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Mar Saba Monastery


Considered among the oldest inhabited monasteries in the world, Mar Saba Monastery, named after Saint Saba of Cappadocia, was established in the 5th Century, at the peak of the monastic movement that overtook Palestine a century before. It is located east of Bethlehem, in the Kedron Valley, or Wadi an-Nar as it is known locally, and its austere structure blends in perfect harmony with the arid craggy environment that links it to the Dead Sea. The enormous structure includes 110 rooms, which housed more than 5,000 monks at a point in time, with this number decreasing to only a few monks today. The site has a number of attractions including the domed octagon-shaped chapel where Mar Saba’s remains are found; the countless skulls of the monks who were slaughtered by the Persians during the 614 invasion; the Lion’s Grotto, which is considered Mar Saba’s main place of memorial; a palm tree embedded in a rock, said to have been planted by the Saint and which bears pit-less dates; the Grotto of Mar Saba; and the Chapel of St. John Damascene. The monastery also boasts a big collection of icons and paintings, including a representation of the Day of Judgement and the burial of St. John of Damascus, to name a few. Based on an inherited tradition that goes back to the foundation of the Monastery, women are forbidden entry. They can however visit the Women’s Tower, from where they can enjoy a magnificent view of the ancient structure and the gorge that plunges 180 metres below. Women can also worship at the adjacent Church of St. Sophia. Mar Saba died in the monastery in 533 A.D. During the Crusades, his body was sent to Venice, where it remained until 1965, when the Pope gave it back as a gesture of good will towards the Greek Orthodox Church. “Despite its massive rocky solidity, the monastery’s implausible position on a cliff-face in the midst of the wilderness somehow gives the whole place a fantastic, almost visionary appearance, like one of those castles in children’s fairy tales capable of vanishing in the blink of an eye.” - William Dalrymple, From the Holy Mountain.

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