To the last drop

Water conservation in an early monastic settlement.

St. Euthymius monastery 521 (photo credit: David Satran)
St. Euthymius monastery 521
(photo credit: David Satran)
Western civilization enjoys patting itself on the back for its problem-solving abilities. So it is with no small amount of astonishment that we discover that early desert monasteries prevailed over some of the key environmental obstacles that challenge modernity. In particular, the St.
Euthymius monastery provides a fascinating look at ecologically sound pragmatism.
This Judean Desert monastery creatively exemplifies how to survive in a semiarid environment. Located near the ancient Jericho-Jerusalem pilgrim route, the monastery has a yearly rainfall of less than 30 centimeters. Yet, with extreme resourcefulness and a combined sense of purpose and faith, the holy men of this Byzantine monastic setting sustained themselves.
St. Euthymius is now in the industrial section of Mishor Adumim, a 10-minute ride from northern Jerusalem. It was first established with the purpose remaining a small, secluded community.
Euthymius’s biographer Cyril recorded that while it originally housed only 12 monks, the number eventually climbed to 50. These men lived in small cells. They lived isolated lives, coming together only on the weekend for common prayer.
(Even though Euthymius apparently sought isolation for his resident monks, he was still concerned – presumably for charitable or political reasons, or both – with the monastery’s relationship to its neighbors. Thus, at Euthymius’s instruction, the monks repaired an ancient water cistern for the nearby Saracens.) According to Yizhar Hirschfield (“Euthymius and his Monastery in the Judean Desert,” Liber Annuus, 43, 339-371, 1993), in 428 the monastery was able to sustain itself with a bakery, a water cistern with a double opening and a garden located beside its church.
When Euthymius died, the monastery changed its format. It is unclear who actually initiated this philosophical and physical change, but the fact remains that in 482 (nine years after Euthymius died at 94), it was converted into a communal monastery and remained so until it was abandoned in 1250.
Presumably, as a larger, communal facility, the need for water and food increased.
Thus, the monastery apparently prepared two other water reservoirs. One additional round reservoir was built about 15 meters north of the original cistern. The third reservoir was dug about 50 meters west of it. This “new” reservoir may be entered today and deserves special description.
Visitors will be fascinated by the cistern’s completely preserved interior. The roof gets its support from the pillars of two parallel vaults. At one time, water flowed in through four openings. The cistern’s bottom measures a depth of 12 meters, but archeologists believe the original depth was even greater. The reservoir is rectangular, covering an area of 12 x 18 meters.
Agricultural terraces were constructed below the reservoirs. Hence, one might assume that the monks chose this farm site to irrigate by gravitational force.
Moreover, to the south of the monastery, the monks tilled two sizable walled-in gardens, measuring 2,500 square meters.
CYRIL, WHO lived in the monastery for 10 years, paints a lovely word-picture of the physical layout: “It is beautiful to see, on account of the excellent evenness of the terrain, and suitable for monks to practice asceticism because of its mild and temperate climate. Now, there is a very small hillock bordered to the east and to the west by two tiny valleys which converge to the south and unite together. On the northern side there is a very pleasant plain, which stretches for three stadia, and to the north of this plain there is a ravine descending from just about the eastern slope of the Ascension of our Lord Christ. In this same plain rises the tower and stands out the gatehouse of the coenobium. And the place is all cultivated...
as it enjoys a temperate climate... it is warmer than the coolest spots [in the region], but cooler than the hot places: moreover, it is drier than the too humid areas, but more humid than those which are quite dry.”
The monastery of Euthymius apparently underwent two further periods of construction: in 659, as the result of heavy earthquake damage, extensive rebuilding occurred, and in 1150, the central church acquired a paved path, Euthymius’s grave gained an overhead chapel and the complex as a whole garnered more rooms, a new refectory and a restored wall.
Records of the monastery cease in 1185 with the account of the priest Neophytus.
From then on the site’s history becomes speculative.
In the late 1920s, Derwas Chitty, an Anglican rector, led extensive excavations at the Euthymius site. Since then, archeologists from both the Hebrew University and the Antiquities Authority have periodically returned to further explore it.
Unfortunately, for a number of years, the public was unable to visit this site. It has recently reopened. While archeology is the focus, it nevertheless behooves visitors to carefully study the inventiveness of the monks who 1,500 years ago sustained themselves under adverse conditions.
By applying the water conservation system these monks developed, people today might be better able to ensure their own future.