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
Monastery of Marsaba, Judean Desert
Photo: Avraham Hay
the Days of Jesus |In
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