I vividly remember, on one trip to the West Bank, being in a dark blue room dimly lit by candles, as well as a single lantern, and after a moment realizing it was filled with human skulls. It took me a moment to process that fact before I could notice further how they were all neatly arranged in rows in their series of wooden cases and in good condition, white and mostly intact. In addition to the few cases next to us, more were piled together in the shadows at one end of the room, carefully, but definitely with a sense of their being "stored" rather than "displayed." None of them were identified, but laid out in this manner in this place there was only one real possibility. "These are the skulls of the monks who were killed when the monastery was destroyed in the Persian invasion," I whispered as I pointed them out to my friend, who was eying the barely visible icons by the altar across from them. "They are martyrs," said the Cypriot monk who was showing us around.
We were at the monastery of Mar Saba, or in English that of St. Sabbas the Sanctified, considered the most remote place in the West Bank. We were lucky in that our taxi driver was willing to take us the full way; most will not grapple with the steep, winding road which leads to it from the last village, leaving people with a two hour hike there, followed by another two hours back. The monks, fortunately, are much more hospitable than those at the Monastery of Temptation outside Jericho, and offer you refreshment while insisting on filling up your water bottles and giving you something called 'arak which was probably a form of ouzo serves to cool you off instantaneously. They also try to put you on a path toward conversion to Eastern Orthodoxy, though not rudely; someone above us in the guestbook noted that she had never before been called a heretic so politely. As the monk put it, he doesn't mean to give offense, but his love for us as fellow children of God is such that he didn't want us to wind up facing eternal punishment for following the wrong path.
Mar Saba was founded in the 5th century, and has been occupied continuously since that time except for two weeks during the Persian invasion of about 614, when it was destroyed by the Persians' Bedouin auxiliaries seeking treasure. Visiting it was one in a series of trips beginning with my Easter in Madaba that started giving me a sense of the region's Byzantine history and geography. As I mentioned, I'm pretty sure that Queen Ayola, noted in a number of Madaba place names and a native of that city, was the Aelia Ariadne who elevated Emperor Anastasius to the thone; St. Sabbas visited Anastasius as an opponent of his moderate religious policy, probably in the now-long gone Byzantine palace by the Hippodrome in Istanbul, where I was for a couple of days last October. In the early 8th century, the Umayyad caliph Hisham, whose palace I visited in Jericho, dismissed from his circle of advisors St. John of Damascus when he was accused of plotting with the Byzantines. John retired to Mar Saba, and here wrote his defense of the use of religious images which gave him his place among the Church Fathers.
Touring the monastery today, you see dozens of caves surrounding it in which the monks lived before an actual building was constructed. There is also a river, and the monk lamented how polluted it was, a major waste dump for Jerusalem. Why dump your waste into a river that flows through the West Bank? It's not as if the Palestinians have functional channels through which to complain. Even here in one of the most remote sites in the area, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict makes itself felt.