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One of the most mysterious and wonderful places in the country: the Monastery of Marsaba (or Mar Saba) in the Judean desert that sits on a cliff above the Kidron river. These days there is a celebration of light there. The monks light hundreds of candles around the monastery to commemorate the day of the founder of the monastery, the monk Mr. Sabas”

The Great Laura of San Sabas , known in Arabic as sea saba (Arabic: دير مار سابا; Hebrew: מנזר מר סב; Greek: ἱερὰ λαύρα τοῦ ὁσίου σάβα τοῦ ἡγιασμένου), is an excavated Greek orthodox monastery on the hillside from a mountain overlooking the Citron (or Kidron) valley outside Bethlehem in the West Bank, halfway between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea.

The monastery was founded by Saint Sabas of Cappadocia in the year 439 (other sources cite the year 483 as the date of foundation) and was at the time one of the most influential monasteries in the Holy Land. At the time of its creation it was inhabited 150 monks and about 70 hermits. In 532, Saint Sabas died in the monastery of Mar Saba, where his remains rest today. Juan Mosco, author of El Prado, one of the most popular works of ascetic literature, visited the monastery at the end of the 6th century. The Mar Saba community also had a well-organized scriptorium from which beautifully decorated books emerged - in 1834 there were more than a thousand books in its library - whose production continued well into the 20th century. Groups of Arab raiders took advantage of the chaos created by the Persian invasion of Palestine in 614 to loot the monastery and massacre 44 monks who would later be revered as martyrs. However, unlike most of the lauras that did not recover from the looting of that time, the Great Laura of San Sabas would again have a moment of heyday in the seventh century, coming to have great influence in current theological debates.​

Mar Saba was the home of Saint John Damascene (676 - 749-754?), one of the dominant religious figures in the iconoclastic controversy, who around 726 wrote letters to the Byzantine Emperor Leo III the Isaurus refuting his decrees forbidding the veneration of images or statues of Christ or other Christian icons. Saint John, who was born in Damascus and initially worked as head of the finances of Caliph Abd al-Malik, felt a spiritual call that led him to Palestine, where he began as a monk and was ordained at the Mar Saba Monastery. . The tomb of Saint John is in a cave below the monastery. His adoptive brother Cosme de Maiuma was also a monk at Mar Saba.​


The monastery played an important role in the historical development of the liturgy of the Orthodox Church in that the monastic Typikon (manner of holding worship services) of Saint Sabas became the standard in the Eastern Orthodox Church as well as in the Eastern Orthodox Churches. Eastern Catholics who follow the Byzantine Rite . The Typikon took the standard form of services that were officiated in the patriarchate of Jerusalem and added some specifically monastic uses that were local traditions in Saint Sabas. From there it spread to Constantinople, and then through the Byzantine world. Although this Typikon has undergone later developments, particularly in the Studion Monastery in Constantinople, it is still known as the Typikon of Saint Sabas.

At the end of the 8th century, a plague epidemic decimated the population of Mar Saba , a great earthquake brought monastic life into disrepair soon after, and an attack by Bedouin robbers caused a massacre of monks and the destruction of part of the monastery in 796. Saladin 's victory at the Battle of the Horns of Hattin in 1187 and the consequent Arab conquest of Palestine triggered a new massacre of the monks of Mar Saba , as well as serious damage to the buildings with the exception of the church and tomb of San Sabas. Around 1440, the monastery was abandoned by the monks to avoid the continuous looting of nomadic tribes, an exile that would last approximately a century. Around the year 1540, the superior monk Joachim re-inhabited the monastery along with fifty other Greek monks . Ottoman rule brought with it a series of protection orders by sultans Suleiman I, Selim II, Mehmed III and Ahmed I. Burdened with debts, the monks of Mar Saba attempted to sell the monastery to the local Armenian Christian community, but it was eventually purchased by the Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem in 1625. The 18th and 19th centuries were marked by frequent Bedouin looting and killings and by a progressive loss of the cultural life of the monastery. In 1965, Pope Paul VI returned to the monastery the relics of Saint Sabas , which had been brought to Venice at the time of the Crusades.​

According to tradition, it will be in this monastery that the last Christian liturgy will be celebrated before the second arrival of Jesus Christ and, therefore, it will be the last pillar of authentic Christianity. Mar Saba is where Morton Smith claimed to have found a copy of a letter attributed to Clement of Alexandria containing excerpts from a supposed secret Gospel according to Saint Mark.

Mar Saba is home to around 20 monks today. It is considered one of the oldest inhabited monasteries in the world, and still maintains many of its ancient traditions. A very special one is the ban on women entering the main complex. The only building that women can enter is the Women's Tower, near the main entrance. Part of the complex are the Church of the Annunciation, dedicated to Saint Sabas in 501; the Church of Saint Nicholas; the tomb of San Sabas; a small chapel in honor of Juan Damascene and a refectory.

Photographer: Erez Dagan, Eretz-Dagan Discover Israel.

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