The Monastery of Saint John in the Wilderness is a Franciscan Catholic monastery commemorating the childhood wanderings of John the Baptist in the area. Luke tells us in the scriptures that John "grew and became strong in spirit; and he lived in the desert until he appeared publicly to Israel" (Luke 1:80). Tradition identifies the deserted place where Saint John grew up as the hermitage of Saint John in the Desert, also known as 'Ain el-Habis (spring of the hermit.) The site is located in the center of the Judean hills, about 1.8 miles from Ein Karem, St. John’s birthplace, which is itself just 4.5 miles west of Jerusalem.
Luke’s words take on new meaning here, in a lush landscape one would not normally describe the area as a “desert.” Crystal spring, natural pools, green trees, and lush water-plants surround the cave once inhabited by monks. However a biblical name for uncultivated land is “midbar,” translated as desert, with a real definition of pastureland. Just as the Israelites encountered God on their journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. Both John, and Jesus went into the wilderness before beginning their ministries. Isaiah the prophet also proclaim that future salvation would be revealed by the “voice of one crying out in the wilderness" (Isa 40:3-4, Luke 3:2-4). John who sought the wilderness and natural surroundings as theses, would have known the area as the back-of-his-hand, making the location an ideal place for solitude and scripture study.
The Crusaders constructed a church and convent above Byzantine ruins. The first mention of the Monastery was by an Anonymous writer in the 12th century who provided a brief description of the chapel. Jean Zuallart a mayor from Belgium made a Holy Land pilgrimage in 1586 and drew the ruins – but still impressive, and wrote: “Leaving the Visitation, we decide to continue for another two or three miles, to visit the Desert where St. John the Baptist, guided and comforted by the Holy Spirit, spent his childhood until the day of his manifestation to Israel, preaching the Baptism of Penitence. When we reached this Desert, following a very difficult and dangerous path, we were filled with joy at seeing a place that was both so austere and beautiful, although now there are not as many trees as apparently there were in the past and it is very rough and harsh and far from any human settlement. The cave where the Saint dwelled, celebrated in the hymn that is sung in church and which begins “Antra deserti…” is hollowed out in the rock in the middle and at the beginning of the slope of a mountain covered in shrubs, which immediately becomes a precipice, looking into the depths of the Valley opposite. This cave is very large inside and at the back has a raised part like an altar, where the Saint used to sleep. Its entrance is very difficult and narrow, but once you are there, there is a spring of very good water, which can be drawn on from above and below. On top there is a small church and a small monastery, of which only some parts of the walls, which have almost all crumbled, can be seen”.
In 1626, Father Quaresmi spoke of a church dedicated to Saint John, which suggests the church was restored and possibly rebuilt by the Franciscans. The existing monastery, was purchased by the Franciscans from the Latin Patriarchate in 1911. In the 1990’s, a community of Melkite Catholics cared and managed for the holy site, and they added a number of beautiful frescoes on the inner walls of the monastery. Today, the monastery of Saint John in the Desert welcomes many pilgrims on trips to the holy land throughout the year, and is known as a place of inter-confessional friendship.