21 February 2011

The Monastary at Orheiul Vechi

We found ourselves in a very remote part of the world the other day, walking along the spine of this long ridge above the Raut tributary to the Dnistr. To say that we found ourselves there, actually, is a little misleading; we drove there to see the cave monastery at Orheiul Vechi. We weren't entirely sure how to reach the caves, though we had been able to see a few window-like openings in the cliff as we drove into the valley. There were few footprints ahead of us in the snow, and a church building in the distance, which we headed towards.
The door to the church was closed and locked, though we could hear people on the other side. After we knocked, a young monk came and opened the door. He didn't say anything to us, and let us walk around for a while, unhindered. The church was sort of interesting, but it wasn't in a cave, and we weren't sure what to do. Before we left, we offered to help the monk unload a van that was parked in the churchyard - he smiled, declined our offer and took pity on us. He pointed us down to a belltower that we'd passed earlier, and made a motion that seemed to indicate going down.
This is the belltower and the door to the monastery. The wood was difficult to move, and it protested quite loudly when we did get it to budge. Inside: a long stairway carved into the rock, descending into blackness. As we stood there, unsure of what to do, we heard an angry voice from below. An old, short, broad-shouldered monk came running up the stairs. He moved much more quickly than I would have thought he could, and he was much angrier than I hoped he might be. We were keeping the door open too long, it seems. He shut the door behind us, throwing the stairway into near-complete darkness.
There was some light below us. It was strange to see sunlight buried deep within the hillside - it gave me a kind of vertigo. The faint glow was completely insufficient for navigating the irregular steps. The monk barked at us to move, only grudgingly cracking the door when he realized that we couldn't see. We stumbled and shuffled down into the rock and found ourselves in an otherworldly place.
The monastery was cut out of limestone between the ninth and twelfth centuries by early Christians who were drawn to the valley, believing that it was a sacred place. There were some caves here which were enlarged, and others that were created entirely by man. The complex isn't all open to the public - only a few rooms. One of which is this spare "sleeping chamber," which was barely four feet high and divided into eleven small alcoves. The light is entirely natural, coming from a few windows cut into the cliff face.
It's difficult to describe the light in the caves - it is very thick, as though the air was swirling with humidity and dust, which it isn't. It has a golden tint, and feels ancient. Water dripped slowly into a jar set on a stool, castling rippling shadows around the room. A woman mopped the wooden floor with a rag that she held in her hand, and the monk sold candles to place in front of icons. A small nook was piled with thick, red cloth - a little sleeping nest, it's nightly occupant unclear. To the right, an altar adorned with a good amount of gold.
We were shown out through a door onto the "balcony," where the monks hid from the Ottoman army in the middle-ages. It is said that they were perfectly concealed there, able to hear the voices of the Turks above their heads, searching for them. It was almost perfectly still, and the valley felt vast and timeless.
Getting into our car was strange - the engine and the heater seemed so new and different suddenly. As we drove off, the sun began to come out behind the mountains skirting the monastery, which was quite pretty.

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