The Mar Saba Monastery, named after Saint Sabas (St. Saba) of Cappadocia, is a 5th Century Greek Orthodox Monastery, built on cliffs overlooking the Kidron valley, located half way between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea, in the heart of the Judean Hills.
Mar Saba is reputed to be one of the oldest Monasteries still inhabited by monks. This continued presence throughout the years is noteworthy since the Monastery was invaded and damaged a number of times in the course of its history and each time was re-built. The Persian invasion of 614 CE, in particular, resulted in the massacre of many monks whose skulls are still kept within the Monastery as a reminder of their martyrdom.
Video inside Mar Saba Monastery (From WysInfo Archives)
Video (4 min 48 sec) of a tour of Mar Saba Monastery filmed in 1982, reproduced from original source material from WysInfo Archives.
The background music for the video is the Agni Parthene, chanted by the Monks from the Monastery of Simonos Petra, and by Nana Peradze and the Georgian Harmony Choir. Background music compliments of Milan Records
About the Monastery
The Monastery is known, among other things, for the Typicon of Saint Sabas, which influenced the order of services and prayers used in the Eastern Orthodox Churches.
It is traditionally believed that Saint Saba founded the Monastery, however James Kean (see excerpt below), and other scholars, suggested that that the Monastery may have been founded by Saba's teacher, St. Euthymius. Saint Saba, nevertheless, was the primary influence over its development and also founded several other Monasteries in the area.
The isolated location, the proximity to the Kidron stream and the geological structure that resulted in the creation of many natural caves, provided excellent conditions for Monastic existence. In these caves St. Saba and his followers found their home in the early years of their hermitage.
The cross shown in the picture on the right marks the location of the cave where St. Saba spent his first years in the area.
With time, other monks joined them and helped to create the foundations of the Mar Saba Monastery.
Saint Saba was buried on the grounds of the Monastery but his bones were removed to Venice in the 12th Century, and then returned again to Mar Saba in 1965.
The dome marking the original grave of St. Saba is seen as bright turquoise in the video presented above (filmed in 1982). The structure was renovated after the filming of the video and a golden dome replaced the turquoise (shown on the left).
Throughout the years women were forbidden to enter the main compound and were only allowed within one building, referred to as the ‘Women’s Tower’.
In the Google Earth map, below, you see the location of the Mar Saba Monastery, with the Dead Sea on the right, the Mediterranean Sea on the left, and the Sea of Galilee in the distance at the top. From the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea, you can see the Jordan River that runs along the Jordan Valley.
19th Century Travel
- Visit to Mar Saba Monastery
From James Kean M.A.,
Among the Holy Places, T.Fisher Unwin Paternoster Square, MDCCCXCI
In 1882 Rev. James Kean, M. A., B.D. made a pilgrimage to the
holy land and published a book of his travel notes. The excerpt reproduced below
describes his visit to the Mar Saba Monastery located in the Judean desert
beside the Dead Sea.
The description of the Monastery, provided by Reverend Kean, very closely resembles a similar tour to Mar Saba exactly 100 years later, in 1982, by the WysInfo team (see video clip above).
"Still forward, and far on in a secluded
hollow you suddenly come upon a solitary hut. In front of it stands a dreadful
creature, an old man, clad in a soiled white frock, with some sort of girdle
twisted round his waist. In the girdle are stuck two large pistols, bright as if
from constant use. This man stands mute and motionless as you approach. You
shudder at the bare thought of being here alone; but, one of four, you are
quite bold. He is evidently a man of few words, and disinclined to be troubled;
for, when questioned as to the route [to Mar Saba], he merely indicates with a
lazy wave of the hand, that it lies up the glen to the north."
"Up this next ridge proves a stiff pull,
but you are rewarded with a glorious view of the Dead Sea from the summit: it
lies peacefully below, not very far off, to the east. The cliffs along its
eastern shore are distinctly visible: the quietness of the scene gives them an
air of solemnity."
Photo of Mar Saba Monastery, reputedly taken in the 19th Century. (Photo from Wikipedia )
"Forced to turn westward, the range being too
steep to be descended on the north, you come upon a long gradual slope downwards
to the dry bed of a stream. All the way down this slope are broad patches of red
anemones, at the cheering sight of which the beasts take fresh courage. It is
now but a little way to Mar Saba: a few turns, and you ride down a glen, whose
lower or eastern end is filled up with buildings.
Knocking at a small iron door
in the wall, you are answered by a man who looks down from a square tower at the
north side of the door: and in a few minutes you enter the precincts of the
monastery. Never were you more glad to find a place of rest and
[Looking down from gate of Mar
Saba Monastery, photo taken in 1982]
"This monastery is said to have been
founded in the fifth century by a certain St. Euthymius. Sabas was a pupil of
his. The history of the place, as also of the man whose name it bears, is very
vague. Sabas, it seems, died about 530, after having founded several
monasteries, and distinguished himself --zealous man--as a stout opponent of the
Monophysites, that is, the heretics who held that Christ had only one
nature--the Divine. The place has been repeatedly plundered; and in consequence
it became necessary to fortify it. For the last half- century [written at end
of 19th Century] it has been in the
hands of the Russians, who restored and enlarged it."
"Of more interest to you at present than
these somewhat isolated historical facts is the question of the material
resources of the establishment. To say that you are thirsty would be to use a
very inadequate expression: your tongue is like a piece of hard wood. You trot
down the stair, then, without delay: through a second doorway, and down another
stair: across a paved court; up a stair on the south side, and so into the
refectory or dining-room. This is a large, handsome hall, fitted with broad
divans all round. Here you tumble down your aching bones, and eagerly watch for
the return of the little monk who has gone to fetch some wine. Thankful would
you be, beyond all words, could you have a glass of spring water; but they have
nothing but the stagnant tank stuff, the same as at Jerusalem; and that you
cannot drink. Nor does this decanter of wine look at all inviting: it utterly
lacks sparkle, and bears the stamp of being amateur-made. This, in fact, it
turns out to be: they make it here, from their own vineyards. Not that there are
vineyards about: the monastery possesses lands elsewhere."
"Unpalatable as the liquor is, you are
fain to have a draught. All you can say about it, however, is that it is better
than nothing at all: it wets the parched tongue, and gives partial relief. But
your guides disdain such trashy tipple: they have been here before, and know
that the cellars can produce something more potent than drumly white wine: a
liqueur of the nature of whisky is what they order up. Out of curiosity you wish
to taste this spirit; but you at once regret you did not let it alone, for this
peppermint sort of essence with which it is flavoured is peculiarly nauseous,
and threatens to stick to you permanently. The monk does not exactly sell
spirits, but he looks for a fair price, all the same."
"The monastery lies at the mouth of a glen,
just where that glen runs through the west side of a much larger glen. This
latter is the Kidron valley, which here runs south, and is of immense
depth--some six hundred feet. The mouth of the smaller valley, or, in other
words, the open in the west side of the Kidron valley, is walled across with
very strong stone-work, buttressed, to keep it from falling into the deep Kidron.
Inside this wall, the smaller valley has been, so far, levelled up; and the land
sides--north and south--as well as the upper reach of this small valley, have
been protected with strong walls. The area of the place, therefore, is
triangular, the apex side pointing to the west, and the base lying against the
west rise in succession on the north and south sides. As for the Kidron wall, it
rises only to about the level of the paved court; and you look over it, down
into the abyss."
"In the centre of the paved court stands
a richly decorated shrine, a dome-roofed, arbour-like little structure. This,
the monk who guides you over the place is eager to have you take note, contains
the empty tomb of St. Saba. You think you can hardly be hearing rightly, when he
says 'empty tomb', the man's enthusiasm being quite out of keeping with such an
idea: it is empty, however, the saint's body, or bones, having been removed to
Venice long ago."
"From this shrine you turn and go a few
paces towards the north-west, and enter the rock-hewn church of St. Nicholas.
This is a ghastly place: skulls in considerable numbers stare at you from behind
gratings in the walls, the skulls of the inmates murdered by the Persians who
sacked the monastery so long ago as about the year six hundred."
"Another church, a much finer one,
stands east of the shrine. This contains a number of pictures, after the manner
of the Eastern Church. On the north side of this church are the quarters set
apart for pilgrims. Here you wander up and down flights of steps, and along
galleries, looking down upon lower galleries, and altogether gathering the
impression of doing a civilian barracks overhanging a precipice, or, in view of
the birds that come here to be fed, a lighthouse on some lonely rock."
"Returning to the paved court, you pass
to the south side as if going again to the dining-hall. You keep nearer to the
buttressed wall, however, and ascend a stair which leads to the rock-hewn cells
in the cliffs overhanging the Kidron. Here is the saint's grotto, a small
low-roofed den; and beyond it is a still smaller one called the lion's grotto.
The absurd story runs that Sabas, on entering his grotto one day, found it
tenanted by a lion. The saint betook himself to repeating his prayers as hard as
he could; but the lion, quite regardless of this pious proceeding, dragged him
out twice. Nothing daunted, the saint came in again; and at last a Modus Vivendi,
or mutual arrangement, was arrived at, the lion undertaking to keep to his own
corner. These dens are not inhabited now: they are show-rooms, and a good deal
of attention has been bestowed upon them, in the way of decoration, by holy
hands in the days of old...."