Olga’s blue eyes shine in bright contrast to her dark hair and the dark blue scarf she wears on her head. She encourages me to select a bright head scarf; she wants to take a picture of me with the bell towers as a backdrop. She decides the one with the red and pink flowers will be best. As I don my covering out of respect to the Orthodox traditions I can’t help but think of the last time I prepared myself in this way to enter a sacred place.
Perched alongside the Dnipro river, the complex maze of caves is rumored to span all the way to Moscow. The Kiev Pechersk Lavra monastery traces it roots back as far as 1051 when a small group of monks decided to live underground and started to dig out the cave system. As the monastery grew in popularity, it quickly became one of the richest monasteries in Ukraine and flourished for centuries.
Its affluence only furthered its prominence. The wealth of the monastery allowed them to provide the city with some of its greatest landmarks – the first Ukrainian doctor studied there as did their first architect. The monastery pioneered new conveniences of life over the ages and its coffers were brimming with gold. Such prominence led to more riches as the aristocracy and royalty flocked to the monastery to pay tribute.
With the increased popularity of the caves, monks and laymen alike lived and were buried in the caves until the hill next to the monastery was gifted to them and the monks decided to move above ground. Thus starting the development of the baroque style chapels and bell towers each adorned with the traditional Ukranian gold leafed, pear shaped domes. For centuries the monastery expanded with new churches and other structures being built throughout the complex.
The popularity of being buried there endured and the monks began a practice of moving the bodies to make room for others. They would separate the decaying flesh from the bones and store the bones in a crypt. As they worked through each burial they discovered 118 bodies, buried centuries before, that had not decayed at all. They were celebrated as saints and the caves were officially closed to burials and a sacred resting place for the newly discovered saints was created. The pilgrimages to the monastery thus began and remain a ritual of the devout.
As Olga and I begin to traverse the path leading into the caves, the slope is gradual. The white washed walls radiate a cool dampness. Olga lights a long thin beeswax candle and slips it between two fingers of my open hand. It will provide the light we need to see inside the tomb. The pathways are narrow. We join the pilgrims in a silent dance around each other as we approach each coffin. The pilgrims bend to kiss the glass coffins that display the beautifully embroidered brightly colored shrouds of the saints – their mummified hands visible through the brocade. The whispered prayers of the faithful are barely audible. My companion and I are the only two who abstain from this individual yet collective expression of worship.
Drawn by the sound of singing, I leave the cave complex and enter one of the many churches. I stand in awe at the elaborate detail of the altar. In a smaller room to the left, a smaller alter stands with similar brilliance. A priest adorned in bright blue and silver stands slightly hunched in front of the altar singing his prayers. There is a man dressed in long black robes who chimes in from time to time. He sways slightly and every so often is moved to spin around with child like joyfulness. As people move in and out of the room, they join the song for a short while and fade out as earnestly as they started.
During the revolution, in 1918 the monastery was turned into an atheist museum and all of the religious symbology was covered up while the bodies of the saints were left exposed. During World War II the largest of their chapels was destroyed; some say by the Nazis, some say by the Soviets. It was then that the riches of the monastery were first pilfered. It wasn’t until the 1980s that the monastery slowly started to be brought back to monastic life. Though still considered a sacred place, many monks shy away from life there as it is dominated by tourism. The pilgrims who make the journey from all over Ukraine to pay homage can look past this sacred place’s recent foray into the worldly as they commune with the divine.