The life of solitude and piety may seem outdated to us in the modern day, an ancient tradition dating back to the 4th cent AD, it is fascinating to see how it is still being practised today.
Christian desert monasticism appears to have started with Saint Anthony way down in Egypt at the very beginning of the 4th cent. Why Egypt? Many Biblical figures such as Abraham, Joseph, Moses and Jesus all have in common that they sojourned in Egypt a land of abundance from the Nile and safety from those requiring a safe haven. Spending time in Egypt seemed to be part of their spiritual journey and in that sense it became a Holy Land.
In Israel, monasticism rose also in the 4th century under the Byzantine empire monks (coming from monos meaning alone), aspired to emulate the life of John the Baptist who dwelled in the desert who in turn was aspiring towards the words of Isaiah being a voice in the wilderness. In particular the Judean desert was a popular location as people made their way to holy sites in Jerusalem and then afterwards to the desert.
Today there are still remains of 60 monasteries and a handful of them are still active and available to visit. One of these is the very striking St George Monastery in Wadi Qelt carved in the side of a cliff, it is a Greek Orthodox monastery with about 5 monks. It is traditionally the place where Elijah was fed by ravens and also where Joachim prayed in a cave for his wife Anne was barren and they then were then blessed with the birth of Mary mother of Jesus. Founded by John of Thebes from Egypt and George of Choziba from Cyprus in early 5th cent, like most monasteries it was destroyed in 614 by the Persians, re-established in the Crusader period and revived by the Greek Orthodox in the late 19th cent. In the early morning you can be taken down the steep ravine by a Bedouin on a donkey if you bargain with him the monks may greet you with dates.
Another unexpected find is Deir Hajla, the monastery of St Gerasimos who valiantly pulled a thorn from the paw of a Lion. The monastery commemorates the place where the Holy Family hid on their flight down to Egypt. Also renovated by the Greek Orthodox, it boasts a stunning iconostasis and the walls of the Church are decorated with Biblical scenes from events that took place in the area such as Lot in Sodom and Joshua’s conquer of Jericho.
The last monastery which is indeed the jewel in the crown, is also the least accessible - Mar Saba, tucked away in Area C of the West Bank. Sabas, born in Cappadocia, spent time in Egypt with St Anthony and in Judean Desert at the Monastery of Euthymius before starting his own. It grew to be one of the largest monasteries at one point having 300 monks on its premises it is impressive in size.
Once a year on the Festival of the Saints Dec 17/18 candles are lit in all the caves of the surrounding Kidron Valley, something special to see once in a lifetime.
The monasteries of the Judean Desert provide a rare glimpse into the past to the lives of devout monks who preserve a way of life that modern daily life of the hustle and bustle of the city rarely encounters.