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
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,
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
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.