May 16, 2017

Holy Fathers Slain at the Monastery of Saint Savvas in 614 A.D.

Holy Fathers Slain at the Monastery of Saint Savvas in 614 (Feast Day - May 16)


Your lambs O Savior are led to the swords,
Wolves having entered the fold killed them.

The martyrdom of forty-four monks at the Lavra of Saint Savvas in Palestine by the Saracens, or Blemmyes, in 614 was related to us in the letter of Antiochos, a monk of the monastery. This letter was sent in c. 620 to Eustathios of Ancyra in Galatia. This Eustathios had been forced to flee from his city with many monks and wander from place to place because of the advance of the Persians in Asia Minor. Under these conditions it was difficult to move around with heavy books, and Eustathios therefore requested in a letter to his friend Antiochos that he send him a small volume about holy scripture to take with him. In his letter Eustathios also referred to rumors that had reached him about the massacre of the monks of Saint Savvas Monastery and asked for more details. Antiochos sent the requested book, together with a letter relating what had happened at Saint Savvas Monastery during the Persian invasion.

A week before the Persian conquest of Jerusalem in May of 614, Arabs came to the monastery and pillaged all the holy vessels of the church. Among the monks there were recluses who had not left the monastery for fifty or sixty years. In the wake of this raid, most of the fathers, including Antiochos (the writer of the letter) and the abbot Nikomedes, fled to Arabia, that is, beyond the Jordan. Others fled to Jerusalem. Those strongest in the faith, however, remained behind in the monastery. In a second assault on the monastery the barbarians captured and tortured the remaining monks in the hope of gaining information about hidden treasures. When they despaired of this, they beheaded some of the monks and hacked to death the others. Forty-four were killed, and this took place on May 16th. The monks were therefore not harmed by the Persians, but by Arab tribes who arrived with them.

Relics of the 44 Holy Fathers Slain on May 16, 614

The bodies of the forty-four martyrs remained unburied until the return of those monks who had fled to Arabia. Modestos, the abbot of the Monastery of Theodosios, and eventually Patriarch of Jerusalem (630-634), also went there from Jerusalem and took part in their burial. After the burial the returnees remained for an additional two months in the monastery. When rumors reached them of further imminent raids, they went to the abandoned monastery of Abba Anastasios about four kilometers from Jerusalem, whose monks apparently had fled to Jerusalem. Since it was surrounded by a wall, it provided greater security than the open Monastery of Saint Savvas. After a few months, they were encouraged to return to the Monastery of Saint Savvas by Modestos. The bravest of the monks, headed by the monk Thomas, returned there immediately, with others joining them later on. Antiochos was among those who returned, while the abbot Nikomedes aided Modestos in repairing the damages done to the Christians in Palestine. With 1,200 gold coins from Patriarch John the Merciful of Alexandria he redeemed twenty high-ranking men and women. A monk named Justin was named abbot of the monastery of Anastasios, where he enforced the rule of Saint Savvas. Thomas became abbot of the Monastery of Saint Savvas.

Thus the horrors of the slaughter led to a division of the community. With the support of Modestos, however, the monastery developed once again, and during the writing of the letter of Antiochos in 620, the situation was again stable. For this reason Antiochos was able to send Eustathios the letter and the book. This book is known as the Pandectes of Holy Scripture, comprising of extracts and summaries from the Bible, the apocrypha and patristic writings in one hundred and thirty chapters. Among the monks who had earlier fled to Jerusalem from the Monastery of Saint Savvas was Eustratios (also called Antiochos Strategos), who wrote a narrative of the conquest of Jerusalem by the Persians. The above account is to be distinguished from the massacre of the monks of Saint Savvas Monastery in 797, which is commemorated by the Orthodox Church on March 20th.