Judean Desert Monasteries in the Byzantine Period

Monks began to settle in the Judean desert in the fourth century, and from the fifth century onward this part of Palestine was one of the most important centers of monasticism in the Byzantine Empire. This book is the first comprehensive archaeological and social history of the Judean desert monasteries and their monks during this period.


Yizhar Hirschfeld focuses on the material culture and daily life of the monks, explaining how they lived, what they ate, what they wore, and how they spent their days. He also puts their lives into context, discussing the monks’ relations with the hermits in the desert, the local people who helped them build the monasteries, the wealthy Christians far away who gave them alms, and the pilgrims who were fed and housed at the monasteries. Hirschfeld draws on accounts of the period written by the monks themselves and on archaeological finds. From 1981 to 1990 he systematically examined the desert’s fifty known monasteries along with twelve more that he discovered himself. In three monasteries he conducted intensive excavations, and the book contains many illustrations that include photographs of the monasteries and their desolate surroundings, reconstructions of what the sites looked like in their heyday, and plans of the monks’ cells, gardens, and churches.

Yizhar Hirschfeld is visiting lecturer in classical archaeology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and director of the Tiberias Excavations for the Israel Antiques Authority.

"The book has ground-breaking importance for the history of ancient Christianity. Hirschfeld's access to the field evidence is unparalleled."—Bentley Layton

"It is impossible to overpraise this volume. . . . This is the first work to give an in-depth and comprehensive presentation of Judean desert monasticism. No student of early Christian history can afford to miss this book. Highly recommended."—ADRIS Newsletter

"Clearly the finest book yet written on Judean desert asceticism. . . . One of the most readable, intelligent and beautifully illustrated books I have seen. . . . A model and standard for how archaeological data can be integrated with literary sources and presented for publication."—Dennis E. Groh, Biblical Archaeology Review

"Hirschfeld has built a wonderful and important bridge, spanning some fifteen-hundred years, between ancient judean monasticism and us . . . we are greatly in his debt."—Tim Vivian, Cistercian Studies Quarterly

"In extremely well-written chapters Hirschfeld not only describes these ancient sites but tells us, by a careful use of both literary texts and archaeological remains, about the different kinds of monasteries, the organization of their social life, how their days were spent, their vast knowledge of how to survive in a rather unforgiving setting, and the monastic routes that connected the various holy places. . . I would recommend the book as a perfect gift to anyone who loves church history in general and monastic history in particular."—Commonweal

"The monastic movement in the Judean desert in searchingly examined in The Judean Desert monasteries in the Byzantine Period. Splendid illustrations enrich a text which considers types of monasteries, . . . their construction, and architectural components both sacred . . . and secular."—P. Walcot, Greece & Rome

"Hirschfeld's book is the first one comprehensively to address the phenomenon of monasticism in the Judean desert as an important social institution in the Byzantine history of Palestine. . . . His study opens new ground. . . . Anyone interested in the history of Byzantine Palestine will profit from acquiring this handsomely produced, and relatively reasonably priced book."—Sidney H. Griffith, MESA Bulletin

"Richly illustrated and informative discussions of monasticism (organization, daily life, population, topography, architecture) and its impact on pilgrimage and the cult of saints. With hands-on knowledge of the sites, Hirschfeld is an astute interpreter of the material evidence. . . . An accessible and important contribution to the study of ancient Christianity."—Georgia A. Frank, Religious Studies Review

"Those interested in the origins of monasticism and in its fascinating remains in the Holy Land today will value this book."—Carroll Stuhlmueller, C.P., The Bible Today

"[An] archeological and social history of the monasteries which flourished in the Judean desert from the 4th to the 7th centuries. [Hirschfeld] systematically surveyed fifty known monasteries and discovered twelve of them himself. . . . He discusses: the physical environment and historical background; the types of monasteries; how they were built; the daily life of the monks, including their organization, daily routine, diet, dress, and sources of livelihood; sacred and secular architectural elements, and holy sites."—Theology Digest

"A beautifully written, highly detailed and often original description of the physical environment of desert monasticism. . . . The author is to be congratulated on the skill with which he has conducted a highly original dialogue between sources and stones."—J. Murphy-O'Connor, Revue Biblique

"This publication shed completely new light on the Holy Land, and should be standard reading for all interested in Byzantine history. It is also most enjoyable. . . . A new and vivid chapter in the history of eastern monasticism."—John Wilkinson, Palestine Exploration Quarterly

"An excellent comprehensive summary of the archaeology and social history of monasticism in the Judaean desert, east and south of Jerusalem, in the Byzantine period. . . . The book's principle readership are those interested in the history and archaeology of Christianity and the Holy Land in the Early/Christianity studies in general. . . . But it is fully accessible for educated general readers."—Robert Schick, Journal of Near Eastern Studies