by Cunningham Geikie, D.D.

Notes on Revelation Online Books


Chapter 30 | Contents | Chapter 32

The Holy Land and the Bible
A Book of Scripture Illustrations gathered in Palestine

Cunningham Geikie D.D.

With a Map of Palestine and Original Illustrations by H. A. Harper
Special Edition



Saint Sabas—A Scene of Stern Grandeur—Foundation of the Monastery—Gaining Admission—The Saint's GraveThe Church—How the Monks LiveTheir Gardens—Tameness of Wild CreaturesAn Evening at the MonasteryThe Baking of BreadThe Essenes"The Watch Tower"The ScapegoatGetting round the Mosaic LawCharacter of the Monks

It would be unpardonable in anyone who visits the Jordan valley not to make his way to the strange old-world monastery of Mar Saba, named after "Saint Sabas," who was born so long ago as AD 439, in Cappadocia, and at the age of eighteen turned hermit and founded this monastery in the wild hills over the Dead Sea. The easiest route to this strange community, which offers so interesting a link with early Christianity, is by a track leading westwards from the shore of the Dead Sea, up the Wady Feshkhah. It runs at first across the border of the lake, through scattered weeds and gaunt shrubs, which break the utter barrenness of the undulating chalky ground, aided in some spots by a few patches of reeds and flowers. After little more than a mile these earth-waves begin to swell into low hills, white, like the soil of the plain. No rocks are visible, however, till the mountains are reached, but the scene around is still very bare and uninviting. Among the upper hills grass shoots out here and there from the clefts of the rocks, as the way continues in successive easy upward and downward slopes; at one time through a narrow wady, which shuts out the view except of its rough sides; at another, up the mountains, to a small plain above; then, presently, down to a valley; all alike desolate.

A little more than a mile before reaching Mar Saba the path leads to a tremendous gorge, which is part of the Valley Kedron, or, in Arabic, the Wady en Nar. Perpendicular precipices rise more than six hundred feet above the abyss from which they spring, but a well-built road, guarded by a strong stone fence, leads one safely high up the west side of the chasm, and brings the monastery in sight. Its lofty, massive towers are seen clinging to the almost plumb-line sides of bare rocks rising up wildly above it, and sinking beneath it into frightful depths, with great walls of rock, hundreds of feet up and down, forming the other side of the wady, and the only view before the monks on the eastern side of the valley. Fearful desolation and loneliness reign around. You seek in vain for a blade or leaf of green, to relieve the bareness of the shattered and weathered rocks. In summer the heat reflected from the naked precipices is almost unendurable, and in winter the rains stream in torrents from the heights, checked by no soil or herbage.

In an age like the fifth century, when the Roman Empire was breaking up, and the world itself seemed sinking into ruin, the craving after retirement from universal commotion and storm drove multitudes to seek a retreat in the loneliest spots they could find. Among these, few could realise the ideal of entire banishment from mankind more than Mar Saba. Early known from its nearness to the holy places of the faith, it was natural that in such a troubled age it should attract numerous hermits. A passion for desert life had seized almost every earnest soul. Hither, therefore, came an army of eremites, who hewed out for themselves small caves in these rocks, and used them for dwellings. Multitudes of such cells are to be seen on both sides of the awful gorge for there were in this part at one time as many as 10,000 of these renouncers of the world. From among these, the anchorite Sabas, about the middle of the fifth century, collected a number who agreed to live together, and thereupon he laid the foundation of the cloister which still bears his name.

Many storms have passed over it in these fourteen centuries, for it has often been laid waste, and hundreds of monks have perished by the sword or spear of the foe. Indeed, even in this century it has been once more surprised and plundered by a Bedouin horde, so that its defenceless loneliness, in the wild hills, has from the earliest times made fortifications a necessity. The famous Emperor Justinian contributed to these a watch-tower, which rises imposingly on the north side of the monastery, and still shows its high antiquity by remnants of peculiar masonry, though it has been in great measure rebuilt, with its connecting walls, within the last fifty years. How the stones were ever brought to such a place, or built up into the castle-like wall which rises, step over step, from the precipitous abyss, clinging to the nearly upright slope till it joins the tower above the monastery, is a mystery. Fortunately, such a defence was needed only on one side, for a yawning chasm effectually protects the other. Steps cut out from the dry torrent bed below lead, in one direction, to a carefully fortified postern, and, in another, to the flat shelf above, from which the tower rises. To secure space for the monastery huge buttresses have been piled up on a slight bend in the rocks and filled in behind, so that the main buildings can rest against them. Above this rise the cells of the monks, clinging to the mountain, one over the other, like swallows' nests, rude balconies of many patterns projecting from before them, the whole forming a picture as romantic as can be imagined.

To obtain admission, it is necessary to have with you an order from the Greek monastery at Jerusalem, and this you must put into a basket, let down from the watch-tower by the monk who is on duty there for the time. If, after being carefully examined, it prove satisfactory, a little iron-barred door is opened, and you are admitted. No Bedouin or woman is allowed to enter on any account, but a tower outside has been set apart for their lodging, and they are supplied with the simple fare of the monks. Inside the iron door, a second gate, at the bottom of some steps, admits to a second flight. At the foot of this we reach a small courtyard, with a still smaller garden, from which a third flight of stairs leads to the guest-chamber. All this masonry, and, indeed, every part of the stonework throughout the monastery, is admirably substantial, as if intended to serve many generations of inmates. The whole scene presents a confusion of small courts, chapels, churches, cells, projecting windows or terraces, and microscopic gardens, for every spot that will hold soil is utilised to redeem the savagery of the landscape by refreshing green. A solitary palm rises at the very edge of the monastery plateau, waving over the deeps below, and fig-trees send out their branches at every corner. The holiest part of the establishment is a low cave which has been made into a double chapel, where you are shown the grave of St. Sabas, and the skulls of some hundreds of monks, who are said to have fallen before the Persian invader Chosroes, in the beginning of the seventh century.

East of this cave, on the very edge of the abyss, stands a roomy church, renovated of late years by the Emperor of Russia, who has fitted up its interior richly with gold and silver, but also with hateful paintings in the style of the Greek church. In the tower over the church are three small bells, whose sound is heard as far as the west side of the Dead Sea, where it falls on the ear of the Christian traveler with a wonderful impressiveness in these regions lonely as the grave. From the terrace on the roof of the church you look sheer down into the awful depths. Underneath the church is the cistern from which the monks draw their best water. The cave in which St. Sabas lived and died is also within the walls—a grotto of two chambers, only fit for a dwelling to one resolute in self-denial. The library of the monastery formerly contained about a thousand manuscripts in Greek, and several of parts of the Old Testament, but the monks are not literary, and these treasures have wisely been removed to a monastery near Jerusalem. The community, indeed, are profoundly ignorant, as they well may be, since they attend seven services every twenty-four hours, between four in the morning and midnight. They never taste fresh meat, and eggs only on Sundays; a small brown loaf, some cabbage broth, some olives, an onion, half an orange, quarter of a lemon, six figs, and half a pint of weak wine, being their daily allowance through the week. But with all this apparent self-denial there is no religious activity. The monks, who are drawn from Turkey, Greece, the Archipelago, or Russia, content themselves with barren idleness, so far as the advancement of their Church is concerned.

It is very pleasant, in such a place, to see the small, well-tended gardens in which these recluses cultivate vegetables and flowers. Some vines, growing where possible, form refreshing flecks of shade in the blinding sunshine by being trained over rude frames of poles standing out from the doorways or walls; but even with their help there is very little shelter from the light and heat. Nor can it be easy for novices to accustom themselves to some of the cells, which are close to the precipice, with no protection before them, so that even to see their inmates sitting on places so dangerous makes one involuntarily shudder. The solitary palm tells its own tale of the situation, for it is secured with chains, to prevent its toppling into the abyss below. The birds and wild animals which frequent the neighbourhood are the only companions the monks can be said to have. Here man and the humbler creatures live on the friendliest footing with each other. Canon Tristram noticed a wolf which came every evening, as the bell tolled six, to get a piece of bread dipped in oil and dropped over the wall to him by a monk at that hour. A whole pack of jackals also came regularly to be fed, and a small troop of foxes. Even the timid grackles, which are found only round the Dead Sea, perch in flocks at Mar Saba, catch berries as they are thrown into the air by some recluse, sit on the shoulders of their human friends, eat out of their hands, and allow themselves to be played with and stroked—a wonderful illustration of the power of human love over lower nature, carrying one back to the old days of Paradise, or forward to the Millennium.

An evening at Mar Saba is an experience one cannot forget. There are nearly always travellers of different nationalities visiting so curious a place during the season. As they arrive, their tents are set up in the little glen on the west, the crowd of mules and horses attending them being picketed before the monastery, which, for the time, is turned into a hospice on a large scale. Peasants offer memorials of Mar Saba—sticks, rosaries, and the like, at wonderfully low prices for the locality; Arab guides, mule-drivers, Greek monks, and travellers, perhaps from France, Germany, England, and America, talk, each in his own language, till it seems like a reproduction of the noisy confusion of the gift of tongues.

In the refectory, long tables are covered with pleasant white cloths, and wax candles in tasteful holders light up the shining plates and dark wine-flasks. The men connected with the tents bake their bread outside the cloister, in the hot ashes, turning the dough carefully and often, that it may not burn; just as Sarah did when she "made [round] cakes on the hearth," that is, on the wood ashes, for the three mysterious visitors to her husband's tent (Gen 18:6).* This is the common way of preparing bread among Orientals at the present day when they are in haste or on a journey, but it has been practised from the earliest times. The bread baked by the Israelites on the night of their departure from Egypt was made thus (Exo 12:39). Even their manna-bread seems to have been cooked by them under the ashes, into which it was put in earthenware dishes (Num 11:8). The cake prepared for Elijah by the widow of Sarepta, and that which he found near the "retem" bush in the wilderness, were both from this primitive oven (1 Kings 17:13, 19:6). Hosea compares Ephraim to such a cake burnt, and yet only half baked, because the necessary turning had been neglected (7:8): that is, to interpret the comparison, scorched by the judgments of God, but not benefited by them, as it would have been if they had been rightly used. Ezekiel also tells us, incidentally, that even in Babylon his countrymen baked their cakes of barley meal in the same fashion (4:12). But the entertainment in Mar Saba must not be limited to the simple fare which the monks can give, in a place so out of the world, and in such an abstinent community.

* The word "ugah" means a round cake of bread. The Septuagint and the Vulgate both translate the Hebrew word by "cakes baked in the ashes."
It is hard to realise a stranger spot than this lonely dwelling of men. Its huge flying buttresses, castellated walls, high towers, and steep ascent of churches, cells, guest-house, and offices, hard to be distinguished from the colour of the rocks to which they cling; the awful precipice of nearly four hundred feet, above and below, aptly called the Valley of Fire, bare and tawny, and falling sheer down, as if the hills had been violently rent apart by some terrible earthquake—can never be forgotten. Nor is the silence less impressive, for no sounds ever disturb it but the bell-like notes of the grackle, the howl of the jackal or wolf, or the twittering of the swallow. The heat, moreover, is terrible in summer, for walls of chalk and high ridges shut out the refreshing western breeze, and there is no cooling green to temper the burning noon and soothe the imagination. Even in the caves of the old hermits, so numerous around there is no relief, for they seem hotter than the open air. Yet this hideous desert has, from the earliest times, even before Christianity, been a favourite retreat of ascetics. Colonies of Essenes flourished here in the time of Christ. Scattered over the land, more than four thousand members of this strange community lived apart, in the villages and even in the towns, but their chief settlement was in this ghastly "Wilderness of Judæa," fitly called in Scripture "Jeshimon"—"The Solitude." They lived together like monks, wearing a white upper garment as their distinctive badge, and had rules as strict as those of any modern cloister; indeed, more so, from their supreme anxiety to observe all the ten thousand requirements of the Rabbinical law. In this wilderness, again, lived the hermit Banus, mentioned by Josephus, and it was in these frightful gorges that John the Baptist spent his years of meditation and prayer, before he made his appearance on the Jordan, calling his nation to repentance in preparation for the Messiah.

Among the mountain-tops to the west of Mar Saba, the highest is that of El Muntar, "The Watch Tower," brown and barren, and marked by the steep slope, unbroken except by precipices, with which it descends to the plateau beneath. This hill, in Captain Conder's opinion, is famous as the scene of a yearly peculiarity of great interest in the old Jewish religious economy.*

* Tent Work in Palestine, 155.
Moses had ordered the scapegoat to be led to the wilderness and set free, but one having found its way back to Jerusalem in later times, it was felt that, to prevent the recurrence of an event so ominous, the creature should henceforth be led to the top of a high mountain, from which there was a steep rolling slope, and pushed over, so that it might be killed before it reached the bottom. Sabbath was the day on which it was driven out from Jerusalem, and as the law forbidding a journey of more than two thousand cubits on that day hindered the new arrangement, means were found to evade it. At the limit of each legally permissible advance, a booth was erected to represent the home of the person in charge of the goat, and he had thus only to eat and drink in it, however slightly, to be able to flatter himself that he was setting out each time from his own house on a lawful journey. It required ten such booths between the hill selected and the Temple—a distance of about six and a half miles. This distance is just that of the lofty El Muntar, at which, beside the old road from Jerusalem, is a well called Suk, the name given by the Hebrews to the hill of the scapegoat, while the district, which they called Hidoodim, is still known as Hadeidun.

It thus seems very reasonable to look on this mountain as that from the summit of which a poor goat was each year hurled into the gorge far below, in accordance with the letter of the command that it was to be let go into the wilderness (Lev 16:8-10), for Jeshimon is seen from the top of El Muntar, sinking, in all its hideous desolation, to the east. It was only by a succession of legal fictions, however, that the goat-slayer could reach the fatal spot on the Sabbath, and the casuistry of the Rabbis could stretch conscience no farther. Having thrown the unfortunate animal down the steep, the messenger fell back on the usual Sabbath day law for his return, and had to wait until sundown, when the Sabbath was over, before starting again for Jerusalem.

The reputation of the Mar Saba monks does not support the belief that either multiplicity of devotional services, or a life of seclusion and external simplicity, can secure the highest ideal of religious life. They are mostly old men, but their faces speak more of ignorance, or even of evil, not seldom dashed with abiding sadness, than of lofty enthusiasm or a noble striving for heaven. In their long black gowns and black hats—like our hateful stiff cylinders, though with the rim at the top instead of the bottom—they seem almost dead while they live. Hopeless and aimless, they vegetate in their strange home, half of them unable to read the manuscripts in their library, which they nevertheless carefully guard from the eyes of heretics. They may neither smoke nor eat meat inside the walls, but they manage occasionally to get raw spirits from travellers. Than theirs, no life could well be more pitiable.


Chapter 30 | Contents | Chapter 32


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