Mar Saba - Monks, martyrdom and military checkpoints.

Reverend James Harris, parish priest in the diocese of St Asaph and recipient of a grant from The Jerusalem and the Middle East Church Association, reports on his sabbatical to the Holy Lands where he undertook an Arabic course and spent time at the monastery of Mar Saba near Bethlehem.

View of the valley from inside the monastry


The Orthodox monastery of Mar Saba, overlooking the barren Kidron valley, lies in the Judaean wilderness a few miles south of Bethlehem, at the end of a winding road. It is not the kind of place that you just pass by, unless you are a bird or the pilot of an Israeli military helicopter.


The buildings of the monastry look part of the landscapeWith its tightly packed cluster of whitewashed buildings, some with blue domes, it is a striking sight for the few who see it. It is surrounded by a wall, contains a couple of watchtowers and some of it overhangs a steep precipice. It looks like a castle. The history of this ancient monastic foundation, whose origins lie in the fourth century CE, are as bloody as that of many castles. The cave church of St Nicholas, within the walls of the monastery, contain several skulls and bones, the relics of martyred monks, some of whom perished during the seventh century Persian invasion of Palestine, others of whom were slain during a raid on the monastery by plundering tribesmen in the early ninth century, when law and order in the Abbasid caliphate had broken down. Despite these and other upheavals, the monastery has been the home of deeply ascetic monks from the fourth century to the present day.

The monastery of Mar Saba, whose most famous resident is perhaps the Church Father, John of Damascus, came to my attention recently while I was working on an M Phil about early Christian-Muslim relations. The monastery was the source for an incredible output of Christian writing in Arabic, as well as other languages, in the eighth and ninth centuries. As well as producing martyrs of its own, it was the place where accounts of martyrs’ deaths (martyrologies) were written down. Palestine contains the ruined reminders of so many Byzantine monastic foundations that did not last long in the aftermath of the Muslim invasion. The monastery of Mar Saba not only survived, but became a theological powerhouse as Melkite Christians came to terms with the new world order in which they had to survive without the support of the Byzantine Christian state.

This summer I had the privilege of visiting this ancient foundation for a short educational visit and retreat. The monastery is still home to about fifteen Orthodox monks. About half are Greek, others from lands such as Russia and Rumania. The working language is Greek and the monastery comes under the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem. The regime is austere. Fasts are observed strictly, the daily around of prayer begins at about 2 a.m., women are not allowed within the walls, there is no electricity and water comes from cistern and needs to be rationed. I stayed during the hottest time of the year (August) when even the thick old stones of the monastery building had warmed up so that it was never really cool.

Cat finding some shade in which to cool off during the hot August month

Finding some shade from the August sun

As an Anglican I could not, of course, participate fully in the worshiping life of the monastery, remaining in the narthex for most services. Nevertheless, I found most of the monks to be extremely hospitable and welcoming, keen to explain and engage in conversation and also wanting to know more about my part of the world, as well as to share their own stories. I was grateful for the opportunity of having such a deep insight into such a different way of being the Church, as well as being able to experience something of the timeless silence of the desert. As I munched my fasting diet of raw vegetables and looked out from the remote monastery onto a barren landscape dotted with old hermits’ caves, I found myself, as a Welsh Christian, inevitably thinking of St David and other Celtic saints, building their monastic cells and living simply in colder, wetter, greener but no less demanding surroundings.

Looking up from inside the monastry, over the dome to the cross at the topThe sense of peace on the edge of the wilderness can be deceptive, however. This trip was my third visit to the Holy Land (I had been there previously in 1987 and 2001). There were the military checkpoints, the security fence, the settlements and the palpable unease in Jerusalem, where faiths bump into each other in and around the old city but do not seem to engage. There is much religion there, but little peace. One of the few Palestinian Christians who visited the monastery for spiritual direction while I was there spoke of how many Palestinian Christians had left to make a new life in other lands. The monks, for their part, drew comfort from the tradition of a promise made by the Virgin Mary to St Saba that the monastery would remain until Judgement Day. From what I could discern of their faith and commitment, it seemed clear that they were determined to make sure that this monastery, which had weathered storms in the past, would indeed remain until then.

Profile picture of reverend James HarrisRevd James Harris


Posted 11th October 2012