A thick wall and slit-like windows give Mar Saba the appearance of a fortress. These defensive features recall plunder by the Persians in 615 and attacks from Bedouins in the following centuries.
What began as a series of cell-cavesalong two kilometres of cliffs has been consolidated into a complex containing two churches, several chapels, a common dining room, kitchen storerooms, 14 cisterns, cells for monks and a hostel for visitors.
From the entrance, a low door in the western wall, a stepped passageway descends to the central courtyard. In the centre is a hexagon-shaped dome which was once the tomb of St Sabas.
During the Crusades the saint’s body was taken to Venice. Pope Paul VI arranged for its return after his Holy Land visit in 1964, and it now lies in a glass case in the main church.
From the entrance area, a stairway leads to a series of small chapels — one in the cramped cave where a brilliant monk, St JohnDamascene, spent 20 years in the 8th century writing classic defences of Christianity against heresy and Islam.This church, with a large blue dome and small bell tower, is dedicated to the Theotokos (Mother of God).
On the northwest side of the courtyard is the second church, built into a grotto in the rock. It is dedicated to St Nicholas.
The skulls of monks killed by Persians invaders are displayed in the sacristy and their bones are collected behind a grille.
In contrast to the austere simplicity of the monks’ lifestyle, church and chapel walls glitter with the gold of innumerable icons, many donated to the monastery by the Russian government in the 19th century.