The Monastery of the Cross lies in the valley between Jerusalem's Rehavia quarter and the Israel Museum. Today the monastery is a haven of stillness, but in its heyday it was bustling and full of life. A mere hint of this life is given by the faded photographs of Greek clerics with soulful eyes and long beards. At least some of those in the photographs, from the time the monastery served as a theological school drawing students from the entire Orthodox world, went on to serve as leaders in the Greek Orthodox Church.
"But the school, which closed its doors at the beginning of this century, was only one of the phases through which the monastery passed," writes Haim Shapiro [The Jerusalem Post's former religion reporter - Ed.]. "Much of the history may be found in the main chapel, bright and airy in its newly restored state. In one corner, almost hidden from view, is a small bit of mosaic from the sixth century, the earliest to be found at the monastery.
"Far more impressive are the frescos, the work of the Georgian monks who had occupied the building since they were brought by the Emperor Heraclius in 630. The frescos once covered the entire church, and also record the strange link with the Georgian national poet, Shot'a Rust'aveli. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, it is not clear whether the 11th-century author of the Georgian national epic was a historic figure, but the monastery has a fresco which shows the tiny figure of the poet, who came as part of a church delegation and never left, among the larger-than-life portraits of the saints. Rust'aveli's grave is said to be somewhere in the church.
Rust'aveli was said to be the treasurer of Queen Tamara of Georgia and, according to some accounts, her lover. Rust'aveli was one link between the central Asian Christian kingdom, and this one spot in the Holy Land.
"It was a Georgian monk, Prochoros, who was responsible for building the massive structure in 1038, even though it was undoubtedly erected on earlier foundations, hinted at both by the remnant of the sixth-century mosaic and by a church tradition. It was also the earlier remains that caused the Georgians to build the church in the Byzantine tradition, with two aisles of columns...
"The portrait of Rust'aveli is one of the few artifacts from his period and most of the frescos, including the large images of saints, are from the 14th century, after the monastery had been briefly occupied by the Moslems. It was returned to the Georgians after the intervention of the Byzantine emperor in Constantinople.
"It was also in the 14th century that the Georgians brought peasants from their native country to work the vast lands that then belonged to the monastery. The peasants, who in later centuries were converted to Islam, settled in the village of Malha, now one of the quarters of Jerusalem. At the time Georgia was divided between two rulers, one in the north and one in the south, and the monastery had two heads, each representing a different monarch.
"After this, the monastery went into another period of decline, and was restored in the 17th century. An inscription over the door of the church in Georgian and in Greek commemorating this work by the monk Nikiforus in 1643 is the last vestige of the Georgian period.
"Matching the frescos on the walls are 11th-century mosaics on the floor, with a pattern of birds. And high above the floor, over the iconostasis, are two sets of... icons, both of them with portraits of Jesus, St. John the Baptist and Mary; 14th-century icons restored to their original brightness, their soulful eyes looking out over the church.
"Behind the church, reached by a narrow corridor, adorned with its own 14th- and 15th-century icons, is the spot for which the monastery is revered, where the tree from which the cross was made had grown. The story of the cross is illustrated in simple style on canvasses around the small room, and a silver star marks the venerated spot.
"It is with a certain regret that we learn," writes Haim Shapiro, "that the tradition which links the site of the monastery with the tree of the crucifixion dates only from the 15th century."
Across the courtyard is the refectory where a long line of stone tables with inlaid marble surfaces stands....
"The library still contains many first editions, although the manuscripts have been removed for safekeeping at the Patriarchate."
From The Monasteries and Convents of The Holy Land, Tzur-Ot Press, 2002.