Michael Hesemann, Historiker und Autor
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Discovered: The Cave Monastery which housed the Sudarium of Christ

Not much is known about the whereabouts of the Santo Sudario before its arrival in Spain. According to Bishop Pelagius or Pelayo of Oviedo (d. 1153), who wrote about the history of the precious relic in his books “El libro de los testamentos de la catedral de Oviedo”, the “Libro Gotico” and the “Chronicon Regum Legionensium”, it was originally venerated in Jerusalem. When the Persians under their king Chosroes conquered the city, several Christians were able to flee and retrieve some precious relics. One of them, the presbyter (priest) Philipp, saved the Sudario and brought it to Alexandria in Egypt. When Chosroes invaded Egypt and conquered Alexandria in 616, it was forwarded to Carthago or Caesarea Mauretania and, from there, to the Spanish harbour of Cartagena, where the refugees were received by the bishop Fulgentius of Ecija.
Although several pilgrim reports from the 4th to the 6th century exist, none of them specifically describes the veneration of the “Sudario of Christ” in Jerusalem. Only in about 670 AD, the English monk Adamnanus, who described the pilgrimage of the gallican bishop Arkulf about one decade before in his book “De locis sanctis”, mentions a “cloth which was placed over the Lord’s head when he lay buried”, venerated in Jerusalem, in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, but described it as “about eight feet in length”; this can neither has been the Sudario of Oviedo, which is 85,5 x 52,6 cm in size, nor the Holy Shroud of Turin with a length of 4,36  metres. But maybe it is identical with another “Holy Shroud”, received by Charlemagne in 799, which the Emperor Charles the Bald in 877 donated to the Abbey of St. Cornelius in Compiègne, where it was venerated until the French Revolution, when it was destroyed by anti-clerical radicals. Its size was 2,37 by 1,25 metres.
There is only one single source from the era before the Persian invasion which mentions the veneration of a sweathcloth which very well could have been the Santo Sudario venerated in Oviedo today. This report was written by a pilgrim from the Italian town of Piacenza who, in the beginning of his text, invoked a “Blessed Martyr Antoninus” who might have been his patron saint, so that he is sometimes called “Antoninus of Piacenza”. This pilgrim visited the Holy Land in about 570 AD. He came to the river Jordan, participated in the ceremonies on the feast of Epiphany (January 6th) and continued his way to Jericho and eventually to Jerusalem. Right after his description of the Vigil on Epiphany, he states:
“On the bank of the Jordan there is a cave in which are cells for seven boys (in another manuscript: virgins). They are placed there when they are young, and when one of them dies, it is buried in its cell, and another cell is hewn from the rock, so that another boy (girl) can be placed there to make up the number. They have people outside to look after them. We went in with great reverence to pray there, but we did not see the face of a single one of them. It is said that the cloth is there which the Lord wore on his face. (lat.: “In ipso loco dicitur esse sudarium quod fuit in fronte domini.”) By the Jordan, not far from where the Lord was baptized, is the very large Monastery of St. John, which has two guest houses.”
Although “Antoninus” is the only pilgrim of this period which mentions the Sudario, we have no reason to question his reference. Often enough, his text proved to be a source of immense value, not seldom confirmed by archaeological discoveries of our times. When indeed this precious relic was not venerated in Jerusalem, but in a remote cave monastery above the river Jordan, the rarity of existing descriptions and references is understandable; only a few pilgrims went so far into the desert. Also the location makes sense. In great detail, St. John in the Fourth Gospel describes the discovery of the empty tomb by St. Peter and himself on the Easter Morning of the year 30 or 33 AD and specifically mentions the Sudario:
 “And the napkin, that was about his head, was  not lying with the linen clothes, but wrapped together in a place by itself.” (John 20:7)
As we know today, the Sudario was indeed a sweatcloth wrapped around the head of the crucified Christ after his death on the cross. Its purpose was, according to the Jewish customs, to cover the face of the deceased Saviour. This was a sign of the “kevod ha-met”, the respect before the dead ones, and also protected the passer-byes from looking into a pain-torn, dead face. When the crucified was taken from the cross, he spilled even more of his precious blood on this cloth. Since it is a Jewish custom, to bury everything which bears the blood of a dying one, which the Jews call “life blood”, together with his corpse, the Sudario was laid into the tomb, not placed on his face, “but wrapped together in a place by itself”.
When it was found in the empty tomb, the Apostles could not just take it into the “Upper room” on Mount Zion, which soon became their meeting place and the first “House Church”. For any Jew - and all of them were pious Jews, praying regularly in the Temple - it was indisputable to take anything which came in contact with a corpse – and Christ was dead, although he resurrected on the third day – into the Holy City of Jerusalem, since it was considered “impure”. On the other hand, undoubtedly they would have preserved any evidence for the death and resurrection of Christ. They knew that His precious blood was spilled for our salvation. Therefore most probably a hiding outside of the city was chosen. Since we know about the contacts between the early Christians and the Essene Community, proven by the discovery of a fragment of the Gospel according to Mark in one of the Qumran caves near the Dead Sea, it is very well possible that already in the 1st century the Sudario was hidden in one of the hiding places of the Essenes in the area between Jericho and Qumran, as they are listed in the “Copper Scroll”, a list of hidings for the treasures of the Essene Community, found in one of the Qumran caves. If not immediately after the Easter event, most certainly during the Roman defeat of the Jewish revolt, before the siege of Jerusalem and its destruction in 70 AD, the Sudario was brought to the caves above the Jordan river, close to a holy place of the early Christians, the baptism site.
But where was the mysterious cave system, which later became a monastery, so close to the river Jordan? On January 5, 2006, we, the Ukrainian journalist Yuliya Tkachova and myself, left Jerusalem for an expedition into the desert of Juda. After about 35 kilometres on the Highway 1 which connects Jerusalem and the Dead Sea, we came to the junction of the Highway 90 which leads to Bet She’an, the gate to Galilee. It passes the West Bank, the Palestine settlements with their capital Jericho. And it follows the river Jordan, which represents the border to the kingdom of Jordan, a former enemy of Israel; thousands of landmines along this border make it still a forbidden zone. When we drove through the whitish chalky rocks, I wondered if this indeed was the area where Christ was baptized by St. John in ca. January 28 AD. Since the 3rd century, scholars searched for the true site of this crucial event. The first was Origenes (ca. 185-254), who lived long enough in Caesarea Maritima to learn about the local traditions. In his comment of the Gospel according to St. John, he identified “Bethany beyond Jordan, where John was baptizing” (Joh 1, 28) as Bethabara, the modern-day Bet Ha’ araya, literally “crossing point”, since there, according to the tradition, Josua lead the Israelites into the promised land. Also the so-called Madaba map, a mosaic of the Holy Land from the 6th century, found in the ruins of a byzantine church in the city of Madaba in Jordan, shows Bethabara on the west bank of the Jordan as the baptism site and depicts a nearby church or monastery dedicated to St. John. When Pope John Paul II visited the Holy Land in March 2000, two “baptism sites” were presented to him: one on the eastern bank of the Jordan river by the Jordanians, another on the west bank by the Israelis. On both sides, ruins of byzantine Churches and monasteries indicate an early veneration. According to the pilgrim Theodosius (ca. 530), the original site was marked with a marble column, topped with an iron cross, in the middle of the river. Greek monks still described its ruins in the early 20th century. But where was the ancient cave monastery, which, according to “Antoninus” of Piacenza, was located not too far away from the Baptism site?

The modern-day monastery of St. Gerasimus near Jericho
Driving further on Highway 90, after the exit “Bet Ha’araya”, we noted a silver dome on the right side of the street, somewhere in the desert, in the direction of the river Jordan. Shortly after, a street sign showed the way to the domed building and identified it as the “Monastery of St. Gerasimos”. We turned to the right and found a square building beneath the silver dome, like a small fortress standing alone in the wilderness. It turned out to be a Greek Orthodox monastery, inhibited by Cypriot monks, built in the 19th century on mediaeval foundations of the 12th century; it has inherited the mantle of the famous laura (hermit colony) which St. Gerasimus founded here in 455 AD. Within the laura he established a coenibitic monastery for training candidates for a life in seclusion. A monk named John Moschus, who lived in the 6th century, tells us in his history of monks and monasteries, “The Spiritual Meadow”, how St. Gerasimus once pulled a thorn from the paw of a lion who then befriended him and performed errands for his monks. When the saint died, the lion laid down on his grave and died, too. Therefore, the lion became St. Gerasimus’ attribute in popular iconography. Antoninus’ reference to seven boys who were placed in the cave monastery in a young age seems to refer to St. Gerasimus’ intention to prepare young candidates for a monastic life. In the early 9th century, when the Carolingean “Commemoratorium” listed the monasteries in the Holy Land, it was noted that “at the monastery where John baptized, (there were) 10 monks: St. Gerasimus built it, and the saint’s own body lies buried there. He built the church there and erected it as a chapel.”  But when John Phocas visited the place in 1185, he found among the ruins only a single hermit, who was befriended by two lions living among the dense undergrowth along the Jordan.

St. Gerasimus, “Founder and patron of the Jordan Wilderness”
Was St. Gerasimus’ monastery , located in Deir Hajla, the place to which the pilgrim from Piacenza refers? But if yes, where are the caves? The monastery itself is located in midst of the plain which stretches between the Judaean mountains and the Jordan river. Alive with the sound of bird-song, it is built around a deep well. This might explain why the new monastery is not located on the original foundation, which is thought to be some 400 metres to the east. The only remains are fragments of a mosaic and small mounds of decayed mud bricks. But when we visited the monastery, the monks told us about a group of caves, which, according to them, were the original “laura”.

We drove about one kilometre towards the East, in the direction of the Jordan river. The road ended on a hill, crowned by a rusty tank, fixed in the sand of the desert. To the left, in northern direction, a steep cliff face is cut into the landscape – the bank of the Wadi en-Nukheil, a dry river-bed. A grove of palm tree rises from the ground. They indicate the presence of water. When we noted caves cut in the chalky rock, we climbed the cliff down, to reach two wide ledges with cells at the outer ends, linked by a rock-cut corridor with a chapel, carved into one side and a cell into the other. At the entrance to the cell, a plastered cistern, once fed by a channel, collected run-off rain waiter from the plain above. Open doors and windows of each cell seemed to confirm the rule of Gerasimus that members of the laura should leave their cells open. The soft, withered chalkstone did not leave any traces of religious symbols but several niches for lamps, books and, maybe, relics. The more we inspected the caves, we saw our suspicion confirmed that these are indeed the cells, “hewn from the rock”, of the seven young candidates of St. Gerasimus, the very place from which Antoninus states “that the cloth is there which the Lord wore on his face”. Indeed, the rock face is only two kilometres away from the traditional baptism site of Christ.
Back in the modern-day monastery, the monks showed us a closet full of skulls and bones. “These are the relics of the monks which were killed during the Persian invasion of 614”, we are told. Did the Persians learn about the precious relic? Was one of the monks able to escape in time and meet with the legendary presbyter Philipp, or was Philipp himself the priest of this monastic community? With certainty, the knowledge about the Sudario got lost with their martyrdom – but the sacred cloth itself, as by divine providence, was saved.
Many question remain unanswered: Did St. Gerasimus discover a hiding place of the early Christians, did he find the long-forgotten “Sudario Domini” in these very caves, maybe preserved in a wooden chest or a large jar, like the Dead Sea scrolls? Or was the precious relic entrusted to him by his teacher, St. Euthymius, the “founder and patron of the Judaean wilderness”, who established several laurae of hermits in the Judaean desert? We can only speculate about the details. But we can say for sure that Antoninus gave an accurate description of the cave monastery which existed in the cliffs of the Wadi en-Nukheil, at least since the 5th century. And that in this cliff laura, according to the pilgrim’s report, the Sudario was once venerated, before it was brought first to Africa, then to Spain.