To the Kidron Wilderness

The Kidron Valley, a slit of earth, an ancient canyon, begins in Jerusalem. It drains the urban hills. The Kidron divides the Mount of Olives (where this photo was taken) from the Old City and Mount Zion (out of sight to the left). Kidron Stream, when it runs, runs south (to the left), and after a few miles it turns east into the desert of Palestine. It's believed that the Kidron Valley is the same as the Valley of Jehoshaphat — the place, according to the Bible, where Judgment Day will come down with fire.


Olive trees in a wadi (gulch) near Bethlehem. It's the hottest day of our trip.


A municipal building in the Palestinian village of Ubeidiya. Jerusalem is behind us in the distance. The Kidron Valley snakes below.


Dry — so very dry and still. We are only 20 miles as the crow flies from the corridors of the city. The Judean wastes are ahead; the Dead Sea lies over the mountains. After Jesus was baptized and before he took up his ministry, he went into this wilderness for 40 days. He had to think things over. The heat and dryness must have cleared his head and steeled him.


Rejoining the Kidron Valley, we come to the end of the road. We have reached the Mar Saba Monastery. Here the divine office, the Christian liturgy of "prayer without ceasing," has been sung each day for the past 1,400 years.


Mar Saba has been on my mind since I read about it in From the Holy Mountain, the excellent travelogue by William Dalrymple. The guide services in Jerusalem don't take people to the monastery very often. The military checkpoints are unsettling, the Greek Orthodox monks may not open the door to you, and women aren't allowed inside the walls in any event.

Still, whether in good humor or ascetic submission, your wife may…

…descend to the green fringe of Kidron Stream. Or…

…wander up to the exterior tower, or she may just…

…hang out with the others under the olives.


While her husband goes inside. The monastery and its domes, cupolas, terraces, and crypts are slung onto the side of a cliff. But why is a monastery here at all?


The answer is across the Kidron. In the early centuries of Christianity, religious hermits, repulsed by the swelling power of the Church, retreated to the desert. They lived in these caves and grazed on the desert plants and drank from Kidron Stream. They tried to emulate Jesus. Eventually they formed a lavra, a loose community of monks, and Mar Saba was established to guide their practice. The honeycombed cells are empty now. Not that living inside the monastery itself was or is a picnic.


A portico hangs over the Kidron. Mar means monastery, and Saba is for St. Sabbas, the fifth century monk who founded the place. Today about 20 monks are in residence, fleetingly glimpsed.


A sanctum within a sanctum.


This stairwell will take you to the stone cell of St. John Damascene (676-749). For 30 years John lived bent over in his dark alcove, furiously writing theology and hymns.


Some of the icons seem too polished to be very old. Rebuilt after an earthquake in the 19th century, Mar Saba is cleaner and brighter than most of the Christian edifices in Jerusalem.


Mar Saba flower pots.


Kidron Stream is running much too fast for June, and that is because it carries the half-treated sewage from Jerusalem. A smell from the crowded city comes off the water. Likewise, the slopes at the road end are speckled with plastic bottles and bags, like glinting, non-degradable gems. Modernity and an ungrateful poverty have stuck their fingers deep into the Judean wilderness. Maybe there will be a harsh judgment after all.


A white dove lands. Let's hope a reign of peace will descend instead.



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