For two thousand years Orthodox pilgrims from all over the world defy time and distance in their ardent strivings to touch the Holy Land of Palestine. A Voice of Russia reporter, Lyudmila Markova visited the Holy Land awhile ago and here is her story.
“By God’s grace my years-long dream of visiting places connected with the life of the Saviour came true. I went to Nazareth, where Archangel Gabriel announced to Virgin Mary that she would give birth to the Saviour. I went to Bethlehem, where Christ was born, I soaked myself in the waters of Jordan, where the Saviour was baptized and I walked by the Sea of Galilee, where Christ summoned his disciples to service and where He prophesied His teachings. Our pilgrim group traveled through the whole of the Judaean Desert calling at monasteries founded by hermit monks and the Hill of the Temptation, where the Lord renounced the temptations of the devil.
We spent three days in Jerusalem. The sensation you feel treading on the stone-paved path of the times of Christ and following the route by which He was led to crucifixion. We worshipped the priceless shrines of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre – Golgotha, where He was crucified, the Stone of Anointing, where His body lay before burial, and finally, the Holy Sepulchre, the place of His resurrection on which the Holy Flame descends every year at Easter time. Night vigils at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is something we’ll all remember for the rest of our days.
Of thousands of tourists and pilgrims who come to the Holy Land from all across the globe, Orthodox Russians stand out clearly, for both the clothing – the traditional long skirt and obligatory headscarf – and the blissfully devout attitude to the holiest of Christian shrines. And this is no wonder, since the Holy Land is inextricably linked in the religious consciousness of a Russian with Holy Rus.
Russians began to arrive at the Holy Land in the 11th century, soon after the introduction of Christianity, and it quickly became a favourite destination of our pilgrim forefathers. Hierarchs in Jerusalem often appealed for assistance to religiously united Russia at difficult times, particularly during persecutions from Muslims. Russian princes and tsars granted every support for eastern hierarchs. In early 19th century the Jerusalem Compound was opened in Moscow.
The Russian Ecclesiastical Mission in Jerusalem, set up in 1847, organized more pilgrimages to the Holy Land, which was largely to the credit of Archimandrite Antonin Kapustin, who headed the Mission for 30 years.
A scientist, historian and archaeologist, he knew biblical history and conducted archaeological excavations. Due to his effort Russia acquired shrines such as Abraham’s Oak, in the shade of which, old books say, Abraham received the Holy Trinity in the person of three vagrants, and the sepulcher of Saint Tabitha in Jaffa. On the acquired lands they built schools to teach Orthodoxy to Arabs, pilgrim homes, hospitals and of course, the monasteries. To this day the Russian Monastery at Ein Karem, founded where Virgin Mary met with righteous Elizabeth, is one of the saintliest cloisters on the Holy Land. It was in this very place that the One destined to give birth to the Saviour uttered the famous “Blessed art Thou among women…” More than 70 nuns from Russia are currently living in the cloister.
The 33-meter bell tower of the Ascension Monastery on the Mount of Olives is known as the Russian Tower. On clear days its upper gallery offers a striking view of the Holy Land embracing the whole of the Saviour’s earthly life.
The Gethsemane Garden, where the Saviour often went to with His disciples and from where He was led to crucifixion, boasts a breathtakingly beautiful church in the classical Russian style built in honour of St. Mary Magdalene and pertaining to the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad. The church is a resting place for the relics of two martyr saints – Grand Princess Yelisaveta Fyodorovna and Nun Varvara.
Over the years the number of pilgrims grew and acquired a mass scale in the 19th century. There were up to 100 Russian worshippers per each pilgrim from Western Europe, and many arrived in the Holy Land on foot. Others traveled by sea and crawled to Holy Jerusalem on their knees. Most pilgrims refused to travel by donkey, on horseback or on mules in a belief that on a land the Saviour Himself had walked to and fro it is forbidden to move otherwise.
The Russian Compound in Jerusalem with a spacious Trinity church, a hospital and daily living services accommodated thousands of pilgrims. For pilgrims the Compound had daily religious readings and published guidebooks and books on the history of old monasteries in Palestine. Not a single Christian nation took so much care of its pilgrims as Russia in those days. Being a subject to the Russian Emperor was a matter of prestige. The number of pilgrims to the Holy Land was up to 10,000 a year in the late 19th – early 20 century.
The First World War, followed by the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, and the establishment of atheistic state cut the Russians from pilgrimages to the Holy Land. Pilgrim trips resumed in the early 1990’s and have been growing. I’ve seen compatriots from Vladivostok, Blagoveshchensk, Tyumen, the Urals. No hurdles or money shortages can stop a devout Orthodox believer from going to bow to the Holy Land.
Bethlehem, where Christ was born, is a special shrine. A small town 8 kilometers south of Jerusalem, it means the Home of Bread in the translation from Old Hebrew. In the heart of Bethlehem is the Basilica of Nativity with a grotto where Christ was born. The Basilica is the only Christian church that survived the Persian invasion of 614. Its façade mosaics depicted scenes of Nativity including the worship of Persian magi. And the Persians, reverent of their ancestors, left the church untouched.
You have to bend down to enter the Basilica. The 1 meter and 20 centimeters high entrance is called the Gate of Humility and was shortened during the Turkish rule to prevent the Turks from entering on horseback. The interior design is just beyond description. A Greek priest showed us two beautiful chandeliers adorned with two imperial crowns – a gift from the last Russian Emperor Nicholas II and his wife, Empress Alexandra Fyodorovna. Another present from the Romanov royal family is the Icon of the Nativity in a silver frame placed inside the church’s iconostasis.
The Basilica’s major shrine is a small cave in the depths of which there is the Nativity altar with 15 silver lamps above the silver star signifying the place of birth of the Saviour. The cave can house no more than 70 at a time. Pilgrims glorify Christ in their native languages and among the numerous varieties you can hear the Nativity Hymn in Russian.
Source:The Voice of Russia