2044 – a visit to the Mar Saba monastery near Bethlehem

This weblog is about Athos. But every now and then I have to report something not directly related to the Holy Mountain, because of its importance or beauty. Today I will show some photos of the Greek orthodox monastery Mar Saba – Saint Savvas – in Palestina (or Israel if you like), that I visited on the 2th of March this year.

March 2nd 2019: a cloudy winter day in the Judean desert: Mar Saba monastery

Its history is unique and amazing and the founding dates back to the year 483, when the Holy Father St. Savvas gathered with other hermits in the Judean desert, in the Kidron valley. The hermitage grew slowly and in 502 AD the first main church was build. And until this day we can count 1536 years of unceacing monasticsim on this spot. Read the full history here on the site of Mystagogy.

I took a taxi from Bethlehem and payed 120 shekel to get there (about 10 km). The cab driver waited for me to take me back. On arriving at the monastery religious women from a East European country were standing at the main entrance to pray and kiss the walls. Just like on Athos, women are not allowed to enter the monastery! Today only 12 monks remain: according to the monk I spoke it is difficult to find novices who want to live here in the (hot) desert……

Arriving at the monastery: female pilgrims gather at the gate
Women in front the main gate
Looking East: a defence tower outside the monastery
The courtyard and entrance to the main church
The Agiou Savvas chapel in the courtyard

The relics of St. Savvas are still in the main church and where shown to me by a nice monk, who gave me a quick tour in the church (and who spoke perfect English). The story about the remnants of St. Savvas is extraordinary: the crusaders stole the corps during the first crusade (1096 -1099) and took it to the church of Saint Antonin in Venice. The relics of St. Savvas were returned by the Catholic church in 1965, read more about this here.

The return of St. Savvas to Mar Saba in 1965
A short fim in Greek of the journey from Venice to Israel

Let’s have closer look at the monastery, first at the interior of courtyard chapel – nr 5.

the cenotaph of St. Savvas
The wall paintings an cenotaph look newly painted and are of exemplary quality
the small dome
a painting with the location of the monastery
turning the camera to the left, the next scene
the next scene, with three Saints
the next scene
the scene above the cenotaph
following the scenes to the left of the lower part of the chapel
St Savvas in Judean desert
St. Savvas meets the Theotokos
St. Savvas and lions
the entrance door to room nr 9, the exo-narthex
the exo-narthex
Cherubs on the ceiling
the wall painting at the far end of the exo-narthex
The exo-narthex: the crucifixion of Christ
side door with saints
a water tap and sink
the stained glass window and door to the balcony – nr 13/14 on the plan
the wooden and iron talanton
The balcony looking at Kidron valley
the Kidron valley – direction West
the Kidron valley – East direction
the monk announcing the service on his semantron
the caves of the hermits, with the cave of St. Savvas on the right
the St. Savvas hermitage
a bridge over the river Kidron
clay pots on a balcony
The domes of the main church
a plaque of St. Michael
A plaque of St. Savvas
an old door in the front wall
a stone stairway at nr 1 of the plan
the entrance, seen from inside
the bell at the entrance
the entrance
the Eastern valley: some caves at the far end of the valley are still inhabited according to the caretaker Wasil
The Bedouin caretaker Wasil, who works 19 years for the monastery – photo internet
time to go back to Bethlehem

Wasil told that is possible to sleep in the monastery and stay the night over. Beware, non-orthodox pilgrims are not allowed in church. The monk I spoke had many reasons not to include other Christian believers, because they made the wrong choice……. But he was thankful for the gift I gave him: incense made by Father David from kellion Timiou Stavrou in Provata-Athos!

Wim Voogd, 20-03-2019

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