Mar Saba Monastery is built into the side of a rocky cliff in the Judean Desert, overlooking Kidron Valley, 15 km east of Bethlehem. The brown dusty tones of the monastery make it blend into the desert surroundings. The complex has thick walls, giving it a fortress-like appearance. Mar Saba is known as the greatest of Israel’s desert monasteries. It is also referred to as the Holy Lavra of St. Sabbas. Lavra is Latin for the monastery, and Saint Saba (or Sabbas) founded the monastery. At one time, Mar Saba was inhabited by over 300 monks. Today, there are about 20 monks at the monastery, continuing their ancient traditions.
History of Mar Saba Monastery
The monastery was founded in 483AD by Turkish monk, Saint Sabbas the Sanctified (439-532) or Mar Saba in Arabic. The monastery started as a cluster of cave-cells where monks would retreat for solitude. Saint Sabas was one of these monks. He lived for five years in one of the caves, which you can see across the valley.
Together with other monks, living in the nearby caves, they formed a community. When two monks arrived, who were architects, Saint Sabbas had the monastery built. The monks would spend weekdays in their caves and gather on weekends for communal prayer. Sabbas became the superior of all hermit monks in Palestine.
The monastery grew for 131 years after its establishment in the 5th-century before being destroyed and plundered by the Sassanid Persians in 614. Mar Saba Monastery was rebuilt and monks continued enjoying the tranquility of this remote location.
Then, after suffering attacks by the local Bedouin, the monastery was abandoned. In 1504, Serbian monks purchased the monastery, and 150 years later they were forced to sell the property because of dept. Mar Saba Monastery was bought by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem in the 1630s. In 1834 Mar Saba suffered damage from a major earthquake.
The Monks of Mar Saba Monastery
Monks of the Mar Saba Monastery helped to develop how the Divine Liturgy is celebrated today. The monks created a typicon, a book to guide worshipers through religious services and ceremonies. How they celebrated became the standard throughout the Orthodox world. A tradition holds that the last Divine Liturgy before the Second Coming will be hosted at the Mar Saba Monastery.
The monistic life of Mar Saba involves complete isolation and disconnection from modern-day life. In the early days of the monastery, monks would make rope and weave baskets out of rushes to help finance their community. The monks are in a state of constant prayer. They are not permitted any contact with women. Even a woman’s voice could break their focus on prayer, so no women are allowed on the grounds.
The Women’s Tower is the only place in the complex where women are allowed. A stone stairway leads from the monastery entrance to the tower where there are magnificent views. Tradition holds that the tower was built by Saint Saba’s mother, who was also forbidden to enter the monastery.
Highlights of the Mar Saba Monastery
Within the monastery walls are two churches, chapels, a dining room, kitchen, storerooms, water cisterns, and living quarters for the monks. The entrance is through a low door in the western wall. A passageway then takes you to the central courtyard. The monastery complex’s main church is a 6th-century Byzantine basilica with a blue dome.
Attached to the church are several ancient chapels. The most interesting of the monastery structures is the small St. Nicholas grotto church. It was the first church built in the monastery complex and inaugurated by Saint Sabbas. The church doubles as an ossuary and holds the skulls and bones of monks killed by Persians in the 5th century.
A balcony overlooks the rugged desert landscape. From here you can see caves in the rocky hills where monks used to retreat, leaving behind their worldly distractions. At the base of the monastery is an area enclosed around a spring. It was this rare water source, in the harsh desert environment, and the remote, peaceful surroundings, that made this the ideal location for the Holy Lavra of Saint Sabbas.