Thursday 27 February 2014

St Saba, St Theodosius, Herodion, Katisma

Our archaeological excursion began as usual at 0745 hrs. We took the Herodion road, but went first towards San Saba. This involves getting off at San Theodosius (after the Arab village of Al Obeid, which originated in the serving people of the monastery in times past, who eventually became Muslim), and taking two smaller buses which are able to negotiate the winding road that slopes down dramatically towards the monastery, which is almost invisible from the top, except for its two towers.

The monastery, as we were told, is on the bank of the Wadi Kidron, or the Wadi Nar as the Arabs call it - a wonderful hotchpotch of laure built over the years. It would seem that St Saba had settled in a little laura on the opposite bank, but then the monastery itself was built in the present location for convenience. We were shown the original tomb of St Saba, in a little self-standing edicule, and then the remains in the main church, returned there from Venice at the instance of Paul VI. The leaflet given us by the monks recounts, instead, that the Roman Catholics decided to return the body after having been told by an angel. The young monk who was showing us round added: one pope did not obey the angel, so he died; the next pope, frightened, decided to return the body. Paul VI visited the Holy Land in 1964, had the historic meeting with the Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras, and probably then decided, in a gesture of goodwill, to ask Venice to return the body.


Unfortunately the young monk did not take kindly to us, taking offence at what he called our ‘touristic’ attitude, complaining that real pilgrims kneel down and pray. He refused to show us the tomb of St John Damascene, though he was kind enough to offer us coffee. We had also forgotten to bring the gift of two bottles of wine, which were left behind in the bus.
With a monk at St Theodosius
However, we tried St Theodosius, and – in contrast to the last time that Fr Vernet had led the excursion here – we were received very kindly by a lay helper, who showed us both the church and the grotto with the tombs of St Theodosius, his mother, and the mothers of St Saba and St Arkadios, besides others. All this despite the violent protestations of a woman - perhaps a nun - who tried to shoo us away. An old monk was, instead, very kind, even asking us to pray for 'water' while we were entering the grotto. We were careful to gift the two bottles of wine right at the start, and also left an offering.


A view of the inner cone: model at the Visitors' Centre

View from Lower Herodion

Framing Vernet in the Triclinium, Lower Herodion

Model of the Palace, Upper Herodion
After this we went to Herodion. Truly remarkable. The 'hill' or 'cone' is artificial, after all. The remarkable palace within the cone was built on the flat surface of a hill, and then the cone was built up around it. There is a road leading to the top, from which you descend to the inner levels. Work of reconstruction is still going on, so we contented ourselves with seeing the peristilium (an inner court with gardens surrounded by columns), the triclinium (dining room), the small Byzantine chapel, the baths, and other things. We could not enter the Jewish Revolt tunnels (terrible and twisted, or terrible because twisted, according to Vernet) from within the cone. However, from the outside someone discovered a path, and so we did enter the tunnels - rather lovingly kept up, was my impression - and also to the site of Herod’s tomb discovered as recently as 2007 by the famous Jewish archaeologist Ehud Netzer.

Then we took the bus and went down to Lower Herodion, where we saw the pool, the library, and some churches.
On the stone on which the Holy Family rested: Katisma
On the way back we stopped at the Katisma, the octagonal Byzantine church built to remember the place where the Holy Family rested on their way from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. By 1600 hrs we were back home.

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