The Eastern Orthodox Church is the second largest Christian communion in the entire world. The roots are traced back to the Hellenized eastern portion of the Roman Empire, especially Constantinople (now Istanbul). It shares many features with almost all other Christians but after the fell of the Roman Empire and due to internal schisms, the East and West churches grew more separate.
Today, it’s the dominant religion in Eastern Europe (Armenia, Belarus, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Georgia, Greece, Russia, Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Romania, Serbia, Ukraine and Southern Cyprus) as well as in some countries in Africa (Eritrea and Ethiopia). While some organizations use “orthodox” in their name, they not maintain communion with any of the 15 autocephalous churches.
The church building has many symbolic meanings, from the specific shape (rectangular, cross-shaped) to the icons painted on the walls. Beautiful Orthodox Churches can be found all over the world but the most spectacular are those in the countries where the Orthodoxy is dominant.
When visiting an Orthodox Church make sure to dress modestly and wear the appropriate clothes. You cannot visit a church if wearing tank tops, blouses which show cleavage or shorts.
1 – Saint Basil’s Cathedral, Moscow, Russia
The Cathedral of Intercession of the Virgin on the Moat, better known as Saint Basil’s Cathedral, is famous for its distinctive onion domes. Probably the most recognizable building in Russia, it stands in the Red Square in Moscow. The cathedral was built between 1555 and 1561. The interior of the cathedral is filled with beautiful icons and medieval painted walls.
Napoleon and Stalin tried to destroy it. The first tried to burn it down, while the other wanted to have more room for the military parades in the Red Square. Legend has it that architect Baranovsky threatened to cut his own throat on the steps of the cathedral had it been destroyed.
2 – Voronet Monastery, Suceava, Romania
Particularly known for the intense shade of blue used to paint the West wall, Voronet Monastery has been considered by many to be the “Sixtine Chapel of the East”. According to an old chronicle the monastery was founded in 1488 by Stephen the Great (after having won the battle against the Turks).
The lovely monastery located within walking distance of Gura Humorului. Today Voronet is a nun monastery (guided tours are available).
3 – Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, Sofia, Bulgaria
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is one of the largest Eastern Orthodox cathedrals in the world. It is, without a doubt, Sofia’s top tourist attraction. The cathedral’s construction started in 1882 (when the foundation was laid) but it was built between 1904 and 1912. The cathedral’s 45 m dome is plated with gold while the interior is decorated with Italian marble, alabaster, onyx and other luxurious materials.
Within the cathedral you can admire Bulgaria’s best collection of religious icons (and Europe’s largest collection of Orthodox icons).
4 – Orthodox Episcopal Cathedral of Curtea de Arges, Romania
Legend has it that the Black Prince (a wealthy and religious prince of Walachia) rode with 9 masons and their master (Manole) to find a place in order to build the most beautiful church ever to be seen. The masons started to work but whenever they were almost at the top, the walls would collapse and they couldn’t finish the church. In order to finish the building they decided to sacrifice the first human being that they would lay eyes upon.. Faith brought Manole’s wife to the site (with lunch for her husband) but the master kept the vow and immured his wife alive in the walls. But the prince didn’t want Manole to build another beautiful church so he ordered the removal of scaffolding while Manole was still on the roof. Trying to escape, Manole built wings from shingles but he crashed and died. The place where Manole’s wife was immured can still be seen between two walls on the southern wall.
Historical facts trace the monastery as being founded by Neagoe Basarab between 1514 and 1517. The paintings which exist now in the church have been restored but unfortunately they don’t match the original work.
5 – Holy Monastery of Karakalos, Mount Athos, Greece
Mt. Athos is not only a holy place but also one which delights the eyes with its natural beauty. Only males are allowed on the peninsula and into the monasteries. There are 20 monasteries on Mt. Athos and the oldest is Megisti Lavra. It is also the richest in relics and treasures.
The Holy Monastery of Karakalos was founded in the 3rd century by empress Karakalla and is dedicated to Apostles Peter and Paul (celebration June 29). The monastery which exists today was rebuilt in the 11th century.
In order to visit Mt. Athos, you should obtain a permit which allows entrance on the peninsula and the monasteries.
6 – Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey
Hagia Sophia had quite an interesting history so far: started its life as patriarchal basilica, then was turned into a mosque and is now a museum. It is one of the popular tourist attractions in Istanbul, particularly known for its massive dome.
The current building was constructed between 532 and 537 on the orders of Justinian and it was the religious focal point of the Eastern Orthodox Church for nearly 1000 years.
When the Turks conquered Constantinople (now Istanbul) in 1453, the church was turned into a mosque. The building was restored several times.
Since 1935, Hagia Sophia has been a museum. Some of the old decorations can still be seen (like the Archangels Michael and Gabriel). Some mosaics also depict Eastern Orthodox Icons, like the Virgin and the Child (a mosaic located at the southwestern entrance). During the latest renovations, many Orthodox mosaics have been restored to their former glory.
7 – Church of the Holy Mother of God (Crkva Ružica), Belgrade, Serbia
This church is definitely one of the most interesting on this list. Today’s church was actually a gunpowder magazine.
A church existed on the same site, but it was demolished by the Turks in 1521. The old gunpowder magazine was turned into a military church between 1867 and 1869, complete with a chandelier made of bullet shells. The church was damaged during the First World War and resorted in 1925.
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8 – El Muallaqa (Hanging Church) Cairo, Egypt
Saint Virgin Mary’s Coptic Orthodox Church (Hanging Church) is one of the oldest churches in Egypt. The church got its name because of the location: perched above a gatehouse of Babylon Fortress. In the 14th and 15th centuries it was known to the travelers as the “staircase church” as there are 29 steps which need to be climbed in order to reach the church.
It is, without a doubt, the most famous Coptic Orthodox Church in Cairo and most likely the first to be built in the Basilican style. Inside, the church is decorated with 110 icons, one of which the oldest dates from the 8th century. The majority of them, however, date from the 18th century. An interesting feature is the iconostasis made of ebony inlaid with ivory.
9 – Smolny Cathedral, Saint Petersburg, Russia
Smolny Cathedral is one of the most beautiful churches in Russia. The blue and white building is a masterpiece of the Italian architect Rastrelli (who also created the Winter Palace). The Cathedral and the surrounding buildings were meant initially to serve as a convent but now the various buildings are used as government institutions while the Cathedral is used as a concert hall.
10 – Russian Orthodox Cathedral of the Transfiguration, New York City, USA
In 1916, a good site was found to build a church for the Polish Orthodox who migrated to the States back in 1880. A suitable place was found halfway between Williamsburg and Greenpoint in Brooklyn. The architect based the design on a Russian church.
Services have been held here since 1919 (when the church was still incomplete). In 1946, English was introduced into the Divine Liturgy.
11 – St. George Antiochian Orthodox Cathedral, Redfern, Sydney, Australia
The first church established by the Antiochian Orthodox migrants was the Greek Orthodox Church, Holy Trinity and dated back to 1898. But St. George Antiochian Orthodox Cathedral was built in 1953 and the first service was held here on Easter 1954. However, the iconostasis wasn’t completed until 1956. In November 1964 the cathedral was fully consecrated when a silver box containing the relics of St George was placed in a rectangular hole in the centre of the altar slab.
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Additional photo credits:
Saint Basil’s Cathedral by Dennis Kent; Voronet Monastery by marches-lointaines.com on Flickr; Alexander Nevsky Cathedral by Anduze traveller on Flickr; Curtea de Arges by mircea tudorache on flickr; Holy Monastery of Karkalos by freeasinfreedom on flickr; Hagia Sophia by erindipity! On Flickr; Crkva Ružica by Curious Expeditions on Flickr; Hanging Church by Azlan Nache on Flickr; Smolny Cathedral by pierlux.com on Flickr; Williamsburg Church by wallyg on Flickr; St. George Cathedral by joolmp on Flickr