Lesser-known Tourist Attractions: New Jerusalem Monastery

DSC_0045An hour and a half outside Moscow lies the the town ‘Istra’, a location described as ‘a beautiful day-trip from Moscow’. The main attraction here is the New Jerusalem Monastery, a Monastery founded by the patriarch Nikon in 1624. While this Monastery is not unusual or spectacular once you have seen the variety of churches in Moscow and St. Petersburg, it was the surrounding landscape that drew me to visit the town and spend an afternoon there.

The Journey

Suburban Electric trains head for ‘Istra’ or ‘New Jerusalem’ every half an hour from the Rizhsky train station in northern Moscow. Note that the suburban trains have their own station and ticket office. From the Metro, cross under the street, walk with the classical old train station on your left until you arrive at the smaller station. Here you can by a ticket to and from Istra for 266 Roubles.

The trains are different, depending on how modern they are- I was lucky on the way there and had a new, air conditioned beauty, which took me through the layers of Moscow into the countryside. The ride itself is already interesting, as the buildings become taller on the outskirts of Moscow, the paths across the train lines less clearly defined, eventually disappearing completely. On this journey we came past a massive stadium as well as a gigantic lock before the train made its way through cottages and rural towns.

The Countryside

DSC_0029Instead of taking the bus through Istra, I decided to walk to the Monastery from the train station. With a map as a guide I set out into the green rolling hills, walked along the river that is supposed to mimic the river in Jerusalem, and wandered passed locals gardening, quad biking and sunbathing. The path towards the Monastery was not clear cut, and because I avoided crossing onto the wrong side of the river, I quickly was back in the town, walking along the road and through local parks. Here I found monuments to Chekhov and the fighter pilots in the Second World War (who apparently had a base in the area), and a nice forest to hide from the stifling summer heat.

The Monastery

Detail of the mosaics on the outside wall
Detail of the mosaics on the outside wall

The main reason that the Monastery itself if not currently worth visiting is that it, like so much of Russia, is undergoing extensive construction work. Where the entire countryside was incredibly lush and green, the Monastery and a radius of about five meters around it was a barren, desert wasteland. The walls which supposedly offer stunning views of the surrounding region were closed, and the only part of the complex that was open was the Resurrection Cathedral.

Nonetheless, the Cathedral and Monastery are unusual. Construction was started and directed by the patriarch Nikon, who was trying to celebrate and extend the church’s (and his own) power. The location was chosen because it is roughly the same longitude as Jerusalem, and the river and hills were thought to echo the holy land. Nikon was a great reformer, launching changes in the church that eventually led to its division, and this complex was a monument to his right to rule and to enforce change. The Cathedral, modelled on the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem is large and imposing, graceful but dominating. Unlike many of the other Russian churches, the inside of the cathedral is predominantly painted in two different colours- light blue and white, in a pattern that reminded me strongly of the exterior of the Smolny Convent in St. Petersburg.

‘Before’ pictures stand all along the walls, showing the visitor what state the Cathedral was left in after the fall of communism. Like so many other churches, this one was seized and turned into a museum, and largely neglected. From the images you can see that the Cathedral eroded away from the inside, paint and plaster falling from the walls until repair work started in 2008.

DSC_0087The Open Air Museum

With so much under construction (set to finish in 2017), my visit to the Monastery did not take me very long. Instead I returned outside and around the ‘back’ of the Monastery, which lead to an open air museum. I strolled through fields, passed a farmhouse and a windmill, and sat with my feet in the river while locals took a dip. Kids played football in the grass, people picnicked, and I felt like I was in idyllic countryside, making for a wonderful experience.

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