The Great Lavra of Saint Sabas

“I think Saint Sabas hated his mother and all women.”

“He hated all women, except for his mother.”

“Saint Sabas knew, as we all do, that women are snakes.”

“He was just a weird old dude living in the desert.”

No one really knows why women are forbidden into the Great Lavra of Saint Sabas. This outlandish and beautiful monastery halfway between Bethlehem and Jericho is enshrouded in mystery. The monks like to say that they lead lives of such excruciating purity that, when they die, instead of rotting, their bodies exude a smell of rose water.

The Great Lavra is one of the oldest, currently used Greek Orthodox clusters of caves and cells for monks. Located in the desert, it is only accessible through a meandering road; Mar Saba is as remote as it is enchanting. From Bethlehem, one can get to Mar Saba by taking a side road on the way to Ramallah or Jericho: after a twenty minute drive, as all traces of civilization gradually vanish, the Great Lavra finally appears in the distance: a sublime monastery carved into the side of the valley.

© Qais Assali

Women are only allowed into the Women’s Tower; most of them, however, will prefer to sit in the shade of the olive trees near the entrance of the monastery, sipping tea brought by a scruffy, wizened monk.

It doesn’t really matter if one is allowed inside the compound – besides, if they are in a foul mood, the monks will also deny entry to men. The enchantment of the Lavra can be discovered from outside: one need only hike around the monastery, following a trail into the Kidron Valley.

One of the loveliest times of year to hike the trail is at night, at the beginning of August, during the Perseid meteor shower – far removed from the lights of the city and from any source of pollution, the sky looks like it is raining shooting stars. Several times at night, the semantron – a wooden percussion instrument used to summon the monks to prayer – will resound throughout the valley: at night, Mar Saba is transformed into a ghost valley, full of stories, rumors and sounds.

by Karim Kattan