A Medieval Monastery In Estonia

Estonia
Estonia had an interesting time in the Middle Ages. Along with the other Baltic States of Lithuania and Latvia, they were the last bastion of paganism in a continent that had become entirely Christian.

Various Christian kingdoms decided this was a good excuse for conquest and launched the Northern Crusades. From 1208 to 1224, the Germans, Danes, and Swedes attacked Estonia and eventually conquered it.

Once the knights had finished their work, it was time for the clergy to step in. Prominent among these were the Cistercians, one of the most powerful monastic orders of their time. In 1220 they were rewarded with lands at Padise near the important port of Tallinn. They built a small stone chapel there and began expanding it into a large fortified monastery in 1317.

In 1343 the Estonians rose up against their occupiers and burned down Padise Monastery, killing 28 monks. The uprising was crushed and the Cistercians rebuilt the monastery better and stronger than before. It continued being a monastery until 1558, when it became a fortress protecting the landward approach to Tallinn. The building changed hands several times during the region’s many wars. It was besieged twice, the siege in 1580 lasting 13 weeks, during which the defenders (Russians at that moment) got hammered with Swedish artillery and eventually were starved into submission.

%Gallery-180500%In 1622, King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden gave the monastery and lands to Thomas Ramm, Burgermeister of Riga, in exchange for Ramm giving up the city to the king’s army. I suppose the Ramm family wasn’t very welcome in Riga after that.

I visited on a quiet, gloomy winter afternoon as part of a day trip with Tallinn Traveller Tours, after a morning spent chasing the Estonian Army. Mart, my guide, led me up some slick icy steps to the top of the tower to look out over the snowy countryside. Somehow I managed not to slip and fall to my death. Writing for you people always seems to send me up unsafe heights. At least it wasn’t as bad as the minaret in Samarra.

After we made it down safely, Mart took me around the castle grounds.

“Imagine being a kid here,” he said. “We all played like we were knights in castles, but the kids around here get the real thing.”

Lots of Estonian kids are lucky that way. Forts, manor houses, and monasteries abound in the Estonian countryside. This area was fought over for centuries yet the Estonians managed to keep their distinct language and national character. Eventually they managed to get independence too.

We entered the great hall, once used for meals and services, and admired the fine arches and carved columns. From there we explored the dark, chilly cellar, where a centuries-old oven was still black from baking bread for the monks.

“Look at this,” Mart said, shining is mobile phone light on the wall.

A mosquito was perched on the cold stone.

“I’m surprised it’s still alive,” I said.

“I should kill it,” Mart said. “I hate those things. They swarm around you all summer.”

He left it alone. I was glad. I’ve always respected survivors.

Read the rest of my series: “Exploring Estonia: The Northern Baltics In Wintertime.”

Coming Up Next: Gifts from Estonia!

[Photos by Sean McLachlan]

Visiting The Christian Community In Iraq

Christian Community in Iraq, Iraq, Iraq tourism, Iraq travel
Before Iraq was conquered by the Arabs in the seventh century, it was one of the oldest centers of Christianity in the world. Even after the Arab conquest, Christians made up a sizable minority of the population – sometimes tolerated, sometimes persecuted, but always surviving.

Now it’s facing its biggest threat in centuries.

The Christian Community in Iraq is a lot smaller than it was in 2003 when the Coalition invaded. During the occupation, radical Muslims claimed the Christians were helping the invaders and used this as an excuse to attack them. Churches and shops were bombed and individual Christians were murdered or told to leave on pain of death.

In an interview with the BBC, the priest at St Joseph’s Chaldean Church in Baghdad said that in the past nine years his parish has shrunk from 1,200 families to 300. The New York Times reports that before the war the Christian population was estimated to be as high as 1.4 million, and has now dropped to less than 500,000.

I met few Christians in my 17 days in Iraq other than some shopkeepers and the owners of a liquor store when I went on a beer run in Basra. I was anxious to see some of the early medieval centers of Christianity that make the country so important to Church history. The Christian community in Iraq is splintered into more than a dozen different churches, including the Assyrian Church of the East, the Syrian Orthodox Church, the Syrian Catholic Church, the Armenian Apostolic Church, and many more. Many of their rites and beliefs are from a markedly different religious tradition than what we are familiar with in the West.

Above is a photo of the entrance to Mar Mattai monastery, run by the Syrian Orthodox Church. Located in Kurdistan in the far north of the country, it sits on the slopes of Mt. Maqloub. It was founded in 363 A.D. by the Saint Mar Mattai and is thus one of the oldest monasteries in existence.

Much of the monastery is modern, with a few crumbling ruins dotting the slopes to hint at its long history. The assistant abbot welcomed us in careful, practiced English and told us how the saint converted Prince Behnam and Princess Sarah from paganism to Christianity. Sarah had been suffering from leprosy and was miraculously cured after her conversion.

%Gallery-172437%When their father King Senchareb found out, he had them put to death. He soon regretted his act, became a Christian himself, and as penance built Mar Behnam Monastery.

This monastery is much better preserved. Its stone interior is intricately carved in the style of the Atabek Emirate, which lasted from the 11th to the 13th centuries before being wiped out by the Mongols. The style is a strange one: a sort of mix of Turkish design with Christian symbolism and elements from ancient Assyrian art. See the gallery for some images, and there are more at this site. St. Behnam monastery survived the Mongol invasion and even managed to make a few converts. Some of the inscriptions in the crypt are in Mongolian.

Christian community in Iraq, Iraq, Iraq tourism, Iraq travelWalking through these two monasteries I could feel the absence left by the departure of so many from the community. We saw almost no one, and the monasteries felt more like museums than places of worship. Perhaps we just went on quiet days. Both are centers for pilgrimage, though, so I was hoping to meet and talk with pilgrims like I had at the Shia holy places. But it was not to be.

While the situation for Christians, indeed all Iraqis, has calmed down considerably in the past couple of years, the persecutions continue. Iraq has broken down along sectarian lines, with Sunni and Shia Muslims fighting it out and Christians being targeted by radical Muslims.

Being such a small minority, it’s difficult for the Christian community to defend itself. Government soldiers and police guard churches and monasteries, and man checkpoints at the edges of Christian neighborhoods, but as with sectarian attacks against Muslims, the terrorists often find a way to hit their targets.

There’s hope, though. As we studied the inscriptions in the crypt of St. Behnam’s monastery, I noticed our guide and one of our guards, both Muslims, lighting candles. I went over to the guide, who I knew to be a devout Shia, and asked him why he was lighting candles in a Christian holy spot.

“In my office there are a lot of Christian women. They asked me to light candles for them,” he replied as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

This man, who went off to pray every time we visited a mosque, saw no conflict with his faith in doing this or with working with Christian women. If his tolerance can become common enough to push out the intolerant radicals, the Christian community in Iraq may survive after all.

Don’t miss the rest of my series, “Destination: Iraq,” chronicling my 17-day journey across this strife-ridden country in search of adventure, archaeology and AK-47s.

Coming up next: “Kurdistan: The Other Iraq!”

[All photos by Sean McLachlan]

Uppsala, Sweden: A University Town With Viking Roots

Uppsala
Uppsala University in Sweden is 535 years old today, having been inaugurated on this date in 1477. As one of the older universities in Europe, it has quite a few sights to see and is located in a town of ancient importance.

The city started as a religious center for the pagan Vikings and the location of their Thing, a general assembly. An ancient temple at Uppsala was said to have had statues to Thor, Odin, and Freyr and the entire building was encircled by a golden chain hanging from the gables. While the old temple has disappeared, there are still some Viking remains in the form of runestones and three large earthen mounds. Legend has it that they’re the barrows (tombs) of the three principal Norse gods, but excavations showed them to be the resting places for three early Norse rulers.

As with many pagan sites across Europe, Uppsala was turned into a center for Christianity and became the site for the country’s first archbishopric in 1164. There’s a little medieval church dating to the 13th century and a much more elegant cathedral from the 15th century. I wish I could describe the interior of the earlier church to you, but on my visit I walked in on a wailing baby getting baptized and had to walk right out! Such are the hazards of travel.

The later house of worship still serves as the cathedral today. Its brick exterior has a warm, homey feel, but when you go inside you find the soaring arches and fine stonework that you’d expect from a European cathedral. Inside you can find the tombs of important Swedes such a King Gustav Vasa (of Vasa ship fame), scientist Carl Linnaeus and mystic Emanuel Swedenborg.

As for the university itself, such an old center of learning is bound to have some attractions. In good weather visit the Linnaean Garden, a beautiful botanical garden founded in 1655 and reorganized by Carl Linnaeus, who created the taxonomic system still used to categorize plants and animals today. He got in trouble with church authorities for categorizing humans as primates. Above is a view of the gardens courtesy Andreas Trepte, who caught them on one of those warm, sunny days that are so precious this far north. The gardens are an easy stroll from Uppsala Castle, complete with throne room and a rich collection of European art.

%Gallery-167737%The Gustavianum, formerly an operating theater where 17th century medical students could watch dissections, is now a museum showing off the university’s art and archaeological collections. There’s also a cool exhibit of early scientific instruments. The old operating theater still exists if you want to see what it was like to get cut up in public.

Take some time to soak up Uppsala’s atmosphere. Stroll through the narrow medieval lanes and along the riverside where the students like to lounge. Being a northern city, it changes dramatically with the seasons. My first visit was in winter and was in fact my favorite. Standing atop an old Viking barrow and looking out across the snow-covered fields as the church spire rose in the gray distance, I felt like I was seeing Sweden at its best. Sure, we all like sunshine, but biting cold wind and short, overcast days seemed more properly Scandinavian!

Uppsala makes an easy day trip from Stockholm and is one of the top places to see in Sweden. Gamla Uppsala (“Old Uppsala”) with its pagan remains and early church, is just outside the more modern town.

Archaeologists Discover York Minster’s Earliest Church

York, York Minster
Archaeologists digging in the medieval foundations of York Minster in York, England, have found evidence for an early building that may have been the first church on the site.

The team examined a trench from the original medieval construction site of the present building and found the remains of at least thirty people. They also found two large postholes. These are filled holes in the earth often seen only as a darker stain in the surrounding soil that once held wooden support beams. They are large enough that they were obviously supporting some major structure, and the archaeologists believe this might be evidence of the first church on the site, built in 627 to baptize King Edwin of Northumbria.

Edwin had started life as a pagan but, like many Anglo-Saxon rulers at that time, converted to Christianity. He was venerated as a saint in the early Middle Ages.

York Minster dominates the skyline of the historic city of York and is one of its most impressive attractions. It is a masterpiece of architecture from a time when architects tried to outdo each other in building impressive cathedrals. Most of the current building dates to the 13th century with some older and newer elements. The soaring arches make visitors stare up in awe and the gargoyles and stained glass windows provide lots of detail that reward a second, or tenth, look.

Yorkshire is filled with attractions from literary landmarks and impressive castles to haunted hotel rooms and challenging hikes. The city of York itself draws a steady stream of visitors attracted by its long history, fine dining and excellent shopping.

[Photo courtesy Matze Trier]

Exploring England’s oldest Anglo-Saxon church


One of England’s most alluring traits is the way its historical ages pile atop one another. This is a nation where farmers discover Roman coin hordes in their fields, where people drink in 400 year-old pubs, where people worship in churches that have been around as long as England has been Christian.

If you’re ever visiting Durham in northern England be sure to take a brief drive or bus trip to the nearby village of Escomb. In the center of town stands this church, built sometime around 670-690 AD. England was not England back then, but rather a patchwork of warring Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. In many regions, people had converted to Christianity within living memory, and there were still some who clung to the Old Religion. The crumbling remains of Roman cities, forts, and shrines could still be seen, remnants of a greater civilization that was already taking on the character of legend.

At this time some unknown individuals built this church. It has been in use almost continually ever since and is the oldest intact Anglo-Saxon church in the country. Its sturdy walls have borne the centuries well. If you look carefully you can see much of England’s history marked in its stone.

The Anglo-Saxons were actually three distinct tribes–the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes–who came from what is now Denmark and northern Germany to fill the power vacuum left by the departing Romans in the early fifth century. The Angles settled in this part of the country. They were still pagan then, and would remain so for a century. Eventually churches started to appear. The stone for this church mainly came from an abandoned Roman fort nearby. A couple of the stones even have old Roman inscriptions, one saying “Legion VI”, which had been garrisoned at the fort.

%Gallery-101095%The Angles added their own elements. A seventh century sundial sits high on the wall, decorated with a serpent and a monster’s head. The serpent symbolized the Teutonic creator god of the pagan Angles, and the serpent may be a symbol of the god of chaos and creativity. It’s interesting that the newly converted Angles kept a lot of their pagan symbolism! The sundial has only three marks, to show the times for mass. A more modern sundial with proper hours was added in the seventeenth century.

Inside the church are some early medieval crosses and a baptismal font that once had a locking cover to keep the locals from stealing the holy water to use for spells and folk medicine. Paganism died hard in this part of the country!

What’s most remarkable about this church is that it’s still being used. It was abandoned for a time and was in danger of falling into ruin in the nineteenth century, but the local parish decided to save it. Services are held here regularly, and during my visit I got to speak to the organist, who told me that priests vie with one another to be assigned to such an historic house of worship. The congregation uses a special old Gaelic prayer rooted in the Celtic tradition that fits nicely with the atmosphere of the place:

As the rain hides the stars,
As the Autumn mist hides the hills,
As the clouds veil the blue of the sky,
So the dark happenings of my lot
Hide the shining of thy face from me.
Yet, if I may hold thy hand in darkness,
It is enough,
Since I know, that though I may stumble in my going
Thou dost not fall.