What do you call eight plastic tables arranged in the scenic courtyard of a medieval monastery, shaded by lemon and pomegranate trees and filled with geraniums, where one can enjoy a cold drink or Greek coffee while being serenaded by an aviary of tropical birds?
“It’s not a cafe,” insists Archimantritis (Monsignor or Father Superior) Claudios, the Athens-born head monk at the Monastery of the Holy Cross. “It’s not a cafeteria. This is a holy place. People visit to pray, and then sit for 15 minutes to relax and listen to the birds.”
Cafe at the Monastery of the Cross; courtesty Gil Zohar for Travelujah
Be that as it may, the picturesque monastery in the Valley of the Cross below the Israel Museum offers an oasis of tranquility that attracts several hundred visitors a week, says the silver-haired monk – many neighbors from Rehavia and Katamon who drop by to wish him in Greek “Kali mera, pater,” (Good day, father) – and share a coffee.
The ever-affable bachelor, 43, is one of three monks who today inhabit the fortress-like monastery – which according to tradition marks the spot where the tree was felled to make the cross upon which Jesus was crucified.
Though casually dressed in Western clothes rather than a monk’s habit, Claudios lives in a world far removed from the hustle and bustle of modern Jerusalem. Tellingly he won’t pose for a picture, nor does he possess a photo album. Indeed photographs are prohibited throughout the complex.
“For the Orthodox priest, this is the camera,” he says, tapping the side of his head.
Claudios personifies a way of life characteristic of Greece’s holy Mount Athos – a remote peninsula in the Aegean Sea studded with ancient monasteries where women are not allowed to enter and men must first obtain a visitor’s permit from Greece’s Ministry of the Interior.
“Greek priests are like soldiers,” he explains. “We follow orders.”
And two years ago the Greek Orthodox Patriarch Irineos I ordered Claudios to move from Jaffa’s St. Michael’s Monastery to assume custody of the Holy Cross. Claudios is apolitical, and won’t discuss relations with the new Patriarch Theophilous III, who ousted Irineos following a scandal over the sale of church property near the Jaffa Gate to a Jewish settlement group.
Georgian inscriptions at the Monastery of the Cross; courtesy Gil Zohar for Travelujah
“I like peace. I pray every night ‘Please bring peace to this country.’ Let there be peace,” and he crosses himself.
Looking up at the flags of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate and Greece, Claudios compares Israel to his native land. “It’s a small country with a big history.”
The same could be said for the monastery itself, whose origins are shrouded in myth.
One ancient Christian legend links the site to the Biblical patriarch Abraham and his nephew Lot. The Hebrew Bible relates that after three angels visited Abraham (Genesis 18:16), they continued on to Sodom, presumably to see Lot there. According to this tradition, the angels left their staffs with Abraham, who subsequently unsuccessfully bargained with God to save Sodom and Gomorrah from destruction (Genesis 18:32). But God did spare Lot and his two daughters. His wife however was turned into a pillar of salt (Genesis 19:26-30).
Lot’s daughters, thinking they were the only humans left alive, got their father drunk and seduced him. Although the Bible says Lot was unaware of his incest, Christian tradition does not hold him blameless. Seeking atonement, Lot asked his uncle for advice. Legend holds Abraham gave his nephew the three staffs, urged him to plant them near Jerusalem and water them with water brought from the Jordan River.
Lot, though hindered by Satan for 40 years, finally prevailed. Miraculously the three staffs instantly blossomed into a tripartite tree of pine, cypress and cedar branches.
In a further embellishment of this legend, the tree was cut down to build Solomon’s Temple but discarded by the builders (Psalms 118:22).
Legend links the founding of the monastery to Queen Helena, the mother of Byzantine Emperor Constantine the Great, the first Christian emperor, who sojourned in the Holy Land in 326 and identified many sites associated with Jesus’ life and Passion.
Alternatively the monastery may have been founded by Emperor Justinian in the sixth century at the behest of a Georgian prince named Myrvan. Elaborate Georgian mosaics and frescoes in the monastery bear testament to the long connection between the people of the Caucasus with the site. One wall painting depicts Dhota Rustaveli (c.1166-1250), Georgia’s national poet, who extensively restored the complex. The site continued as the center of Georgian monasticism in the Holy Land until the 17th century, when it came under the administration of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate.
A third tradition holds that the monastery was founded in the 7th century by Emperor Heraclius following his defeat of the Persians who had captured Jerusalem in 614 and destroyed the city’s many churches and Christian holy sites.
In 1855, after centuries of neglect, the monastery entered a golden age with the establishment of a theological school. The elaborate belfry tower dates from this time. But financial difficulties forced the seminary to close in 1908. A further blow followed in 1948 when Jerusalem’s substantial Greek expatriate community quit the divided city as a result of the fierce fighting in Israel’s War of Independence.
Following an archaeological dig and conservation project headed by Athanasios Oikonomopoulos between 1969 and 1973, the monastery was opened to the public. Though the stump of the tree trunk used to fashion the true cross disappeared in the 15th century, the Monastery of the Cross remains a fascinating window on medieval monasticism and pilgrimage.
And the Greek coffee is delicious.
If you go:
The Monastery of the Holy Cross is open daily except Sunday from 8:30 to 6 p.m. in the summer, and from 8:30 to 4 p.m. in the winter. Admission is NIS 15. For further information call 052 221 5144.
Gil Zohar is a journalist and a Jerusalem-based licensed tour guide. He is an expert contributor to Travelujah-Holy Land tours, the leading Christian social network focused on travel to the Holy land.