A 20-minute drive from Bethlehem, the stunning Mar Saba monastery clings to the hills of the Kidron Valley. It’s breathtaking to see the Greek Orthodox Monastery in the middle of the desert. Mar Saba, which is carved out of the rock, displays a manner of life that has not altered since Constantine’s time. Its namesake Saint Saba’s body is on display in the main church, and his tomb is outside in the courtyard. Although Mar Saba is renowned for welcoming guests, women have never been admitted. A neighboring two-story structure known as the Women’s Tower offers women a perspective of the area.
The monastery was established in 483 on the eastern side of the Kidron Valley by Sabbas the Sanctified, when, according to the monastery’s own website, the first 70 hermits gathered around St. Sabbas’ hermitage. Later, the laura moved to the western side of the canyon, on the opposite side from where the Church of Theoktistos was constructed in 486 and dedicated in 491. The Church of the God-bearing Virgin Mary, or Theotokos in Greek, was shortly constructed in 502 to serve as the monastery’s primary church due to the community’s ongoing development.
Twenty monks were massacred in 797, according to historical records, after an Arab raid on the monastery.
The well-known Georgian monk and scribe Ioane-Zosime lived at Mar Saba before relocating to Saint Catherine’s Monastery and bringing with him a number of parchment manuscripts.
Throughout the time that the Crusaders’ Catholic Kingdom of Jerusalem was in existence, the monastery maintained its prominence.
As one of the oldest continuously inhabited communities in the Christian world, the monastery has served as a center for study and has had a significant impact on the formation of Byzantine Church doctrine. John of Damascus (676-749), the brothers Theodorus and Theophanes, and Saint Sabbas were significant individuals in this direction (770s–840s).
The monastery played a significant role in the historical development of the Orthodox Church’s liturgy because it helped establish Saint Sabbas’ monastic Typicon, or way of celebrating worship services, as the norm for both the Orthodox Church and those Eastern Catholic Churches governed by the Pope and using the Byzantine Rite. The Typicon adapted the conventional format of services held in the Jerusalem Patriarchate and incorporated several peculiarly monastic usages that were regional customs.
According to a legend, this monastery will hold the final Divine Liturgy to be held on Earth before Jesus Christ’s second coming, making it the final bastion of authentic Christianity.
The remains of Saint Sabbas are kept at the monastery. The artifacts were taken by Latin crusaders in the 12th century, where they stayed until 1965, when Pope Paul VI, in a show of contrition and goodwill toward Orthodox Christians, restored them to the monastery.
Mar Saba, which housed the Archimedes Palimpsest for several centuries, is where Morton Smith is said to have discovered a copy of a letter allegedly written by Clement of Alexandria and including passages from the so-called Secret Gospel of Mark.
Only the main gate is open to women; they are not permitted within the walled area.
The monastery is closed on Wednesdays and Fridays to tourists (the fasting days of the week).