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May 12, 2006 - Post No. 77

Mar (St.) Sabas Greek Orthodox Monastery, Judean Desert

A first time visit to the legendary monastery of Mar Sabas, clinging to the cliff near the Dead Sea, has long been on my list of things to do while in the Jerusalem area. To assist me in achieving this goal, Fr. Khat has booked the services of the Armenian Convent's favourite taxi driver, Ziad Ali. He is tall and personable young man of 25, married for six years and father of three small children. From all accounts, he is the only one in his very large extended family with anything resembling a steady income -- and income for taxi drivers in Bethlehem is anything but steady.

Ziad tells me that his mother is Arab Christian (orthodox) and  his father, Moslem. His parents agreed years ago to "do their own thing" in religious terms, but both are at best lapsed believers, and Ziad himself has no active religious affiliation. He and the majority of his peers seem best understood simply as Arab Palestinians and secular Moslems.

Traveling with Ziad is a delight, and presents a real opportunity to see Bethlehem and its people from the perspective of one of the locals. Ziad has friends everywhere we go, and he seems to know just about everyone we meet. He explains that this is in part the result of Bethlehem being boxed in by the Israelis, it's a small place really. It also is apparent that the Arabs of Palestine are a friendly bunch. Traveling with Ziad has the effect of making me a member of Ziad's gang, as it were, and I am welcomed like an old friend wherever we go.

Our first stop is the Shepherds' Field, a shrine believed to mark the spot where the heavenly host greeted the shepherds, keeping watch over their flocks by night, on that first Christmas Eve more than 2000 years ago. Every place or event of any importance in the Biblical narrative or in the extra Biblical narrative (stories of the childhood of Mary, for instance) is associated with some spot on the geographical horizon of the Holy Land. It is interesting to note the Canadian contribution (honoured on the altar, pictured here) to the building of the main church at the Shepherds' Field.

Mar Sabas is the next stop on our Palestinian taxi itinerary. It is about 12-15 kilometres from Bethlehem, but conditions are such that it takes the better part of an hour to reach. The desert landscape becomes more and more prominent, as we venture deeper into the Judean wilderness towards the monastery located on a desolate turn of the wadi Kidron or canyon very near the Dead Sea.

The monastery gate keeper is away having his lunch when we arrive, and we have about a 30 minute wait until he returns. There are several boys, ranging in age from perhaps six or seven to the early teens, hanging around the monastery entrance, waiting to beg spare change from the monastery's visitors. They are more than a little insistent, and Ziad tells them to settle down, to leave me alone and there will be something for them when we leave. This seems to do the trick. Ziad is pictured here with a couple of the lads, waiting at the monastery door, his yellow taxi to the right.

An icon portraying the death of Mar Sabas.

Soon the gatekeeper returns from lunch and asks me if I am an orthodox priest. I explain that I am an Anglican, and that I am currently living with the Armenian Orthodox in Jerusalem. "Oh," he says, and then he insists, in a way that is typically Greek, "The Armenians aren't really orthodox, you realise." Basically, the only real orthodox are Greek, though he is willing to extend some recognition to the Russians, Serbs, Rumanians ... cousins in the Byzantine family of churches.

The remains of Mar Sabas in the monastery chapel.

This monk and his 16 brothers are the monastic descendants of the Arab saint, Mar (St.) Sabas. Mar Sabas sought spiritual isolation in the Judean wilderness in the fifth century, living in a cavern across from the current monastery on the Kidron wadi. Soon men from all over the Middle East were drawn to the saint's company, living in neighbouring caverns, and St. Sabas took pity on them and their struggle with hardships of desert lifestyle and founded this monastery in 485 a.d. The monastery has operated continuously from then and with St. Catherine's Monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai, is one of the two oldest continuously inhabited Christian monasteries in the world.

The monastic lifestyle is full of trials, as is illustrated in this image, over the rack for the choir robes worn by the monks during the 12 hours or more spent every day in liturgical prayer. The image shows a monk spread out on his personal cross, with many devils trying to get at him, each representing different kinds of temptation (jealousy, gluttony, gossip, etc.) Our guide is Brother James, a newly arrived American monk, who explains that the best way to deal with these temptations is to die to the world, as Jesus died on the cross.

Brother James offers us a very interesting tour of the monastery -- despite the brusque introduction from his gatekeeper colleague; and at the end of the tour, he serves the required cup of Arabic coffee, accompanied by a glass of arak and a few Turkish delights.

As we are preparing to leave, a large group of Greek Orthodox visitors arrive. The men -- there are about fifty, including two bishops -- are allowed to enter the monastery and are taken on a tour. However, women are not allowed in the monastery -- apparently Mar Sabas' demonic tempter often came in the form of a woman -- but some of the saint's relics are brought to the monastery's door for the women to venerate.

Ziad invites me to his home for lunch, insisting that his family will be very pleased to meet me. He is pictured here between an older and a younger brother. Their father has married a second wife (both still living in the family home) and there are now nine brothers and sisters in all, the three from the new wife are all quite young.

Here is a photo of Abu Ziad (which mean's "Ziad's father") with one of his new sons. Several of the older siblings are married and their spouses and children bring the household population up to 27 in what looks like house with about six rooms.

I only get a couple of glimpses of the women of the family, they remain out of sight through most of my visit. Lunch is delicious and consists of boiled chicken served in a single platter (no plates or utensils) with rolled grape leaves and stuffed zucchini squash both with a savour rice stuffing.

Ziad's father signals that he and I should begin eating, and after a few minutes, the sons join in. We use our fingers, and a cola drink or juice accompanies the meal. Two of Ziad's cousins arrive and join us about half way through the lunch, and there is plenty to go around. One of the cousins joins us for the what remains of the day's programme of sightseeing in and around Bethlehem. (Ziad and his cousin are pictured above on the summit of Herodion our principal destination for the afternoon.)

Herodion is a man made mountain, housing a citadel and a palace dating back to the time of Herod the Great, the not so great king of the Christmas story. The photo, above, was taken from the rooftop of the Armenian Convent in Bethlehem and demonstrates the dominance of Herodion on the Judean landscape to the east of Bethlehem.

King Herod was called "the great" because of the several massive building projects he accomplished in kingdom, what was then in the Roman province of Palestine. These projects include the coastal city of Caesarea, said to have rivalled Rome for its grandeur; the great temple mount in Jerusalem; the Dead Sea fortress of Masada; and this man-made mountain with its fortress and summer palace, known as Herodion.

The view from the top is particularly impressive, despite the dusty haze of the late afternoon. There is a refreshing breeze at the summit, welcome relief on a hot day under the desert sun.

Our next destination in the Palestinian taxi, are the famous pools attributed to King Solomon, though they likely date from the Hasmonean period (second century B.C., the dynasty associated with the Chanukah story.) Still, the legend is quite interesting. It is said that Solomon built the three gigantic pools to serve as private swimming pools for his thousand wives! In fact, the pools served as an open air cistern, or water reservoir for the city of Jerusalem.

Today the pools are something of a community park for the residents of the Bethlehem and surrounding area. The grounds surrounding the pools are wooded and green -- certainly a novelty in this semi-desert region. On Fridays, the weekly holy day for the Moslem population, the park fills of picnickers and young people having a good time -- like the group of dancers pictured above. (Note that teenage boys and girls are kept apart in Moslem Bethlehem.)

Ziad has many friends here, and it is super to meet and talk with them. Most seem to be working on degrees or diplomas at Bethlehem University. Ziad has only a year to go to complete his degree in Management, and his cousin is studying to become an accountant. Schooling seems to be highly valued, and reasonably available in the Bethlehem region. My walk, early morning the next day, Saturday, goes against a veritable tide of Palestinian children and teens on their way to the several schools -- most are Christian foundations -- in the centre of Bethlehem.

We spend an hour or so at the pools and then Ziad delivers me to the Armenian Convent, a seven hour tour in all, and Ziad asks only 250 shekels (a bit more than $60) ... I am happy to give him more than this, for what has ben very fine tour in Ziad's Palestinian taxi.

It's quieter tonight at the Armenian compound, no kebab. Fr. Vachagan and Ireni invite me over for watermelon and coffee. Deacon Armen joins us, and it is pleasant spending some time with this group of Armenians from Armenia. As the evening wears on, we end up watching satellite television from Armenia and Russia. I excuse myself after about 30 minutes of this, and head to my room for some reading and a good night's sleep.