Carved into service

Once-isolated St. Martyrius, today surrounded by Ma'ale Adumim, is set to be opened to the public.

St Martyrius 311 (photo credit: .)
St Martyrius 311
(photo credit: .)
To quote a well-worn phrase, times change, people change. Nowhere is this more evident than at the St. Martyrius Monastery. This 5th century monastery is situated in the Israeli town of Ma'ale Adumim. To put it mildly, the holy men of this Byzantine monastery would today be shocked by the building's loss of isolation.
The remains of the once-secluded complex are embedded in one of the town's bustling residential neighborhoods. Not that the monks lacked the opportunity to catch a glimpse of outsiders: To supplement the monastery's financial resources, they operated a pilgrims' hostel. Since this was on the main Jericho-Jerusalem road, one would assume they had many visitors.
In reality, however, the monks' privacy would not have been compromised, as the 140 foot x 66 foot stone inn apparently stood just outside the monastery compound itself. Today, the remains of the inn are adjacent to the entrance of the archeology site. Various amenities are still visible, including bedrooms (the stone beds may still be recognized) for the pilgrims and stables for their animals. Interestingly, water troughs are still clearly discernible. A chapel satisfied the pilgrims' spiritual needs.
Within the monastery proper, however, the monks apparently did not lack for fellowship. At its height, St. Martyrius was a large complex. From the number of rooms discovered at the site, one may assume that it housed quite a few monks. The monks themselves seemed to have had ample opportunity to mingle - in places like the bathhouse or in the spacious dining hall.
One might speculate that the bathing facilities would have promoted camaraderie. The bathhouse itself stood above a hot room. Heat apparently rose from below the raised floor (which stood on low brick columns). There was even an adjacent pool.
And while on the subject of water, even though this region gets ratherhot and dry (yearly rainfall averages less than a foot), the monksseemed to have resolved their water problems. Throughout the site, rainwater was gathered and stored using a series of roof run-off systems,channels and cisterns. In the courtyard, one may still see the guttersfor collecting rain overflow. The total capacity of the reservoirs hasbeen estimated at 20,000- 30,000 cubic meters (about 6,000,000gallons). This provided the monks with water for their own needs, foragriculture and for the maintenance of various domestic animals.
We don't know how good the food tasted, but the pleasantly decorateddining area of the Martyrius Monastery certainly would have stimulatedappetites. The refectory floor was appointed with inviting earth-tonedgeometric designs. Amazingly, even though they have been left exposedfor some 1,500 years, these mosaics are still intact.
Today a roof has been erected to protect the colors from further fading.
This dining area was quite large, measuring 90 x 75 feet. The monks atefrom the stone-carved benches bordering the room. Two rows of parallelcolumns supported another floor. The food was served from a large,adjacent kitchen. The monastery's builders likewise did not scrimp onthe kitchen; the kitchen tables were made of marble.
Sadly, even holy men were not immune from attack. So in times ofextreme danger, the monks barricaded themselves in the monastery with arolling stone. This formidable blockade has a diameter of over eightfeet, and is still standing at the complex's original eastern entrance.
Zev Vilnay underscored the dangers that loomed during the Byzantineperiod. In his book, Legends of Judea and Samaria, Vilnay explains thatMa'ale Adumim, or 'The Red Ascent,' for the blood of pilgrims andwayfarers spilled by robbers on the Jerusalem-Jericho road (p. 56, TheJewish Publication Society, 1975).
Today one may still see that a stone wall entirely enclosed themonastery. The wall measures over 6.5 feet, although it was probablysignificantly higher when built. The wall was about 70 centimeters (orabout 2.3 feet) thick. Judging from the sockets with iron bases, themonks apparently just closed wooden doors when times were safer.
The monastery proper was built around a large, square central yard.Entry was from the east. Three sets of arches greeted visitors. Thesearches are testimony to the fact that this was a monastery of somemeans. It no doubt helped that its namesake was the Patriarch ofJerusalem from 478- 486.
Although it is hard to see the mosaics today, the main church was atone time well-appointed. The floor displays the remains of Greekinscriptions, basically a dedication to two abbots named Genesius andIohannes. Painstakingly laid geometric shapes and animal figures arestill partially visible. In total, the church measured approximately 84x 22 feet. The compound likewise contained several chapels and, later,tombs. From the Greek inscription inside the burial area, we know thiscave contained the remains of some of the monastery's notable holy men.
Perhaps this burial cave also served as Martyrius' secluded dwelling after he left the nearby laura Euthymus had initiated.
Archeologists suggest that the complex was constructed in three stages:In the first period, Martyrius set up a small cenobitic monastery. Thisphase may have consisted of no more than the construction of a smallchurch and the preparation of Martyrius' own cave dwelling. Paulus, alater monastery head or archimandrite, headed up the second buildingstage. During this time, the monastery enjoyed tremendous growth, andbecame a major monastic center in the Judean Desert. As alluded toabove, it coincided with Martyrius's appointment as Patriarch ofJerusalem.
In the third phase (553-568 CE), Archimandrite Genesius added both thestately refectory and the Chapel of the Three Priests in thesoutheastern section. He also is said to have cut back on the areaoccupied by the stables. In his honor, the dining area floor wasinscribed with the following words:
During the time of our holy father Genesius, presbyter [church elder]and archimandrite [abbot], this work too was done for his salvation andfor the salvation of his brethren in Christ. This work was completed inthe month of March, in the first year of the indiction.
Also at this time, the church floor was repaved with a colorful mosaic,the bathhouse along the western wall may have been built, and thepilgrim hostel was constructed. The monastery reached its peak by 578CE. This period, however, was relatively short-lived.
Reportedly, the monastery suffered damage first from an earthquake andthen from the Persian invasion of 614. It was abandoned after the Arabconquest in the mid-seventh century. Records show that a Muslim familystarted farming there in the eighth century, attracted by the remainsof the sophisticated water system.
Under the direction of Yitzhak Magen, the Israeli AntiquitiesDepartment first excavated the site in the 1980s. Management was thenturned over to the newly created Ma'ale Adumim municipality. Themunicipality, however, was unable to profitably maintain the site, soit came under the authority of the Judea/Samaria Civil Administration'sStaff Officer of Archeology. The site has remained closed to the publicfor several years, although periodic excavations have continued(apparently the most recent was a 2000 Augustana College expeditionunder the direction of Prof. Robert Haak). Recently, an archeology planhas reached fruition: soon this site and three other sites along theold Christian pilgrim route will be opened (or re-opened) to the public.
As the first step, the Good Samaritan site opened its museum in June 2009.
St. Martyrius monastery exemplifies survival under harsh conditions. Tothe 21st century visitor, it demonstrates how, despite numerouschallenges, a community of religious men was able to sustain a life ofdevotion and service to their Creator.
Ms. Fields, ACSW, is an educational writer based in Israel. Her ebookTake a Peek Inside: A Child's Guide to Radiology Exams, has just beenlaunched on the Internet.
*This article appeared in the April issue of the Jerusalem Post's Christian Edition,
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