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31 October, 2013  ▪  Olena Maksymenko

A Monastery by the Devil’s Rock

The walls of the True Cross Monastery in Pidkamin are like an open history book bearing traces of the Batu Khan invasion, two world wars and Soviet occupation

In their own way, all neglected architectural sites have something miserable in common. The Monastery of the Origin of the True Cross in Pidkamin, a village in Brody Region, Lviv Oblast, looks far from miserable. But all historical turmoil since medieval times has left a trace on its walls, as if in an open book.

Now a village, Pidkamin used to be the Town under the Stone – this is what the name means in Ukrainian. Legend has it that it once sheltered 12 monks fleeing Kyiv in 1234 during the devastating invasion by Batu Khan. They built a chapel and set up a cross but did not survive long. The Mongol invasion reached their village, the shrine was destroyed and the monks were killed. According to other assumptions, the first fortifications at the spot where the monastery now stands were built based on a project by Danylo Halytskyi (Daniel of Galicia), Prince of Halychyna, who designed defences on the inaccessible slopes of the land there.

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Pidkamin and the monastery of the Dominican Order are first mentioned in records from the 15th century. A century later the town was attacked once again and the monastery was demolished. It was restored to its present form in the 17-18th centuries. The construction was interrupted twice because the roof collapsed as a result of errors in the design, and the beginning of the liberation war.

THRICE-BORN

The First and the Second World Wars also left their devastating marks. The library burned down along with the books, the cathedral was shut down, and the monks were deported to Siberia in the 1940s. The monastery switched from being a prison and torture chamber, to a morgue for victims of the plague, to a warehouse for fertilizers – their chemical fumes ruined ancient frescoes, to an asylum which still occupies part of the monastery. The only thing that prevented Soviet authorities from leveling the church to the ground was the steep slope that bulldozers could not navigate. Today, the monastery belongs to the Greek Catholic Church and the few monks living there are restoring the shrine on their own. Unfortunately, the mighty defensive walls cannot protect it from corrosion and decay. The monks claim that the copper gilded column crowned with the sculpture of the Mother of God in the monastery’s courtyard has begun to turn from green to gold since they settled there. Photographs taken over the years confirm this: the golden streak is gradually growing from top to bottom. The state does not allocate any funds for restoration while the walls continue to crumble, so NGOs and private companies are helping the monks. NGOs organize volunteer camps where young people from different countries come to help the monks restore the church. Private companies provide technical assistance. The result is a weird combination of brand new plastic windows in old time-worn walls.

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The priests and monks eagerly show people around and share their stories. The grand church with its bell tower was once a prison. On the brink of death, people burned anything they could to keep warm, including icons. But they rescued a man-sized gothic crucifix – they threw it over the fence to the locals. This is now in its proper place next to the altar. The underground church officially called “the winter church” has hidden tunnels leading to the Devil’s Rock, since the monastery served as a defence fortress in addition to being a shrine. This is now a pilgrimage destination, the monks tell stories of the blind getting their sight back and of people recovering from serious illnesses. They also share stories about ghosts restlessly haunting the monastery. The fortification offers a breathtaking view of the Pochayiv Monastery and the beautiful surrounding area.  

After all these walls have gone through, they still have a powerful atmosphere in the air. Being here feels light and serene. You just want to freeze for a moment, sitting for hours on the bulwarks under the strong and kind walls. This place remains more powerful than any human evil.

RISING FROM THE DEEP SEAS

The Devil’s Rock is smaller in size but as legendary and mysterious as the monastery. According to local lore, the devil once got mad at the Dominican monks, tore off a piece of the Carpathian Mountains and threw it at the monastery. The piece did not reach it. According to archeologists, the huge 16-metre high rock may have been a shrine in the early Iron Age. Findings from the 11-7th centuries B.C. confirm this. Geologists claim that Devil’s Rock is a piece of coral reef that appeared here millions of years ago when the terrain was under the sea.  

Some sources stated that the rock had been a pagan shrine: a special niche underneath had supposedly been used for sacrifices to the gods. According to other assumptions, the rock had been in the foundation of the ancient wooden fortification mentioned above. It is believed that Oleksa Dovbush – a Ukrainian Robin Hood, used the rock as one of his observation points. Today, the reef rock challenges all lovers of extreme activities: climbing it is a real challenge.  

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The rock is surrounded by stone crosses and tombstones from the 17th century. Some sources say that these are Cossack graves. Others claim this to be a cemetery – all that remains of the Savior Church. The tombstones stand over the graves of pioneer monks who came here from Kyiv. Caves are located nearby in the brushwood. Initially, they were natural but the monks started mining rock to expand the monastery, so the caves became much deeper. Apparently, the underground caves served as cave churches or cells for the first monks. Rebels found shelter here in times of trouble and hid their treasures in the caves. The caves could well be connected to the monastery’s underground tunnels.  

SAVED BY MUSIC?

Since 2007, Pidkamin has mostly been associated with the annual international ethnic rock festival of the same name. Every year, more and more young people come here seeking music and drive, and Devil’s Rock becomes the heart of the vibrant groove. The locals benefit from this too: this year’s festival had nearly 40,000 guests and organizers claim that this is not the limit.  

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The special thing about the Pidkamin festival is that it remains free and open to everyone, while doing its best to catch up with commercial festivals. In addition to the music programme, it offers a literary event and a movie night.

Thus, the new tradition has added a further layer to living history. Once the festival is over, life returns to its normal quiet provincial rhythm. The locals take care of their cattle, hang laundry in their backyards, ride horse-pulled carts; young people party in village clubs and pubs; masses are held in churches every day, even if no-one attends. Because of its neglected appearance, the Pidkamin Monastery is not mentioned in most guidebooks. But this may be for the better: its doors will still be open to everyone, while the serenity will not be disturbed.


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