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Mar Saba Monastery A place where culture and nature come together

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 25.02.2006:

By Sami Backleh

This Week in Palestine May 2005

Mar Saba is a Byzantine Monastery that lies within the boundaries of the Jerusalem Wilderness Area (or what is called the Judean Desert), essentially a treeless, thin-soiled, arid and dramatically eroding limestone plateau dissected by wadis draining toward the Dead Sea. This region lies in the rain-shadow of the central highlands, classified as a hot area that receives very low annual rainfall. Given the fact that this area has a unique geological formation, a bio-geographic location and quite an abundance of water from flash floods and permanent springs, these issues help create a natural diversity of the desert habitat in this region, which has a bearing on the natural and cultural heritage of the area.

The Mar Saba Monastery – as one of the desert monasteries that dot the Jerusalem Wilderness Area – has been a witness to some crucial events associated with Christianity. It provides an isolated place that is close to Jerusalem and Bethlehem for monks from all over the world to practise an ascetic life and to dedicate their life to worship. The place is rendered more spectacular due to its structure, location and the surrounding landscape.

Consequently, the Monastery and the area around it provide the right habitat for several wildlife species. The area hosts a globally threatened and endangered bird species called the Lesser Kestrel, Falco naumanni. A relatively significant colony of that small falcon visits the area to nest in the holes and caves of the high cliffs that surround the Monastery between March and July of each year. Thus the area is considered one of the Important Bird Areas (IBA) in Palestine, according to international criteria for the selection of IBAs by “BirdLife International” and “IUCN,” which depends also on the fact that the site supports high-priority species for conservation and science.

The Jerusalem Wilderness Area is one of the main migratory routes for many bird species worldwide. Birds increasingly concentrate here in considerable numbers during breeding time and in winter.

Furthermore, the area has an abundance of fauna such as the Rocky Hyrax and gazelles along with regionally declining and threatened wildlife species, in addition to diverse plant species many of which are known to have medicinal and commercial uses.

The steep slopes of the Jerusalem Wilderness Area and the abundant springs that lead to the Dead Sea, encompassing other unique geological and topographical phenomena and factors, make this area of exceptional natural beauty.

Sami Backleh is a freelance wildlife researcher.

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