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Chapter I.

Description of the wilderness, and the question about the death of the saints.

In the district of Palestine near the village of Tekoa which had the honour of producing the prophet Amos, 1363 there is a vast desert which stretches far and wide as far as Arabia and the dead sea, into which the streams of Jordan enter and are lost, and where are the ashes of Sodom. In this district there lived for a long while monks of the most perfect life and holiness, who were suddenly destroyed by an incursion of Saracen robbers: 1364 whose bodies we knew were seized upon with the greatest veneration 1365 both by the Bishops of the neighbourhood and by the whole populace p. 352 of Arabia, and deposited among the relics of the martyrs, so that swarms of people from two towns met, and made terrible war upon each other, and in their struggle actually came to blows for the possession of the holy spoil, while they strove among themselves with pious zeal as to which of them had the better claim to bury them and keep their relics—the one party boasting of their vicinity to the place of their abode, the other of the fact that they were near the place of their birth. But we were upset by this and being disturbed either on our own account or on account of some of the brethren who were in no small degree scandalized at it, inquired why men of such illustrious merits and of so great virtues should be thus slain by robbers, and why the Lord permitted such a crime to be committed against his servants, so as to give up into the hands of wicked men those who were the admiration of everybody: and so in our grief we came to the holy Theodore, a man who excelled in practical common sense. For he was living in Cellæ, 1366 a place that lies between Nitria and Scete, and is five miles distant from the monasteries of Nitria, and cut off by eighty intervening miles of desert from the wilderness of Scete where we were living. And when we had made our complaint to him about the death of the men mentioned above, and expressed our surprise at the great patience of God, because He suffered men of such worth to be killed in this way, so that those who ought to be able by the weight of their sanctity to deliver others from trials of this kind, could not save themselves from the hands of wicked men (and asked) why it was that God allowed so great a crime to be committed against his servants, then the blessed Theodore replied.



Cf. Amos i. 1.


Saraceni (Σαρακηνοί) a name given by the classical geographers to a tribe of Arabia Felix, famous for its predatory propensities. Jerome speaks of the “mons et desertum Saracenorum quod vocatur Pharan” (Liber de situ et nominibus sub voce Choreb) and elsewhere describes their predatory habits (Liber Heb. Quæst in Genesim) “Saracenos vagos…qui universas gentes…incursant.” By the seventh century the name had become a merely general term equivalent to Arab, and was accordingly adopted and applied indifferently to all the followers of Mohammed by the writers of the middle ages (cf. the Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography, sub voce).


There is no mention of these martyrs in the so-called Martyrologium Hieronymianum, but they are commemorated on May 28, in the Roman Martyrology.


Cellæ, which was, according to the passage before us, between the deserts of Scete and Nitria, apparently derived its name from the cells of the monks who congregated there. This at least is the explanation of the name given by Sozomen (H.E. VI. xxxi.) who speaks of a region called κελλία, throughout which numerous little dwellings (οἰκήματα) are dispersed, whence it obtains its name. Sozomen also speaks (c. xxix.) of Macarius as priest of Cellæ, a fact which gives some ground for conjecturing that Cellæ may be identified with Dair Abu Makâr, one of the four monasteries still existing in the deserts of Nitria and Scete, probably founded by the saint whose name it bears (Macarius). See A. J. Butler’s “Coptic Churches of Egypt,” vol. i. c. vii.

Next: Chapter II. Abbot Theodore's answer to the question proposed to him.