When I lived in Jerusalem, the locals would talk about the mysterious figure of Saint Pelagia, an ascetic “monk” who had repented of her life as a high-class courtesan and retreated to a small cave in prayer and contemplation on the Mount of Olives. There were rumors that her grave was near the Hulda Gate, next to the Chapel of the Ascension on the Mount of Olives. They told me the pious Muslims that reside in that part of town refer to her as the Muslim mystic Rava’ad Aludayah. Was she the same person? The grave cave of the saint they said was somewhere close to the Ascension site. It was hard to get to–in a Muslim part of town few pilgrims visited as it was outside the confines of the Old City. But I pushed myself to visit and in the journey I uncovered three stories woven around a single female saint. The enigmatic figure of Saint Pelagia, the Prophetess Hulda, Rava’ad Aludayah–speaks to the beauty of a female holy person that unites the three monotheistic traditions in the Holy Land.
The Physical Grounds:
The grave of Saint Pelagia is housed in a small mosque in an underground crypt just around the bend from the Chapel of the Ascension (also kept as a mosque to the present day.) The mosque was built on top of this grave dating from the 17th century. According to the site, allaboutjerusalem.com, “The famous French archeologist Da Sussey uncovered the sarcophagus in the 19th century and noted the following Greek pagan expression written on the sarcophagus: “Adopt Demetila, man is not immortal.” Apparently, there is a marker, the word “sarcophagus” inscribed in Greek over the grey stone of the grave that roused the archeologists curiosity that led to the discovery of the grave.
The Jewish Tradition:
First and oldest, lets get to know the Jewish tradition of the enigmatic saint. Hulda was a prophetess mentioned in the Hebrew Bible in 2 Kings 22:14-20 and 2 Chronicles 34:22-28. According to Jewish tradition, she was one of the “seven prophetesses”, with Sarah, Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Abigail, and Esther. After the discovery of a book of the Law during renovations at Solomon’s Temple, on the order of King Josiah, Hilkiah together with Ahikam, Acbor, Shaphan and Asaiah approach her to seek the Lord’s opinion.
There was something written in that book that gave the King high anxiety about the Temple and his people. The book spoke of the destruction of the Temple and the dispersion of the Jewish nation, or something apocalyptic like that. He had to be sure, so just to be on the safe side, the king had his ministers consult the prophetess to interpret the scripture. His choice to consult a female prophet and not the “go to” man at that time, the prophet Jeremiah, had to do with the king’s assumption that as women were more prone to pity, she would pray more earnestly. Maybe her prayer would divert the wrath of God and spare the Temple and convert the Jews?
Like the sybil of ancient Greek tradition, she was a holy woman whose insight into the Word helped shape human decisions, even those of the ruling elite. Unfortunately, she told it like it is–because of their transgressions, the people of Israel would lose their Holy City, the Temple would become a heap of rubble. However, to King Josiah she softened the blow, he would be spared witnessing the destruction as he would die in peace as God had heard his prayer and understood his piety– “thou shalt be gathered unto thy grave in peace, neither shall thy eyes see all the evil which I shall bring upon this place”(wikipedia.org)
Hulda also ran a school for women in Jerusalem at that time, the 7th century B.C. E., and would be chastising the female side of the Jewish people–to repent, to love God, to stop their sinful ways–the same way her male counterpart Jeremiah was haranguing the male side on his end. Indeed, Hulda was regarded as a prophet accustomed to speaking the word of God directly to high priests and royal officials, to whom high officials came in supplication, who told kings and nations of their fates, who had the authority to determine what was and was not the genuine Law, and who spoke in a manner of stern command when acting as a prophet.
Photo: Ron Peled
The source of this tradition and the placement of this grave are based on the writings of Rabbi Moshe Basulah, who visited Jerusalem in the 16th century, and on Ishtori Haparchi’s 14th century work “Bulb and Flower” (a play on the writer’s name which in French is “the Florentine” and in Hebrew “flower”).
According to the Tosefta, the prophetess is buried to the south of the Temple Mount, thus the name of the southern gates of the old city “Hulda Gates.” Up to the 19th century, the Jews had a tradition to climb to this grave, though no one is certain of the exact location.
The Mulsim Tradition:
According to Muslim tradition, Rava’ad Aludayah is buried here, a prophetess among the early Muslim mystics in the 7th century C.E. There are rival reports of which Sufi mystic female saint is really the one buried in this grave as at least three names surface. But suffice it to say that what they all had in common was there zeal for God and the sensuous richness of their verses. One source, the Islam and Islamic Studies Resources site out of the University of Georgia, labels this mystic as: Rabi’a al-Badawiya is often confused with the more well-known Rabi’a al-‘Adawiya, but appears to be the same as Rabi’a bint Isma’il al-Shamiya, a Sufi woman well-known for becoming enraptured in spiritual states. While in such states of love she would recite the following Arabic poem:
Habibun laysa ya’diluhu habib
wa-la siwahu fi qalbi nasib
habibunghaba ‘an basari wa-shakhsi
wa-lakin ‘an fu’adi ma yaghib
A beloved whom no beloved can equal
and for other than whom there is no share of my heart
is a beloved who is absent from my vision and my person
but who is present to my heart
She was the wife of the well-known Sufi Ahmad ibn Abi al-Hawaari (d. 230 AH/ 844-45 AD). According to conclusion of the Egyptian scholar, ‘Abd al-Rahman Badawi, she died in Jerusalem (al-Quds) in 235 AH/ 849-50 CE and not in 135 AH/ 752-53 CE–as had been noted by some scholars but which would be impossible considering that her husband died in 230 AH. She was buried in a cave in which the tombs of the Christian woman saint Pelagia (d. 457 CE) and the Jewish prophetess Hulda (see 2 Kings 22:14-20) are also located. The shrine is near the Chapel of Ascension (al-Mas’ad) and below Zawi’at al-As’adiyah (as of 1927 CE) on the Mount of Olives (Jabal al-Tur). The shrine has been described as follows: “Twelve steps lead from the upper room to the cave in which the tomb is shown, all hewn in the solid rock. A small room near the grave is said to be the place where she used to perform her daily devotions…. In the upper room there is a cistern whose water is said to have a specially pleasant taste.”
(Ibn al-Jawzi, Sifat al-Safwa, Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘ilmiya, 1409/1989, vol. 2 (book 4), p. 249; Margaret Smith, Rabi’a The Mystic, pp. 140-43, 184;Taufik Canaan, Mohammedan Saints and Sanctuaries in Palestine, London: Luzac, 1927, p. 57; Ibn Khallakan, Wafayat al-a’yan, ed. Ihsan ‘Abbas, Beirut, vol. 2, p. 287; ‘Abd al-Rahman Badawi, Rabi’a al-‘Adawiya, Shahidat al-‘ishq al-ilahi, 1978, p. 47-52). (Additions and corrections made 5/22/98)
Other Islamic scholars claim that the grave marks the remains of the most famous Sufi mystic, Rābiʿa al-ʿAdawiyya al-Qaysiyya or Raba of Basrah for short. She was born of humble origins, the fourth daughter which lends her name, (Raba means “the fourth”) in Basra, Iraq. she and her siblings were orphaned at an early age she was kidnapped and taken as a slave. She suffered hard labor under her master, but still had the zeal to pray at night and fast. It was when her master overheard her prayer that his heart was softened. In fact, her prayer that meditated on the paradox of how could she be free to be a slave to God while she was a slave to a human converted the slave master to set her free. It was clear that he was holding onto a saint. With that he granted her emancipation. Thus, Rabia as an unmarried woman and a freed slave, tasted the ultimate freedom as a woman. She chose to stay unmarried and devote herself to the contemplation of God. She kept her humble home in strict ascetism owning a broken pitcher of water to make absolution, a mortar to grind grain (something she ate her whole life), a straw mat she slept on and a brick for a pillow. She attracted many disciples in her life.
Some of her quotes
• When asked about some worldly thing she wanted to have, she replied: I am ashamed to ask for a thing of this world from Him to whom this world belongs; how can I ask for it from those to whom it does not belong.
• Indeed your days are numbered, for when one day passes; a significant portion of your life has passed away. And when that portion has fled, soon it will come to pass that your whole life has disappeared. As you know this, strive always towards the performance of good deeds.
• I am not after any reward for my good works, but only that on the Day of Judgment the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) should say to the rest of the Prophets: ‘Behold this woman of my community; this was her work.’
• All people are afraid of the reckoning of the Day of Judgment, whereas I long for it. At last Allah will address me as ‘O, My servant!’
• Conceal your good qualities as much as you conceal your bad qualities.
• Death is a bridge between friends. The time now nears that I cross that bridge, and friend meets Friend.
|Rabi’a al-ʻAdawiyya al-Qaysiyya|
|Born||between 714-718 CE|
The Christian Tradition:
According to the Christian tradition, this is the burial site of Saint Pelagia, born in Antiochus in the 5th century C.E. Pelagia was an elite prostitute who was also a singer and a dancer. (Think: Beyonce mixed with high class escort). She was as rich as she was beautiful. In fact, everyone in town knew she was rich and prominent as there was a line of customers waiting to be served outside her sumptious estate. Her feminine wiles were so much in demand, gentlemen from across the sea, would make frequent trips to bathe in her glory. So much in demand was she, that she would actually choose her customers. Rumor had it that those men who weren’t chosen were driven to commit suicide out of the despair of not knowing the pleasures of her flesh.
Everything was going fine, until that fateful day when Pelagia heard a sermon by Bishop Nonnus. Here’s the account from Antochian Church in Australia:
One day while Pelagia was elegantly dressed, she made her way past a church where St. Nonnus was preaching. Believers turned their faces away from her, but the Bishop glanced after Pelagia. Struck by her beauty, St. Nonnus prayed in his cell at length to the Lord for the sinner. He told his fellow bishops that the prostitute put them all to shame, explaining that she took great care to adorn her body in order to appear beautiful in the eyes of men. “We… take no thought for the adornment of our wretched souls,” he said.
Photo: Ron Peled
At her confession and first repentance, she began to weep and told the bishop her life story.
“I am Pelagia and I am a sea of sins – I walked myself and others along the path of sin – but from this point on I plan to renounce this behavior and walk in the righteous path.” After a full week of listening to the bishop speak, Pelagia was baptized; eight days later she took on a new spiritual path of faith and began the next chapter in her life.
Pelagia considered how she could be atoned for her terrible sins and decided to give all of her riches and possessions to the poor. After this she took off in the direction of Jerusalem dressed as a man so no one would recognize her.
At the end of her journey, Pelagia reached the Mount of Olives and there she lived until the end of her life. She lived an ascetic life and prayed most of the time. Her story reached all the way to Antiochus, the city of her birth, as the story of an ascetic monk who was honest and uncorrupted.
The Bishop Nonnus, who was unsure about whom the story was told, decided to send a messenger to this Jerusalem monk. The messenger was deeply impressed with Pelagia, returned to Antiochus and told the old bishop about the personality and life of the monk (Pelagia was still dressed as a man) and invited him/her to Antiochus.
Photo: Ron Peled
The messenger then returned again to await Pelagia for three days, hiding in her lonely cell in Jerusalem. After the three days, the messenger discovered that the monk had died and many other monks from the area came to mourn the death of this noble man.
Only after preparing the body for burial did the local monks discover that Pelagia was actually a woman. In order not to desecrate the body, they brought other female monks from the Jericho area to take care of the corpse and properly prepare her.
In Christian tradition, the cafe that is in the heart of the mosque on the Mount of Olives is considered as the grave of the holy monk Saint Pelagia. Her feast day is celebrated October 8th.