah and Jerusalem, I will gather all the nations and bring them down to the Valley of Jehoshaphat. Then I will enter into judgment with them there.
Wadi en Nor means Valley of Fire. Over the centuries hermits and monks have inhabited the caves which dot its sun-scorched slopes. Today Greek Orthodox monks in black tunics devote themselves to prayer for the salvation of all nations. Anchorites of Mar Saba would retreat to the caves of the Wadi en Nar during the week, but then come together in their compound on Sundays for communal prayer.
St. Sabas provided the model for the lauras form of monasticism. Born in Cappadocia in Turkey in 439, he entered monastic life early. He pursued this vocation under the direction of St. Euthymius in Jerusalem in 457. This spiritual director encouraged the semieremitical life of the laura. He sent the young Sabas to Wadi Mukelik, where he followed the guidance of St. Theoctistus for seventeen years.
Sabas first came to the Wadi en Nar in 478. He lived in a cave until 483, when he established what is called the Great Laura of Sabas. Soon afterward, Sabas respected the wishes of Sallustius, Patriarch of Jerusalem, by taking Sacred Orders and becoming director of all anchorites of the lauras of Judea. He founded three other lauras, six monasteries, and four hospices before his death on December 5, 532. Today the uncorrupted body of St. Sabas lays draped in green silk within a glass coffin in the cool, dark interior of Mar Sabas main church.
A spring still gushes from the Kidron stream bed beside Sabas original grotto. Above it now stands a huge complex with fortress-like walls, towers, assorted buildings, and its distinctive blue domes. Although it once accommodated more than one-hundred fifty monks, Mar Saba now has just fifteen residents, who come from Greece, Cyprus, France, and Russia. For the rest of his life, each one of them will follow the simple routine practiced for centuries. He sleeps from sundown to midnight, when he rises to pray until dawn. The rest of his time is occupied with study, solitary prayer, and the mundane tasks that maintain an ancient monastery complex. The monks have no commercial industry, although they do make some icons and rosaries to be given as gifts to distinguished visitors.
In spite of its isolation and the atmosphere of serenity it exudes, the monastery has had a bloody history. It was first destroyed by Persians in 614, when forty monks were massacred. Another slaughter of monks occurred in 788 when Saracens assaulted Mar Saba. Crusaders rebuilt it with protective walls and towers, but it continued to be attacked by marauding Bedouins. In the nineteenth century the Russian church helped reconstruct the damaged walls and watchtowers.
For the past hundred years Mar Saba has enjoyed relative peace and stability. It retains an air of detachment from the modern world, even though it opens its doors to visitors. Because only men may enter the compound, what is called the Womens Tower was built in the seventeenth century to allow females to see over the walls. Still, the Church of the Cave in the oldest part of the monastery grimly testifies to the violence suffered by the holy men of Mar Saba. This huge burial grotto is piled high with the skulls of slaughtered monks.
More than a setting or history, Mar Saba recalls the fruitful monastic heritage of the Eastern Church. In addition to St. Sabas, its holy men include the likes of St. John Damascene, St. John the Silent, and Stephen the Thaumaturgist. They and other monks have enriched Christianity through their writings, prayers, and devote lives. Like Mar Sabas striking blue domes amid the stark desert landscape, the austere, relentless quest of these men draws Christians to aspire to the same spiritual purity. Since the fifth century in unbroken succession they have anticipated the time when their isolation will give way to that rendezvous of all nations which will determine who will find eternal refuge.
Gerald Ring is a writer and photographer living in Jerusalem.