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Monastery of St Gerasimus

West Bank

Monastery of St Gerasimus (Bukvoed)

Monastery of St Gerasimus (Bukvoed)

The Monastery of St Gerasimus, one of the earliest of the 70-plus monasteries in the Judaean desert, is named in honour of a pioneering monk who is usually depicted with a pet lion.

A verdant and welcoming oasis in the arid lower Jordan Valley, it is on the east side of highway 90 just north of the Beit-Ha’aravah junction, and about 7 kilometres southeast of Jericho.

Across the Jordan River is the place of Jesus’ baptism, Bethany Beyond the Jordan, but the two-storey monastery commemorates an earlier event in Jesus’ life.

According to an old tradition, the monastery was built where Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus took shelter in a cave while fleeing from Herod the Great.

This event is commemorated in the ground-floor crypt beneath the monastery church. An icon illustrates the Flight of the Holy Family into Egypt and a large painting depicts a contented Jesus being nursed at the breast by his mother Mary.

Fresco of St Gerasimus with his lion (Bukvoed)

Fresco of St Gerasimus with his lion (Bukvoed)

The upper-floor church contains many holy icons and frescoes, including paintings of Gerasimus and his lion. Cabinets in the crypt store the bones of monks killed during the Persian invasion of 614.

 

Hospitable place for pilgrims

A place of hospitality and refreshment for pilgrims, with fruit trees, flowers and birdsong, the gold-domed monastery offers a contrast to the hot and barren environment of the Judaean wilderness.

Founded in the fifth century, it was originally dedicated to Our Lady of Kalamon (Greek for reeds), but was later renamed in honour of Gerasimus, who founded a nearby monastery that had been abandoned.

It was destroyed in 614, rebuilt by the Crusaders, abandoned after the Crusader period, restored in the 12th century, rebuilt in 1588, destroyed around 1734 and re-established in 1885.

In Arabic it is known as Deir Hajla, meaning the monastery of the partridge, a bird common to the area.

Cloister in Monastery of St Gerasimus (© Deror Avi)

Cloister in Monastery of St Gerasimus (© Deror Avi)

The monastery functioned in the form of a laura — with a cluster of hermits’ caves located around a community and worship centre. The hermits spent weekdays alone in their caves, occupied in prayer and making ropes and baskets. They went to the centre for Saturdays and Sundays, taking their handiwork and partaking in Divine Liturgy and communal activities.

The monastic rule was strict. During the week the hermit monks survived on dry bread, dates and water. At the weekends they ate cooked food and drank wine. Their only personal belongings were a rush mat and a drinking bowl.

Hermits’ caves can still be seen in the steep cliffs a kilometre east of the monastery and in the adjacent mountains.

 

Gerasimus redeveloped monastic life

Like many who founded Judaean monasteries, Gerasimus (also spelt Gerassimos or Gerasimos) came from outside the Holy Land — from a wealthy family in Lycia, in present-day Turkey.

Already a monk when he came to Palestine, he followed the monastic leader Euthymius into the desert and became renowned for his piety and asceticism.

Because of the similarity of names, Gerasimus is sometimes confused with St Jerome, the Bible translator who lived in Bethlehem.

Gerasimus is credited with a new development in monastic life. Previously desert monks lived either in caves or in monasteries. He was the first to combine the solitude of a wilderness hermit with the communal aspect of a monastery by bringing hermits together on Saturdays and Sundays for worship and fellowship.

Upper part of iconostasis in monastery church (© Deror Avi)

Upper part of iconostasis in monastery church (© Deror Avi)

He is believed to have attended the crucial Council of Chalcedon in 451, which caused a major rift in the Eastern Orthodox world.

Called to settle differences of opinion on the nature of Christ, the council declared that he has two natures in one Person as truly God and truly man. Gerasimus briefly opposed this declaration, then accepted it.

The lion depicted in icons of Gerasimus comes from a story that he found the animal wandering in the desert, suffering from a thorn embedded in a paw. The saint gently removed the thorn and tended to the wound.

The lion thereafter devoted himself to Gerasimus, serving him and the monastery and retrieving the monastery’s donkey when it was stolen by thieves.

The story has it that when Gerasimus died in 475 the lion lay on his grave and died of grief.

 

Administered by: Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem

Tel.: 02 9943038 or 050 348892

Open: 8am-6pm daily

 

 

 

References

Gonen, Rivka: Biblical Holy Places: An illustrated guide (Collier Macmillan, 1987)
Irving, Sarah: Palestine (Bradt Travel Guides, 2011)
Murphy-O’Connor, Jerome: The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide from Earliest Times to 1700 (Oxford University Press, 2005)
Prag, Kay: Israel & the Palestinian Territories: Blue Guide (A. & C. Black, 2002)
Rossing, Daniel: Between Heaven and Earth: Churches and Monasteries of the Holy Land (Penn Publishing, 2012)

 

External links

St. Gerassimos (BibleWalks)
The Monasteries of the “Desert of the Jordan”(Christus Rex)

Mar Saba

West Bank

Mar Saba

Mar Saba from above (Steve Peterson)

 

The greatest of the ancient monasteries dotting the wilderness of the Judaean Desert, Mar Saba hangs dramatically down the cliff edge of a deep ravine.

The grey-domed Greek Orthodox complex was established in the 5th century by St Sabas (Mar Saba in Arabic), a monk from central Turkey, and was largely rebuilt following a major earthquake in 1834.

Its remote location is 15 kilometres east of Bethlehem, off route 398 and reached down a steep road.

During its heyday the monastery was home to more than 300 monks. Though it remains a functioning desert monastery, its numbers have dropped to fewer than 20 in the 21st century.

Mar Saba

Women’s Tower standing apart from monastery at Mar Saba (© Deror Avi)

Occupied almost continuously since its founding, Mar Saba ranks with St Catherine’s Monastery in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula as one of the oldest inhabited monasteries in the world.

It also provides an enduring reminder of the age-old tradition of holy people leaving behind worldly distractions and seeking God in the solitude of the desert.

Part of the Mar Saba tradition is the exclusion of women visitors. They may only look over the complex from a vantage point called the Women’s Tower — built, according to tradition, by St Sabas’ mother, who was also forbidden to enter the monastery.

Saint’s body returned from Venice

Mar Saba

Defensive wall around Mar Saba (Kaasmail)

A thick wall and slit-like windows give Mar Saba the appearance of a fortress. These defensive features recall plunder by the Persians in 615 and attacks from Bedouins in the following centuries.

What began as a series of cell-caves along two kilometres of cliffs has been consolidated into a complex containing two churches, several chapels, a common dining room, kitchen storerooms, 14 cisterns, cells for monks and a hostel for visitors.

From the entrance, a low door in the western wall, a stepped passageway descends to the central courtyard. In the centre is a hexagon-shaped dome which was once the tomb of St Sabas.

During the Crusades the saint’s body was taken to Venice. Pope Paul VI arranged for its return after his Holy Land visit in 1964, and it now lies in a glass case in the main church.

Mar Saba

Remains of St Sabas in main church of Mar Saba (Adriatikus)

This church, with a large blue dome and small bell tower, is dedicated to the Theotokos (Mother of God).

From the entrance area, a stairway leads to a series of small chapels — one in the cramped cave where a brilliant monk, St John Damascene, spent 20 years in the 8th century writing classic defences of Christianity against heresy and Islam.

On the northwest side of the courtyard is the second church, built into a grotto in the rock. It is dedicated to St Nicholas.

The skulls of monks killed by Persians invaders are displayed in the sacristy and their bones are collected behind a grille.

Mar Saba

Visiting priest in cave of St John Damascene (© Gregory Edwards)

In contrast to the austere simplicity of the monks’ lifestyle, church and chapel walls glitter with the gold of innumerable icons, many donated to the monastery by the Russian government in the 19th century.

 

Holiness attracted other hermits

Mar Saba clings to one side of the Kidron Valley — the valley that begins between the Temple Mount and Mount of Olives in Jerusalem and runs eastward to the Dead Sea.

At the foot of the monastery, beneath three great buttresses that support the wall of the dining room, kitchen, storehouse and bakery, is a walled-in space containing the spring that attracted St Sabas to the site. The Kidron stream is dry in summer.

Mar Saba

Steps down to the walled-in spring at Mar Saba (© Deror Avi)

Across the valley is a cave where St Sabas spent five years in solitude. The opening is protected by a metal grille with a cross set between the letters A and C. Inside an entrance lower down, two ladders climb a 6-metre shaft to the simple cave, containing a rock-cut bench and a prayer niche cut into the eastern wall.

St Sabas had been a monk for 18 years before he sought seclusion in the Kidron Valley. Other hermits, attracted by his holiness, settled nearby and their cluster of cells led to the founding of Mar Saba.

A legacy from his mother and the arrival of two monks who had been architects paved the way for the construction of a large church and communal facilities.

Mar Saba

Cave of St Sabas (© Clara Bonnet)

St Sabas founded several other monasteries and became superior of all the hermit monks of Palestine. He is credited with taming a lion that tried to eat him, and vowing never to eat apples because he believed Eve tempted Adam with this fruit.

Monks developed Orthodox worship

Originally the monks of Mar Saba meditated in isolation in their caves from Monday to Saturday, then gathered to spend Saturday night in prayer together before celebrating Mass at dawn on Sunday.

Mar Saba

Church domes at Mar Saba (© Deror Avi)

They returned to their caves on Sunday evening, taking food for the following week and palm branches and rushes for their daily work of making rope, baskets and mats to be sold in Jerusalem to finance the monastery.

The monks of Mar Saba made a crucial contribution to the development of the liturgy in the Orthodox Church. They compiled a typicon — a book of directions for worship services and ceremonies — that became the standard for the Orthodox world up till the 19th century.

 

Administered by: Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem

Tel.: 972-2-2773135

Open: Open daily except Wednesdays and Fridays, 8am-4pm (ring bell). Only men may enter monastery; women are admitted only to Women’s Tower.

 

 

References

Bourbon, Fabio, and Lavagno, Enrico: The Holy Land Archaeological Guide to Israel, Sinai and Jordan (White Star, 2009)
Inman, Nick, and McDonald, Ferdie (eds): Jerusalem & the Holy Land (Eyewitness Travel Guide, Dorling Kindersley, 2007)
Freeman-Grenville, G. S. P.: The Holy Land: A Pilgrim’s Guide to Israel, Jordan and the Sinai (Continuum Publishing, 1996)
Murphy-O’Connor, Jerome: The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide from Earliest Times to 1700 (Oxford University Press, 2005)
Prag, Kay: Israel & the Palestinian Territories: Blue Guide (A. & C. Black, 2002)
Walker, Peter: In the Steps of Jesus (Zondervan, 2006)

 

External links

Mar Saba (BibleWalks)
Holy Lavra of St. Savas (Orthodoxwiki)
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