We are in Bir El Katar, also known as the Cave Monastery and it’s actually a LAVRA. LAVRA means isolation, it is a form of abstinence. The term “LAVRA” comes from Greek and means “corridor”, “alley” or “path”, and it probably came to represent the way that connects the individual cells of its members.
A group of monks would retire on weekdays, secluded from the world. Their way of life included one meal that included mainly water, bread and salt, seven prayers a day, and working in between in various crafts such as weaving ropes or mats that were sold to the inhabitants of the area.
The monks would meet in a cenobium on Saturday and Sunday, the days of prayer. A cenobium is referred to as living in community, such as a group of monks. The meeting was for the purpose of joint prayers, dinners, and the replacement of the monks’ labor with raw materials for work during the coming week.
The LAVRA developed during the fourth century in the Judea desert. It is a combination between two lifestyles that were common among the monks – living together on the one hand and solitude on the other. The LAVRA’s way of life spread from the Holy Land to Egypt and Syria, and later to other places where the idea of nuns reached. It was a solution for those monks who did not want to live in a restrictive cooperative framework like a convent but wanted to be part of a community.
The LAVRA developed in the early Byzantine period in the Judean desert. The founding of the Lavra’s is attributed to Chariton the Confessor, who established three Lavras that became monasteries of great importance in the Christian world. In 330 Chariton established the first Lavra, the Monastery of Fharan in a location called Wadi Kelt (Qelt). Then he established the Lavra of Douka on the ruins of the Hasmonean fortress near Jericho, and the third LAVRA he founded is Souka in Nahal Tekoa, known also by some as “Hanging Cave of Chariton”. Chariton established by his own example the rules for monastic life in the Judaean desert, in the context of Lavra-type monasteries and he was the first to do this.
The cave monastery, was built on the north bank of the Secacah brook, which originates on the eastern slopes of Mount Montar above us. Our location is 0.5 kilometer west of the Horkanya fortress, 3 kilometers southeast of the “Great LAVRA” – known as the LAVRA of Sabas and about 200 meters above Bir Abu Shualeh.
The monastery was built around the cave where Sabas used to seclude himself from time to time during a period known as the Forty days of Lent, the Quadragesima. I will not explain in this video the meaning of this fast, but during the forty days of lent in the year 508, Sabas secluded himself in this cave accompanied by an old monk named Paul. After Easter he took a group of monks and returned with them to this place. The cave became a church and on the slope he founded a cenobium, a community monastery, which is named the “Cave Monastery” associated with Bir El-Katar. At first, Sabas had here only four monks, and later the place expanded.
Sabas who was the leader of the monks of the Judean desert from 494 until his death in 532, established with his disciples seven monasteries of LAVRA’s and six community monasteries in the Judean desert, and we are now in one of them – the Cave Monastery.
Notice the two high walls, as you can see these are two large cisterns. A third large cistern is hidden inside a cave. There is a difference of about 40 meters in height between the highest point and the lowest point of this complex, if you think about it its equivalent to a 12 floors building.
In the video you can see the wide steps at the bottom of the monastery. Remains of terraces indicate the existence of a small garden, and above was preserved a large cistern, plastered with pits plaster (plaster consisting of crushed pottery that gives it a reddish hue) typical of the Byzantine period.
How and where water is stored here, in the desert? Most of the desert area is covered with soft chalk rocks, which are relatively impermeable to seepage and therefore contribute to the aridity of the area. The rock opacity causes the rainwater that cannot seep-in, to be collected in the channels and sometimes causes flooding when it heavily rains on the mountain. The locals took advantage of this phenomenon in ancient times and diverted the flood waters to cisterns. Now, the chalk is crisp, white, and porous rock. It is a rock that resembles limestone and is composed of the mineral calcite which is one of the most common minerals on earth. In fact, 4% of the Earth’s mass is the mineral calcite, but unlike limestone, chalk has no crystalline structure. The result is that the chalk is brittle compared to the limestone, and remains soft so that cisterns can be dug relatively easily. Although the chalk is porous it does not transmit water well, as its pores are very small and therefore it is a sealed rock.
As usual we will end up with a question – The Cave Monastery is located in the heart of the Secacah brook. What is the source of the name Secacah? The answer will appear at the end of the video.