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The Sites

Israel and Palestine – In Jerusalem

Israel and Palestine – Outside Jerusalem

Jordan

Egypt

Extras

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)

St Catherine’s Monastery

Egypt

St Catherine's Monastery

St Catherine’s Monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai (© St-katherine.net)

St Catherine’s Monastery in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula is believed to enshrine the burning bush from which God first revealed himself to Moses. It also contains a treasure trove of icons and ancient manuscripts.

St Catherine’s, an Orthodox establishment, is one of the oldest Christian monasteries in the world and has been the centre of monastic life in the southern Sinai.

Monks have lived here, in the shadow of Mount Sinai, almost without interruption since the Byzantine emperor Justinian built the monastery in the 6th century. An earlier chapel on the site is said to have been erected on St Helena’s orders in 337.

Since the location was difficult to protect from marauders, Justinian surrounded the monastery with a high wall of close-fitting granite stones, about 2 metres thick. Most of what can be seen on the site today dates back to the 6th century.

 

The bush still lives

St Catherine's Monastery

Burning bush at St Catherine’s Monastery (Seetheholyland.net)

The holiest part of St Catherine’s Monastery is the Chapel of the Burning Bush, a small chamber behind the altar of the basilica. It is often closed to the public and those who enter must remove their shoes, just as Moses did when he approached the burning bush (Exodus 3:2-5).

Under the chapel’s altar is a silver star which is believed to mark the site of the bush from which God called Moses to lead his people out of Egypt.

The reputed bush was transplanted several metres away. The pilgrim Egeria, who visited between 381 and 384, described it as “still alive and sprouting”, and situated within a pretty garden.

The bush or its successor, now sprawling over a protective stone wall, still lives and is carefully tended by the monks. Since the Bible narrative says the bush was not consumed by the flames, the Orthodox name for it is the Unburnt Bush.

The bush is a bramble of the rose family called Rubus sanctus, which includes the raspberry and blackberry. A native of the Holy Land, it is extremely long-lived. The monastery’s bush neither blooms nor gives any fruit.

Moses’ well still gives water

St Catherine's Monastery

Moses’ Well, traditional place where he met Jethro’s daughters (Seetheholyland.net)

St Catherine’s Monastery also encompasses the Well of Moses, also known as the Well of Jethro, where Moses is said to have met his future wife, Zipporah.

As recounted in Exodus (2:15-21), Moses was resting by the well when the seven daughters of Jethro (also called Reuel) came to draw water. Some shepherds drove them away and Moses came to their defence.

In gratitude, Jethro invited Moses to his home and gave him his daughter Zipporah in marriage.

The well is still one of the monastery’s main sources of water.

 

Icons escaped destruction

St Catherine’s Monastery is renowned for its art treasures. Its collection of more than 2000 icons is probably the largest in the world. Its library of 4500 ancient Christian manuscripts is second only to that of the Vatican Library in Rome.

St Catherine's Monastery

Detail of portrait of Moses in St Catherine’s Monastery (Wikimedia)

The monastery’s isolation saved its oldest icons during the 8th century when the Byzantine emperor Leo III ordered the destruction of any imagery depicting Jesus or one of the saints. These early icons are naturalistic and free from stylisation and the rules that later icons followed.

A selection from the icon collection is always on display in the basilica.

The ancient manuscripts are mainly in Greek, but also in Arabic, Armenian, Coptic, Georgian, Slavonic and Syriac. Only one is in Latin. Some are exquisitely illuminated.

The monastery no longer contains its most precious manuscript. This was the Codex Sinaiticus, a 4th-century copy of most of the Bible in Greek. It was discovered in 1844 by a German biblical scholar, Friedrich Constantin von Tischendorf, who obtained it for Tsar Alexander I of Russia.

Whether the codex was to be returned is disputed. Most of it is now in the British Museum, to which it was sold by the Soviet Russian government in 1933 for $100,000. In 2009 an international project placed the full text online.

 

Basilica has unusual mosaic

The most outstanding art treasure in the monastery is an unusual mosaic of the Transfiguration of Jesus, above the altar in the apse of the basilica.

This well-preserved mosaic from the 6th century can be glimpsed behind the gilded iconostasis that dates from the 17th century.

Christ is shown in glory in an almond-shaped panel of greys and blues, wearing a white mantle edged with gold. His halo has a gold cross on a white and gold backing.

St Catherine's Monastery

Bell tower at St Catherine’s Monastery (Seetheholyland.net)

Around him are the prophets of the Sinai, Moses and Elijah, and the disciples John, Peter and James.

The inside rim of the arch is decorated with medallions of the 12 apostles, with Paul, Thaddaeus and Matthias replacing those in the Transfiguration composition.

The monastery is actually dedicated to the Transfiguration, but it was renamed for St Catherine of Alexandria, a 3rd-century martyr. According to tradition, this happened after monks found her incorrupt body, which had been transported by angels to the top of Mount Catherine (Jebel Katharina), the highest mountain in the Sinai.

To the right of the altar in the basilica is a marble sarcophagus with two silver caskets containing the saint’s skull and left hand.

Monks’ bones are collected

Because the ground is rocky, the monks created the monastery garden by bringing soil from elsewhere. It contains fruit trees including olives, apricots and plums, and produces a variety of vegetables.

Nearby are the cemetery and charnel house. When monks die they are first buried in the cemetery. After their bodies decay, their bones are exhumed and transferred to the charnel house.

In the charnel house can be seen the bones of thousands of deceased monks, with separate piles for legs, hands, feet, ribs and skulls. Martyrs and archbishops are in open coffins. Inside the door, dressed in purple robes, sits the skeleton of Stephanos, a 6th-century guardian of the path to Mount Sinai.

An unusual feature of the monastery compound is a mosque. Originally built in the 6th century as a hospice for pilgrims, it was converted to a mosque in 1106 for the use of local Bedouin, some of whom work at the monastery.

Of the monastery’s four original gates, three in the northwestern wall have been blocked for hundreds of years. Until the middle of the 19th century, access was by basket and pulley to a gate about 9 metres above ground level in the northeastern wall. Then a new gate was opened in the northwestern wall.

Related site:

Mount Sinai

 

In Scripture:

Moses defends the daughters of Reuel (Jethro): Exodus 2:15-21

Moses encounters God in the burning bush: Exodus 3:1-6

God gives Moses the Ten Commandments: Exodus 20:1-17

God gives Moses the tablets of stone: Exodus 31:18

The Transfiguration of Jesus: Luke 9:28-36

 

Administered by: Holy Brotherhood of Sinai

Open: 9am-noon (closed Fri, Sun and feastdays)

 

 

References

Freeman-Grenville, G. S. P.: The Holy Land: A Pilgrim’s Guide to Israel, Jordan and the Sinai (Continuum Publishing, 1996)
Gonen, Rivka: Biblical Holy Places: An illustrated guide (Collier Macmillan, 1987)
Inman, Nick, and McDonald, Ferdie (eds): Jerusalem & the Holy Land (Eyewitness Travel Guide, Dorling Kindersley, 2007)

External links

 

St. Katherine and the Sinai High Mountain Region
Mount Sinai (official monastery website)
360×180° Panorama of St Catherine’s Monastery (1001wonders.org)
St. Catherine Monastery (Geographia)
The Icons of St Catherine’s Monastery (Tour Egypt)
Codex Sinaiticus online

Mount Sinai

Egypt

Mount Sinai

Pilgrims and tourists ascending Mount Sinai

Mount Sinai, a 2280-metre peak in the south of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, is venerated as the mountain on which Moses spoke with God and received the Ten Commandments.

One of a collection of peaks in a red-granite mountain range that rises steeply from the plain, with spectacularly sheer slopes and deep valleys, it is not the highest mountain in the region.

But it may have been called Sinai (“mountain of God”) even before the time of Moses, and it has attracted pilgrims since the 4th century AD. In Arabic it is called Jebel Musa (“mountain of Moses”).

Near the foot of the mountain is St Catherine’s Monastery, built over the traditional site of the burning bush from which God called Moses to lead his people out of Egypt.

In the immediate area are several other sites associated with events in the book of Exodus, including the place where Moses struck the rock to produce water, and the Plain of Al-Raha where the Israelites camped and Aaron made the golden calf.

Identification dates to 4th century

Mount Sinai

Dawn at Mount Sinai (© Custodia Terrae Sanctae)

At least a dozen different sites for Mount Sinai have been suggested — including mountains in the north and west of the Sinai Peninsula, in south Palestine, in Jordan and in Saudi Arabia.

Most modern authorities accept the identification of Mount Sinai with Jebel Musa, in line with a tradition dating back to the 4th century AD. This identification was recorded by the pilgrim Egeria who visited between 381 and 384. By then a Christian monastery was already established at the foot of the mountain.

By the end of the 4th century, hermits and small groups of monks from Egypt and Palestine had settled here. There was already a scatter of little churches and apparently already organised pilgrimages to the sites connected with Moses.

The Old Testament gives the “mountain of God” the names of Sinai and Horeb, but these references apparently apply to the same mountain.

Sunrise treks are popular

Mount Sinai

“Steps” to the summit of Mount Sinai (Seetheholyland.net)

Seeing the sunrise from Mount Sinai is a popular activity for pilgrims and tourists, who often crowd the summit. A 2am start is advisable on either of the two routes to the top.

The steeper, more direct route climbs 3750 “Steps of Repentance”, said to have been cut into a steep rocky gorge by a monk as an act of penitence. The longer, less steep track may be ascended either on foot or by camel hired from Bedouin for most of the way, with the final 750 “steps” on foot.

At a gateway along the ascent is a small plateau and a cave where Elijah is believed to have waited for God to come to him in “a sound of sheer silence” (1 Kings 19:8-13).

On the summit is an Orthodox Chapel of the Holy Trinity, built in 1934 on ruins of a 4th-century Byzantine church. It is said to have been built over the rock from which God took the tablets of stone and its interior is decorated with frescoes of the life of Moses. Nearby is a 12th-century mosque. Both the chapel and the mosque are usually closed.

The spectacular view across a panorama of mountain peaks has been likened to “an ocean of petrified waves”.

 

Related site:

St Catherine’s Monastery

In Scripture:

Moses encounters God in the burning bush: Exodus 3:1-6

God gives Moses the Ten Commandments: Exodus 20:1-17

God gives Moses the tablets of stone: Exodus 31:18

Elijah waits in the cave: 1 Kings 19:8-13

 

 

References

 

Beitzel, Barry J.: Biblica, The Bible Atlas: A Social and Historical Journey Through the Lands of the Bible (Global Book Publishing, 2007)
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)
Gonen, Rivka: Biblical Holy Places: An illustrated guide (Collier Macmillan, 1987)
Rainey, Anson F., and Notley, R. Steven: The Sacred Bridge: Carta’s Atlas of the Biblical World (Carta, 2006)

 

External links

St. Katherine and the Sinai High Mountain Region
Mount Sinai and the Peak of Mount Musa (Tour Egypt)
St. Catherine Monastery
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