What kind of tree provided wood for the cross on which Jesus was crucified? The answer dates back to back to Abraham, who was well on in years when three staff-carrying angels ventured into his tent. After predicting that Sarah would become pregnant despite her advanced age they continued on their way, leaving their staves behind them.
Later, when fleeing Sodom with his daughters, Abraham’s nephew Lot committed the terrible sin of incest (Gen. 19:31-35). He confessed to his uncle, who suggested that Lot plant the staves in Jerusalem as a penance. Should they grow together into a flourishing tree, it would be a sign of God’s forgiveness, he said.
Lot took his task seriously. Each morning he went with his donkey to the Jordan River and, laden with holy water, he returned to the fertile valley in which he had planted the staves. Eventually they combined into a special triple-crested tree.
Much later, this singular tree was chopped down to make beams for Solomon’s Temple. But the beams were either too long, too short, or their ends curled up when put into place. Solomon’s workers cursed the beams, and cast them aside.
According to legend, a thousand years later the ill-fated beams were rediscovered, and used to fashion Jesus’s cross. Centuries later, when the Persians invaded Jerusalem in 614, they plundered the holy sites and carried off the cross. The cross was recovered a decade later by Byzantine Emperor Heraclius, who crushed the Persians in a series of brilliant campaigns. Tradition holds that on his way back to the crucifixion site, to which he would return the cross, he stayed overnight in a secluded valley several kilometers west of Jerusalem – today known as the Valley of the Cross. As he slept, the holy cross rested next to the stump of the tree that had furnished its wood.
This entire, intricate account is faithfully depicted on an 18th-century icon on display at the Monastery of the Holy Cross, situated in the valley and a fabulous off-the-track tourist find. Constructed in 1039 by a Georgian (Iberian) monk named Prochorus, the monastery stands over earlier foundations whose exact ancestry is uncertain. The first church could been a 4th-century gift from Constantine the Great to the first Christian king of Georgia, or may have been constructed on orders of the Emperor Justinian, in the 6th century – and restored by Heraclius a century later. It could even, say experts, have been built by Heraclius himself.
Prochorus followed the original lines, adding only a large dome – a Christian symbol of heaven. He then populated the complex with monks. The Crusaders, who appeared 60 years later, referred to it as the Georgian Monastery and appropriated some of its vast landholdings.
After the Mamelukes conquered the Land of Israel and expelled the Crusaders, they offered the Georgians extraordinary privileges – perhaps because they were neighbors in their home countries. The Georgians became official patrons of Jerusalem’s holy sites – which included the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Indeed, the Georgians built the monastery of St. James, which today belongs to the Armenians, as well as the Franciscan Church and Monastery of St. Savior.
Near the end of the 12th century, famous Georgian poet Shota Rustaveli came to the Valley. Rumor has it that he was either sent here by his lover, the Georgian Queen Tamara, or was fleeing from her loving clutches. Rustaveli set about bolstering up the Georgian monastic brotherhood and made extensive repairs to the buildings. Many of the monks at this time were brilliant scholars, and their works formed the basis for what would become one of Jerusalem’s most impressive libraries.
After running up heavy debts, however, the Georgian Church was forced to sell all of its Jerusalem properties and by the end of the 17th century there were no Georgian monks left in the city. Ownership of the Monastery of the Holy Cross was transferred to the Greek Orthodox patriarchy, which set up a highly prestigious theological seminary in the compound in 1855. At that time, two upper floors and a belfry were added to the monastery, cells were transformed into lecture rooms, and the refectory was enlarged. During these golden years the monastery opened a museum of antiquities in one of its halls and amplified the library with new works. A number of the seminary’s 450 students went on to become Greek Orthodox Patriarchs.
Fifty-three years after its inauguration, the school closed down for lack of funds and only one or two monks remained in residence. The stunning, ancient abbey, the oldest standing monastery in Jerusalem, fell to wrack and ruin.
After a complete overhaul at the beginning of the 1970s, the historic monastery opened to the public for the very first time. Its beautiful church, handsome refectory, old-fashioned kitchen and fascinating museum have become a favorite attraction for tourists from Israel and abroad. Indeed, over the past few decades, a tiny stand covered with candles developed into a very large tourist gift shop. A modest café also appeared in the garden, offering hot and cold drinks and the sight of some very talkative feathered friends.
Visitors shouldn’t be surprised to find that the Monastery of the Holy Cross looks more like a fortress than a cloistered sanctuary: for centuries the once secluded abbey was repeatedly attacked and pillaged by invaders. Therefore it contains very few windows and many of its buildings are part and parcel of the compound’s surrounding wall. For security reasons there is only one door into the complex.
The combination wood and steel device found inside the entrance once called the monks to prayer. For hundreds of years, an apparatus like this – known as a nakos – was a common feature in areas controlled by Muslims who forbade Christians the use of bells. A monk would hit the nakos first to wake up his brothers for individual prayer, and afterwards to call them for communal worship. This nakos was replaced by bells in the late 19th century.
Built in basilica style with three aisles (a wide one in the middle and two narrower ones on the sides) the sanctuary is unmistakably eastern. A richly decorated iconostasis separates the prayer hall from the altar area, and nearby part of a 6th-century mosaic floor was uncovered during restorations. It includes geometric shapes, plants, and even a few large fish – an early Christian symbol.
Several of the church’s square pillars, and many of the walls, are covered with glorious frescos. These include a few that were removed and framed to be offered for sale by the poverty-stricken Georgians. One fresco, of an archangel, dates back to the 14th century.
The monastery was constructed around the site of the tree stump from which the holy cross was fashioned and until the 15th century, it is said, pilgrims could actually view the cut-off trunk. Nothing remains of the tree, for those early pilgrims cut pieces off with axes that they brought with them to the church. Now, all that remains is a decorative disk with a hole in the middle – although underneath the disk you can see, quite clearly, the space between the stones that surrounded the tree.
The disk is located in an anti-chamber whose lintel depicts the Eye of God.
Inside, detailed icons illustrate the story of the tree. Another icon, a life-sized depiction of the crucifixion, has been damaged. As recently as a few years ago, pilgrims tore splinters off the bottom of the cross to take home as relics.
Note to visitors: Entrance daily 10-00-17:00, except for Sundays. Fee: NIS 15.
Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel.
Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.