On the side of the road leading from Jerusalem to Bethlehem sits a 12th century Greek Orthodox monastery named for the prophet Elijah (Saint Elias which is Mar Elias Monastery). Located 600 meters south of Kibbutz Ramat-Rachel, Mar Elias is built over the ruins of a Byzantine church. It served the pilgrimage route to Bethlehem for years. According to Christian tradition, Mar Elias Monastery commemorates the Prophet Elijah’s stop while fleeing from the angry Queen Jezebel. He was running after slaying the Baal prophets on Mount Carmel, traveling south to escape this murderous queen.
This looming building looks very much like a fortress. Mar Elias Monastery was built with ample fortification to protect those within from the ever turbulent cultural climate of the Middle East. An impressive square bell tower rises out of this three story building, clearly seen from the road.
There is a hill named “hill of the airplane” on the west side of the Mar Elias monastery. During the independence war in 1948, the Egyptians used the hill rallying their troops and battling with the Israeli forces. Until the six day war in 1967, the Jordanians installed blocks in the road and fortified the hill. An Israeli jet crashed into the hill in 1967, earning it the name “hill of the airplane.”
There used to be a chapel on the hill named after the prophet Habakkuk. According to Christian tradition, Habakkuk brought food to the farmers working n the fields on this hill. An angel came down and plucked up the prophet Habakkuk by his hair and brought him to Daniel in the lion’s den. Habakkuk fed Daniel, and the angel brought him back. Daniel was saved.
The hill on the rear side of Mar Elias Monastery is called “the hill of the four” or “the hill of Elijah.” In the 1967 war it was a Jordanian post. There are still a series of bunkers and ruins of the previous fortifications once cut into the top of the hill. In 1956, a Jordanian soldier opened fired on a group of archeologists from the Israel Exploration Society. He killed four people, and the hill was then named in their memory.
The specific site of Mar Elias Monastery was founded during the Byzantine period but was destroyed in the 614 Persian conquest. The monastery was severely damaged in an 1160 earthquake. Immediately after the earthquake, the Byzantine Emperor Manuel I Komnenos rebuilt the monastery.
Then, in the 14th century Greek bishop of Bethlehem, Elias, was buried there in 1345. In memory of this influential bishop, the residents of Bethlehem named the monastery after him. Then the Christian tradition started holding that Elijah (Elias in Arabic) was also associated with the site. He was fleeing to Mount Horeb and stopped to talk to God and hide from Jezebel.
And when he saw that, he arose, and went for his life, and came to Beersheba, which belongeth to Judah, and left his servant there. But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a juniper tree: and he requested for himself that he might die; and said, It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life; for I am not better than my fathers. (1 Kings 19:3-4)