Pechersk Lavra (Cave Monastery)

Ukraine is a religious country, surprisingly so since under communist rule hundreds of churches and cathedrals were destroyed.  The holiest site in Kiev is the Pechersk Lavra which is also known as the Monastery of the Caves was founded in 1051.  This center of Eastern Orthodox Christianity is a UNESCO World Heritage Site as well as a national sanctuary.  It is also a working and active monastery where hundreds of monks and nuns reside and is visited by hundreds of pilgrims every day.  

Pechera is a Ukrainian word that means cave.  Lavra denotes the highest rank a monastery can have.  The monastery was founded by a charismatic monk named Anthony who came to the area early in the 11th century from the Greek monastery Mount Athos and lived in a cave in the limestone bluffs overlooking the Dniper River.  The legend is that Anthony wanted to be alone to worship God in his own way but he was such a dynamic individual that he soon attracted many followers who also moved into various caves.  Soon they were burrowing tunnels throughout the hilly area and there are now miles and miles of tunnels, small rooms and chambers.  Some legends say that these underground chambers are much more extensive than presently thought and many areas are unexplored in the modern era.  Photography is not allowed in the caves and you must purchase small candles to light your way.

The entrance to the Cave Monastery. Frescoes hundreds of years old line the walls leading to the arched entryway.
One of the frescoes adorning the walls leading to the entrance of the monastery.

Inside the caves are the relics of saints.  More than 100 burials are within the cave complex but not all those interred here were saints.  Pilgrims come every day to pray with the relics and to kiss the caskets.  In this very religious and sometimes superstitious country the pilgrims believe that these rituals can heal them or a loved one of sickness.  Frequently the caskets are covered in glass cases that leave a hand exposed to prove that they are indeed true saints as the body did not decompose.

Two nuns hurry toward daily services.
Pilgrims and a group of nuns gather outside the cathedral where services were being held

The monastery complex contains several churches and cathedrals.  One active service was in progress and Kongo went inside.  It was an amazing experience.  The monks were singing a beautiful hymn.  Over a thousand people inside migrated from one station to another to make their prayers while the monks conducting the service chanted the sacred words.  Incense hung heavy in the air.  Old babushka women, bent over with age crossed themselves and moved slowly about the room.  Kongo hung in the back and tried to take it all in.  He couldn’t help but be moved by the feelings and emotions in the room.

The Church of the Savior where services were being held.
Church of the Savior
The bell tower. People gather here every hour before the bells toll so that they can feel the vibrations in the ground from the bells.
The domes of the many churches are plated in real gold.
The Cathedral of the Dormition
A monk walks down the hill toward the entrance to the caves
A view of the base of the church complex from the bottom of the hill
A close up view of the the domes over the caves

Pechersk Lavra is a moving and fascinating visit.   It’s a “must see” in Kiev.

Travel safe.  Have fun.

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