There are two main forms of monasticism in the Judean Desert: the Laura and the Quinobion. The Laura, also called Lavra, means solitude, its a form of abstinence. A group of monks would retire on weekdays, secluded from the world from Monday to Friday, and meet in a common place only on Saturdays and Sundays, days of prayer. The meeting was for the purpose of prayer, eating together, and the replacement of what they produced, with raw materials for work during the coming week.
The term “LAVRA” comes from Greek and means “corridor”, or “path”, and it probably represent the path that connects the individual cells of its members and the common place where they met on Saturday and Sunday.
Lavras developed during the fourth and fifth centuries in the Land of Israel as a combination of solitude and living together. It was a solution for those monks who did not want to live in a convent, which is a restrictive cooperative framework, but wanted to be part of a community.
Gerasimus’ Lavra monks, lived among other locations, in the secluded cells in the location we are visiting.
Coinobion in Greek or Cenobion in Latin, means “living together”, it is a communal monastery where monks live, study, pray, and eat, while living together. A few hundred meters from here, we will visit today two places representing the two forms of monasticism.
As for our location, we are in Wadi Nahil, 4 km north of the Dead Sea, 2 km west of the Jordan River and a few hundred meters from Deir Hajla Monastery dedicated to Gerasimus.
The evolution of the monasteries in this area in the fifth century is related to Gerasimus who is referred to as a founder and patron of the Jordan valley region, a title that belonged to only two other monks: Euthymius and Sabas.
Gerasimus came from Lycia in Anatolia, and thus continued a tradition of monks and founders of monasteries in the Judean Desert such as Chariton, Euthymius, Theodosius and Sabas who also came from the same region. Gerasimus, who was already experienced with monasticism life, founded in 455 a new kind of Lavra. In its center between the solitary cells, he established a Coinobion. Very few remains from that Coinobion were discovered about 300 meters from the current location of the monastery. Gerasimus set up his Lavra about 2 km from the Jordan river, what resolved the issue of a water source. The Palm trees growing in the immediate vicinity provided dates, and the date branches were used for weaving baskets. The area of where the solitary cells are located, is within the two brook channels of Wadi Nahil which are 400meters apart going in the direction of west to east.
Gerasimus’ Lavra – There is a small chapel here, a chapel is a niche or small space used in Christianity as a kind of small church for personal service. At the end of the chapel, there are several caved rooms, their sizes averaging 2×3 m. Between the cells connects a narrow and long corridor but to each cell there is a separate entrance designed to ensure privacy. These rock-hewn cave-like cells illustrate the nickname given to the monks of Gerasimus’ Lavra – “the inhabitants of the caves”.
The monks were engaged in various crafts such as weaving ropes or baskets that were sold to the inhabitants of the area. Each of them would bring his products to the Coinobion on Saturday. On Saturday and Sunday after attending the prayers he would eat cooked food as well as sipping some wine and all together would hold the Psalm singing ceremony. On Sunday afternoon the monk would take the weekly supplies, breads, dates, water, and return to his cell. Gerasimus famous regulations for the hermits, limited their property to a minimum that was necessary for their existence. None of them had anything in their cell but 1 cloak, 1 hood, 1 mat, a quilt, a pillow, and 1 pottery urn in which he both ate & wet the palms.
The regulations forbade them to light a fire or even a candle. In its physical form and internal organization, Gerasimus’ Laura set a model for establishing other monasteries in the Jericho area, such as the Choziba Monastery in the Prat stream, also known as Saint George monastery.
The monastery of Deir Hajla also known as the Monastery of Saint Gerasimus, is located close to the original location of the Coinobion run by Gerasimus in the fifth century. Today it is a Greek Orthodox monastery, dedicated to St. Gerasimus, who established the Lavra we’ve just discussed. The name of the monastery preserves the name of the biblical settlement of “Beit Hogla”, which is mentioned in the book of Joshua (15: 6) as the easternmost border point between the tribes of Judah and Binjamin. According to the map of Madaba from the sixth century, such a settlement did indeed exist here in the Byzantine period.
The Christian identifies the place as one of the places where Miriam, Joseph & Jesus stopped to spend the night on their way to Egypt, while fleeing from King Herod and also as the site of Jesus’ baptism in Jordan river by John the Baptist, which occurred just opposite kaser el yahood, 4kms north east from here.
As with any Coinobion, it includes a church, storage rooms, a dining room, a kitchen and also a living wing, used by the head of the monastery and various office bearers such as the place manager, the pastor and their assistants. The role of the Coinobion was to provide for the needs of the hermits who lived around it but at the same time train young monks for the life in the Lavra. The end of the monasticism of the Judean Desert, was influenced by the Arab conquest in the first half of the seventh century. In 614 CE the place was destroyed by the Persians who invaded Israel and damaged many Christian sites. After the conquest of the land by the Arabs in 640, the monastery was restored, but seems to have been destroyed and rebuilt several times over the centuries.
Many parts of the structure today, are restorations and additions to the original Crusader structure, which has been damaged over the years mainly by earthquakes. The last comprehensive renovation was carried out in 1890, following a severe damage suffered by the building in an earthquake that occurred in 1837.
The large church in the monastery is located in a wide hall with a large dome, coated with metal and prominent in the distance. The walls of the church and its thick columns are decorated with murals and paintings, some ancient and some restored. Most of the paintings show important monks who lived in the area during the Byzantine period. And to conclude this video, as usual, a question for you – very close to here near the Jordan River, a prophet who lived in the ninth century BCE ascended to heaven, who is the prophet. The answer will appear at the end of the video.