January 11, 2024

History of the Monastery of Saint Theodosios in Palestine

The Monastery of Saint Theodosios as it stands today was built on the ruins of the monastery founded around 465 AD by Saint Theodosios, who was known as the Cenobiarch, because he was the great teacher of cenobitic monasticism.

It is located about 8 kilometers east of Bethlehem at the beginning of the Judean desert, within the village of al-Ubeidiya, on the road towards Monastery of Saint Savvas, in the West Bank, Palestine. Initially, the Saint lived in the cave where, according to tradition, the Magi spent the night, after they decided to not inform Herod that they found the Divine Infant and were warned to take another route home. When, due to his great fame, the number of monks who came to learn under him increased, a space problem arose, so he built the monastery between the years 465-475 AD. The monastery was a model for all the organized monasteries of Palestine and in its heyday exceeded 2000 monks.

In 614, the Persians massacred the monks and destroyed the monastery from its foundations. After a series of renovations and destructions and threats by Persian and Arab invaders in the 8th and 9th centuries, the monastery was gradually fully abandoned.

The monastery was rebuilt during the Crusader period. Between 1113 and 1115, Abbot Daniel visited and noted: "Six versts from Jerusalem is the Monastery of Saint Theodosios; it is located on a mountain; walls surround it. We see there, at the top of the mountain, in the enclosure of the monastery, a cave which once served as a shelter for the night to the Magi, when they fled from Herod. This is where the relics of Saint Theodosios and several other holy fathers now rest, as well as those of his mother and the mother of Saint Savvas."

The monastery survived and flourished well into the 14th century, but by 1400 it lay again in ruins. The Russian pilgrim Agrefeny described it as in ruins when he passed it around 1370. Two 15th-century pilgrims describe it as first used by Muslims for stalling cattle, and later as ruined.

The site of the monastery and its properties eventually became occupied by Bedouins. In 1863, Victor Guérin visited the place, which he called Deir Dôsi, and noted:

"The remains of the Monastery of Saint Theodosios consist of vaults and sections of walls built with stones of different sizes, some of which appear to come from ancient buildings. The location of two churches is very recognizable. One, which has now been converted into an flat area, was paved with large mosaic cubes, as evidenced by numerous samples still scattered on the ground. This edifice is, moreover, almost entirely razed to the ground. Rectangular in shape, it faced west to east."

Of the other site he noted:

"The second church, also shattered from top to bottom, has nonetheless suffered far less destruction than the other. It contained a crypt now half buried under piles of rubble. This crypt, if we are to believe a very ancient tradition, would have been originally a natural cave where the Magi supposedly took shelter, when, after having adored the infant Jesus in Bethlehem, they returned by another route to their country."

In 1881 the headmaster of the Theological School of the Holy Cross bought the area and renovated the ruins. On the day of the Saint's feast day, January 11, 1896, Patriarch Gerasimos of Jerusalem laid the foundation stone of the new monastery.

In 1898 Conrad Schick noted that "the ruins are [..] those [..] of a former monastery, and only in modern times used as a storehouse for grain by the wandering tribe Ubedieh. Now it seems the Greek monastery in Jerusalem had some rights of property in this place, and, having made an agreement with the Arabs to quit it, took possession of it last year. They began to remove the débris, and so laid bare the remaining walls, &c., and have begun to build it up again. The laying of the foundation stone, or a kind of resanctifying of the place, was celebrated in a grand manner and before a crowd of people. [..] The monastery will be restored, and again become a station for pilgrims visiting Mar Saba."

The monastery began to flourish when a monk from the Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulchre, Leontios, who was originally from Kasteli in Heraklion, came to live as a monk in this place at the beginning of the 20th century and connected his life with its re-opening, serving as its abbot from 1900-1950. He erected the current katholikon of the monastery, discovered and renovated the Cave of the Three Magi, bought around the monastery an area of about 400 acres, and in general sacrificed his life for the sake of this monastery.

After the monk Leontios, Archbishop Bartholomew of Madaba was abbot, from 1954-1976. It should also be mentioned that during the abbacy of Bartholomew of Madaba, the following were temporarily abbots, namely: a) Archimandrite Yakinthos from Samos, from 12/1/1964 to 8/1/1967 b) Archimandrite Philoumenos from Cyprus, from 8/12/1967 to 8/18/1970, and c) the Chancelor Philip, from 8/18/1970 to 6/16/1972. Since then, Bartholomew of Madaba remained abbot again until August 1976 when he reposed, and whose tomb is located near the katholikon.

The current abbot is 94 year old Archimandrite Hierotheos Sifakis from Crete, who alone services the monastery with two nuns, despite the many dangerous obstacles of their surroundings. He knows Arabic well and has from long ago completely adjusted to his living conditions in Palestine.
The Cave of the Three Magi is natural with a few engraved places and it has gradually been used over time as a church and a burial ground. Buried in marble sarcophaguses along the cave walls, are Saint Sophronios the Patriarch of Jerusalem, his successor the Holy Patriarch Kopris of Jerusalem, Saint John Moschos, Saint Sophia – the mother of Saint Savvas, Saint Theodoti – the mother of the Holy Unmercenaries, Saint Eulogia - the mother of Saint Theodosios, Saint Eubula - the mother of Saint Panteleimon, Saints Xenophon and Maria and other exceptional figures of Palestinian monasticism.  


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