• Adrian J. Boas

On Commemorating a Remarkable Tree

It sits low in the valley, in the vicelike grip of its buttresses. The ancient stones contrast with the clean white boxes of the museum that climb the crest of the western hill and the tumble of suburban Rehavia to the east. Above its high walls a solitary belfry peaks, diffident, yet at the same time proud in its elegant Baroque ornamentation; a nineteenth century creation that is startlingly incongruous in this otherwise unadorned fortress. A cluster of dark cypresses shoot above the wall like flames and the Greek and Orthodox flags flap noisily on their poles. All around the valley is reawakening after the first rains; crocuses breaking through the soil and a fresh fleece of bright grasses sprouting beneath the broken grey and gold of last season's growth. Puffy white clouds are on a steady march east towards the desert, a lone hawk circles above and pigeons walk idiotically along the crest of the walls.

I love the way this place it embraces itself, determined to retain its integrity as the world churns noisily around it. The traffic and the clamour of the encroaching city are unable to breach its serenity.

And what was here that gave it its purpose? What did this pleasant but in no way exceptional valley possess to earn it the custody of such a remarkable edifice? Nothing more than the stump of the tree... but a tree of significance.

...there is a monastery of Georgians, called *At Stump' or * At Stock, ' because the wood of the holy cross is said to have been cut down at that place. The altar stands on the place where the stump was.[1]

When the chronicler says that this was where "a piece of the cross was found" he seems he is suggesting this was the source only of the crossbar, the horizontal beam of the crucifixion cross, and that the upright beam had a separate history of its own:

And the upright beam of the cross was found before the temple, because it had remained near the temple, for it was brought from Lebanon with the timber for the Temple, for they could find no place where it fitted, being either too long or too short.[2]

The monastery had originally been founded in the fifth century under Byzantine rule. It was repaired by Justinian in the mid-6th century, but destroyed during the Persian invasion of 614 AD. In 796 the Muslims slaughtered all of the monks, but in the eleventh century it was rebuilt and settled by Georgians. The twelfth century Greek pilgrim Joannes Phocas misidentified them as Spanish:

On the right-hand side of the Holy City of Jerusalem, in the direction of the Tower of David, there is a hill covered with vines, and on the lower part thereof a monastery of Spanish monks, within the circuit of which it is said that the wood for the glorious Cross was cut.[3]

That they were indeed from Georgia is recorded in sources that mention them as having come from Anegine, a country near the Caspian Sea.[4] Today, the Georgian origin is commemorated in the name of the street leading to the monastery entrance - Shota Riustaveli Street, named for the twelfth century Georgian national poet who is said to have renovated the building and, according to popular legend, to have retired to the monastery in his old age, and whose fresco portrait is still preserved there. The Greeks came later, in 1685 when financial difficulties forced the Georgians to sell it to the Greek Orthodox Patriarch, Dositheos II.

And back to the tree. It appears to have been pretty remarkable too. Tradition has it as strange amalgamation of pine, cypress, and cedar. These had sprouted from the staffs of the three angels who had visited Abraham prior to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. It had been cared for and watered by Lot in order to find redemption for his sin of having slept with his daughters.

I first visited the monastery as a student in 1985. My chief recollection of that visit was the nasty knock I received to my forehead when departing through the gate, which, as is frequently the case in ancient monastic compounds, was constructed very low and necessitated that one to bow down on entering and leaving, something that in momentary distraction I had painfully forgotten to do. The last time I visited I was accompanying an archaeologist under whom I had been employed several years ago, the late Vasilius Tzaferis, himself, in a former life, a monk and a resident of this very monastery. His own history is almost as colourful as that of the monastery.

Today I have not entered but am satisfied to walk around the spacious walled grounds. The lone hawk is still flying above, circling, swooping, gliding, and I hear its distant muted cry. Is it perhaps performing in its flight a requiem of motion in honour of the cut-down tree... like the bird in the poem by the wonderful Greek poet Yannis Ritsos, that roosted each nightfall on a tree, and when the tree was cut down "flew above it with small savage cries... describing in the sunset the inexhaustible shape of the tree..."? [5]

1. Anonymous Pilgrim II, Palestine Pilgrims' Text Society, vol. 6, trans. Aubrey Stewart, London 1894, p. 11.

2. The Condition of the City of Jerusalem, Palestine Pilgrims' Text Society, vol. 6, trans. Claude R. Conder, London 1896, pp. 21-2.

3. Joannes Phocas (c. 1185) Palestine Pilgrims' Text Society, vol. 9, trans. Aubrey Stewart, London 1893, p. 30.

4. Janet Shirley, Crusader Syria in the Thirteenth Century, Aldershot and Burlington, 1999, p. 21; The Condition, p. 21, n.2

5. Yannis Ritsos, "A Tree", in Selected Poems, eds. and English translation Kimon Friar and Kostas Myrsiades, New York, 1989, pp. 123-24.