In the early end of the 4th century, Egyptian monk St. John of Choziba and his five chosen hermits set out into the desert. They were looking for a simpler life, a life of worship and quiet study. Somehow, from this humble mission they would end up laying the foundation for one of the most magical and breathtaking churches in Israel and most would argue the entire world – St. George’s Monastery.
To see it today, the monastery is like something from another world, a dream you can touch. Carved directly into the rocky side of a mountain canyon in Wadi Qelt, the monastery features white stone walls overlooking a lush garden complete with cypress and olive trees. An absolutely jaw dropping sight. While it may look like an ancient relic from another time, it is in fact still an active church! Greek orthodox monks still live and study in the monastery today and welcome visitors to respectfully tour the church.
The monastery has seen many changes since the days of St. John of Choziba. The original monastery was merely a small retreat St. John built for himself and his monks and a hall where communion could be held. They chose the location because it was relatively close to the cave where the Prophet Elijah is said to have been fed by ravens. They were actually part of a trend in the area, more than 60 monasteries were raised in the Judean desert during that timeframe. Today, precious few remain, and the St. George Monastery is easily the most majestic among them.
Even what we see today as the St. George Monastery has been through several disasters and rebuilding efforts. St. John’s original monastery was expanded on and later renamed after Saint George of Choziba. It was an important spiritual center in the area until it was destroyed by Persian invaders in the latter half of the 6th century. In the 8th century, interest in the monastery’s ruins reignited and it was seen as a pilgrimage location. During the crusader period, the monastery was partially rebuilt (much of that work is still visible and used today) until conflict in the area forced the project to be abandoned.
Finally, in the early 1800s the monastery was reestablished. Greek monk Father Kalinikos oversaw the completion of the restoration and reopened the monastery in full force. Since then, it has been home to dozens of monks including the Romanian monk-priest, Father Ioan who lived out his final years in seclusion within the monastery and was posthumously named a saint.
Visiting today is allowed and encouraged, but you will need to bring your hiking gear. Getting to the monastery involves at least a 15-minute hike in the hills of the canyon using the most direct route, so be sure to wear dependable shoes, sunscreen, and bring some water.
While there, you can explore the three-levels of the monastery. There are two separate chapels within the structure and a wide variety of mosaics, paintings, and ornate byzantine-era architectural flourishes and decorations to marvel at. The monastery also houses the tombs of St. John of Choziba and the original five hermits who founded the monastery, St. Ioan’s fully preserved body, and relics from 14 monks killed by the Persians in the 6th century. Incredibly preserved history that gives us a concrete connection to the lives and times of these believers.
Perhaps most interesting of all, there is a mountain trail to access the cave-church of Elijah. Certainly this is a fascinating piece of living history. The church even includes a (tiny) escape tunnel to the top of the mountain. How interesting is that? A good reminder that it wasn’t always safe to worship the Lord openly.
St. George’s Monastery stands as a reminder from another time. It is one of only 5 active monasteries still left in the Judean desert and is by far the most impressive. It might be a bit of a walk to get to, but this real-life fantasy is more than worth the effort.