Visiting the Sisters

On several occasions I have tried in vain to visit the Russian Orthodox Church on the Mount of Olives. It is not visitor-friendly, to say the least. There is a four-meter stone wall surrounding the property topped by a wrought iron fence. Three steel doors appear to be the only way in.  Views to the central building within are easily obtained from a distance; those seven golden “onion domes” make it one of the most recognized buildings in all Jerusalem. Still, I wanted a closer look at this sample of “Moscow in the Middle East.”

View to the Russian Orthodox Church on the slopes of the Mount of Olives.

A conversation with the chatty watchman at the Dominus Flevit church (just upslope) revealed that the Orthodox compound would be open on this coming Thursday, but only from from ten to twelve in the morning. So on the appointed day, I donned my walking shoes, packed my camera bag and headed out. When I arrived I walked the circumference wall and was struck by a quandary. Which door would open? Door number one, two, or three? I picked the largest one (that conveniently had a bench in the shade) and parked it. Ten o’clock passed with no sign of action. Fifteen minutes more. Finally, a skinny fellow with keys in his hand brushed past me, unlocked the door, and went in. I casually arose to follow, relieved by his presence, only to find the door slammed in my face. “Sorry,” he cried. “Other door! From down.”

Back down the steep Mount of Olives road I went. Sure enough, at the bottom of hill I found an open door.

What a contrast I discovered! Outside the walls of the compound are honking cars, squawking vendors, blowing garbage, fuming buses. Inside the walls, I found a small quiet path winding its way through pristine flower gardens and tidy small dwellings. I saw a few of the sisters exercising their delicate care for the earth’s greenery.

The sisters at work.

These ladies are among the thirty or so individuals that live here as part of a worshiping convent of the Russian Ecclesiastical Mission. In addition to growing flowers (as I later discovered), they paint icons, Easter eggs, embroider vestments, and even record their own music. They are quite a talented group!

At the top of the road, the shade trees gave way to reveal the church itself. It was every bit as grand as I imagined. I initially thought the building was made of marble, but upon a closer inspection, I realized it was built of cut sandstone, the kurkar variety, like one finds in coastal sites. Note the medallion over the main entrance. Presented is the face of Miryam of Migdol, or Mary Magdalene, the saint for which the building is named.

View to the front entrance and porches of the church.

About this time a group a tourists arrived and shattered the peace of the place. One picture-taker even positioned herself right in front of my bench. If not for her colorful umbrella I would have growled. I found the primary colors to be pleasant in front of the sandy facade. I only wish I could have captured her in the full sun.

Umbrella lady.

The building is as spectacular on the inside as it is on the outside.  Hand painted borders in browns and taupes outline its features. Unlike some churches that are dark and gloomy, this one is light, elegant, and clean. Enormous paintings tell the story of the Magdalene. However, the final panel, the one right above the altar ended her story in a way that I had never seen before.  Pictured is Mary, standing before the Roman Emperor Tiberias. She presents him with a red-colored Easter egg, as she tells him the story of Jesus, a innocent man who died for our sins. It is a twist that I didn’t see coming!  I don’t know where this part of the story comes from. Neither do I know what Tiberias did with the egg!  It makes sense, though, that these egg-painters from Russia would possess such a memory.

Interior view.

The building was built in the 1880s by the Russian Czar Alexander III. He dedicated it to another Mary, his mother Maria Alexandrovna. In a crypt beneath the structure is the tomb of the sister of the last Czar, the Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorova. She is remembered for many things.  After a terrorist murdered her husband, she sold all her earthly belonging, became a nun and cared for the poor of Moscow. Despite this, the Bolsheviks buried her alive during the Russian revolution.  Her remains were reburied here.

There is no entrance fee to visit the compound (assuming you find the right door on the right day), but if you visit, you can stop by the gift shop and buy a little something to support the work. I have no need of a painted egg, but I did buy a CD set of the Sisters singing Christmas carols. It is lovely to play while reading (a cappella with many harmony parts) even if you don’t understand Russian.