Wednesday 26 February 2014

San Saba, Herodion and the Katisma

On Thursday, 27 February 2014, we will visit two of the most important landmarks in the Holy Land, one ecclesiastical, the other Jewish: the San Saba monastery, and Herodion.

Geographically, we are in the East South Eastern part of the land, marked by three great wadis: Wadi Farah, Wadi Kidron, and Wadi Kharitoun, all three of which we have seen at one time or another in the last three years.

In the Byzantine period, the Judean desert was inhabited by more than 10,000 monks living in monasteries and laure. Only about 5 or 6 of these monasteries have lasted up to our time: San Saba, St Theodosius, and the Monastery of the Temptation among these. The monks were drawn by the ideal of following Jesus in his 40 days in the Judean desert, an area of 80x30 kms. Many patriarchs of Jerusalem were drawn from among their ranks.

San Saba
The monastery is located in the Kidron Valley, on the right bank. Not far from it is another monastery, St Theodosius, which is not always open to visitors. San Saba instead is, except during Lent. Women are not allowed in at all, at any time.

Close at hand is also Jebel Mumtar, the place of precipitation of the scapegoat on Yom Kippur in older times. Another monastery close by is Scolarius - here is where Euthymius the Great met with Empress Eudoxia. The empress she converted from Monophysitism to the orthodox faith after going to Syria to consult with St Simon the Stylite, who said to her: Why are you coming to me, when in Palestine there is the source of light, Euthymius? The empress returned to Euthymius and converted to the orthodox faith. The Orthodox Church celebrates her as St Eudoxia.

Interestingly, the most important monks of the 4th, 5th and 6th centuries came from Anatolia: Caritone, Gerasimus, Euthymius, Theodosius of Cappadocia, Sabas also from Cappadocia. Then there is St John Damascene, the most important theologian monk: he lived and died in San Saba. The monastery contains two important tombs: that of San Saba (the relics were returned to the monastery from Venice, thanks to Paul VI), and that of John Damascene. There are also hundreds of skulls of monks, many of them martyred during the Persian invasion in 614 AD.

St Sabas was the founder of the monastery, a very charismatic and and very active person. He even reached Constantinople, as a delegate of the monks, to see the Emperor Justinian.

The monastic buildings are a labyrinth, because of constant additions over the years.

We know from the testimony of Josephus Flavius that Herod was buried in Herodion. After a search lasting more than 50 years, the tomb was  finally discovered 7 years ago, in 2007, by Ehud Netzer. It was found not on the top, not at the bottom, but on one of the sides of Herodion. The tomb is 25 m high.
A model of Upper Herodion in the Visitors Centre
Upper and Lower Herodion together formed a big city that lasted up to Byzantine times. Among the many buildings, one of the most important is the great pool below, fed by an aqueduct coming from Solomon’s Pools. We would need a week to see the whole place properly. There is even a monastery, given that the last inhabitants of Herodion were Christian monks. There are many Byzantine churches around Herodion. The first serious archaeological dig was made by the Franciscans, led by Fr Corvo, now buried in Capernaum.
The main tower in the 'crater', with damage caused by Roman catapults
Behind the beauty of the architecture, there is also the terrible architecture, including many twisted tunnels, of the Jewish revolts of the time of Bar Kochba. Herodion was one of the camps of the revolts.

The Katisma is an octagonal shaped, very rich monastery on the way to Bethlehem. It was founded by Ikelia, wife of the Byzantine ruler of Jerusalem, to commemorate the rest of the Holy Family going from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. The 28 year old Theodosius was a deacon in this monastery; his beautiful voice, attracted many people from Jerusalem. Later he retired to the desert and became a Cenobiac, chief of the monks. Theodosius was also one of the many who went to consult Simon Stylite, who lived on a pillar near Aleppo. A piece of the column is still standing, in the middle of what was the greatest church in Byzantine times till the Hagia Sophia was built.

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