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Across Coveted Lands by Arnold Henry Savage Landor

But let us visit the catacombs


Peter the Great erected a fortress here in a most commanding spot. It is said to contain up-to-date guns. A special pass has to be obtained from the military authorities to be allowed to enter it, not so much because it is used as an arsenal, but because from the high tower a most excellent panoramic view is obtained of the city, the neighbourhood, and the course of the river down below.

But Kiev is famous above all for its monastery, the Kievo-Petcherskaya, near which the two catacombs of St. Theodosius and St. Antony attract over three hundred thousand pilgrims every year. The first catacomb contains forty-five bodies of saints, the other eighty and the revered remains are stored in plain wood or silver-mounted coffins, duly labelled with adequate inscriptions. The huge monastery itself bears the appearance of great wealth, and has special accommodation for pilgrims. As many as 200,000 pilgrims are said to receive board and lodging yearly in the monastery. These are naturally pilgrims of the lower classes.

Enormous riches in solid gold, silver and jewellery are stored in the monastery and are daily increased by devout gifts.

But let us visit the catacombs.

The spare-looking, long-haired and bearded priests at the entrance of the catacomb present to each pilgrim, as a memento, a useful and much valued wax candle, which one lights and carries in one's hand down the steep and slippery steps of the subterranean passages. All along, the procession halts before mummified and most unattractive bodies, a buzzing of prayers being raised by the pilgrims when the identity of each saint is explained by the priest conducting the party. The more devout people stoop over the bodies and kiss them fervently all over, voluntarily and gladly disbursing in return for the privilege all such small cash as may lie idle in their pockets.

Down and down the crowd goes through the long winding, cold, damp, rancid-smelling passages, devoid of the remotest gleam of ventilation, and where one breathes air so thick and foul that it sticks to one's clothes and furs one's tongue, throat and lungs for several hours after one has emerged from the catacombs into fresh air again. Yet there are hermit monks who spend their lives underground without ever coming up to the light, and in doing so become bony, discoloured, ghastly creatures, with staring, inspired eyes and hollow cheeks, half demented to all appearance, but much revered and respected by the crowds for their self-sacrifice.

Further on the pilgrims drink holy water out of a small cup made in the shape of a cross, with which the liquid is served out from a larger vessel. The expression of beatitude on their faces as they sip of the holy water, and their amazing reverence for all they see and are told to do, are quite extraordinary to watch, and are quite refreshing in these dying days of idealism supplanted by fast-growing and less poetic atheistic notions. The scowl I received from the priest when my turn came and he lifted the tin cross to my lips, is still well impressed upon my mind. I drew back and politely declined to drink. There was a murmur of strong disapproval from all the people present, and the priest grumbled something; but really, what with the fetid smell of tallow-candle smoke, the used-up air, and the high scent of pilgrims--and religious people ever have a pungent odour peculiar to themselves--water, whether holy or otherwise, was about the very beverage that would have finished me up at that particular moment.


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