A 12th century Greek-Orthodox monastery, on the side of the road from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. Built over the ruins of a Byzantine church, it serviced the pilgrimage route to Bethlehem. Map.
The monastery is named after prophet Elijah (St. Elias or Mar Elias), who according to tradition stopped here on his way to the south while fleeing from the anger of queen Jezebel, after slaying the Baal prophets on the Carmel.
The site was founded in the Byzantine period (6th century AD) and was ruined after the Persian conquest (614AD). It was rebuilt later. The monastery was severely damaged by an earthquake (1160), after a previous quake (1033/4) already shattered the structure.
Immediately after the quake, in 1160, the monastery was built again by Byzantine emperor Manuel I Komnenos (Comnenus) during the Crusaders period. In the 14th century the Greek bishop of Bethlehem, Elias, was buried here (1345).
In his memory the residents of Bethlehem and the area, who called the monastery Mar Elias. This evolved into a tradition that prophet Elijah (Elias in Greek/Arabic) was associated also with this site – stopping here to rest – when he fled to the desert and to Mount Horeb.
In the battle for Ramat Rachel during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, Mar Elias was the base of the Arab Legion.
From the hill east of the monastery, in 1956 one or rather several Jordanian soldiers opened fire on a group of Israeli archaeologists visiting the excavation sites across the valley at Ramat Rachel, killing four and injuring 16. After 1967 the height, known as Elijah Hill, was renamed in Hebrew as Givat ha’Arba’a, Hill of the Four, in honor of the four victims. During the 1967 Six-Day War, the Israel Defense Forces quickly overran Jordanian defenses around the monastery on the way to Bethlehem and Hebron.
Facing the monastery is a stone bench erected by the wife of the painter William Holman Hunt, who painted some of his major works at this spot. The bench is inscribed with biblical verses in Hebrew, Greek, Arabic and English.
Since the 4th century, the monks of Mar Elias have cultivated olives and grapes.