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Khirbat el-Masani, about four kilometers northwest of Jerusalem, is a site where The archaeologists of the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) discovered a church with three apses, dating from Byzantine times, which was part of a monastery that housed an inn to accommodate pilgrims. The church, which researchers say was possibly dedicated to St. Zacharias, is partially hewn out of the rock and was built of limestone ashlars.
The site has already been studied by Gaby Mazor, an IAA archaeologist, who carried out a small excavation that revealed the front of two of the church’s apses. In 2017, archaeologists Zubair Adoi and Kafir Arbiv, from the IAA, with funding from Moriah Jerusalem Development Corporationdiscovered in Khirbat el-Masani a large architectural complex comprising the monastery, a causeway and the church. These findings have allowed a better understanding of the construction techniques used in that period, as well as more precise the date of construction of the church.
an ascetic monk
But during excavation work in the church, archaeologists made a macabre discovery: the remains of a monk who lived 1,500 years ago and who was buried in a cista (small individual funerary monument) in the central apse of the temple. Although the most surprising thing was to verify that the monk was shackled with thick iron shackles arranged around his neck, hands, and feet. Why? The researchers suggest that the monk may have been chained in this way as a penance.
Archaeologists found in the church the remains of a chained monk who lived 1,500 years ago.
The lifestyle of the ascetic monks was characterized by all kinds of privations. For this they practiced sexual abstinence, they worked hard in the search for salvation, the forgiveness of sins and spirituality. But the most extreme asceticism also included the practice of chaining the body to a rock or seclude yourself in this way inside a cell, pray sitting on a column in the open (as the Syrian ascetic Saint Simeon the Stylite did), confine yourself in solitude, self-inflict some kind of corporal punishment… All of this it entailed voluntary suffering (in addition to an absolute lack of hygiene).
a harsh penance
The monk found at Khirbat el-Masani probably lived in or near the church, secluding himself in chains inside an isolated cell. These kinds of practices originated in Syria in the 4th or 5th century AD. However, the recent discovery confirms that this type of extreme asceticism would have spread at least as far south as the Jerusalem region during Byzantine times.
The monk of Khirbat el-Masani probably lived in or near the church, confining himself in a cell loaded with chains.
But finding a skeleton covered in chains is extremely rare in the area. However, Elena Kogan-ZehaviIAA archaeologist, made a discovery much like this in 1991 at Givat Ha-Matos, a site located between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. There he found, inside an underground cave, the remains of a man wearing iron chains around his upper body.
After these surprising discoveries, archaeologists have many questions about extreme acts of devotion carried out by these individuals. For example, what kind of religious motivation could have led these ascetic monks to put on heavy chains and endure the suffering that such a practice surely caused them for years. Perhaps future research can give them an answer.