The Greek Orthodox Mar Saba Monastery in the Judean Desert east of Bethlehem seems to hang precariously from the walls of the Kidron Valley. But it is as sturdy as the faith it represents: it was built some 1,500 years ago, and is one of the oldest still-inhabited monasteries in the world. Map.
Like the Monastery of St. George to the north, Mar Saba was founded by monks seeking solitude and to emulate the prophets, Jesus and John the Baptist. Originally they lived in caves, but as their founder Mar (Saint) Saba gained fame for his piety, the monastery was built. Its dramatic view is a highlight of a trip that many Christian groups enjoy, traveling by four-wheel-drive vehicles that can navigate every corner of the desert. Some visitors even hike down to the monastery, which women can view from the Women’s Tower, and men can enter to see the church where the remains of St. Saba are preserved.
The traditional date for the founding of the monastery by Sabbas the Sanctified of Mutalaska, Cappadocia is the year 483 and today houses around 20 monks. It is considered to be one of the oldest inhabited monasteries in the world, and still maintains many of its ancient traditions. One in particular is the restriction on women entering the main compound. The only building that women can enter is the Women’s Tower, near the main entrance.
The monastery holds the relics of Saint Sabbas. Mar Saba is occasionally referred to as the Convent or Monastery of Santa Sabba.
Mar Saba was also the home of St. John of Damascus (676 – 749), a key religious figure in the Iconoclastic Controversy, who, around 726, wrote letters to the Byzantine emperor Leo III the Isaurian refuting his edicts prohibiting the veneration of icons (images of Christ or other Christian religious figures). John worked as a high financial officer to the Muslim Caliph Abd al-Malik; he eventually felt a higher calling and migrated to the Judaean desert, where he was tonsured a monk and was ordained a hieromonk (monastic priest) at the Monastery of Mar Saba. St. John’s tomb lies in a cave under the monastery.