monastery of the mummified saints
We had visited a few of Kiev’s many churches before flying to Lviv, but saved the best for last. If there is one spot in Kiev that cannot be missed, it is the Lavra — a cavern monastery built nearly a millennium ago, which today attracts almost as many worshippers and pilgrims as ordinary tourists. The complex is so massive that it is actually divided into two sections: the upper Lavra has paid admission and is administered by the government while the lower Lavra continues to be used by monks and can be visited free of charge.
The lower Lavra, where we headed first, encompasses several churches, but they are largely unremarkable, especially when compared to the ones in the upper part of the complex. What makes the lower Lavra truly unique is its caverns and their denizens. The leader of the Ukranian Orthodox Church resides here, but it is not him the Orthodox faithful come in droves to see every year. Rather, the pilgrims travel to Kiev to pray at the small caskets of ancient monks, which line the dark, claustrophobic passageways that snake beneath the Lavra’s churches.
The monks enforce a strict dress code. Even though it was too cold to show an inch of skin, S still had to don both a shawl and a long skirt over her jeans before we were permitted to proceed inside the monastery. After S had been properly attired, we each purchased a candle and descended the narrow, winding passageways that had been chiseled out of the rocky riverbank on which the Lavra is perched. There are rumored to be miles of tunnels, though tourists are only allowed to enter two small sections.
The Near Caves were jam-packed with visitors. Like us, many people had come to gawk at the mummified remains of ancient monks, whose bodies have been preserved by the cold and now rest in glass caskets that have been placed on ledges beneath their portraits. The corpses are covered by sacred clothes, but their desiccated feet and hands protrude, lending an eerie chill to the poorly illuminated coffins. It seemed that just as many people had come because of religious devotion as out of simple curiosity. As we shuffled along the passageway and through a small underground chapel, we saw many of them praying at the coffins, bending down to kiss the glass that encased the saints’ feet.
The church that stood atop the so-called Far Caves was actually not very distant from the Near Caves — no more than a five-minute walk downhill. The Far Caves were once the home of the 11th-century monk who first founded this cavern monastery, and it’s their depth that earns them their moniker. Our feeble candles could not illuminate the entire tunnel and we lost track of the number of steps we had descended before passing one of the custodians of the Far Caves and reaching a level passageway with the candle-lit caskets.
S huffed and puffed on the ascent back to the exit, murmuring something about the impropriety of forcing pregnant women to do stairmaster-like exercises, but was glad that we made the effort to see both sets of caves. There were few other people in the Far Caves, which made for a better visiting experience and enabled us to take a handful of illicit photos.
After snacking on hot blini, which we purchased at a mobile kiosk, we made our way to the upper Lavra. The monastery’s bell-tower, which promised spectacular city views, was sadly under reconstruction — a seemingly never-ending process that began before our 2007 guide book had been published. Even so, there was still plenty to see. The golden domes of the Dormition Cathedral sparkled underneath lead-gray skies. The cathedral had been destroyed during World War II, but had been fully rebuilt and reopened in 2005. Unfortunately its interior was mostly barren and the artwork that had been preserved now resides in a handful of small museums that were located near the cathedral. The Gate Trinity Church, which we visited next, more than made up for the cathedral’s white space, its inner walls covered with gorgeous 18th-century floor-to-ceiling murals.
We spent half a day at the Lavra despite skipping most of the esoteric museums that were located there. On our way out, we stopped inside the museum of micro-miniatures — a room filled with microscopic artwork that could not have felt more out-of-place in this religious compound. It contained the works of Nikolai Syadristy, each of which had to be viewed under a powerful microscope. There was a chessboard that had been placed on the head of a pin; a camel caravan set inside the eye of a needle; and a poppy seed that had been sawn in half — a balalaika occupied one half of the seed and a portrait of a famous Soviet musician rested inside the other.
Many of Syadristy’s mini-masterpieces were tributes to Soviet heroes, including a portrait of Lenin, which had been composed of his micro-typed published works, and another of Yuri Gagarin — the first man in space — which had been sculpted out of a microscopic piece of bone. The museum provided a fitting transition for the rest of our tour of Kiev, as we switched from religious to historic landmarks and took a trip down the Soviet memory lane.