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The Roman-Byzantine period

(by Teresa Petrozzi - translated by Raphael Bonanno ofm)

After this period of wars came a time of peace during which monasteries and churches in memory of the Transfiguration were constructed. The literary sources are quite rich in information. The book, S.Helenae et Constantini Vita, a document come down to us from the 11-12th c., but probably written about the middle of the 7th c., mentions that St. Helena climbed Tabor and that after she searched for and discovered where the Transfiguration happened, built a church there in honor of the Savior and his three apostles. The information was repeated by Nicephorus Callistus (PG 146, 113). We can find an indirect confirmation in Epiphanius the Monk: although he does not mention the construction by St. Helena, he said there existed a stairway with 4,340 steps which started down in the valley up to the top of the mountain (PG 120,272). Epiphanius---the first author in Greek who, according to his writings, composed a report on the Holy Places---wrote in 750-800 and based himself on earlier documents and probably wrote the truth. On the Mount of Olives there was also a stairway of 800 steps, considered a work of Constantine, that started in the Kedron valley and climbed to the place of the Lord's Ascension[1].

In the beginning of the 6th c. there already existed a diocese of Tabor. In the Jerusalem Synod of 518 a bishop signed in Greek written with Latin letters. This signature was illegible for the copyists of the acta of the council and was left aside or only

partially copied, so that the name of the diocese became lost. In 1940 Schwartz finally deciphered the signature: Prestutus episcopos tu agiu orus Thabor, Prestutus bishop of the holy mountain of Tabor. As a result the diocese of Tabor was one of the most ancient of the valley of Esdrelon.

It could be that the Constantinian church had been demolished to make way for the cathedral and the two chapels. The Anonymous Pilgrim of Piacenza (570) saw three sacred buildings and a century later Arculf[2] spoke of a great monastery with three churches and many cells inhabited by monks. Besides on the top of Tabor, religious lived also on a little rise to the east of the modern basilica, where the architect Barluzzi found in 1921 a monastic cell and the remains of a little chapel.

A homily in Armenian on the Transfiguration, dated to about 630---according to some authors dated to the 5th c.--- and attributed to Eliseus Vardapet, gives ample information on the life of the hermits.

When the text was written, the community had many, many members who lived more for the spirit than for the body. Detached from all human desires, they did not accept gold or silver or clothes or whatever was materially necessary. Clothed in skins, they worked in silence on the land with wooden hoes, sowed seeds of wheat, barley and other cereals and, at the time of the harvest, threshed them in the wind. No four-legged animals were allowed on the mount. With reeds they made baskets and mats. Food was reduced to the minimum: bread and water slightly salted which they called ambrosia, very little oil, no wine. The oil was reserved for the lamps that burned continually in the three churches and the wine was kept for the chalice at Mass. They had no medicine for the sick nor any special provisions for the guests. Their only luxury was the use of a herb, called niv, salt and hyssop, which they drank on the hottest days. Many added long fasts to this austere program. The privations however did not harden the hearts of the hermits, who dedicated to their old and sick brothers---whom they called angels---the attentions they denied themselves. The lack of physical food was amply balanced by the rich spiritual food. Every day the monks recited the 150 psalms and read Holy Scripture; for evening and morning prayers all the community came together and some priests, according to an established schedule, continued to preside at the liturgies in the three churches day and night. Therefore these hermits were called the sleepless ones because they prayed without ceasing.

The text distinguishes three sacred buildings: one large, called the church of the Lord, and two smaller, called Martyria, dedicated to Moses and Elijah, where they kept the relics of the apostles who were present at the Transfiguration.

The custom of keeping relics in a martyrium, that is in a tiny hole in the altar or in a small room below the altar, goes back to the 4th c. Often in Syria and Palestine the relics were placed in chapels built near a church: thus it was also on Tabor[3].

The text of Vardapet does not specify whether the hermits were of the Latin rite (Benedictines ?), Greek or Armenian. Probably monks of different rites lived together on Tabor as in many other places. It is almost certain that the bishop Prestutus was Latin; the Armenian pilgrim Anastasius records that the monastery of Tabor was one of the fifteen establishments left to the Armenians after the Arab conquest and one document, cited by Alt and by Beyer, lists among the existing Greek dioceses before the Crusades, that of Tabor.

Only one name of the monks of the Holy Mountain has come down to us: Damian, native of Syria, who was transferred to Egypt and became the bishop of Alexandria in 578[4].

In the 8th c. there existed eulogies of Tabor in Europe. Probably these had been carried or gathered by St. Angilbert, one of the principal advisers and confidants of Charlemagne and a disciple of Alcuin[5]. It seems significant to us that Angilbert was the abbot of the Benedictine abbey of Centula or Saint-Riquier (diocese of Amiens).

It seems that Tabor did not suffer from the invasion of the Persians under Chosroe (614) and that the religious continued to live on top undisturbed even after the Arab conquest of 637. Nevertheless the " many, many " hermits of the Armenian author diminished. In the beginning of the 9th c. the Commemoratorium de Casis Dei registered 18 monks and Epiphanius the Monk recorded 12 abbades (PG 120, 272). At the time of the Commemoratorium there still was the diocese of Tabor presided over by the bishop Theophanes and four churches existed. Of these, three were dedicated respectively to the Holy Savior, to Moses and Elijah; the fourth, due to damage in the original manuscript, remains without a name. Kopp advanced the hypothesis that it referred to the church dedicated to Melchisedeck[6].

In 969 Palestine passed from the domination of the Abbassid caliphs to that of the Fatimids of Egypt. Taking advantage of the fact that the Fatimids had difficulties in the arab environment, the Byzantine emperor John Zimisce in the spring of 975 moved towards Palestine. From Damascus his great army descended into the Galilee, captured Tiberias and Beth Shean and later arrived even to Acre. In a letter addressed to Ashod III the king of Armenia Zimisce wrote: Having gone to Tabor, we climbed to the place where Christ our God was transfigured. The objective of the Byzantine Crusade, which anticipated by 124 years the Latin Crusades, was naturally Jerusalem. Unfortunately Zimisce was not successful and death came for him in January, 976 before he could fulfil his goal.


[1] Armenian Description of the Holy Places in the Seventh Century, in PEQ, 1896, 348. The description was probably written by an Armenian pilgrim, Anastasius, who visited Jerusalem around 660.

[2] Arculf: Adamnani de locis sanctis libri tres, in P. Geyer, Itinera Hierosolymitana saeculi IV-VIII, Wien 1898, 275.

[3] B. Bagatti, Gli altari paleo-cristiani della Palestina , in LA, 7 (1956-57), 80.

[4] H. Leclercq, see word Archevêque, in Dictionnaire d'Archéologie Chrétienne et de Liturgie publié par F. Cabrol et H. Leclercq, vol. I, 2nd part, Paris 1924, col. 2732.

[5] B. Bagatti, Eulogie palestinesi, in Orientalia Christiana Periodica, 15 (1949), 154.

[6] The ruins of the church of Moses have yet to be discovered.

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