Kiev Pechersk Lavra (Києво-Печерська лавра) is a historic cave monastery founded in the 11th century which, together with the Saint Sophia Cathedral, has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s also one of the most important sanctuaries for the Christian Orthodox religion and one of the main tourist attractions of the Ukrainian capital. No wonder it has also been placed as one of the Seven Wonders of Ukraine.
It stretches over an area of 28 hectares and includes 122 impressive religious and architectural monuments built between the 11th and the 18th centuries. It’s well worth a visit but due to the size of the complex you should devote at least half of a day to covering everything.
It’s divided into two parts: the upper lavra (owned by the government) and the lower lavra (owned by the church and containing caves with mummified monks inside).
The Upper Lavra
The upper lavra, located above the ground, is a big square surrounded by fortified walls and containing numerous breathtaking examples of churches, chapels and belfries built in the resplendent/fanciful baroque style, abundant with glittery ornaments and shiny golden domes. There are also a number of small museums (Museum of Microminiature, Museum of Ukrainian Folk and Decorative Arts and the Historical treasures Museum) for which the admission price might not be included in the your upper lavra ticket..
To enter the upper lavra, you will most definitely pass the Gate Church of the Trinity (Троїцька Надбрамна церква, Troits’ka Nadbramna tserkva), an impressive structure first built in the 12th century as a part of the Pecherst Lavra fortification. The church is wedged in between the walls and near the entrance you can see the guards’ rooms.
One of the most impressive buildings of the upper lavra is definitely the Dormition Cathedral (Uspensky Sobor) with its golden domes gleaming in the sun. Unfortunately the present-day church is only a replica of the original which was allegedly blown up by the Nazis. Nonetheless, a very impressive piece of architecture.
Another noteworthy building is the Great Lavra Belltower (Велика Лаврська дзвіниця), one of the most renowned elements of the Kiev skyline, proudly towering over the lavra. It’s almost a 100m tall and if you have enough power in your legs you can give it a go and climb the 174 steps to the top.
The gold and green-domed Church of the Saviour at Berestovo (Церква Спаса на Берестові, Tserkva Spasa na Berestovi), although located outside the fortification walls, belongs to the lavra complex. Berestovo was a suburban residence of the grand prince of Kiev and the ruler of of Kievan Rus in the 10-11th centuries, Vladimir the Great. The first mention of a monastery on this ground dates back to1073.
The Lower Lavra
The lower lavra is divided into the Nearer Caves and the Farther Caves. The Near Caves or the Caves of Saint Anthony (Ближні печери, Blyzhni pechery) are a network of medieval underground tunnels stretching over almost 400m. They were founded in the 11th century and consist of the underground churches and tombs of 123 mummified monks behind glass panels. The bodies are covered so that you won’t see anything more than a sporadically protruding crooked finger.
To enter the tunnels you must go through the Church of the Raising of the Cross and if you are a woman, you must wear a headscarf and preferably a dress or a long skirt. Taking pictures is forbidden inside the tunnels and tourists and non-believers are allowed only in the initial section of the caves.
Visiting these narrow, dark and claustrophobic corridors is definitely an experience, in no small part due to their deeply spiritual air. You might encounter lines of Orthodox pilgrims ecstatically praying out loud, feverishly waving their candles and devotedly kissing the monks’ hands and feet, as they are believed to have healing powers.
Kiev Pechersk Lavra is an interesting place, dual in its nature, as it’s both highly touristy, with its UNESCO World Heritage listed buildings, as well as very sacred and mystical, with its dark medieval corridors and stern bearded Orthodox monks who won’t let you explore its secret chambers. I won’t say it’s Kiev’s number one, as Ukraine’s capital has many gems to offer, but you should definitely put it on the list of things you must see before you die.
written by: Ania