by Christina Fitch (Summer 2000 Field School)
The monastic site known as Gerasimus in the Byzantine era and Deir Hajla in contemporary times is located between Jericho and Jordan. From afar, one can see a silver dome on a square building - the modern site of a Greek Orthodox monastery - dedicated to Our Lady of Kalamon. The monastic community was founded in 455 CE by Gerasimus and he served as the abbot until his death in 475 CE. By the eighth century there were only ten monks remaining. During the reign of Emperor Manuel I Comnenus (1143-1180) John IX Patriarch of Jerusalem created a new edifice using the old stones. Only one hermit was found among the ruins in 1185 and the site was entirely abandoned after the Crusader period. The monastery was rebuilt in 1588, destroyed in 1734, and then rebuilt into what is now standing in 1885 (Murphy-O’Connor, 1998).
The coenobium consisted of several buildings:
the church, monks’ cells, a kitchen, refectory, and store-rooms.
These buildings were staffed by a superior, priest, and steward.
Surrounding the coenobium were 70 hermitages that made up the laura part
of the community. The hermitages were either small cells or rooms
cut into the soft lake deposit of the Wadi en-Nukheil (the Valley of the
Little Palm) (Hirschfeld, 1992).
Right: Summer 2000 group in laura behind Gerasimus' monastery.
Gerasimus is known as the ‘founder and patron of the Jordan wilderness’ because his monastery was the first in the Jordan Valley. Gerasimus was also known as an innovator in monastic life because he was the first to combine the two types of monasteries, coenobium and laura, and he was the first abbot near the Jordan River to establish regulations for his monks (Patrich, 1995). He was a contemporary of two other famous monks, Euthymius and Sabas, but comparatively not much is known about his life. Gerasimus was originally from Lycia in Asia Minor, born of a devout Christian family (Hirschfeld, 1992). He joined a coenobium at an early age and thus he came to the Holy Land already familiar with the monastic life (Price, 1991). Between 451 and 453 CE he followed Euthymius into the desert as a hermit. There he changed his opinion, under the influence of his companion, to support the Orthodox Party in the Council of Chalcedon (Bottini, 1990). In 470 Gerasimus supposedly removed a thorn from a lion’s foot and the lion followed him everywhere in gratitude. When Gerasimus died, the lion that he had named Jordan apparently laid down on his tomb and expired as well. This legend is often depicted in icons and frescoes as the saint with a lion at his feet (Hirschfeld, 1992).
The Vita Gerasimi , written by an anonymous monk in the second half of the sixth century, is about the daily life of the monks of Gerasimus and the rules that they lived by. It is recorded in this text that the monks complained to Gerasimus because they felt the rules of the laura were excessive. One should take into consideration that the author probably exaggerated the strictness of the rules to enhance the founder’s reputation; most likely the lives of the monks were much like those at the Great Laura of the time, Mar Saba (Patrich, 1995). The main point of contention was lighting lamps in the cells at night in order to read scripture. The prohibition of wine and cooked foods, except at the weekend communal meal, is another example of a difficult rule in Vita Gerasimi (Hirschfeld, 1992). However, unlike many other monasteries of the time, Gerasimus did not require his monks to remain awake the entire night (Patrich, 1995).
Education of monks at Gerasimus was very similar to that at other monasteries during the Byzantine era. Novices lived in the coenobium cutting wood, carrying water, cooking, and performing many other duties until they displayed their spiritual preparedness to acquire a hermit’s life. Also, the monks-in-training were kept in the community until they looked less youthful because they would be too much of a temptation for the older monks in the laura (Price, 1991). The monks who had become ‘perfect in God’s eyes’ were allowed to live in cells away from the coenobium. These anchoritic monks lived in seclusion for five days eating only bread, dates, and water. Part of their mission was to become free from any soul passion ? anger, cowardice, lethargy, etc. They made ropes, baskets, and mats out in their cells (Patrich, 1995).
There were many differences in the lives of the coenobites and laurites. Monks of the coenobium wore sandals; this luxury was not as important for the monks who stayed five days in their cells, only walking any great distance to and from the coenobium on the weekend. Similarly, coenobites were allowed to drink eukration ? a hot drink with pepper, cumin, and anise ? while anchorites were not allowed the mixed drink. All property in both parts of the monastery was owned communally. Each person used one waterskin per week, a tunic, cloak with hood, reed mat, patchwork blanket, cushion, and clay bowl (Patrich, 1995).
On Saturday and Sunday all the monks, both those from the coenobium and those from the laura, attended the Office of Psalm-singing at the chapel and then ate cooked food and wine at the coenobium. It was at this time that they returned their finished products and gathered up raw material to bring back to the laura. On Saturday night the anchorites would return to the laura - since there was no other place for them to reside - then they would walk back on Sunday for another church service. If the people of Jericho came with donations for the monastery, as they were known to do in veneration of the holy men housed there, the laurites usually returned to their cells quickly. Gerasimus set another precedent by dictating two Eucharists per week, one each on Saturday and Sunday. This practice had its source in Egyptian monasticism, as did the rule of barring young men from anchoritic life (Patrich, 1995).
The present monastery surrounds a deep well, about 400 m to the west of the original monastery. At the northeast end of the laura there is a large compound that remains with four cells with bed niches cut into the walls and a chapel carved into the rock. A plaster cistern sits in the entrance to one of these cells and rainwater from the plain above is channeled into it. The best preserved hermit cave is the most elaborate; a 15 m corridor ends at a two-burner stove with an air-vent above (Patrich, 1995). Occasional mosaic tesserae, small mounds of decayed mud brick, about seven or eight built cells, and a few Byzantine period potsherds are all that remain of the original coenobium (Murphy-O’Connor, 1998).
BOTTINI, G.C., L. DISEGNI, and E. ALLIATAl, eds. Christian Archaeology in the Holy Land, New Discoveries. Franciscan Printing Press: Jerusalem, 1990: 18-19.
HIRSCHFELD, Y. The Judean Desert Monasteries in the Byzantine Period. Yale University Press: New Haven, CT 1992: 13, 28,29, 88-90, 244.
MURPHY-O'CONNOR, J. The Holy Land. Oxford University Press: New York, 1998: 230-2.
PATRICH, J. Sabas, Leader of Palestinian Monastecism: A Comparative Study in Eastern Monasticism, Fourth to Seventh Centuries. Dumbarton Oaks: Washington, D.C., 1995: 128, 205-11, 218, 238-9, 249, 263.
PRICE, R.M. (translated) and John Binns (annotated). Cyril of Scythopolis: The Lives of the Monks of Palestine. Cistercian Publications: Kalamazoo, MI, 1991: 41, 247.