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Archaeology in Israel: The Monastery of Martyrius

When the new town of Ma'aleh Adumim was built in the Judean hills east of Jerusalem, (1982-85) the remains of the large Byzantine Monastery of Martyrius were uncovered on a hill in the center of the new town. The hill overlooks the road climbing from Jericho to Jerusalem, as it did in antiquity.

The Monastery of Martyrius was one of the many monasteries, housing hundreds of monks, which were founded in the Judean Desert during Byzantine times. According to a contemporary source, Martyrius was born in Cappadocia (in present-day Turkey) and arrived in the year 457 at the Monastery of Euthymius east of Jerusalem. He left that crowded monastery and lived as a hermit in a nearby cave. Later he served as a priest of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and as Patriarch of Jerusalem (478-486). During this period he probably built and supported the monastery bearing his name.

The compound of the Monastery of Martyrius is almost a square, with an area of 2.5 acres, completely surrounded by walls which have been preserved to a height of two meters.

The gate to the monastery was located in its eastern wall; sockets with iron bases (for wooden doors) have been preserved. A round rolling-stone, 2.5 m. in diameter, was found in place inside the gate, probably for additional protection. Numerous rock-cut cisterns and a network of canals, collecting and channeling rainwater into the cisterns, assured the water supply in this semi-arid area.

Built around a large central courtyard, the monastery complex included many rooms, a church, several chapels, a refectory, a kitchen, a storeroom, a bathhouse, an enclosure with stalls and mangers for animals and, outside the wall, a hostel.

The main church, 25.5 x 6.6 m. in size, was paved in colorful mosaics in round and hexagonal frames with depictions of animals; unfortunately, very little has survived. A Greek inscription mentions the abbots Genesius and Iohannes, in whose memory the church was built.

On the northern side of the monastery complex, a cave, reached by several steps, contained a number of skeletons. A mosaic inscription in Greek mentions the names of three priests who were buried there. It is assumed that the monk Martyrius dwelt in this cave before being appointed to the church hierarchy in Jerusalem.

The large (31 x 25 m.) refectory (dining room), is surrounded by stone-built benches and divided by two rows of columns which supported the second story. The floor is covered with magnificent, colorful mosaics of geometrical designs, preserved intact. A Greek inscription reads: "During the time of our holy father Genesius, presbyter [church elder] and archimandrite [abbot], this work too was done for his salvation and for the salvation of his brethren in Christ. This work was completed in the month of March, in the first year of the indiction."

The kitchen (21 x 6 m.), next to the refectory, was also paved with mosaics and contained marble tables. Hundreds of ceramic vessels, metalware, grinding utensils, cooking pots and many pottery wine cups were found here. The bathhouse had a hot room, the floor of which rested on low brick columns, and a pool adjacent to it.

Outside the monastery complex, near the main gate, a hostel (43 x 20 m.) with a chapel, bedrooms and stables catered to the needs of the many pilgrims who came to visit. Such hostels are mentioned in contemporary sources as an important factor in the monasticism of the Byzantine period.

The monastery was damaged during the Persian invasion of 614 and was abandoned after the Arab conquest in the mid-7th century.

Sources: Israeli Foreign Ministry