With donkeys and goats competing for space with plastic bags and rubbish of all sorts, the Judean desert isn’t what you’d call pristine. Actually, what I’ve seen of Palestine so far leaves a lot to be desired in terms of cleanliness. There’s rubbish everywhere. People nonchalantly toss plastic bottles out of cars as if they were apple cores that would magically biodegrade. It’s hard to imagine why, in a region so dependent on tourism, that some bright spark in the Ministry of Tourism doesn’t do something about it.
Driving deep into the desert, where the only things growing are olive trees and scrub, what fences there are have trapped flying plastic and empty beer cans. Miles from anywhere, evidence of human carelessness abounds. It was putting me in a bad mood.
When we switched to a smaller bus to navigate the windy roads to the Mar-Saba monastery, I could feel my blood pressure rising with the temperature. Closer to the ground, I was closer to the detritus. And then, when we got there and were told that only men were allowed inside, I was fit to be tied. It’s the twenty-first century, people.
Saba himself, the chap who may or may not have founded the places in the fifth century AD, came from Cappadocia. He lived in a cave near the present site of the monastery for about 10 years and, when he was 45, he established what’s known as a Laura – a cluster of caves or cells of hermits residing around the central monastery. (Even his mother wasn’t allowed inside…) A second account by one James Kean, says that it may have been founded by Saba’s teacher – St Euthymius. Seems like the region is awash with either/ors, mights, and maybes.
So when the men go inside to see the heads of old monks, and the body of Saba himself, and God only knows what else, the women content themselves by writing out petitions which they hand in to a monk (Greek Orthodox) on duty at the entrance and in return receive some oil and a postcard. I’m all for tradition and I know I’m on record as saying that the feminist streak in me is small enough to go unnoticeable, but for some reason, this upset me hugely.
That said, it didn’t seem to bother anyone else. Reputedly one of the oldest monasteries in which monks still live, it’s about halfway between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea, overlooking the Kidron valley. With tour buses disgorging passengers every 30 minutes or so, the place was awash with people from all over the world. Folk groups brought their guitars and sang from the cliffside. One female choir pitched up outside the doors and sang the same tune over and over and over again. Perhaps that was their sweet revenge!
No matter what I might think of it being so exclusive, the place itself is nonetheless impressive, standing as it does in the middle of nowhere. It’s been around for eons and despite repeated invasions, it’s stood the test of time.