The Byzantine monk was canonized as St. Sabas following his death in the 6th century. He was a religious leader and political advocate for the region, and is best remembered for his role in founding monasteries in the Judean Desert. On the seal, he is depicted with a beard and toga-like himation, and he holds a cross in his raised right hand.
The seal would have arrived in Jerusalem from the Monastery of St. Sabas—known as Mar Saba or the Great Laura. (Lauras were a type of monastery in the Judean Desert in which monks lived in separated cells to encourage contemplative isolation.) Founded in the fifth century by Saint Sabas, Mar Saba is still in use today, making it one of the oldest inhabited monasteries in the world. In the BAR article “Spirituality in the Desert: Judean Wilderness Monasteries,” Yizhar Hirschfeld describes Mar Saba:
Perhaps the largest and certainly the most famous of the Judean desert lauras was known simply as the Great Laura. Today it is known as Mar Saba, after its founder, St. Sabas. It is still in operation, but as a coenobium [a monastery in which monks lead a communal life] rather than as a laura. One’s first view of Mar Saba, on the heights of the Kidron Valley (Nahal Kidron) east of Bethlehem, will be an indelible memory.
We learn a great deal about the Great Laura, as about other monasteries, from hagiographical sources, lives of saints written by the monks themselves. These often charming literary creations contain a wealth of details about monastic life. More than ten detailed biographies of the most important desert monks have survived. The largest number (seven) were written by Cyril of Scythopolis in about 560. In addition, in about 620 a monk named John Moschus collected dozens of anecdotes describing the simple life of the monks.
According to Cyril, Sabas founded the Great Laura in 483 after living in a cave as a hermit for five years. As the number of his disciples increased, he formed the laura with 70 monks. Within a few years, however, the number grew to 150. Scores of the monks’ cells on both sides of the Kidron have been surveyed and mapped in recent years.7 At the core of the laura were two churches, on either side of a central courtyard. One was created within a large, expansive cave. The other had a spacious courtyard in front of it where Sabas was buried in 532, after having established nine other monasteries in his lifetime. His grave there is venerated to this day.
In addition to the two churches, the core of the laura included another prayer cell, a hospital, a bakery, a hospice for pilgrims and water reservoirs. After the Moslem conquest in 638, the monks were gradually forced to abandon their outlying cells and to live in the buildings at the center of the laura. For security reasons these buildings were enclosed within a wall, which is what we see today.
According to the IAA press release, Mar Saba had an important relationship with the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem during the Crusader period, and its discovery at the farmstead may suggest that this property was one of the monastery’s assets.
BAS Library Members: Read ”Spirituality in the Desert: Judean Wilderness Monasteries” by Yizhar Hirschfeld as it appeared in BAR.
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