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Monasticism in the Holy Land


Monasticism was a significant social and cultural phenomenon in early Christianity. A life of solitude, prayer, and asceticism seems to have attracted many early Christians.

Numerous monasteries were built in Jerusalem and its environs, some of them established by wealthy pilgrims from the West, among them several women who settled in the holy city, bringing their wealth with them. By the end of the fifth centuy, monasteries had been founded all over the country. In agricultural regions like the western Galilee, they operated as farms, producing oil and wine. In the cities and large settlements, the monasteries were affiliate' with the communities in which they were established: their people served in the churches and maintained the holy places, worked as guides and led pilgrims to distant sites. The monasteries also ran hospices and hospitals.

The most outstanding expression of monasticism in the Holy Land is found in the Judean Desert, "the desert of the holy city," where the environment was well suited to a life of isolation and spiritual contemplation, and where the great figures of the Bible and the early Christianity once wandered. Two types of monasteries are encountered in the Judean Desert: the first - the ital - a closed, communal monastery; the second - the ital - in which each monk lived in isolation, convening only on Saturdays and Sundays for prayer and a communal meal. In the sixth century, dozens of monasteries existed in the Judean Desert and in the vicinity of Jericho.

The most renowned monk of the Judean Desert, Sabas, reached the area in the second half of the fifth century. He established many monasteries and served as a leader and a personal example. The Marsaba Monastery, called the "Great Laura," established by Sabas and named after him, continues to operate until today. When Sabas died in 532, he was buried in the monastery's courtyard. In the Middle Ages (apparently in the thirteenth century) his bones were transferred to Venice, but in 1965 they were returned to their original location.

Monastery of Marsaba, Judean Desert
Photo: Avraham Hay


In the Days of Jesus |In the Early Church |Pilgrimage |Images & Symbols |Monasticism in the Holy Land

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