Sunday, November 18, 2007

Monastery of the Cross

This post is long overdue. We went to the Monastery of the Cross a couple weeks ago. It's a little bit crazy to have an 11th-century monastery basically right across the street. The current monastery was built in the 11th century, but other structures have stood on the same site, and the original mosaic floor (some of which is still there) is from the 4th century. The monastery was built by Georgians, but the current inhabitants are monks of the Greek Orthodox Church of Jerusalem.

We couldn't figure out what this writing was:

After a little bit of sleuthing afterwards, we figured out that it's probably the Georgian alphabet. So why wasn't that obvious to us from the beginning, if this is a Georgian monastery? Because the current Greek owners don't seem to be so hot on emphasizing the monastery's Georgian roots, and the informational booklet we got there didn't mention anything Georgian. The Greek flag and the flag of the Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulchre now fly above the monastery. But we should have figured something out from the fact that the monastery is on Shota Rustaveli Street, named after Georgia's national poet.

This is the oven from the old kitchen, dating to the 16th century:

What's the deal with the eye inside the triangle, and what do the letters mean? Is it a Masonic conspiracy, like the back of the dollar bill?

There's a whole midrash behind the location of the monastery. The story is told in pictures on the wall of a darkened side room. The story begins in Genesis 18, when Abraham and Sarah received three visitors (representing the trinity, of course):

Each of the visitors had a staff, and left it with Abraham as a gift. I didn't take pictures of the rest of the frames, so you'll have to go and see it for yourself. But in the photo above, you can see the left edge of the next frame: in Genesis 19, Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed, and Lot and his daughters escape. (You can see one of Lot's daughters above. The full painting also shows Lot's wife as a pillar of salt.) Lot's daughters get him drunk, and you know what happens after that. The Orthodox Christian midrash continues: After Lot sobered up, he realized what had happened. He went to Abraham and asked what he could do to atone for this. Abraham gave him the angels' three staffs and told him to plant them on the outskirts of Jerusalem (or should that be Jebus?). Lot planted the staffs. The devil came and tried to convince Lot not to water the tree, but he resisted and watered the tree anyway. (In the paintings that show Lot watering the tree, it really looks like one tree made of three distinct segments, even three distinct species. Symbolism?) Fast forward 1400 years or so. The Romans cut down this tree outside of Jerusalem, and make it into a cross. And you know how the story ends:

[While the Internet has clarified the meaning of INBI and INRI, what's with עונם?]

The monastery supposedly sits on the location of this tree, planted by Lot, which was turned into the cross, thus "Monastery of the Cross".

In the same room, toward the ceiling, there is a gallery of biblical prophets. I photographed most of these, in part because it was so dark that taking a picture with a flash and then looking at the saved picture in the camera was the only way to read the writing. We had fun deciphering the prophets' names in Greek; anyone out there who knows Greek is invited to tell us what the rest says.

The gallery begins with Moses, pointing to the tablets of the law. But they got the math wrong. Even if you accept that each of the Roman numerals is upside down for some reason, what's up with following IX with IIX???

Next are Kings David and Solomon. I never really thought of them as "prophets" before (and indeed, the adversarial relationship between kings and prophets is a core part of the biblical narrative), but I guess they have a total of 4 biblical books attributed to them, so that has to count for something.

Elijah and Elisha are drawn anatomically correct: Elijah has plenty of hair on top, and Elisha is bald.

Jeremiah's scribe Baruch. (I didn't take a picture of Jeremiah himself, pointing an angry finger.)

Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, and Joel. (Below them, you can see the caption at the top of the painting of the "diabolos" tempting Lot.)

Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah.

The end: Zechariah and Malachi. Does anyone know why Habakkuk and Zechariah are depicted as looking much younger than the other prophets?

In summary, I recommend to everyone to go and check out the monastery. We expect to see really old stuff in the Old City, but it's not so common to see intact 11th-century structures in the heart of residential West Jerusalem. Also, the acoustics are amazing.


  1. maybe they look younger because they're more recent?

  2. Followed the Wikipedia link... Hebrew acronym of INRI is fascinating
    ישוע הנצרי ומלך היהודים

  3. But then why isn't Malachi the youngest of all?

  4. On the Hebrew over the crucifix: If it is indeed ayin-vav-nun-mem sofit, as you've transcribed it, maybe it's "avonam" -- their sin (the traditional Christian allegation of deicide). But on closer look, could that last character be a kuf, and the penultimate one a samekh? I'm not sure what that would mean, either as a word ("onsk," "avonsak"?) or as a rashei-teivot.

  5. according to the gospel, it's the same in hebrew. may עיסא ו? נוצרי םלך היהודים
    or is that a stretch (עיסא) is jesus in arabic

  6. [greek] Ιησους Ναζωραιος βασιλεύς Ιουδαιων...INBI Jesus of Nazareth the King of the Jews