From the fourth through the seventh centuries A.D., a form of Christian religious devotion flourished in Palestine known as desert monasticism.
Drawing upon biblical descriptions of Elijah (1 Kings 17), John the Baptist (Matthew 3), and Jesus, thousands of devoted Christians departed into the wilderness, becoming hermits seeking the presence of God in solitude (Mark 1).
Paradoxically, this exodus into the wilderness began in the fourth century as Christianity was becoming the official religion of the Roman empire.
Whereas earlier Christians had been required to struggle daily to live their faith, many now felt increasingly “stifled by the mediocrity of an official, politicized religion.”
Seeking alternatives to the shallow religiosity of the newly converted urban masses, many believed that through hermitic monasticism they could engage in the true imitatio Christi — the imitation of the life of Christ.
Following their literal understanding of some of Jesus Christ’s teachings, these monks abandoned all their possessions and families (Mark 10:17-31) to live a life of chastity, fasting and asceticism in the desert.
There they dedicated their time to prayer, meditation, the liturgy and study, as well as eking out a sparse existence in the desolate wasteland.
At its height there were thousands of monks in 73 monasteries in Byzantine Palestine. Some lived in true seclusion as hermits in small isolated caves, rarely seeing other human beings.
Others, known as cenobitic monks, gathered to form communities, building large fortress-like monasteries. Although many sought complete isolation, most desert monks did not completely sever all ties with civilization.
Some became great scholars and theologians, like John of Damascus, actively engaged in debating the important religious and political issues of their day. Other monasteries focused on service, becoming hospices for pilgrims and hospitals for the sick.
The Arab Muslim conquest of Palestine in the seventh century initiated the decline of desert monasticism; as most of the people slowly converted to Islam, the popular foundations of monasticism were likewise undermined. But they never completely vanished.
Even today there are a small number of monastic communities in Israel continuing this ancient traditions, two of which can be visited near Jericho, both maintained by the Greek Orthodox Church.
The monastery of St. George of Koziba was originally founded in the fifth century in a splendid canyon in the Judean wilderness between Jerusalem and Jericho, in stark desert terrain reminiscent of Utah’s Canyonlands. The canyon is graced by patches of green where waterfalls spring from cracks in a Roman aqueduct and cascade down the sheer walls. The monastery is nestled in the sides of the cliff, with several precarious hermitic caves higher up and inaccessible.
Hermits living there get food and water by lowering a basket by a rope. Of the original monastery only a few foundation stones and a fine mosaic remain; it was destroyed by the Persians in 614. The modern monastery was rebuilt by the Greek Orthodox church in the late 19th century. Three silver reliquaries housing the remains of local martyrs and saints rest in a small chapel. Within the monastery walls is the traditional location of the cave where Elijah — a biblical archetype for monks — was fed by the ravens (1 Kings 17:3).
The cliff walls of the canyon surrounding the monastery are peppered with the ruins of 1,500 year old hermitic caves.
The monastery of the Temptation, commemorating where Christ fasted 40 days and was tempted by the Devil (Matthew 4:1-11) is on the face of the cliffs to the west of Jericho.
The entire structure is about 100 feet long and about 15 feet wide, all clinging precariously to the crags in the cliffs. A decrepit balcony juts out from one building, overlooking the rocky ground 200 yards below.
The view of the Jericho valley from the balcony is spectacular. There are only two monks left in the monastery, down from three dozen a century ago. Here can be found the stone which Satan tempted Jesus to turn into bread (Luke 4:3), rubbed completely smooth by countless touches by countless pious visitors.
William Hamblin and Daniel Peterson