The Monastery of Mar Saba

The Greek Orthodox Deir Mar Saba is one of the oldest ongoing monasteries in the world; it lies about 14 km east of Bethlehem. It is considered one of the most remarkable buildings in the West Bank. Nineteenth century travelers approached it from the east by donkey on a journey from the Dead Sea.

Mar Saba was founded by Sabas of Cappadocia in 483 A.D. and became the largest monastery in the area. It is carved into the walls of a canyon overlooking Wadi Qadrun (Kidron Valley). The monastery has 110 cells and could house up to 4000 monks in the 7th century. Daily life was structured around solitary prayer seven times a day, and work such as basket wearing. The monks lived separately throughout the week but gathered together on weekends for communal prayer and mass. Most monasteries were abandoned following the Muslim conquest, but Mar Saba continued to survive.

Deir Mar Saba has been destroyed and pillaged many times since the Byzantine era. An earthquake destroyed much of the monastery in 1834. In 1840 AD it was restored with the help of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Saba died in 532 A.D. at the age of 93 and was buried in his monastery. In the twelfth century his body was carried off to Venice by the crusaders, but later the body was returned to Mar Saba Monastery as a result of an agreement between Pope Paul VI and the Greek Orthodox Patriarch during the Papal Visit to the Holy Land in 1965.

Women are still not allowed to enter the Monastery, even though Mar Saba has a long tradition of hospitality to strangers. Women visitors can view, get a glimpse of the chapel and buildings from the Women's Tower at the right entrance.

Today the monastery is plagued by pollution. The Kidron River, which flows through the gorge below the monastery, is laden with raw sewage and trash from Jerusalem and from the Israeli settlement blocs around the city.