by August Maggio  (Summer 2000 Field School)

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The Christian monastic movement began in Egypt and Syria between 250 and 300 CE.  By the early 4th century monasticism had spread into the Sinai Peninsula and the Judean Desert.  Among the most important and influential monastic leaders of this region are Hariton and Hilarion of Gaza, who founded lauras in the early 4th century; Euthymius, who founded a monastery at Khan el-Ahmar; and Martyrius of Cappadocia, who founded a cenobium at Ma’ale Adummim.  According to Cyril of Scythopolis, two monks, Martyrius and Elia, arrived in the Judean Desert from Egypt in 457 CE.  Both monks became members of the laura of Euthymius but decided to seek other living arrangements after finding their individual cells to be too small and narrow.  After leaving the laura of Euthymius, Martyrius traveled about three kilometers west and went into seclusion in a cave on the site of the present monastery ruins.

In the period between his arrival at the cave at Ma’ale Adummim and his assignment to the Church of the Anastasis (Resurrection) in Jerusalem, Martyrius established a very small cenobitic monastery that included only a small church and Martyrius’ cave.  This period constitutes the first of the three main building phases.  The archimandrite Paulus directed the second phase in the development of the monastery of Martyrius.   In 478 CE, Martyrius was appointed Patriarch of Jerusalem and used the power of his new position to promote and expand the monastery he founded. Consequently it was during this period that the monastery enjoyed tremendous growth, so much in fact that it became a principle monastic center in the Judean Desert.  By 482 CE the Monastery of Martyrius was very similar in form and size to the excavated structures that can be seen today at Ma’ale Adummim.

Right: Summer 2000 group at Martyriuslooking into a cistern.

The archimandrite Genesius, who added both the magnificent refectory as well as the Chapel of the Three Priests in the southeastern section and reduced the area occupied by the stables, directed the third phase of construction (553-568 CE).  Also at this time the church floor was repaved with a colorful mosaic, the bathhouse along the western wall may have been built, and the pilgrim hostel was constructed adjacent to the northeast corner of the monastery just outside the wall.  The monastery reached its peak by 578 CE, however an earthquake destroyed much of the work of Genesius and no buildings remained intact.  The monastery was abandoned shortly after the Arab conquest in the 7th century and fell into disuse until a Muslim family purchased the property during the Umayyad period in the 8th century.  Using the water from the extensive cisterns, the family recultivated the gardens and erected a farmhouse on the eastern part of the monastery.

 The Monastery of Martyrius is a large Byzantine monastery that covers 2.5 acres.  It was built on a hill overlooking the main road between Jericho and Jerusalem and was surrounded by a large irrigated agricultural area.  The monastery has a quadrangular plan and is presently surrounded by a 1-2 meter high wall, which is estimated to originally have been 4-5 meters high and 70 centimeters thick.  The monastery complex can be divided into ten parts: the north gate in the eastern wall and stables; the main church; the north wing and cave of Martyrius; the refectory complex, which is the largest building in the monastery; the bathhouse; the farmstead of the Early Islamic period; the southwest wing (including the cistern and agricultural area); the southeast wing and the Chapel of the Three Monks; the pilgrim’s hospice; and the central courtyard.

One of the most impressive features of the Monastery of Martyrius is the intricately designed water collecting system; the entire structure of the monastery was carefully constructed to collect rain from the roofs, courtyards, and open areas immediately outside the monastery walls.  The rainwater was then channeled via a gutter system into six large cisterns.  The total capacity of the water reservoirs has been estimated at 20,000-30,000 cubic meters, which provided the monks with water for human needs, irrigation of crops, and maintaining various domestic animals.  Apparently this monastery could store so much water that it was able to supply water during times of drought to nearby monasteries.  This is even more amazing when one considers that the annual precipitation of this region is less than 30 cm.  The cisterns and water channels allowed the monks to conserve every drop of water in a land where water is among the most valuable commodities.

Other notable features of this monastery include the incinerator, the bathhouse, the numerous and well-preserved mosaics, and the human remains discovered in the burial hall and burial cave.  Both the bathhouse and incinerator are unique to Martyrius because they are the only structures of this type found in Byzantine monasteries thus far.  The bathhouse, which included both a caldarium and a cold pool, is less spacious than its secular counterparts, however it does provide insight into how plentiful water and other natural resources were for the inhabitants of this monastery.
 Although a majority of the mosaics were constructed during the time of Genesius (550-600 CE), some were constructed under the leadership of Paulus during the end of the 5th century.  The earliest mosaics at this site are located under the floor of the central church and are thought to be from the original Church of Martyrius.  Many of the mosaics remain partially or entirely intact, allowing one to appreciate the skill and craftsmanship required to complete the complex geometric designs, braided borders, rosettes, and animals depicted.  It is obvious that a tremendous amount of effort and attention to detail was taken in the construction of these mosaics.

Two areas of the monastery, the burial hall and the burial cave, have yielded human skeletal remains.  Ten skeletons were uncovered under a tombstone in the center of the burial hall.  These men are presumed to be superiors and archimandrites of the monastery.  The burial cave yielded several skeletons and, according to an inscription, they are the remains of important priests.

The monastery ruins were discovered by construction crews in the midst of the construction of a large housing development in the Ma’ale Adummim municipality. From 1982 to1985, the archaeological excavations for the Monastery of Martyrius were conducted under the direction of the Yitzhak Magen, Archaeological Staff Officer for Judea and Samaria.

archimandrite the head (abbot) of a monastery in the Eastern Christian church
caldarium  a hot baths’ room in ancient bathhouses
cenobium  a monastery in which monks (cenobites) lived and worked together in a community
laura  a monastery of hermits living in isolation during the week and meeting for common prayers and meals on weekends
refectory a dining hall


Suggested Readings:

Bottini, G.C; L. DiSegni, E. Alliata, eds.  Christian Archaeology in the Holy Land: New Discoveries.  Franciscan Printing Press: Jerusalem, 1990.

Magen, Yitzhak.  The Monastery of Martyrius at Ma’ale Adummim.  Israel Antiquities Authority: Jerusalem, 1993.

Murphy-O’Connor, J. The Holy Land.  Oxford University Press: New York, 1998.

Price, R.M. (translated) and John Binns (annotated).  Cyril of Scythopolis: The Lives of Monks of Palestine.  Cistercian Publications: Kalamazoo, MI, 1991.

Stern, Ephraim, ed. The New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land.  Volume 3.  The Israel Exploration Society: Carta, Jerusalem, 1993.

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