Monasticism is a religious way of life in which someone devotes him or herself fully to spiritual work and usually doesn’t own personal belongings and often lives in seclusion, away from the society.
If you visit Palestine today you will have the chance to visit several monasteries that date back to the first centuries after Christ and that are still (or again) functioning as a monastery. They are often beautifully built on and into the rocks and therefore quite a spectacular sight.
In the last episode I talked about my obsession with caves. I know, that may not sound very exciting, but the caves of Palestine are wrapped in incredible stories. If you love stories, you will love the caves. And if you haven’t listened to the caves episode, I recommend you to do so, it is episode number two.
Many of these caves were found in the Jerusalem desert also known as the Judean desert. This desert stretches between the mountain ridge that connects Jerusalem to Hebron in a north -west line and the Dead Sea. So it is the area to south east of Jerusalem.
Jerusalem is about 700 meters ABOVE sea level and the Dead Sea is at 330 meters BELOW sea level. This means that the Jerusalem desert descends about 1000 meters over a stretch of only 30 kilometers.
And even though I have an obsession with the caves and especially the stories that evolved around those caves I DO NOT have the same obsession with the desert.
I live in Beit Safafa, on the south eastern side of Jerusalem, right where the landscape changes from the greener mountain ridge area with a Mediterranean climate to the more arid desert climate. Most of the rain that falls between October and May falls on the western side of the mountain ridge. The rain shadow side on the east receives much less rain and that’s why the area is so dry.
Deserts differ from place to place, depending on natural circumstances, type of rocks and soil. I was in Morocco in 2010 and the Sahara desert was just sand. Forever, where you looked, sand dunes.
The Jerusalem desert is not sand. It is mainly stone, rocks, barren, where nothing grows, but you see the rolling hills, even though it descends towards the Dead Sea, it is not a flat area. And the area has many valleys, pretty deep valleys, created by the springs at the foot of the mountains and hills between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. And these, I must say, are quite spectacular. In the winter time they can flood. When it rains in Jerusalem, the water goes down with incredible speed and it can catch people by surprise. Every year there are several hikers that did not expect the flash floods and are washed away by them.
Even though we can have different ideas about what a desert looks like, we probably all agree that the desert is a desolate place. A place with very little life.
But, this is NOT completely true for the Jerusalem desert.
Once upon a time, more than 1500 years ago, this desert was inhabited with an estimated number of 10.000 people. These people did not live in a city or in towns. They were either dwelling on their own in natural caves or they were living in a community with others, but closed off from the outside world. We refer to them as the desert fathers.
They were monks that chose to abandon their families, their properties and their life in the society, to dedicate their life to God. They would leave absolutely everything behind and move without belongings into this desert. They came from different locations, some were locals but many came from further, from Egypt, from Cappadocia, current day Turkey and from Syria.
And so the Jerusalem desert became a spiritual city.
And it was not for no reason that it was in the Jerusalem desert that monasticism became so popular. It is the same desert where according to the Bible Jesus spent 40 days fasting in the wilderness and then he was tempted by the devil. And if you are familiar with the bible stories, it may be interesting to know that it was in THIS desert that David would hide from King Saul and that prophet Elijah was fed by the ravens during a two and a half years long drought, a punishment by God for the sins of the people.
These bible stories were all very important for the monks who chose to follow in the footsteps of these important Biblical characters.
Besides the fact that the monks were drawn to this desert because of the biblical stories, the Jerusalem desert is also just very SUITABLE for monastic life. It has several features that make it perfect for these desert dwellers.
First of all, we said it, the existence of natural caves that offered protection, against the heat of the summer, the cold of the nights and the winter and against wild animals.
Another interesting feature of this desert is that even though it is on the rain shadow side of the central mountain ridge and it doesn’t rain very often in the desert, it still has water, spring water. And of course water is essential, without water, the monks would not survive. There are a number of springs in the desert. These springs are fed by rainwater that seeps down in the mountains until it hits an impermeable layer that does not allow the water to pass through. The water will then flow over this layer until it reaches a place on the earth’s surface where the water comes out in the form of a spring.
The spring water on the earth’s surface becomes quite a big water stream in the rain season and over a long period of time, these streams created deep valleys. These valleys are called wadis in Arabic and they run all the way from the mountain ridge until the Dead Sea, for about 30 kilometers, towards the lowest point on earth.
Another important fact was that even though the monks would dwell in the desert, they would still know that beyond the hills, there were Jerusalem and Bethlehem. The distance to Jerusalem was generally always within one day of walking. So that made it more convenient and even though they lived a remote life, there was the possibility to connect to the outside world and even sell products to have an income for the monastery.
So these are the reasons that explain why the Jerusalem desert was such a popular destination for monastic life, the biblical stories, the presence of water and the closeness to two important religious cities.
The monks that moved to the desert basically had three options for how they wanted to live in the desert. The first option was to live and dwell in complete solitude as a hermit, totally alone and away from the society. These hermits would have to forage for food. From early historical descriptions of the lifestyle of these hermits we have quite a good idea of what they would be eating. Their diet was usually vegetarian or even vegan. They would forage for plants like khobeze (mallow in English), lupine, chickpeas and lentils. They could carry and keep dried fruits and nuts with them, like dates, apricots and almonds.
With herbs such as sage (maramya) and wild thyme (zaatar) they could brew a cup of tea to keep them warm at night or in winter time.
But many monks would eat very little or keep days of complete fasting.
I found this conversation that was written down by a monk called Evagrius Ponticus in the 4th century after Christ. He says:
“Once I visited Saint Makarios at noon and, burning with thirst, I asked for a drink of water. But he said: be satisfied with the shade for at this moment there are many travelers who lack even that. Then I was telling him of my difficulties in practicing self-restraint, he said: Take heart my son for during the whole of twenty years I myself have never had my fill of bread, water or sleep. But I have carefully measured my bread and water and snatched some sleep by leaning a little against the wall.”
I am just trying to picture these monks. On medieval paintings we see them depicted with very long beards, sometimes reaching the floor! They are usually depicted wearing a cloak. They were slender and they probably did not have many opportunities to have a good cleaning wash…. It must have been very challenging.
There were also monks who chose to live a more COMMUNAL life, TOGETHER, with other monks in a monastery or a cenobium. They would take a vow before God, denouncing any material possessions, committing their life to prayer, devotion and hard work. Because these monks would not only meditate and pray. They were self sufficient within the walls of their monastery. They would grow their own food, they would make baskets and ropes and do other handicrafts, to be completely self sufficient and independent.
On the door of the well known Saint Theodosius monastery, close to Bethlehem and Jerusalem, on the edge of the desert,in a town called al-Ubeidiya, there is a sign that Theodosius himself put up above the entrance that says: Let no lazy person enter.
That’s HOW important working was to them. Eight hours of sleep, eight hours of work and eight hours of prayer and bible studies.
The third way of monastic life was a combination of the two I mentioned. The monks would stay in separate caves throughout the week, in solitude, but they would come together on Sundays for a church service and they would share a meal together. They could then also get supplies for the week to come. We know that they would use a double baked bread called Paximathia, a hard bread, of Greek origin, that keeps good for a long time, so they would have enough for the next week in solitude in the desert. In Palestine today there is a similar hard baked sweet bread that is called ‘kershela’. My children like to eat it in the morning, dipping it in warm milk to make it softer.
The caves where these hermits were staying, each one in their own cave, were usually forming a path or a line in the wadi. So the caves were essentially connected to each other by a path and there was one central area where they would meet in the weekends. The Greek word for path is ‘laura’ and so this type of monasteries became known as Laura.
The main monastery of a Laura type was NOT walled off, like the cenobium. It was more accessible.
Both at the cenobium as well as the Laura type monasteries they used to receive and host pilgrims. And there were many pilgrims that visited the Holy Land and spent some days with the monks in the desert. It was actually part of the income of the desert fathers.
We know that at some point there were 10.000 monks living in the desert. And there were around 65 different monasteries. Only one of these monasteries has continuously been inhabited, from the year it was built in 483 AD until today. That is the Mar Saba monastery. A fantastic monastery, built on steep rocky cliffs. The many structures that were built around the first defensive tower, seem to hang from the mountain. They have different shapes and heights and form a spectacular organic looking cluster of buildings. As if they were dug into the rocks. You can see photos on my website.
The Mar Saba monastery as well as the Saint Theodosius monastery can be easily visited from Jerusalem or Bethlehem. They are both situated close to the Kidron valley. The Kidron valley is believed to be the location where the final judgment of God will take place, in all three monotheistic religions. So for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike the valley that comes out from Jerusalem and descends to the Dead Sea is very important.
Saint Saba, the founder of the Mar Saba monastery, was a special man. He was living the monastic lifestyle since he was 8 years old. He came from Cappadocia. When he turned 18 he traveled to Palestine because he wanted to live as a hermit in the Jerusalem desert. It had become a tradition to start the hermit life in the desert by first spending some years in a cenobium, together with other monks, before moving on to the more isolated life in a laura or as a hermit. So that’s what Saba did. By the time he was 30 years old he finally started his time alone in the desert and he lived in caves and wandered around for about 14 years.
There is a great story about Saba. One day Saba left his cave for some time and then when he returned he found a lion inside his cave. And the lion did not look very amused at the sight of Saba. But Saba trusted in his God and he did not feel fear. He is said to have tried to persuade the lion that they could share the cave together. The lion was not really convinced. Or maybe he was just really hungry. Saba then decided to use another WEAPON and he took out his Bible and read to the lion from the book of Psalms. The lion was not really impressed by this act, but probably he got bored and he got up and left the cave without harming Saba.
This story was shared between the people in the area and since then no bandit has every tried to harm him, because it was known far and wide that Saba had been victorious over a lion.
Saba was also a very pious man. According to another story, one day he had an APPLE in his hand. It must have been something special because apples naturally do not grow in the desert or anywhere in the area. He looked at the juicy apple, it looked delicious and so tempting. But when he realized the feeling of temptation he was reminded of how Eve and Adam had been tempted to eat an apple from the forbidden tree in the garden of Eden and how that had led to their fall. That’s when he decided he would never eat an apple and since then apples have never been allowed into the monastery. Until today.
The monks that live in Mar Saba monastery today do not eat apples and they do not eat meat. They deprive themselves in general of luxury and temptations. And these temptations also include … women. Women are not allowed in the monastery. Saba had a special tower built across from the monastery for the female visitors. He would even host his own mother in the women’s tower. She never set a foot in the monastery itself.
It is even said that if a woman visits the monastery, there will be an earthquake. That might sound like a legend, but local people will tell you that one day a woman, disguised in men’s clothes, was trying to enter the monastery on which very moment the earth shook and her true nature was revealed.
Monasticism in the Jerusalem desert had an abrupt and sad end. Except for the Mar Saba monastery all the monasteries suffered from attacks and destruction by the invading Persians in the year 614. The Persians, back then, were on a mission to enlarge their empire and when they reached Jerusalem they were so angry that Jerusalem did not want to make an easy truce with them that they besieged it and killed every man and woman and child they could catch or they captured them and took them into exile. This is the year in which most monasteries were destroyed and many monks were killed. It is said they killed at least half of the 10.000 monks in the desert.
Some of the monasteries have been rebuilt. Visitors to Palestine today can visit the Theodosius monastery in l’Ubadya, the Mar Saba monastery, the Saint George monastery in Wadi Qelt, the monastery In Jericho at the Mount of Temptation and the Deir Hajla monastery north of the Dead Sea. And in most of these monasteries you will find a display of skulls of monks that were massacred by the Persians in 614.
Monasticism in Palestine has never again reached the same popularity. Today there are only small numbers of monks in the existing monasteries. And honestly, it is really hard to imagine such a life in isolation. Especially in these days of modern technology where we are always connected. Although I do see, especially now in these times of a world pandemic and uncertainties, that there IS a longing for more spirituality and a search for the meaning of life.
But then nowadays, in order to find peace of mind, people rather look for an application on their phone to do some mindfulness meditations or yoga, rather than looking for a suitable desert cave.