Christian Monasticism in the Judaean Desert goes back to the 4th century and reaches its peak in the 6th century. A period in which hundreds of monks lived in the monasteries founded by Khariton and about 600 monks in the monastery founded by Theodosius, compared to a few monks who lived in these monasteries when they were established.
Christian Monasticism in the Judaean Desert had a political and spiritual influence and they were the ones who decided in the Christological struggle between the monophysical approach and the Chalcedonian approach in favor of the Chalcedonian approach. After the Muslim conquest, a nucleus of monasteries and monks remained in the desert, and so during the Crusades, with the help of the surviving monasteries, some of the monasteries that were destroyed or abandoned were re-established.
Religious and Historical Background
The Christian Monasticism movement developed in Egypt. The first known monks were Paul of Thebes and Anthony the Great, the Hermitic monks who set out to retire in the eastern desert of Egypt at the end of the third century. The first Christian monks who retired to a solitary life in the desert behaved in this way, beyond the ideological religious reasons. Also, it’s due to religious persecution. Religiously, the monks saw life in the wilderness as a model of modesty and celibacy, a return to the way of life of John the Baptist and of Jesus himself, that is, imitation of Christ.
By the 30s of the 4th century, there were already thousands of monks in Egypt, living in two forms of organization, the Eremitic (solitary) and the Cenobitic Monasticism (communities). Most of the hermits lived in concentrations in the western deserts: Nitirian Desert, Kallia, and Scetis. The monastic movement in Egypt reached its peak in the late 4th century.
Types of Christian Monasticism in the Judaean Desert
Monks found for themselves different types of isolation from the environment and there were even those who after a period in which they lived as solitary monks took on jobs in the church hierarchy and moved to live in population centers.
- Eremitic – (Latin – Hermetism, from Greek Hermos, a word meaning both desert and solitude); each monk lived a life of celibacy on his own and could reach the state of the Hesychasm, and engage in introspection (The Hesychasm in the sense of peace or tranquility, calm, inner peace).
- Anchorites – were hermit monks who, after living in a community, chose a life of complete celibacy, regardless of any monastery or orderly community, in contrast to Laura monks who spent most of their time in solitude but did so as part of a monastic community (economic, religious and social ). Sabas spent several years as an anchorite before setting up his laura in the Mar Saba Monastery located at the Kidron Valley.
- Laura – also called semi-hermitism or semi-anarchism, each monk lives alone during the week and the monks meet in one place on the weekends for prayer, communal meals and the arrangement of working life.
- Cenobitic Monasticism– in Western European languages Cenobiac, the monks live a life of sharing, there is obedience to the abbot. In contrast to Laura, the lifestyle in Cenobitic Monasticism is collaborative and its residents conducted their lives as a community, for some of the residents of Monastery, their period of stay was preparation for moving to Laura or complete celibacy, for some a way of life until the day they died
Historical Background to Christian Monasticism in the Judaean Desert
From Egypt came the idea of the monastic movement to Gaza, the Judaean Desert, Syria, and Asia Minor. And from there the idea spread to the rest of the world of that time. Monks were in the Judean Desert as early as the 2nd century. But they were not incorporated as a monastic community. The writings “Life of Chariton the Confessor” (Vita Charitonis) describe hermits who lived in the caves of Kalmon before the time of Chariton the Confessor and Obsbyius relate that Narcissus of Jerusalem, the bishop of the Holy City, at the end of the 2nd century, retired to the desert due to plots made up against him.
Christian Monasticism in the Judaean Desert is part of the “Walking to the Desert” movement that was widespread in Egypt, Syria, and Asia Minor. While in Egypt settlement was possible only in the areas adjacent to the Nile and its tributaries, the nature of settlement was of common monasteries, as the harsh conditions required community-level participation and mobilization in order to grow agricultural crops or any other consumer industry. In the deserts of Syria, where, relative to the desert in Egypt, the amount of vegetation is much larger and springs can be found and even cisterns were made the phenomenon of the anchorites, monks who completely retired and were not part of any community.
The Biblical Sources
The Judean Desert is mentioned in various scriptures by various names including “the desert of the holy city” (it is Jerusalem), “the desert of Jerusalem”, “the holy wilderness”. Its great importance to Christian aspirants of Christianity stems from what is written in the Scriptures (both the Bible and the New Testament), it is said of Elijah the prophet:
2 Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah: 3 “Leave here, turn eastward and hide in the Kerith Ravine, east of the Jordan. 4 You will drink from the brook, and I have directed the ravens to supply you with food there.”1 Kings 17: 2-4 (Elijah Fed by Ravens)
The Book of Kings also describes organized groups of “sons of the prophets” living on the edge of the desert (Bethel and Jericho). King David and Jesus were both born in Bethlehem on the edge of the desert. John the Baptist also worked in the wilderness and the nearby Jordan River and when he baptized Jesus “the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan,” where he fasted forty days and forty nights.
The geographical conditions in the Judean Desert are not as harsh as in Egypt but are less favorable than the conditions of the Syrian Desert. Accordingly, communities developed a whose way of life was between full participation as in Egypt and the solitary life of the monks in Syria. The Lauras in the Judean Desert in which the monks lived under a common arrangement (the monastery); but except one day a week (Sunday, when all the monks gathered for common prayers), each monk lived in his own cell, isolated from the other monks in the monastery.
The First Monastery in the Land of Israel
The first monastery in the Land of Israel was the one established near Gaza in 330 by Hilarion the Great, a disciple of Anthony the Great. And it was established as a secluded monastery. Chariton’s the Confessor monasteries, which were established in the Judean Desert at that time, were initially solitary monasteries and developed into a new way of life – the Laura, a combination of solitude in daily life with cooperative activities at the weekend. During the peak period, there were about 60 monasteries in the Judean Desert (Jerusalem Desert) and additional monasteries were established throughout the Land of Israel, even near the cities. Monks came to Israel from other lands as well, including Chariton the Confessor and Gerasimus of the Jordan from Asia Minor, Euthymius the Great from Armenia, and Saint Jerome from Illyria.
Judaean Desert Monasteries
The beginning of the Judaean Desert Monasteries preceded the establishment of the Byzantine Era. The first three monasteries: the monastery of Faran Monastery, a monastery at the top of Mt. of Temptation, and Souka (Old Lavra at Wadi Khureitun/Tekoa) were founded as Lauras by Chariton the Confessor in the 3rd century. Judaean Desert monasteries reach their zenith between the 4th to 7th centuries.
The monks were not only residents of the Land of Israel the neighboring countries. But also from more distant lands (mainly from the territories of the Byzantine Empire). Some even decided in their countries of origin on their desire to be monks and do so in the Holy Land and some made a pilgrimage to the Land of Israel and here they decided to join a Laura or a monastery.
The choice of monks to live in the Judean Desert was due to a number of reasons, including the proximity to Jerusalem and Bethlehem, the fact that it was the desert where Jesus secluded and John the Baptist acted, and the fact that it was a sparsely populated area and allowed them to seclude. The proximity to Jerusalem and the ability to attend ecumenical gatherings allowed them to influence church decisions.
Christian Monasticism in the Judaean Desert: Key figures
The first founder of the monasteries in the Judean Desert is considered a fourth-century Chariton the Confessor.
Chariton the Confessor – He established three monasteries: in Ein Prat (Faran Monastery), at the top of Mt. Temptation, and a Laura called Souka at Wadi Tekoa. At the sites of the construction of the monasteries, three geographical conditions were met: a place of water that does not depend on rains (spring); cliffs, and proximity to a permanent settlement or a main road. Chariton the Confessor instituted in his monasteries a regular schedule that included seven prayers, one meal a day that included water, bread, and salt. While the rest of the time the monks live separately, engaged in various crafts (weaving ropes or weaving baskets) and memorizing verses of Psalms and other hymns. The lifestyle in Chariton’s the Confessor monasteries was a role model for the monks who followed him.
Euthymius the Great – He was a monk in Faran Monastery founded by Chariton the Confessor. He is considered the expander of the monasteries in the Judean Desert. In addition to building monasteries, Euthymius the Great also engaged in missionary activity among the nomadic tribes in the Judean Desert. This activity was the first meeting point between the interests of the Byzantine government and the activities of the monks of the Judean Desert. The Euthymius the Great Monastery is a monastery founded in 428 as a Laura. It became cenobitic monasticism (koinobion) only a few years after the death of Euthymius. He was buried in a chapel erected in his honor in the center of the compound.
Gerasimus of the Jordan – Gerasimus founded Laura and cenobitic monastery (koinobion) east of Jericho in what is now known as Monastery of Saint Gerasimus and is considered the founder of the Jordan Valley Monasticism. Gerasimus established his Laura about a mile and a half from the Jordan, which solved the problem of drinking water. Palm trees growing in the immediate vicinity provided dates. The palm branches were taken by the monks to weave baskets. The place is today identified slightly east of the Saint Gerasimus Monastery, which has preserved the cenobitic site.
The monastery was a Laura of solitary monks, but at its center stood a koinobion center inhabited by trainee monks, who served the recluse while training them for a solitary life. The hermits stayed in their cells five days a week, and on Saturday and Sunday, they came to the koinobion center for prayer and a communal meal of the communion bread. These were the innovations of Gerasimus, and they were received in other monasteries. Sebas, for example, adopted the custom of common prayer in this form in his monasteries.
Sabbas the Sanctified – Sabbas was a disciple of Euthymius the Great. He established many monasteries and served as a representative of the Holy Land Church in the Byzantine royal court. The largest and most famous monastery, Mar Saba Monastery, is one of the oldest monasteries in the world. The set of laws he instituted in his monasteries eventually became a Typikon, which is used to this day. He began his journey in the Judean Desert in the Monastery of Theoctistus of Palestine and led a koinobion way of life there.
He later retired to his own cell and actually lived in solitude. He prepared himself for a life of celibacy, and between these preparations, he lived in complete solitude and held fasts for five days a week. Only on weekends would he meet with the rest of the abbey. He later joined Euthymius himself on fasting journeys in the desert. After the death of Euthymius, Sabbas left for the desert at the age of 40 and lived in complete solitude, except for a few visits by other monks. It was later joined by other wandering monks, thus creating the first nucleus for Sabbas “Great Laura”.
Theodosius the Cenobiarch – When he was younger he felt a desire to imitate Abraham by leaving his parents, friends, relatives, and everything else for the love of God. Theodosius set out for Jerusalem at the time of the Holy Fourth Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon held in 451. When Theodosius reached Jerusalem he spent time visiting and venerating the Holy Places. He then decided it would be best to obtain discipline for himself before he settled in solitude.
Theodosius began his monastic labors under the hermit abbot Longinus, settling near the Tower of David. During this time there lived a wealthy and pious woman named Ikelia, who built a church near a place called “The Old Kathisma” and dedicated it to the Theotokos. Ikelia requested to the elder Longinus that Theodosius settle in that place to which he agreed. After some time Theodosius had many visitors and pilgrims who distracted and deprived him of his solitude.
Theodosius formed a small community of monks near Bethlehem, which later became the Monastery of St. Theodosius. The community grew rapidly, with monks of several cultures and languages, and became very well known for its work with the sick, elderly, and mentally impaired. When Theodosius’ friend and countryman Sabbas was appointed archimandrite of all the isolated monks in Palestine by Patriarch Salustius of Jerusalem, Theodosius was made the leader of all those monks who lived in community. This is the origin of his being called “the Cenobiarch”, which translates as chief of those living a life in common.
The Decline of Christian Monasticism in the Judaean Desert
In 614 the Persians invaded Israel, ruled the area for a short time, and withdrew from it. It was believed that it was the Persian army systematically destroyed the monasteries of the Judean Desert. But a later study argued that this assertion had no basis, and the destruction of the monasteries was not carried out by the Persian army itself but by nomadic tribes moving with it, or by local populations, who robbed the monasteries and their inhabitants. Raids that in some of the monasteries even led to the massacre of their occupants.
Evidence of the occurrence at the Marsaba monastery was found in a letter sent in 620 by one of the Laura inhabitants, Antiochus Monochus, in which he describes the massacre of 44 monks during a raid carried out by the “Ishmaelites” while robbing the monastery.
Evidence from Saint George Monastery at Wadi Qelt says that the invaders who murdered and looted the monastery spared Old St. George, and instead of killing him, they took him prisoner and released him shortly after.
The Monasteries Under the Muslim Rule
The Sassanid Empire ruled the Judean Desert between 614 and 628. In 638, the Battle of the Yarmouk took place, which began the Arab conquest of Israel. The monasteries of the Judean Desert were cut off from one of their main bases of support – the Byzantine Empire, thus stopping donations and stopping the influx of pilgrims and novice monks from territories that were still under Byzantine control.
This process led to the abandonment of some of the monasteries, especially those that were far from large settlements and needed ongoing support for their survival. Large monasteries, which were close to major localities and water sources, and which had sufficient sources of income to finance the purchase of food survived. Including Chariton the Confessor Monastery and Mar Sabbas Monastery.
During the 19th century, as part of the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the weakening of the central government in the Holy Land, and as part of the growing influence of the European powers at the time, some of the monasteries in the Judean Desert were restored and inhabited by monks from Europe, mainly from the east. Several monasteries were restored and expanded, including the monastery of Mar Sabba, the monastery of St. Theodosius, the monastery of Gerasimus near the Jordan, Mount of Temptation Monastery, the monastery of St. George.
The ascetic and harsh lifestyle of the monks of the Judean Desert was perceived by many as a lifestyle of adherence to no desire for pleasure or personal good, so the views of the monastery leaders were perceived as a more “Christian” and “correct” way. Their ascetic and isolating way of life made it difficult for hostile elements in the imperial court or church institutions to impose severe sanctions on them because punishments like confiscation of property and boycott were not a significant threat to monks eating roots in a cave in the middle of the desert.
These facts had great political weight in theological and other debates: Euthymius the Great for example after the Chalcedon Conference chose the Chalcedonian side in a minority opinion (single opinion) and retired back to the desert until Empress Aelia Eudocia sent emissaries to request it. The political power of the Monastic movement increased with the increase in the number of monks and the increase in the assets of the monasteries and the number of donations that flowed to them from all over the Byzantine kingdom. Monastery chiefs were given key positions in the church, such as Sabas who was sent to the court of the Byzantine emperor twice to represent the church.