Leaving the monastery of St. Theodosius, the same route leads you to another Greek Orthodox monastery, which lies 14.5 km (9 miles) east of Beit Sahour. It is one of the oldest inhabited monasteries in the world. Dating back to the fifth century, it was founded by Saint Sabas of Cappadocia, who exerted great influence on the emperors of his time, including Justinian. The monastery enjoyed imperial patronage during this formative period of monasticism. St. Sabas died in the monastery in 533 AD at the age of 94, after having founded six monasteries and four hospices.
The monastery is immense; it has 110 rooms, and a few monks still dwell within its walls. It housed 5000 monks in its heyday. In the center of a paved courtyard, and in an octagonal domed chapel, St. Sabas was originally buried. His remains were transferred to Venice in 1256, by the Crusaders, but upon the request of Pope Paul VI the bones were restored to their first resting place in 1965, at a time of rapprochement between the Catholic and Orthodox churches. Today, the saint’s body rests in the monastery’s church. To the north-west is the Chapel of St. Nicholas, where scores of monks’ skulls – who suffered martyrdom at the hands of the Persians, in 614 – can be seen. The chief memorial to the saint is his grotto, the Lion’s Grotto, shown on the southern side of the monastery, near the guest chamber. In a rock fissure nearby is a palm tree, which is believed to have been planted by St. Sabas himself. The dates that it bears, say the monks, have no pits. The rich library of St. Sabas is now in the Greek Patriarchate in Jerusalem.
Hundreds of icons cover the high walls of the monastery, but the richness of the paintings fails to portray the austerity of its theme. One of the outstanding paintings is a representation of the Day of Judgment. Another depicts the burial of St. John of Damascus. Some of these icons have become legendary for their miracles. They are a living record of 1500 years of ascetic and artistic production.
A visit to this monastery may be concluded by a visit to the tomb of St. John of Damascus, a Greek theologian whose writings (in defense of the use of icons and the Orthodox faith) were important contributions to early Christianity. His remains were removed to Russia when the Russian church rebuilt the monastery in the early nineteenth century. The Canyon is dotted with cells and cave sepulchers. One of the most striking caves is that of Arcadius.