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January 20, 2011

5th Century Byzantine Monastic Church On Masada

"There is a mountain by the Dead Sea called Mardes and it is very high. There are anchorites living in that mountain. They have a garden about six miles away from where they live, near the edge of the Sea, almost on its banks. One of the anchorites is stationed there to tend the garden. At whatever hour the anchorites wish to send to the garden for vegetables, they put a pack-saddle on the ass and say to it: 'Go to the one who tends the garden and bring us some vegetables'. It goes off alone to find the gardner; when it stands before the door, it knocks with its head. The gardner loads it up with vegetables and sends it away. You can see the ass returning alone each time, but it only serves those elders; it supplies the needs of nobody else."

- St. John Moschos, Leimonarion 158

Southeast of the synagogue in Masada are a large complex of buildings and a church built by early Christian monks probably in the fifth century. The church is entered through a porch or vestibule. The apse, at the east end, has a cavity in the floor which may have housed relics. On the north side of the nave was a (partly preserved) mosaic pavement with representations of plants and fruits.

This monastic settlement was known as a lavra and founded in 425. On the summit of Masada was also the Monastery of Castellium which is also mentioned by John Moschos. This monastery was the second of seven monasteries founded by St. Savvas the Sanctified, and it is said here he fought many demons. This mountain then was known as Mount Mardes (Mardan) or Mount Castellium. According to Derwas Chitty, St. Euthymius the Great, the spiritual father of St. Savvas, probably built the church which still stands till this day, as noted in his biography. He settled here for the water and built a church from the ruins already there, though his stay was short.

The Byzantine settlement consisted only of a small group of monks who lived on Masada, just as monks established themselves in other places in the Judean wilderness in the 5th century and later, seeking remote retreats far from the city, but preferably those which had buildings which they could use. The monks on Masada dwelt in small cells scattered over the summit. Some also lived in the caves, as is suggested by the crosses we found painted on the walls. It is assumed that they were forced to leave this location with the Persian or Muslim conquest of the country at the beginning of the 7th century. Since then Masada has remained unoccupied. They were the last inhabitants of Masada.

Masada was rediscovered in 1838 by the American scholar Edward Robinson, who identified it from Ein-Gedi with a telescope.

To read about Yigael Yadin's description of the discovery of the mosaic floor in the Byzantine chapel of Masada, see here.