Today, the predominant religion in the Middle East is Islam. Christianity, however, has also played an important role in the history of the Middle East and at one point was the largest religion in the Eastern Mediterranean. The deserts of Palestine, Syria, Egypt, and Iraq all contain ancient monasteries and churches hearkening back to that time. Unfortunately for archaeologists and historians, some of them have been destroyed by recent insurgents, namely ISIS. One monastery that still survives and is for the moment not in danger of destruction is the Mar Saba monastery along the Kidron Valley between the Old City of Jerusalem and the Dead Sea. It was founded around 483 AD by the Syrian-Cappadocian monk Saint Sabbas the Sanctified. It is one of the oldest active monasteries and has also had a major influence on the Eastern Orthodox Christian tradition.
Medieval icon of Saint Sabbas the Sanctified. ( Public Domain )
The Eastern Orthodox Churches claim to be closest in their traditions and practices to early Christianity as it was taught by the Apostles and Early Church Fathers. Whether this is the case is beyond the scope of this article, but considering that the oldest churches and Christian monasteries in the world are mostly Eastern Orthodox, the claim is certainly not unreasonable. The Mar Saba monastery is not the oldest Christian monastery, but it is one of the oldest.
The founder of the monastery, Saint Sabbas, was born in the year 439 AD. His father, John, was a Roman soldier and his mother was a woman named Sophia. Both of them were devout Christians. According to tradition, when Sabbas was five, he was left by this parents with an uncle. When he was about eight years old, he encountered the monastery of Bishop Flavian. Afterwards he soon decided that he would become a monk, to the dismay of his parents.
Illustration of the monastery. ( Public Domain )
Sabbas was tonsured at the age of about 17 and when he was 18, he went to a monastery in Jerusalem where he became a pupil of the monk Saint Euthymius. He remained a disciple of Euthymius until the age of 30. At the age of 30, he was permitted by his spiritual father to spend five years in total isolation in some nearby caves. Eventually, he was joined by several other hermits and he made a series of caves into a lavra, a compound consisting of several cells with a church or gathering place at the center where monks gather weekly on Sundays. He soon became surrounded by young monks who wanted to learn monastic values from him and become more spiritually mature. This led Saint Sabbas to found what would become the Mar Saba monastery in about 483 AD.
Mar Saba seen from a distance. ( Public Domain )
The Monastery’s Role in Eastern Orthodox Liturgy
The Mar Saba monastery has played a large role in the history of Eastern Orthodox liturgy. The liturgy used by Saint Sabbas and his monks became the Typikon used by all Eastern Orthodox churches. Mar Saba was also involved in combating the Monophysite and Origenist heresies. The Monophysite heresy denied the human nature of Christ saying that he was solely divine and not human as opposed to the orthodox Christian view that he has both a human nature and a divine nature.
Origenism was a theological view that was attributed to the early church father Origen, though he may not have actually held all these views, which taught an allegorical interpretation of the Bible and a belief that the members of the trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Ghost) were not co-equal in addition to other doctrines held heretical by most orthodox writers. This activism for orthodoxy helped set the stage for the Lateran Council which took place in 553 AD.
The relics of St. Sabbas in the Catholicon (main church) of Mar Saba monastery, West Bank. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Hard Times Hit
After Saint Sabbas, the monastery encountered hard times. It was attacked in 614 AD by the Persians and 44 monks were killed, becoming the first martyrs associated with the monastery. It was also looted in 796 AD and was attacked again in 809 AD and 813 AD. During the 12th century, the Crusader kings became patrons of the monastery and parts of it were renovated around 1169. After the fall of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem in 1187 AD to Saladin, the Monastery fell into neglect though it continued to be used. It was restored again in the 19th century. The monastery is still in use today and there is discussion of making it a UNSECO world heritage site.