The Monastery of Saint George
Climb to the Monastery of Saint George
Location - Wadi Qelt
Map Coordinates - 31.844665, 35.414035
The Monastery of Saint George clings to the Wadi Qelt canyon walls like a fairy-tale castle. Of all the monasteries founded in this spectacularly austere area between the 4th and 7th centuries AD, it is one of only five monasteries still functioning in the Judaean Desert. This one is well known for its hospitality and, unlike many Greek Orthodox monasteries, it welcomes female pilgrims and visitors.
A hermit (from the Greek word eremos, signifying 'desert', 'uninhabited', hence 'desert-dweller') is a person who lives to some greater or lesser degree in seclusion from society. Christian monks began to settle in the Judean Desert in the early 4th century A.D. as a respite from the secular world.
Between the fifth and the seventh centuries, the Judean Desert showed an extraordinary concentration of monastic foundations, with more than seventy monasteries dispersed in its plains and rocky slopes.
Legend has it that Elijah stayed here for three years and six months on his way to the Sinai, and was fed by ravens.
The Cave of Elijah at the Monastery of Saint George.
Another legend recalls that Saint Joachim (the father of the virgin Mary), whose wife Anne was infertile, also stayed here for forty days. Supposedly this monastery was built over a cave where Joachin took refuge to lament the infertility of his wife, Anna. An angel then told him to return to Anna, who afterward gave birth to the Virgin Mary.
The Monastery of Saint George in the Judean desert began in 480 AD with a man from Egypt named John of Thebes. He had assembled five Syrian hermits who wanted the desert experiences of the prophets, John the Baptist and Jesus.
The monastery was originally a cluster of cells or caves for hermits, with a church and a refectory (dining hall) at the center. Here they settled around a cave where they believed Elijah was fed by ravens. In fact, the monastery still holds the tombs of the five hermits who began the monastery.
Who Was Saint George?
The monastery’s most famous resident was the man in the sixth century for whom it was named – Saint George of Koziba. Born in Cyprus about 550 AD, George came as a teenager from his island home to follow the ascetic life in the Holy Land after both his parents died. George lived for a time in Jordan, but later an intense longing for a more ascetic life brought him to the Wadi Qelt.
The Persians Attack.
Destroyed in 614 CE by the Persians, the monastery was more or less abandoned after this army swept through the valley and massacred the monks who dwelt there. The bones and skulls of the martyred monks killed in this attack can still be seen today in the monastery chapel.
The oldest part of the building is the 6th-century AD mosaic floor of the church inside the monastery.
The remains of the monks who were slaughtered by the Persians are on display in the monastery’s chapel.
The Crusaders made some attempts at restoration in 1179 AD. However, it fell into disuse after their expulsion. Then in 1878, a Greek monk, Kalinikos, settled here and restored the monastery, finishing it in 1901.
The spectacle of the Monastery of Saint George, a cliff-hanging complex carved into a sheer rock wall in the Judaean Desert, overlooking an unexpectedly lush garden with olive and cypress trees, is one of the most striking sights of the Holy Land. And it is still inhabited by a few Greek Orthodox monks.
This is the dramatic view I got as I approached the monastery.
In 2010 a new road improved access, but visitors must walk down a steep and winding path for about 15 minutes (or hire a donkey from a local Bedouin) to reach the monastery. Walking back up can be even more aggressive.
The three-level monastery complex encompasses two churches; the Church of the Holy Virgin and the Church of Saint George and Saint John. They both contain a rich array of icons, paintings and mosaics.
In the ornate Church of the Holy Virgin, the principal place of worship, a mosaic pavement depicts the Byzantine double-headed eagle in black, white and red. The royal doors in the center of the relatively modern iconostasis date from the 12th century.
In this church is a glass casket containing the incorrupt remains of a Romanian monk who died in 1960. There is also a niche containing the tomb of Saint George.
Here I am viewing the remains of the Romanian monk. The 6th-century mosaics are under glass on the floor. The golden royal doors are on the right.
One of the highlights of the visit is the opportunity to look out over the balcony onto Wadi Qelt. It is quiet and beautiful.
The spectacular view of Wadi Qelt from the balcony of the monastery.
Hiking some seventeen miles from this site to Jerusalem is not advisable. Danger is an ever-present companion, since this territory is sadly famous for the raids of desert bandits. Even to this day guide books caution against traveling alone in this area. It is no accident that Jesus chose to set his parable of the Good Samaritan on this road (Luke 10:25-37). Some also envisage it as the “valley of the shadow of death” in Psalm 23.