Mar Sabba Monastery- The Holy Lavra of Saint Savvas the Sanctified


A short distance to the east of Bethlehem and to the south of Bethany lies the ancient monastery of Mar Saba.

For over a millennium and a half, the expansive monastery has been continually inhabited by monks. Built entirely of stone into the side of a wide and steep chasm in the Kidron Valley within the Judean Desert, has been the center of Orthodox monasticism in the Holy Land, a place of pilgrimage, and a vessel of Orthodox Christian religious and cultural heritage.

Founded in 483 AD by Saint Sabbas the Sanctified, a Cappodocian monk held in the utmost regard by the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches alike as an exemplary figure of the Christian hermetic path towards salvation, it stands as a testimony to the enduring Christian presence in the Holy Land.

The name “Mar Saba” is Arabic for Saint Sabbas, denoting the special connection the local Palestinian inhabitants have had to both saint and location since time immemorial.

Alongside the venerable Saint Sabbas the Sancified, the Brotherhood of Mar Saba has included innumerable saints, chief amongst them Saint John of Damascus, known for his foundational work on hymnography, defense of iconography, and other significant theological, liturgical and ecclesiastical contributions to Christianity.

Mar Saba monastery has remained largely untouched by the outer word, with no electricity, running water, internet or wireless communication. Women are strictly forbidden from entering the monastery without exception, but are received and given hospitality at its gate. The Brotherhood maintains the ancient monastic rule of Saint Sabbas the Sanctified as recorded and coded into the Sabbite Typikon, which until this day remains the definitive standard of Orthodox monastic law as the Rule of Saint Benedict is within the Roman Catholic tradition.

Today, approximately twenty monks belong to the Brotherhood of Saint Sabbas the Sanctified, most of whom live within the monastery or in adjacent dependencies.

The Brotherhood has maintained a continual presence in the Holy Land, and a near-continual presence since the founding of its monastery at the height of the Byzantine Era, weathering two massacres of its monks, the end of Christian rule in the Holy Land, innumerable conflicts and violent transitions of control in the Holy Land. Its membership is comprised of Greeks from across the Hellenic world as well as other nationalities, and its special bond to the Greek people through culture, language and religious heritage can be seen by the innumerable Greek Orthodox Christians named after Sabbas the Sanctified, the churches and other monasteries under his patronage, as well as other saints, revered monks and church hierarchs who took his name when receiving their monastic vows.

Mar Saba painting
While a sacred place for all Orthodox churches and peoples, Mar Saba monastery also holds particular significance to the Serbian people and the Serbian Orthodox Church due to its patron, Saint Sava the Enlightener of Serbia.

A monk born a prince to the royal house of the Nemanjic Dynasty, Saint Sava of Serbia is accredited with acquiring autocephaly for the Serbian Orthodox Church through the Patriarch of Constantinople in the early 13th century, authoring the first Serbian Constitution, as well as a being a founder of several monasteries and considered the founder of medieval Serbian literature.

While on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, Saint Sava of Serbia visited the monastery of Mar Saba and received two priceless treasures: a sacred icon attributed to Saint John of Damascus, and the staff of Saint Saba the Sanctified, which is said to have fallen to the ground before Sava of Serbia while in prostration before the relics of Sava the Sanctified at Mar Saba. The icon resides at Hilander Monastery on Mount Athos until the present day, and is considered one of Serbia’s greatest national treasures, while his symbolic receiving of the staff was seen as the ultimate acknowledgement of Saint Sava of Serbia’s destiny to guide the Serbian people towards their destiny of being a unified Orthodox kingdom.

Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims as well as local Christians visit the monastery of Mar Saba each year to venerate the relics of Saint Sabbas the Sanctified, pray in the ancient chapels within the compound, speak with the monks, or to simply take in the breathtaking view of the valley. Acceptance of visitors and pilgrims is seen as an obedience to the will of Saint Sabbas the Sanctified and as a labor of love to all peoples.

In recent years the sanctity of the site has been increasingly threatened through encroachment on monastic property surrounding the monastery by private parties, sabotage of water channels, harmful destructive behaviour, pollution and ecological degradation.