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Monasteries in the Judean Desert, Israel

Ever since Moses and Elijah communed with God in the wilderness, people have sought out the purifying solitude of the desert

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Mar Saba Monastery

Ever since Moses and Elijah communed with God in the wilderness, people have sought out the purifying solitude of the desert. Seekers of spiritual fulfillment, whether prophets or ordinary folk, found all they needed here: dwelling caves, freshwater springs and a location close enough to towns and roads to obtain provisions, yet far enough to ensure tranquilly. Desert monasteries began in fourth-century Egypt, as Byzantine monks sought to return to simplicity and to emulate the prophets, John the Baptist and Jesus.


The fifth-century Martyrius Monastery, off the highway east of Jerusalem, was built by Patriarch Martyrius of Jerusalem to endow the place where he once lived in a cave. It contains remains of colorful mosaics and an ancient guesthouse.
On the Roman-era Jericho road, not far from the same highway, is St. George’s Monastery, where a few fourth-century monks settled around the cave where they believed Elijah was fed by ravens (1 Kings 17:5-6).
Deir Hijla, off the main Dead Sea-Beit She’an road, is named after biblical Beth Hoglah (Joshua 15:6) and was founded by the Byzantine monk St. Gerasimos. Its picturesque church and monastery were rebuilt in 1890, and its shaded courtyard picnic tables are popular with local families.


South of Jerusalem on the edge of the Judean desert is the sixth-century Mar Elias, named after Elijah, whom legend says rested here after fleeing from Jezebel (1 Kings 19:3). Mar Elias affords a dramatic view of Bethlehem, Herodian and the wilderness. East of Bethlehem is Mar Saba, accessible by four-wheel-drive, one of the world’s oldest still-inhabited monasteries. Here too, the monks lived in caves, building the monastery when their founder Mar (Saint) Saba gained fame. Visitors hike down to the cliffside complex, which women can view from the Women’s Tower, and men can enter to see the church and St. Saba’s preserved remains.


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