Hermits on Masada
“It is possible that there were Christians on Masada as early as the 1st century. During the same famous Jewish Revolt when Jerusalem was under Roman siege (Matthew 24:16), Christ had given the Christian community signs telling them to “flee to the mountains“.
The 4th century historian Eusebius backs-up this claim when he tells of the Christian community taking refuge in the town of Pella in Perea. Other evidence of 1st century Christians on Masada can be seen in the red crosses painted on cave walls. These crosses have been dated to the Byzantine period and other experts have placed then as early as the 1st century. This means that perhaps there were Christians among the Jewish rebels in 73AD.
Cross from the southern caves at Masada
What is certain is that by the Byzantine period there were Christians inhabiting Masada. Hermits where attracted to Masada because of its remote and isolated location. This was not the only desert location that was chosen by monks seeking tranquility in the Judean wilderness. Typically they sought out remote locations where there were already buildings that they could use like on Masada. The monks lived in modest cells on Masada, some were in small buildings others made do with caves and even disused cisterns.
In 600AD Monk John Moschus traveled to the Holy Land and wrote: “Near the Dead Sea is a mountain called Marda. On this mountain live anchorites (hermits)…” he went on to describe their daily life. Moschus was describing the Monastery of Castellium which was one of seven established by St. Savvas the Sanctified. Christians at the time called the mountain Marda or Mount Castellium and legend told of the saint battling demons on the mount. It is thought that St. Savvas’ spiritual father, St. Euthymius was responsible for the construction of the 5th century church we see today on Masada.
The remains of the Byzantine church on Masada can be seen southeast of the synagogue and south of the residential building. Visitors enter through a narrow entrance into an enclosed courtyard or vestibule. A long hall or nave culminates with the apse in the east. In the apse you can see a hole in the floor where religious relics may have been stored. An altar would have stood at the end of the nave and we can see an arched window on the wall above. Ancient floor mosaics have been preserved on the north side of the nave. The mosaics depict motifs of nature, plants and fruit within a series of medallions. The walls have been decorated with pottery shards and pebbles imbedded in the plaster in geometrical patterns.
In most likelihood Christians were the last inhabitants of Masada. It is thought that the Christians may have left Masada when in the 7th century Muslims or Persians conquered the country.”
Byzantine Chapel at Masada. The mosaic floor.
Among those seeking humility was a monk named Euthymius, considered by many to have been the driving force behind monasticism in the Judaean desert. About 420 AD, fleeing from fame, he “journeyed into the desert along the shore of the Dead Sea and came to a high mountain called Marda (Syriac for Masada), separated from the other mountains. Here he discovered a collapsed cistern, put it in order and dwelt there. He lived on the plants he found… He was the first to build a church here… and an altar within” (Cyril of Scythopolis, “Vita Euthymii”, 11).
The tiny chapel is visible on the west side of Masada, roughly in the middle. It dates to the 5th or 6th century, so it is probably the one Euthymius built. Its walls stand almost to their original height; they are decorated with Roman shards arranged in patterns. Its single apse faces east. In the floor of this apse is a hole: the reliquary. Here the monks would have kept some sacred object, such as the bones of a saint. The floor had a mosaic, removed in the 19th century. The collector left another mosaic alone, however, in the adjacent northern chamber. Many centuries earlier, iconoclasts ripped out the faces.
This chapel was the liturgical center of the laura founded by Euthymius. Monks lived in the nearby ruins and cisterns. They were the last inhabitants of Masada.