The Cave Monasteries of Moldova
Toc, toc, toc, toc, toc, toc, toc… The sound of the mallet hitting the semantron echoed against the cliff and across the valley as Father Iuvenalie demonstrated how monks are called to church services at Saharna Monastery in Moldova. The scene of the monk leaning the slender wooden sounding board on his shoulder while standing in front of a 500-year-old church carved out of rock made my wife and me happy that we had made the effort to come to this out-of-the-way corner of the tiny country.
A friend had invited us to attend her wedding in a village south of Chisinau, the capital of this former Soviet republic, and we had decided to spend an extra week touring the country. The few travel books and web sites dealing with travel to Moldova listed the cave monasteries and some of the larger wineries as the country’s must-see places. We decided to tour the monasteries first.
All three of Moldova’s cave monasteries overlook the Dniester River or its tributaries from cliffs where the rock composition has allowed formation of shallow caves. Over the centuries, Orthodox monks seeking solitude came and settled in the caves, enlarging some of them to form churches, often adding masonry facades.
We drove our rented Ford the 60 miles from Chisinau to Rezina, the nearest town, then down the dusty, potholed residential street that becomes the equally dusty, potholed road to Saharna paralleling the Dniester River. After the four-mile ride, we arrived in front of a sign showing a map of the monastery grounds. There are two monasteries at Saharna: Holy Trinity Monastery, founded in 1776 in a valley surrounded by three hills, and the Annunciation Monastery, cut into the rock on the side of one of these hills.
The small parking lot was filled with cars and trucks – it was a feast day, and a crowd of people had come to the monastery, and more would come during our visit. We found the abbot and asked for an English- or Russian-speaking guide to show us around. (Although most of Moldova was once part of the Romanian principality of Moldavia, the country was ruled by Russia and later the Soviet Union for much of the past two hundred years. Most of the people are therefore bilingual in Moldovan, a variant of Romanian, and Russian.) Soon Fr. Iuvenalie, a Russian-speaking monk probably in his early thirties, appeared, wearing a dark red cassock and black leather belt, with a dark beard and long hair tied back in a pony tail in Orthodox monastic style.
Fr. Iuvenalie led us out the rear gate of the monastery and down a path through the woods towards the cave monastery. First we stopped at a holy spring with concrete pavement and pool recently built by Moldovan soldiers. The ice-cold water from the spring joins the narrow Saharna River that flows past the monastery into the Dniester.
After bouncing across the river on a rope bridge and walking up a dirt path, we came to the Annunciation Monastery, set in caves in the face of a cliff. Its church has a masonry facade painted in two shades of blue. Entrances to monastic cells (living quarters) flank the church. Monks had settled in the caves by the 16th century, but records on the monastery’s earlier history are lost. Services are held here once a year, on the monastery’s feast day on April 7.
Grimidon is the name of a long cliff that runs between the Dniester River and the monasteries, then comes to an abrupt stop to let the Saharna River flow past into the Dniester. Since our arrival we had been awed by the sheer cliff with cave openings in its face and a chapel on its edge, wondering how people got up there. We were relieved to find that there was a path leading up to the top from the Dniester side that, although steep, was an easier climb than we had expected.
Almost to the top and breathing hard, we leaned against a rock to rest before continuing. About half a mile away the Dniester River flowed by against the background of the green and tan bluffs on the opposite bank, then disappeared from view behind distant hills.
At the top, a small chapel to the Virgin Mary stands on the very brink of the cliff. A path leads down from here to more caves in the face of the cliff. This spot affords a great view of the the river valley on one side and, on the other, Holy Trinity Monastery and its lemon-yellow church with green domes surrounded by the forest-covered hills.
According to Fr. Iuvenalie, the church was built in 1821. After the Soviet government closed the monastery and turned it into a mental hospital in 1964, the church was used as a storehouse. The resulting damage required that the icons and decorative motifs that covered the interior be repainted. (Because of the neglect and abuse shown to churches during the Soviet years, most of the churches we visited during our trip had new wall paintings, either completed or in progress.)
The next morning we were off to Tipova, famous for its ancient cave monastery overlooking the Dniester about six miles south of Saharna. We were taking a chance that we might not be allowed in. The tour bureau in Chisinau had told us they did not send tours there now because it is dangerous there, owing to the condition of the caves and the restoration work being done there.
After a jarring 10-mile ride on a gravel road, we came upon what looked to be the church for the neighboring village, except that its grounds were larger than usual for a village church. We saw no indication that this was the famous monastery: the road signs had run out a few miles back. We asked inside, and confirmed that this was the newer, upper part of the Tipova monastery.
We followed an unsigned but well trodden path that leads towards the river and soon found it descending into the river valley that now stretched before us. The path zigzagged into a series of rough stone stairs, then straightened out and led under a cliff. A single metal railing guarded us from a nasty fall. Down a few more steps, and before us rose a cliff with a jumble of large and small openings in the rock where windows and doors had once been. Wooden scaffolding hugged part of the ruins, while several wooden braces shored up the wall. A group of young men worked on reconstruction at the far end of the ruins. Student archaeologists, digging in a pit against the cliff, had just excavated a skull as we arrived and would unearth much of the skeleton by the end of our visit.
We went up a wide flight of stairs leading to the second level, then up a narrower one carved out of the side of the cliff. Stepping through a doorway, we found ourselves in the ruins of a church. The nave was roughly forty feet square, and the altar area was divided from the nave by two square columns. The trenches cut into the floor will fit supporting beams to protect the ruins from further deterioration. Further exploration revealed a labyrinth of monks’ cells and other rooms on this and lower levels.
Upstream from this site we saw another group of caves, which, judging by their size and configuration, probably had been monks’ living quarters. You can see benches, shelves, fireplaces and even chimneys cut into the rock.
From the ruins we could see the high bluffs on our side of the river sweeping off into the distance as they followed the course of the gently winding river. On the bank opposite, a settlement and farmland spread out well below us. An age-old peacefulness imbues the place, broken now by loud rock music echoing across the river.
The date of Tipova’s founding is lost in history. Scholars estimate that monks settled in the caves before the year 1000. The main structure had three cave churches, the newest of which was carved out in 1756.
Photos of the cave church taken in 1939 show a well maintained building, with doors, windows, railings, and, inside, a well-outfitted church. Closed during Soviet rule, the monastery fell victim to decay and vandalism so that now the cave churches and cells look like ancient ruins, uninhabited for hundreds or even thousands of years, with no signs of human habitation except for the modern graffiti that completely cover the walls in some places.
Even our views of the Dniester Valley had not prepared us for our first sight of Orheiul Vechi’s green and yellow plain surrounded by a vast sickle of tan-brown cliffs. On our right, the only manmade objects breaking the ridge line, a yellow and silver church and, further down the ridge, a bell tower, stood out against the higher bluffs that rose up behind them. As we drove closer, we could see regularly shaped holes in the cliff beneath them.
The Raut River meanders its way across central Moldova before flowing into the Dniester River. At Orheiul Vechi, the river’s turns, combined with precipitous bluffs, have made the area a favorite place of refuge and fortification for at least three thousand years. The wealth of ruins of successive cultures has led the Moldovan government to designate the entire area an open air museum complex.
After seeing the visitor center’s small museum, we drove across the bridge to where the ridge slopes down to meet the river and began the long walk up the ridge to the monastery.
The monastery, dating to the 15th century, occupies a large cave high in the cliff face. Because the monastery church served for a time as the parish church for the nearby village, a long staircase was cut through the rock in 1820 to allow access from the ridge above. A bell tower was later built over the entrance to the tunnel.
The staircase brought us into the church’s large vestibule, which forms an L shape with the church’s nave. Sunlight shone into the nave through two or three windows cut through the face of the cliff. Multicolored flowers celebrating a feast day made a cheerful contrast with the brown wood furnishings and rough gray stone walls.
Fr. Eftimie, a monk in his 60s or 70s, lives in a recess in the vestibule. The two other monks assigned to the monastery live in the village on the other side of the ridge. Fr. Eftimie questioned us at length about the state of religion in America; he seemed well informed on world events. Then he took us on a tour of the rest of the monastery.
A staircase leads from the vestibule to the monks’ cells. The tiny cells, stalls really, radiate from each side of a central aisle. “The monks that lived here left the ceiling low so that they would have to bend over in humility before God,” Fr. Eftimie said. Standing stooped over in the remains of one of the cells, Fr. Eftimie with his unshorn beard, long hair, and well-worn black cassock looked as if he had stepped out of centuries past.
Another door opens onto the porch of the church, a narrow stone ledge that gives a great view of the cliffs, the river and the corn fields below. Fr. Eftimie pointed out the cave church of St. Nicholas further east along the cliff’s face. This is now uninhabited, as are the scattered hermitages stretching several hundred yards to its east; access to them is difficult.
We walked further up the ridge to the church that had first caught our eyes on our arrival. Built in 1904, it is a relative newcomer to this primeval landscape. Inside, we watched as a team of iconographers concentrated on painting the last few figures on the walls of the church. Row after row of saints looked down on us, their bright colors not yet dimmed by smoke from incense and candles. Like the monasteries we had visited, this church was coming back to life, and we were pleased that we could watch it happen.