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Ten Unique Christian Monasteries
Mount Athos, Greece. Mount Athos has a number of monastery complexes which makes it unique among Christian religious sites. The entire peninsula is a self-governing Orthodox state within Greece and access is restricted to males only along with special permission from various authorities. The colony is governed by the heads of the twenty monasteries and has existed since at least the 4th century and eponymous of the mountain that crowns the heights, Mount Athos (6,600’). There is a total population of around 2,200 males and some of the monasteries are governed by churches of the Russian Orthodox, Serbian Orthodox, Bulgarian, and Georgian orthodox as well as the Greek Orthodox. The peninsula also enjoys UNESCO World Heritage distinction. The Great Lavra Monastery founded in 963 is the first, or highest, in the hierarchy of the Athonite monasteries. Most of the monasteries were founded in the 10th century.
El Escorial, Spain. Located outside of Madrid, the immense complex of El Escorial is difficult not to notice with its imposing buildings and great church, which ranks as one of the largest in Christendom. Built by Philip II at the base of the Sierra de Guadarrama the square-grid complex is a testament to Spain’s acme as a world power in the 16th century. El Escorial functioned as a palace for the Spanish monarch who had close ties with the Papacy and constructed lasted twenty-one years from 1563 until 1584. The quick completion resulted in an architectural unity of the buildings that is uncommon among other architecture in early modern Europe. The monastery was consigned to the Hieronymites, a group of hermetic monks who live according to the rules of St. Augustine and St. Jerome. The complex contains 1,200 doors, 2,600 windows and the nave of the church tops out 302 feet (92 meters). The complex also includes the royal apartments, museums, the King’s Courtyard, the Royal Pantheon, Chapterhouses, and a Library.
Haghpat and Sanahin, Armenia. Recognized as UNESCO World Heritage sites,Haghpat and Sanahin monasteries, in northern Armenia, were founded in the 10th century, and are part of the Armenian Apostolic Church. The dilapidated complexes are in ruins and maintained for their historical and cultural importance. The architecture of the monasteries typifies old church buildings constructed across the Caucuses and similar church ruins can be found across Turkey, Georgia, and Armenia – pointed domes, Byzantine porticos, heavy masonry, and khachkars, or engraved stones, all hallmarks of medieval Armenian architecture.
Melk, Austria. Melk Abbey, or Stift Melk in German, known for its dazzling orange color overlooking the Danube in the province of Lower Austria, is an Austrian Benedictine abbey and one of the best examples of baroque architecture north of the Alps. The current buildings were constructed between 1702 and 1736 although the Abbey has been there since 1089. The south façade of the abbey, well known in pictures, extends for some 250 yards above which rises the ornate dome anchored by the two baroque cupolas of the church towers. The Abbey Church, or Stiftskirche, has a dome which rises 213 feet (65 meters) and is visible from the autobahn. The Abbey also contains the Emperor’s Gallery, 220 yards long, the Marble Hall, and the Terrace. The full baroque and rococo splendor is easily appreciated with a visit to the Abbey’s Library, two storeys, with some 80,000 books and 2,000 manuscripts,
Monte Cassino, Italy. A large Benedictine monastery about 80 miles south of Rome, Monte Cassino is perhaps best known for an epic battle which took place here during World War II between the Germans and U.S. forces obliterating the buildings. Originally founded in 529 by St. Benedict of Nursia, the abbey’s provenance is distinguished. Said to be built atop of the ruins of a pagan Roman temple the abbey sits atop a strategic location that has naturally attracted invaders and was situated along a well beaten corridor connecting southern Italy to Rome. Upon this location Benedict wrote the Benedictine Rule which laid the groundwork for western monasticism and it is believed that he died here as well. Following his death the abbey has undergone numerous changes mostly due to the invading forces. It was sacked by the Lombards in 584 and in 883 the Saracens sacked and burned the abbey down. By the 11th century the abbey had been rebuilt and enjoyed a halcyon presided by the abbot Desiderius, who late became Pope Victor III. Following a decline starting in the 14th century, the abbey was again scaked by Napoleon’s troops in 1799. After it was left in ruins towards the end of World War II it was once again rebuilt and reconsecrated in 1964 by Pope Paul VI.
Ottobeuren, Germany. Southern Bavaria has some of the finest Baroque north of theAlps and Ottobeuren is perhaps the crowning example. Located at the foot of the Alps, of theAbbeyChurch is the most noticeable landmark with two steeples which are 82 meters tall (269 feet). The Benedictine Abbey was founded in 764 but the current construction dates to the mid eighteenth century. Its size alone, often referred to as the Swabian El Escorial, is not only impressive feature. The interior of the Church is no less remarkable with its beautiful rococo artwork on the ceiling and walls. Other beautiful monasteries in southern Bavaria that are not to miss are Ettal and Andechs, both Benedictine monasteries. Ettal is well known for its magnificent baroque dome which towers overhead. The interior is no less dazzling with the most exquisite rococo artwork painted by Johann-Jakob Zeiller. Ettal was founded in 1330 and rebuilt in 1744 in baroque after it was destroyed by fire.
Pecherska Lavra, Ukraine. Pecherska Lavra is also know as the Monastery of the Caves because of its well-known catacombs. Along with St. Sophia’s, it’s the best known church-monument in Kiev, if not the country. Founded in 1015 the Monastery served as the center of early Eastern European Orthodoxy. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the property’s jurisdiction is split between the State Museum, the National Kiev-Pechersk Historic-Cultural Preserve, and the headquarters of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarchate. Across the sprawling complex are numerous buildings with various types of architecture. The Great Lavra bell tower, constructed between 1731 and 1745, is 316 feet tall, or 96.5 meters from base to the tip of the cross. The Cathedral of the Dormition, imploded by Stalin in the 1930s, was rebuilt and rededicated in 2005. The monastery complex’s other distinguished feature are the number of historical figures buried within its walls or under its ground. Among those are Oleg (12th century), Eufemia of Kiev, daughter of Vladimir II Monomakh, and Pyotr Stolypin in 1911. Stolypin, Prime Minister of Russia, was assassinated by a leftist radical and was best known as the architect of the Stolypin Reforms – the last ditch effort to reform Tsarist Russia. Vydubychi Monastery, located close by, is often ignored because it’s in the shadow of the Lavra. Located on the steep bluff above theDnieper, this monastery’s history is ancient and worth a visit. It was established between 1070 and 1077. Although many of the buildings are in the Ukrainian baroque style, some date to the eleventh century, such as the Collegiate Church of St. Michael. The monastery is part of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church - Kiev Patriarchate.
Putna, Romania. Putna Monastery in the northern Romanian county of Suceava, remains one of them most important pilgrimage monasteries ofRomania. It also has great significance as an religious, artistic, and cultural center. Established in medieval times, the monastery holds the tomb of Stephen the Great, Prince of Moldavia from 1457 to 1504. Putna is in the vicinity of a number of the famously beautiful painted churches and monasteries of northern Romania located in theprovince of Bukovina. These churches which include the ones in Humor, Moldovita, and the monasteries in Voronets and Sucevita are part of the Romanian Orthodox Church today and were built between 1487 and 1583. Many of them are recognized as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Rila, Bulgaria. Easily Bulgaria’s most famous monastery, if not the most well known monastery in Eastern Europe, Rila is beautifully located in a mountain valley and is one of the most visited tourist spots in the Balkan country. Founded by Saint Ivan of Rila in the 10th century, the monastery remains one of Bulgaria’s greatest historical, cultural, and artistic treasures and was a focal point of Bulgarian national consciousness. The oldest buildings are 14th century and were patronized by the Bulgarian lord Hrelyu Dragovola. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
St. Catherine’s, Egypt. This monastery needs no special introduction. Informally named after St. Catherine of Alexandria, a fourth century pagan turned Christian martyr, the official name of the monastery is The Sacred and Imperial Monastery of the God-Trodden Mount Sinai. It’s one of the oldest monasteries in Christendom in continual service and is Orthodox in faith. Its location is real estate with high Biblical value - at the foot of Mount Sinai (2285 meters, 7.497’) in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula where according to tradition Moses received the Ten Commandments and witnessed the Burning Bush. The site of the Burning Bush had originally been commemorated by a primitive third century chapel that predated the monastery. This location gives it special significance and pilgrimages to the site followed. By the sixth century a monastery was built at the foot of the mountain at the order of the Byzantine Emperor, Justinian I which enclosed the chapel that had been built in the third century. The high walled compound originated in the date to the seventh century. St. Catherine’s is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.