No women permitted past the outer towers
Built in the southern hills of the Kidron Creek, Mar Saba Monastery is the largest monastery in the Judean Desert. It is made up of numerous clay and stucco buildings built into the caves and hilly landscape of Kidron Creek. The entire complex, with bright blue doors, domed towers and detailed residential dormitories, is protected by stone walls.
It was designed by Saint Sabas (Mar Saba) and his followers. According to his tradition, women aren’t allowed in the most sacred buildings of the complex. Even Saba’s own mother was only permitted in the outer towers. It started out as a place of quiet seclusion for monks among the caves and grew to house 500 monks at its height.
Mar Saba is 10 kilometers east of Bethlehem and is near the desert road to Jerusalem. The Kidron Creek begins in the valley between the temple mount and the Mount of Olives and flows to the east toward the Dead Sea.
Inside the expansive walled yard sits a hexagon dome. It used to be the grave of Mar Saba, but his bones were removed in the 12th century AD. The bones were returned in 1965 and are now on display in the main church hall. Colorful paintings adorn the inside the dome. These are paintings of Christ and also of Mar Saba lying in state with monks gathered around.
The main church is an exquisite tribute to Christ. The floor is shined with kerosene, and the chandeliers are made of gold, although the entire hall is lit by natural lighting. The paintings in the church and the rest of the monastery are Greek-Orthodox renderings of Christ and the Virgin Mary, scenes from Christ’s life and the lives of the Greek-Orthodox saints.
Mar Saba was born in 439 AD in Cappadocia. He lived in Jerusalem during his younger years, but then he moved out to the Judean Desert monasteries. Mar Saba lived in a cave near the monastery for about 5 years. This was a perfect place for seclusion and meditation because it had a spring for drinking water.
Mar Saba then helped establish many monasteries in the desert, including the Mar Saba Monastery. His personal meditative customs changed the sacred practices of the monks in the area. After his death in 532, he was buried at the monastery. Over the years it was expanded to accommodate all the monks who wanted to live there, and walls were added to protect all the inhabitants.
The Mar Saba Monastery was damaged during the Persian invasion in 614 AD, but it was restored by 629. After being robbed about 150 years later, the walls were further fortified. The Crusaders built more on to the walls during their stay in the Holy Land. When they left the area, they took Saba’s bones to Venice . His bones were returned to the Mar Saba Monastery in 1965. The structures within the complex were damaged over the years by earthquakes and robbers, but those devoted to meditating on Christ contributed their labor and materials to rebuilding the desert monastery.
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the desert. (Luke 4:1)