by Kelly Jordan (Summer 2000 Field School)
The Monastery of Euthymius, otherwise known as Khan el-Ahmar, is filled with a rich history dating back to the Byzantine period. To fully understand Euthymius and his monastery, a brief history of the saint, the significance of the location, along with an examination of the laura/monastery during the Byzantine occupation, its inhabitants, how it relates to St. Stephensís monastery, and what remains today will be conducted.
According to Cyril of Scythopolis, who lived at the monastery for ten years, Euthymius was born in 376 AD and passed away on January 20, 473. Between his birth and death the monk founded a number of monasteries, most notably the coenobium of Theoctistus in 411 and his own at Khan el-Ahmar. It is important to note that Khan el-Ahmar did not become a coenobium until three years after the passing of Euthymius; until his untimely demise, the monastery was a laura catering to 12 monks.
Euthymiusís monastery is located near the main road between Jerusalem and Jericho. The past site was a main road for pilgrimages from Jerusalem to Jericho, which may account for the monasteryís high level of activity. Presently, the monastery resides in the middle of the Mishor Adummim industrial area.
The history of the relationship between the coenobium of Theoctistus and Euthymius is extremely important to the monastic movement and the laura of Euthymius. In 411 Euthymius, and his companion Theoctistus, founded the coenobium of Theoctistus in Wadi Mukellik. Here Euthymius prayed, studied and lived for five years in utter solitude along with Theoctistus. Hearing of his holy lifestyle, many pilgrims flocked to the coenobium in search of the monk. In lieu of his disciples, Euthymius found his prayers disturbed and thus vacated the monastery in pursuit of an isolated environment. Despite fleeing, the flocks of disciples did not cease. After many years of travel, Euthymius succumbed to the constant followers and eventually founded his laura in the exact spot where he surrendered. At this time, Euthymius did not wish to make the place in which he resigned a laura, therefore he sent the followers away to the monastery of Theoctistus to train with his companion. "He insisted, however, that those who desired to participate in the organized hermit life of the laura should first be trained in the monastery (coenobium) of Theoctistus in the Wadi Mukellik" (Murphy-OíConnor, 1998: 295). Eventually, according to Cyril of Scythopolis, Euthymius had a dream in which God told him to accept worthy patrons and those who wished to be saved. In 428 the holy monk established a laura, which became his home for the remainder of his life.
Once the men completed a sufficient amount of training at the coenobium of Theoctistus, Euthymius welcomed the new monks into his laura. The idea of one monastery training the pupil and the other receiving the final product became a staple affinity, which was replicated with in the monastic movement. "Monks were normally formed in the regular life of an enclosed monastery before being permitted to live as hermits in a laura" (Murphy-OíConnor, 1998: 349). Euthymius continued to send followers to Theoctistus for training and taking in the worthy products at his laura until his death in 473.
During the Byzantine era, Euthymiusís laura was held with high prestige and authority. The inhabitants of the laura as well as his esteemed acquaintances characterize Euthymius himself and the monasteryís influence. During his life Euthymius attracted thousands of recruits to expand monasticism in the Byzantine period. The saint produced a number of monks who attained high church office in Palestine. For example, as Y. Hirschfeld affirms, " two of the pupils of Euthymius, Cosmas and Stephen, were appointed deacons if the church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem and later served in other positions" (Y. Hirschfeld, 1993: 346). Other inhabitants, such as Elias and Martyrius, went on to found further monasteries. "Elias founded two coenobia near Jericho, and Martyrius founded one of the largest and most beautiful communal monasteries in the Judean desert"(Y. Hirschfeld, 1993: 347). Euthymiusí holy stature is further exemplified by his acquaintance Empress Eudocia (the founder of St. Stevenís monastery). Confused by her stance concerning the Chalcedonian Council of 451, Eudocia sought out the advice of Euthymius. In 455 she built a tower on the peek of Mt. Muntar to meet Euthymius and hear his teachings.
Euthymius remained an extraordinary leader of his laura of 12 inhabitants until passing in 473. He did not believe the current location provided adequate solitude for a laura, therefore he gave specific instructions that upon his demise, his church and laura were to be transformed into a monastery. After his expiration, Euthymius came in a dream to Fidus, a craftsman, and designated him the master builder to remodel the laura. As Cyril of Schythopolis wrote " Fidus went down to the laura and built the coenobium, which he surrounded with walls and made secure. The old church he made into a refectory, and built the new church above it. Within the coenobium he constructed a tower that was a the same time entirely secure and extremely beautiful, and he also contrived that the burial vault should lie in the middle of the coenobium"(Cyril of Schythopolis, Translated by R.M. Price, 1991: 64). The monastery took three years to build, in which the remains of Euthymius were placed. Following Euthymiusís demise however, the monastery declined and never retained its previous status. Little remains of the original monastery/laura today, for in the summer of 659 a severe earthquake destroyed much of the Byzantine structure. Although most was rebuilt, the more recent addition was not constructed in the Byzantine style. As Y. Hirschfeld states " the latter are early Muslim" (Hirschfeld, 1993: 354).
The most pertinent remains of the monastery of Euthymius for our project are the burial crypts, which are similar to those discovered at St. Stephens. According to Y. Hirschfeld (1993), up to fifteen skeletons were uncovered along with Byzantine oil lamps in some of the graves. The tombs, located in the center of the monastery, contained the graves of Euthymius, monastery abbots, and senior monks. From the excavations of I. Hershkovitz (1993), two more parallels arise between St. Stephens and Euthymius concerning age distribution and sex of the individuals. All of the skeletons in both communities are male and have a mean mortality of over forty years. Remains of children are also found within each monasteryís burial chambers as well. To date, the burial vaults at the monastery of Euthymius are the closest comparison community to St. Stephens.
Today you can see the remains of five structures. The main architectural attraction, besides the tombs, is the Muslim church, which resides on three vaults and dates back to the post-reconstruction period of 659. Other remnants include a stone table from the refectory, a tower used for refuge in case of an attack, and a cistern. Keep in mind however, most of the relics, save the tombs, are from the remodeling of the monastery following the earthquake of 659. Unfortunately, the original Byzantine church and laura were destroyed.
After Cyril of Scythopolis left the monastery of Euthymius in early 555, information on the coenobium is extremely sparse. It is known today that the monastery was conquered by Muslims before 659 and eventually abandoned in 1250. In its prime, the monastery of Euthymius housed authoritative religious figures, and possessed a substantial religious influence within the Judean community.
HERSHKOVITZ, I. (1993) "The Human Remains From the Byzantine Monastery at Khan El-Ahmar," Liber Annuus, 43:373-385.
HIRSCHFELD, Y. (1993) "Euthymius and His Monastery in the Judean Dessert," Liber Annuus, 43:339-71.
MURPHY-O'CONNOR, J. (1998) The Holy Land, Oxford: University Press, pp. 295, 349.
CYRIL OF SCYTHOPOLIS: The Lives of the Monks of Palestine. R Price, trans. (1991).Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Press, pp. 1-92.