The Mar Saba monastery is one of the earliest and greatest monasteries in Bethlehem and is situated right in the arms of the Judaean Desert where it almost hangs at the cliff edge of a cavernous valley and sandwiched between the adjacent walls of the Kidron Gorge. The monastery derives its name from Saint Sabas who hailed from Cappadocia but, entered a monastery in Jerusalem and later left for the Kidron Valley in the pursuit of solitude. He established the Mar Saba monastery in AD 492 and since then, it has been one of the most frequented spots of Palestine. However, the present structure of the monastery was extensively modified after a major earthquake affected it in the year 1834.
During its zenith, the Mar Saba monastery sheltered about 300 monks, but with time, this number has invariably dipped to 20 in the latest century in spite of being an active desert monastery. Another intriguing revelation about the monastery lies in the verity that along with St. Catherine’s Monastery of Egypt, Mar Saba too has been posited as the oldest inhabited monasteries that ever existed. From the time the monastery came into being, it was treated under the glaring light of majestic reputation not only in Palestine but in Constantinople too. Saint Sabas, even though he turned 90 by then, traveled to Constantinople and it was a fruit of his efforts that Emperor Justinian was persuaded to reconstruct the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. After his death three years later, his tomb was preserved and was hailed as a holy site of pilgrimage by people from all around the globe. During the 8th Century, the monastery further marched towards fame as it became the residence of John of Damascus, the greatest theologian of his times.
Regulations and attractions
Nevertheless, the monastery has a set of strict rules when it comes to granting entry to the visitors; as per the regulations and Mar Saba traditions, women are excluded from entering it. They are only allowed to look over the structure from a place called the Women’s tower and to reach it, one is required to climb a hill on the right of the monastery. This tower was constructed by Sabas’ mother following the laws of the monastery as she herself was prohibited from entering the premises. Visitors who make it to the monastery can see his tomb in the domed cruciform church that is, in turn, adorned by rich and significant icons and paintings. Apart from this, one can also explore the horrifying skulls of the monks that were brutally slaughtered by the Persians in 614 AD as a marker of remembrance. During the Crusades, the body of Mar Saba was carried to Venice from where Pope Paul VI organized his return to the monastery but, only after it had visited his Holy Land in 1964. The body is now preserved in a glass case of the main church and this church is fundamentally dedicated to the Mother of God, Theotokos.