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Mar Saba

The Holy Lavra of Saint Sabbas.

The greatest of the ancient monasteries dotting the wilderness of the Judaean Desert, Mar Saba hangs dramatically down the cliff edge of a deep ravine.

The grey-domed Greek Orthodox complex was established in the 5th century by St Sabas (Mar Saba in Arabic), a monk from central Turkey, and was largely rebuilt following a major earthquake in 1834.

Its remote location is 15 kilometres east of Bethlehem, off route 398 and reached down a steep road.

During its heyday the monastery was home to more than 300 monks. Though it remains a functioning desert monastery, its numbers have dropped to fewer than 20 in the 21st century.

Mar Saba Women’s Tower standing apart from monastery at Mar Saba (© Deror Avi)

Occupied almost continuously since its founding, Mar Saba ranks with St Catherine’s Monastery in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula as one of the oldest inhabited monasteries in the world.

It also provides an enduring reminder of the age-old tradition of holy people leaving behind worldly distractions and seeking God in the solitude of the desert.

Part of the Mar Saba tradition is the exclusion of women visitors. They may only look over the complex from a vantage point called the Women’s Tower — built, according to tradition, by St Sabas’ mother, who was also forbidden to enter the monastery.