People make pilgrimages to holy places for spiritual reasons. But all the places particularly holy for the Christians seem to be situated far beyond the borders of Ukraine. For people with limited funds and for those who wish to go on foot but do not have enough time for long journeys, such places are hardly accessible. I, being an Orthodox Christian priest and possessing neither enough money nor enough time and yet wishing to go on a pilgrimage of my own, one fine day made up my mind to do it realizing that there were enough holy places in Ukraine.
Ukraine is not at all inferior in this respect, say, to
Greece. And I decided to make a pilgrimage to places
connected with the history of Christianity of which there
are quite a few in the Crimea. Christianity came to the
Crimea, the southern tip of which was once part of the
Roman and later of the Byzantine Empire, much earlier
than to Kyiv and consequently there are a lot of places a
Christian may wish to visit on a pilgrimage of his own.
I did not want to go alone and invited several of my friends and members of my congregation to join. We did not walk all the way - we took a train to get to the Crimea. Probably I am not a hardcore orthodox in my views and I think it is quite acceptable in the present day world to use all the means of transportation available to get to the central place of your pilgrimage. I do not mind it at all when pilgrims travel to Jerusalem by plane or to the Pochayiv Monastery in Ukraine by bus. So we took a train to the Crimea but once there we made it a point to walk all the reasonable distances. The Crimea in late spring and throughout summer and in early fall is an excitingly beautiful place, though a little too hot at times. And if you camp out of doors then mosquitoes can be a nuisance at certain periods of time and at a close proximity to the sea. But we were determined to make our trip as cheap as possible and our determination, combined with a wish to get a spiritual uplift from visiting Christian places in the Crimea, made it quite easy for us to disregard all the little inconveniences that we had to encounter on our journey.
A Bit of History
Before I begin the story of my
pilgrimage some readers may find a few facts of history
useful. Ancient Ukrainian chronicles say that the first
to bring the glad news of Christianity to the Crimea was
St. Andrew, one of the Apostles of Jesus Christ. It must
have happened sometime in the midlst century AD. At the
end of the same century St. Clement, the first of the
Apostolic Fathers, Bishop (Pope) of Rome, disciple of St.
Paul and St. Peter, was exiled for preaching Christianity
to the Crimea. There he died a death of a martyr for
preaching the word of Christ to the local population. A
curious but little-known fact: it was in the Crimea that
the oldest known representation of the Christian cross
was found. At the first Ecumenical Council there were
already as many as four Crimean bishops attending!
Christianity was the religion of a Greco-Gothic state
(with a romantic name of Feodoro) that existed in the
Crimea for over a thousand years and fell to the Turks
twenty five years later than Constantinople itself. In
the 8th century the Crimean Christians supported the
Byzantine monks in their struggle against the
Iconoclastic movement in Byzantium. Most of the cave
monasteries in the Crimea date back to that time when the
local monks, fleeing from the persecution of the
authorities, established new monasteries in remote places
in the mountains where they could freely worship their
icons. St. Volodymyr himself, the Kyiv Prince who brought
Christianity to Ukraine, was baptized in the town of
Church of Rizdva Khrystovoho (Nativity) in the
Heorhyivsky ( St.Gerge) Monastery. This tiny church ( the
interior of the church is actually a cave) is the oldest
thing in the monastery. The icon of St. George the
Vanquisher had been kept in this church for
|It was from
Korsun that holy relics and icons were brought to Kyiv as
In the past 400 years the Crimea was mostly Muslim and then, under the Soviet regime, atheistic. But I hope that the wonderful Crimea will once again become a predominately Christian land.
Our journey which I prefer to call
"a pilgrimage" started rather prosaically
aboard a train that took us right into the heart of the
Crimea. It was supposed to be "a fast train"
but it seemed to take ages to travel the distance. At
last we arrived at the town of Bakhchisarai which was to
be our first stop on our itinerary. We were greeted by a
host of taxi drivers who shouted their offers to take us
"just anywhere" we wanted to go but we declined
their kind offers and proceeded on foot to the
Svyato-Uspensky (Assumption) Monastery. On the way
through the narrow streets of the old part of
Bakhchisarai we wondered why the taxi-cab drivers offered
to charge us very little for a rather long trip and we
arrived at the conclusion that this being a month of June
there were not yet too many tourists around and the
business was slow. We passed by a palace of the Tartar
khans who once ruled the Crimea, saw its "fountain
of love and grief." I found it rather impressive but
not quite as much as I had expected from reading about
it. The local muezzin was crying from the minaret of the
mosque calling the Muslim faithful to prayer. The Tartars
started returning to the Crimea only a few years ago and
by now their numbers are growing.
( St.Gerge ) Monastery. It used to sprawl over a wide
area turned by monks into a huge garden with grapes,
peaches, apples and cherries growing there. After the
Revolution of 1917 the monastery was closed down and
barbed wire fences were put up all around but now
everything comes back into its own.
View of Balacklava from the Genoese Fortress.
|It is not
known when precisely the cave town of Chufut-Kale came
into being but the same can be said about practically all
the other cave settlements in the Crimean Mountains which
are to be found at the slopes of several plateaux.
I was very much impressed by the rocky scenery.
In fact I can say I have hardly seen a more
impressive place in my life. God is a Superb Artist and
His creations in what we call Nature cannot be matched by
anything that man is capable of creating. We pitched camp
there and peacefully spent our first night of the
It was a very awkward attempt to hide
the truth. There is no well at the place and this alone
gives the lie to the idea of it being a fortress. No
fortress could do without a well and the monks could!
They brought water from other places and could live on a
mouthful a day. There are several hundred cells and
several churches at the monastery complex to which one
gets following a narrow trail. We also saw the ruins of a
majestic cathedral, graves of monks in the cliffs.
several churches cut out of the solid rock. The monastery
was famous for a miracleworking spring of St. Anastasia.
The young girl Anastasia was martyred in Rome seventeen
hundred years ago for being a devout Christian. It is not
known why the spring was named after her but there must
have been a good reason for doing so.
Our next stop was at Magup, the ancient capital of the Principality of Feodoro, of which one can see only romantic ruins. The population of Feodoro was Christian who fought against the Turkish onslaught in the 15th century. It takes about an hour to climb up to the top of the plateau where the capital city of Mangup once sat, but in 1475 it took the invading Turks six months of siege to capture Mangup. The Turks had big guns and sophisticated (for that time) siege machines and the defenders of the city were armed only with traditional spears, bows and arrows. And their faith. Not a single one of the defenders surrendered, they all died fighting. Among the ruins we could easily identify those of the city walls, of the prince's palace, of a 6th-century church, the biggest of its kind in the mountainous areas of the Crimea, of other churches and monasteries. They were like a prayer for the ancient heroes who had died in battle. Our itinerary took us through the Baidarsky Pass, a palace of a breath-taking beauty. We reached Foros where one finds gorgeous subtropical parks, excellent beaches and quiet bays.
Our itinerary took us through the Baidarsky Pass, a place of a breath-taking beauty. We reached Foros where one finds gorgeous subtropical parks, exellent beaches and quiet bays. It was a temptation to stay there and relax for several days but when we discovered that the temperature of the water had dropped to about seven degrees Celsius (a thing like this does happen once in a while in June at the Crimean coasts) we decided that it was God's way of preventing us from succumbing to temptation. And we moved on.
On our way we stopped at many places, of course, and each had something special which deserved to be appreciated. But it would take a book to describe all of them. Cape Fiolent boasts a monastery which was founded by Greek sailors in the 9th century. The traditional story has it that the sailors were caught in a bad storm and they prayed to St. George to save them and the Saint who paid heed to their prayer restrained the waves. The sailors reached the shore safely and discovered in the cliffs an icon image of the Saint miraculously revealed to them. The monastery they founded was naturally given the name of St. George. Incidentally the icon that the Greek sailors found among the rocks is now exhibited in the National Fine Arts Museum in Kyiv. The monastery itself was closed down and gutted in the times of the former regime and most of its ruins cannot even be seen or approached since they happen to be situated in the territory "occupied by the Ministry of Defence of Russian Federation." That was what the warning signs said. Dismayed at the idiocy of this, later we were happy to learn that at least a cave church had already been renovated and repair work at some parts of the monastery continued.
At last we reached Korsun-Chersonesus, a sacred place for the Eastern Slavs, since it was here that Kyiv Prince Volodymyr, as I have already mentioned earlier, was baptized and turned Christian. We look at the white columns of the ruins of ancient Greek temples, at the newly renovated St. Volodymyr cathedral, at the sparkling sea, and say good bye. I feel that my pilgrimage has achieved its purpose, and the words of St. Volodymyr, said at the time of his baptism, come to mind: "Now I have come to know the true God."
Every piligrimage is a way of coming to
know the True God.
By the Reverend Andriy VLASENKO
Photos by the author.