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]

Pyramids and monasteries among the many ancient monuments under restoration

pyramids, pyramid
Around the world, ancient monuments are crumbling. As our heritage wears away through neglect, “development”, or simply the harsh treatment of time, some countries are doing something about it.

The pyramid of Djoser, the oldest of the pyramids of Egypt, will be the object of a major restoration effort. The government recently announced that funding has been earmarked for restoration after the people previously working on the site put down their tools, saying they weren’t getting paid. The money that’s owed to the company would be paid and workers would be assured their salaries, said Mohammad Abdel-Maksoud, Egypt’s new Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities. The famous Zahi Hawass was let go during the recent revolution. Hawass was briefly replaced by Abdel-Fattah al-Banna, but al-Banna quickly resigned amid criticisms of his lack of credentials.

The Djoser pyramid at Saqqara was constructed from 2667 to 2648 BC and is a step pyramid rather than a true pyramid. It now suffers from numerous structural problems and a crumbling facade.

In Tibet, the Chinese government is investing almost $9 million to restore monasteries and homes of the 10th century Guge Kingdom. Among the attractions in the ruins are some colorful Buddhist murals, caves, palaces, and pagodas. BBC News has an interesting video showing of the site here.

It’s not all good news, though. Many treasures of the past are under threat. While Rome’s Colosseum is being restored, several structures in Pompeii collapsed last year. In Red Rock Canyon, Nevada, volunteers and experts had to clean away graffiti sprayed on Native American rock art. In England the Priddy Circles, a collection of Neolithic earthworks from 5,000 years ago, were half destroyed when someone bulldozed them.

It’s nice to see some governments working hard to maintain their monuments, but lack of funding and simple human stupidity are making their job difficult.

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

Climbing a Basque mountain

Spain, Basque, hiking
I’ve been hiking in Spain’s Basque region for three days now, and now I’m facing the most challenging hike of my trip.

I and a few volunteers from my group are going up and over the Sierra de Toloño in La Rioja, Spain’s most renowned wine-producing region. At nine miles it’s not as long as my daily hikes along the Hadrian’s Wall Path or the East Highland Way, but the 1,100-ft. elevation gain followed by a 2,100-ft. descent should be a pretty good workout.

If you have good enough scenery you never notice you’re exercising, and this hike certainly fits the bill. Starting along a dirt road high in the Sierra, we stroll through dark, damp forest. When we peek through the trees we see the morning mist is still veiling the summit. Here and there the land is scarred by new roads. Locals supplement their income with small-scale logging, a right they’ve had for centuries. Charcoal burners used to work up here too, slowly burning wood to create charcoal for the Basque region’s forges.

One legendary charcoal burner is still celebrated every year. Olentzero is a drunken old charcoal burner with a dirty face, a pipe clenched in his teeth, a beer gut, and a big sack of toys he brings for the kids. Sounds like the embarrassing uncle everyone has to put up with at family functions. Olentzero is a Basque figure. Most of Spain gets their presents from Los Reyes, the three kings.

%Gallery-124283%Sadly, no belching old charcoal burner shows up to distribute gifts, and we continue up through a mountain glade where a herd of cows stand munching the thick grass. To the south we see our first big goal, a series of rugged stone peaks and a saddle-back that’s the easiest way to go up and over the Sierra before descending into the Ebro River Valley.

Leaving the cows behind, we enter another forest and climb a series of steep switchbacks. It’s not long until we’re out in the open again, scrambling over rocks as we spot a crumbling ruin in the distance.

This is the Monastery of Santa María de Toloño, built in the ninth century on a promontory overlooking the Ebro valley. The view is spectacular. Stretched out below is rich farmland covered by vineyards as far as we can see. The Ebro snakes lazily through the vineyards.

“The Ebro is the southern boundary of the Basque Country,” our guide declares. Many Spaniards would disagree with this statement. In fact the Basque cultural region has no clear boundaries. Like with most cultures, it’s hard to say where one ends and the other begins, and this tricky task is made all the more difficult by sectarian politics.

Politics left its mark on the monastery too. It was destroyed during the First Carlist War, a fight for the throne from 1833 to 1840. The Carlists supported Carlos, while the Liberals supported Isabella II. The Basques threw in their lot with Carlos because of his conservative support for the Catholic Church, but the Liberals won and dealt harshly with them. The monastery was one of the casualties, and now only one wall remains standing. Civil wars being messy things, some Basques fought on the Liberal side too. Apparently they weren’t able to save the monastery.

Leaving the monastery, we make a steep descent into the lowlands. The river valley is mostly flat with a few huge outcroppings of rock, each with a castle or fortified church on top and a cluster of houses around them. They look like islands in a sea of vineyards.

No wonder this region has been fought over so much. Who wouldn’t want to live on an island in a sea of wine?

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Beyond Bilbao: Hiking through the Basque region.

This trip was sponsored by Country Walkers. The views expressed in this series, however, are entirely my own.

Photo of the day – monastery in the mountains

Photo of the day

It’s appropriate that this cable car in Montserrat, Spain leads to a monastery, because I’d be praying the whole ride that we made it safely. Perhaps other visitors are less height-adverse because this is one of the most important religious sites in Spain, with many people making the trek each year up the mountain to pray at the sanctuary. It’s not just for pilgrims: Santa Maria de Montserrat is home to one of the oldest printing presses in the world, a museum with such art biggies as Picasso and Dali, and a nature park with some stunning views of Catalonia. Want to visit? It’s about an hour from Barcelona, more visiting details here. Thanks to Flickr user othernel for making the climb.

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