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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On the Eremitic Life

During the current crisis most people have had to undergo some degree of isolation, whether self-imposed or enforced. Human beings are social animals, and do not generally regard isolation as a desirable condition. It is indeed often perceived as a form of punishment. As children, when we misbehave, we are sent to our room. One of the harshest forms of punishment in the penal system is isolation in solitary confinement. But throughout history there have been those who have lived in isolation through choice. Living secluded from society is often a religious decision, motivated by the desire to remove all worldly temptations and distractions. And it is a lifestyle choice that is not all that difficult to comprehend. We may be social animals, but who has not felt at times that society can be something of a burden. It imposes upon us endless rules and regulations that supposedly are for the good of society as a whole, and in many cases indeed are, but that can also often seem pointless, outdated, unfair and overly harsh. Some people indeed, by isolating themselves from society believe that they are choosing restrictions in order to avoid restrictions. Such a state can be maintained as long as society allows, as long as it does not object to their being thus unfairly advantaged and demand that they climb down from their tower and join the ruckus below. But in monastic life, of whatever religion, the motivation is choosing restrictions not in order to avoid something, but rather to gain something - to obtain a spiritual state.

At the base of the twelfth century Cambrai Map of Jerusalem is a rendering of the rock-cut sepulchral chamber known today, as it has been at least since medieval times, as Absalom's Tomb, in Hebrew - Yad Avshalom (יד אבשלום). It is labelled on the medieval map - "Manus Absalom" (the original red lettering is hard to distinguish and I have printed the names above in black). The Latin word manus, like the Hebrew yad literally means "hand" but is used as a synonym for memorial or shrine.[1] The Manus Absalom is one of a series of late second to first century B.C. tombs that line the valley of Jehoshaphat and other valleys in the vicinity, being part of the necropolis that ringed the city in the Second Temple period. To the right (north) of the shrine is the Church of the Tomb of the Virgin, which itself has been persuasively shown by some scholars to have also formerly been a rock-cut free-standing tomb.[2] After it was destroyed in the Roman Period it was reconstructed as a built church, probably in the late fourth century and again, shortly after having been destroyed during the Persian invasion of 614, and finally by the Franks in the twelfth century. To the left (south) the map shows a series of arches representing additional free-standing rock-cut tombs and cave tombs. These latter appear on the map as the Vicus Heremitarum (Street of the Hermits) recording the occupation of these tombs by hermits in the crusader period. Two contemporary visitors wrote briefly about them:

In the valley of Jehosaphat, under a sharp-pointed pyramid, is buried that King Jehosaphat from whom the valley has received its name... This same valley has many caverns in every part of it, in which religious persons live the lives of hermits.

John of Würzburg (c. 1160)[3]


Round about it [the tomb of Jehosaphat] there are a great number of dwellings of servants of God, or hermits, all of which are placed under the care of the Abbot of St Mary’s.

Theoderich (c. 1169)[4]

The abbot mentioned by Theoderich was presumably the abbot of the adjacent Benedictine abbey of the Tomb of the Virgin. We hear a little about two of these medieval tomb dwellers; one by name, the other by nationality. One was a hermit named Elias whose life was briefly recorded second hand in sixteenth-century commentaries on a lost work by the twelfth century writer Gerard of Nazareth.[5] This Elias seems to have taken residence in the caves around the year 1131 along with some followers, until he was persuaded by the patriarch of Jerusalem, William of Flanders, and the monks of the abbey to join the monastery, where he subsequently remained for some time. The other was a Georgian who was described by the Greek pilgrim, Joannas Phocas.[6] He occupied the Manus Absalom itself.

The Frankish hermits were not the first to make use of these tombs and caves as places of isolation and contemplation. A lost Greek source preserved in a tenth century Latin translation recalls that an elderly ascetic named Epiphanius lived in one of the caves already in the fourth century.[7]

1 The use of "yad" in this context appears in the Bible, Isaiah 56.5.

2 E. Pierotti, Jerusalem Explored, trans. T.G. Bonney, Cambridge, 1864, p. 170; B. Baggati, "The Necropolis", in B. Bagatti, M. Piccirillo and A. Prodomo, New Discoveries at the Tomb of Virgin Mary in Gethsemane, Jerusalem, 1975, pp. 19-47.

3 John of Würzburg, Description of the Holy Land, Palestine Pilgrims' Text Society, Aubrey Stewart, London, 1896, p. 51.

4 Theoderich, Description of the Holy Places, Palestine Pilgrims' Text Society, Aubrey Stewart, London, 1896, p. 5.

5 Benjamin Z. Kedar, "Gerard of Nazareth. A Neglected Twelfth-Century Writer in the Latin East", Vita abbatis Eliae, Dumbarton Oaks Papers 37, 1983, p. 75.

6 Joannas Phocas, The Pilgrimage of Joannas Phocas in the Holy Land, Palestine Pilgrims' Text Society, Aubrey Stewart, London, 1896, p. 22.

7 See Denys Pringle, The Churches of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem, vol. 3, The City of Jerusalem, Cambridge, 2007, p. 185. For additional sources see also pp. 434-35.

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