Many times over the centuries religious conflict or persecution has taken place. The Kyevo-Pecherskaya Lavra, in the Ukrainian city of Kyiv, is one example of the lengths to which ancient Christians went, so they could worship their God in their chosen manner. As we set out to visit an old monastery, little did I comprehend that we really were going to see ancient Christian catacombs. (I later discovered that the Ukranian word "lavra" means caves.)
As with many historic old buildings in the former Soviet Union, the entrance to the Kyevo-Pecherskaya Lavra is through a very ornate, pale blue Baroque gate house. Gold bas relief and paintings of religious deities (icons) decorate the exterior of the tall building. Inside the compound, a large, complex, collection of buildings had been created over a period of nine centuries. These buildings were once part of a monastery. The first printing house, in Kiev, was established in the Lavra in the 16th Century. The first place of higher education, the Petro Mahalia, was established here too.
We passed through a beautiful old, onion-domed, eleventh Century church, with some of its original frescos still intact . The grounds contain many long, one-story buildings, some of which were once used as monks quarters. Our route took us down a steep cobblestone road, to where we entered a building which, surprisingly, contained only a long, wide, wooden staircase, by which we descended even further down the hill. Emerging at the base, our group immediately entered another building. This one took us down into a narrow, winding, passage carved out of stone. Stone steps descended into the depths of the rock underground. I soon discovered this was definitely not the place for anyone with claustrophobia. Eventually we came to a succession of three caves. These had been set up as chapels, deep in the rock. The first cave was an eleventh Century Church, the second a seventeenth Century Church, then the third, another eleventh Century Church. In the churches, elaborate altars with gold iconostasis and tall, golden candle holders were in place. Some frescos were still to be seen on the walls of one cave. These caves were the churches during ancient times, when Christians were being persecuted. It shows the lengths to which people will go to follow their faith.
It was intriguing, however the tunnels felt confining, and oppressive. It was not long before I began to feel very encased and closed in, as the heavy, dark stone walls seemed to confine me and the air became more concentrated and stale. Breathing seemed difficult. Although nowadays some inadequate lighting is in place, it was still quite dark. Soon I was amazed to discover that I was sharing the narrow passageway with open coffins containing the mummified remains of ancient Christians. Their bodies were each covered with a faded fabric covering. Another ornate cloth covered each face. A few of the mummies wore the crowns of high church officials on their heads. The hands lay outside the coverings. The parched skin looked like fine, brown leather covering the bones. We were told that the composition of the stone is porous and therefore absorbed the moisture from the bodies and left the remains in a petrified condition, much like happens to bodies in the desert. It gives one a very eerie feeling. As shivers went up my spine, I began to wonder if my hair might not be standing a little higher on my head too!
Further along we found some smaller, narrow caves opening out of the passageway. Some contained logs, which had been split and hollowed out, to make more primitive coffins. Some of the caves contained skeletal bones, sometimes one complete individual skeleton. Peering into other caves, I saw rows of skulls staring back at me through their vacant black eyes. In other small caves assorted skeletal bones were piled together. As I continued to walk through the low roofed passages, my feeling of confinement increased. In some areas coffins were placed on each side of the passage, leaving only the narrowest of walkways between. As I slid between the coffins, I thought to myself, "I do hope the spirits of these long-dead souls do not mind the intrusion of curious visitors." As you can imagine, this was definitely not a place for nervous individuals to visit. Retracing our way back up the stone steps, I was glad to get back to the surface again, with fresh air and daylight at the end of our underground tour. Although the prospect of coming down to these caves was somewhat daunting, I still felt compelled to see them. A tour of the catacombs is not for the faint hearted, but is definitely a fascinating look into the past.
Story and pictures by M. Maxine George
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