Zverinets cave monastery in Kiev is a one of places whose generally accepted history does not stand up to scrutiny and questions our knowledge of the past in general.
These caves were accidentally found in the end of the 19thcentury after a landslide in the Zverinets area. A hole appeared in a slope, localsstarted to visit and plunder caves, so the entrance was covered with ground againto preserve the caves.In 1911 they were rediscovered – three underground galleries with bones and other remnants of an ancient monastery.
There was an attempt to restore monastic life in that place, but in a few years revolution and communist terror destroyed everything. There was little time to explore that unique place, which had been buried for several centuries and therefore could tell a lot about the past. The most significant study, “Zverinets caves in Kiev: their antiquity and holiness” was published in 1914. The author, Ivan Kamanin, was a deeply religious man, in his eyes the caves were a very important and much undervalued historical and religious object and that impacted his study.
Today it is one of the tourist attractions. Monastery was finally renewed in recent years; it is a good example of modern church architecture.
Byzantine style and landscape art with special plants fits the mountainous terrain of that area.
Zverinets is located behind the famous Motherland Monument. The Dnieper river and low east bank in thedistance (even if you can’t see it behind the buildings) make you feel likestaying near a steep sea coast; the architect have chosen the right style for thatplace.
But modern buildings spoil that feeling.
Once an outskirt, Zverinets became a prestigious area, modest houses of old dwellers coexist with luxury cottages of “new riches” who bought land here recently.
The caves don’t look like centuries ago. They were strengthened by bricks and concrete, but most of the ceiling in the main gallery and small areas of walls are not covered and you can see the old ground surface here.
Of course, there is no guarantee that these surfaces preserved their original appearance.
But even today you can find inscriptions that in theory can be really ancient.
In his previously mentioned book Ivan Kamanin describes an inscription in a cave church with some names. He argues that these are names of hegumens of the monastery and builds its (hypothetical) history of on these names.
Random visitors like me can’t go to the church now. Some parts of the caves are not open to the public.
The problem is that if you build the whole story on just a few words on a wall it is purely speculative. He assumes that those hegumens lived in 11th century and tries to prove that it was the first cave monastery in Kiev. He links these names to the other names from various written sources of that time, claims that these are the same persons and makes up stories about their lives with no real facts, just on suggestions.
In fact, we can’t date inscriptions like this. Generally we can’t date such inscriptions at all because there is no guarantee that they were not falsified.
I have found obviously modern inscription in these caves:
“Kolya” is a modern colloquial form of masculine mane Nikolai. There is another name next to it, feminine “Lida”.
Obviously it was left by a romantic couple, not by ancient monks. In itself such funny discoveries don’t cast doubts on the accepted version of caves’ history based on the inscription in the cave church. But some findings do.
During excavations in 1912-1914 a Panagia (an icon of the Theotokos, worn by an Orthodox bishop) was found with an inscription “Intercessor for the sinners”. This icon became known in 1848, though it might be created much earlier. Ivan Kamanin dated it to the 11th century and totally ignores that it is a crowned icon. Catholic practice of Marian icons coronation started in early 17th century, in Eastern Europe crowned icons appeared in the second half of that century (it is one of features that came to Orthodoxy without much dogmatic reflection).
So, the Panagia couldn’t be created earlier than the 17th century, and that ruins all the speculations about ancient history of the caves. Ivan Kamanin, however, simply skips that obvious reasoning and argues that such icons could appear here “a long time ago and from the West through Poland and Galicia” (“Zverinets caves in Kiev: their antiquity and holiness” p.104). As far as I know, nobody paid attention to that his mistake so far.
But I’m the only one who suspects that there’s probably something wrong with dating. Here is another strange artifact found in caves:
Hieromonk Chrysostom (Grishchenko), head of the Kyiv branch of the Ukrainian Apologetic Center in honor of St. John Chrysostom, notes that “this icon was created in “cold enamel” technique… which is known in the XVII-XVIII centuries”.
Thus, he admits that this is a later artifact but doesn’t draw conclusions on this issue.
So, there are at least two artifacts which show that the caves were abandoned in 17th (or even in 18th) century, not in 11th as everyone believes. But it is an uncomfortable conclusion because it questions not only the accepted version of this monastery’s history, but also our picture of the relatively recent past. Just imagine: in 17th century a whole monastery in Kiev was destroyed, the brethrens were killed and there is no written record!
It means that even 17th century in Kiev is not properly documented; our knowledge of this epoch in this place is fragmented and incomplete.
The fact of killing is confirmed by the character of the arrangement of some mortal remains found in the caves and by another detail given by Ivan Kamanin. A woman who lived nearby visited the caves when they were discovered and saw a lot of these remains. After that these dead monks appeared to that woman many times and asked for food. It stopped only when she held a funeral service for them. Kamanin doesn’t comment on this but it is clear that he as a believer considered that as a relevant fact. An atheist would ignore this.
Generally Ivan Kamanin was a passionate and conscientious scientist; he provided several valuable ideas that unfortunately were neglected afterwards. For example, he supposed that there was a competition between cave monasteries in Kiev (and that might be one of the keys to understand that epoch), he pointed to obvious parallels between Pechersk caves and Rome catacombs and argued that Zverinets caves are a “snapshot” of earlier type of cave monastery and that gives us an opportunity to peek into the remote past of Pechersk caves. Pity, but these prolific ideas have not been developed so far. I point to all that in my homage to this gifted historian who wanted that more attention would be paid to this unique place.
2 thoughts on “The secrets of caves: ancient inscriptions and artifacts”
This is very interesting… and yes, cave monastic communities often had strange and distorted histories in many countries… and they were often targeted in war and during religious conflicts. The photos and history you posted is really fascinating, and yes, it would seem there is a large gap in Ukraine history about these sorts of places. Often local situations like this do get lost in history, and sometimes that is intentional – covering up a shameful period in history for example.
Thank you for the great investigations!
Historians and archaeologists study caves in Kiev for about two hundred years, but no comprehensive study has been published so far. We know caves’ history only in fragments, and it seems like many of them are still unknown and wait for discovery.