In the monastery situated between Jericho and the Jordan River I was surprised to find that each skull has a name. I couldn’t believe what I saw.
We were on our way to the Sea of Galilee and were stopping for coffee at the small Orthodox Christian monastery north of the Dead Sea. Next to the dining room was a kind of bone chamber with skulls under an altar.
What is this place we ended up in?
My friend Avshalom Kapach and I had for some time talked about visiting together the monastery of Deir Haijla in the Judean desert, located not far from where Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River. Until a few years ago it was still a restricted area for the Israeli army.
Some of you may know Avshalom, he also writes for our newspaper and knows the country like the back of his hand. In the monastery, my Yemenite friend knows one of the monks. Avshalom visits often, because as a historian he also leads local groups to selected locations in the country in order to introduce Israelis to the more unique locations in their own country.
Deir Haijla translates as “Sandgrouse Monastery” after the desert bird that is found in the region. The Greek Orthodox monastery is still active and was dedicated to Saint Gerasimus as a center for reclusive desert hermits in the Byzantine period. The monastery was built in the 5th century and has since been destroyed and rebuilt several times. The structure as it stands today is typical of the Crusader period, but many parts of it are a reconstruction of the original structure.
A lavra monastery consisting of a group of cells or caves for hermits, with a church and sometimes a refectory in the center. From the 5th century onwards the Greek term lavra was used to refer specifically to the semi-eremitic monastic settlements in the Judean desert, where they were numerous.
The monk we met with, whose name I have forgotten, spoke no Hebrew, only Greek. As a result, our dialogue was relatively silent and mostly in sign language, which neither of us could understand. But one thing we understood was that the monk was sweating a lot as it was hot. In the summer it is sweltering down there east of Jericho.
The small colorful monastery is like a fresh oasis in the desert. So we retired to the hidden chambers, where it was much cooler and more comfortable. The thick stone walls provide great insulation from the heat, and slowly I got used to the numerous skulls right next to us. Every skull has a name. Each once belonged to a monk who served God in this wilderness by the Jordan River. Our Greek monk told a short story about each skull, which neither of us could really understand.
There is usually someone in the monastery who speaks English and Hebrew, but he had gone to Jericho. The monk stroked the bones and showed his feelings for his former colleagues from generations ago, whom he did not personally know, but had heard of. I felt like I was in Dan Brown’s thriller The Da Vinci Code. After almost an hour we were back in our air-conditioned car and continued north through the Jordan Valley en route to the Sea of Galilee.
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