Monday, May 28, 2012

Head west, feet east

Welcome to the Russian Orthodox Convent on the Mount of Olives.

Thursday, Ascension Day, was my first time to visit this welcoming place, also known as the Russian Monastery of the Ascension.
Now that I am one of Julie's many Taphophile Tragics taphophiles, I paid special attention to the graves.
You can click on the photos to have a closer look.

A few tombs of VIPs were inside, or next to, the church, but there were more graves in the courtyard.

And some not far from the well.

The monastery was built between 1870 and 1887.
I think the old Made in Czechoslovakia Sigma pump is from those early days.
There are many underground cisterns in the big compound and it looks like some are still being used for the garden watering.

LinkMany nuns were buried in a fenced graveyard.

I noticed some of the gravestones were "backwards," I mean facing the cross, facing eastward.

Now I knew that this monastery in the Arab village of A-Tur is the highest point on the Mount of Olives at 818 meters (2,683 ft) and the ridge is the watershed, its eastern side being the beginning of the Judean Desert.
But I rather doubted that the spectacular view toward the Dead Sea, the mountains of Moab, and Jordan was the reason the dead were looking in that direction.

Back home, I googled.
One source said that Orthodox Christians bury the body facing east [i.e. the person's head on the west] because when Jesus was born the guiding star was in the East.

An older source, a William Tyler Olcott, writing in 1914, explained the custom thus:
The funeral rites of all people reveal the universal belief that the east is the source of all that men hold dear, light, life, warmth, and happiness, while the west, on the contrary, is said to be the abode of darkness, death, cold, and sorrow. The worship of the Sun cultivated and strengthened this idea, and down through the ages the influence of this belief has swept, retaining even to-day much of its ancient force and vigour. . . .
It is said that the body of Christ was laid with the head toward the west, that the risen Lord might face the eastern realm of eternal life and glory, and the Christian custom that sprang from this belief led to the usage of digging graves east and west, which prevailed through mediæval times, and is common with us to-day.
In the twenty-fourth chapter of St. Matthew's gospel we read: "For as the lightning cometh out of the east, and shineth even unto the west; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be." From the literal interpretation of these words there arose the belief that Jesus would, at the resurrection, appear from the east, and hence that those buried with their faces upward and their heads to the west, would be in readiness to stand up with their faces toward their Judge.
(This cemetery mini-tour also joins Our World Tuesday.)


  1. Another great tour, and explanation. Boom & Gary of the Vermilon River, Canada.

  2. This whole big monastic compound, also known as Tur Malka, is owned by the "White" Russians, the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR).
    I will be posting more about it.

  3. Very interesting information about east and west. I always learn something here.

  4. Beautiful photos. There is so much to learn about your part of the world.

  5. That looks like such a peaceful place, great photos. I learned something new here!

  6. Thank you for providing such an interesting compass of and for life.

    Please have a good Tuesday.

  7. Very interesting information and well explained. It is always a good thing to read a post and feel you have gained new knowledge.

  8. It never occurred to me that bodies were buried in a particular direction. Very interesting.

  9. a visit very pleasent

  10. I've heard of east-west directions having importance in other belief systems, but not before in a Christian tradition. A fascinating post, Dina!

  11. My thoughts echo Francisca's! Quite surprising to find this belief here! But I am also surprised to find graves in a courtyard, a gathering kind of place! Fascinating post!

  12. And churches have the altar on the east side, meaning the whole church is facing east.
    The early Christians must have learned this from the Jews.

  13. You've given me new direction today!

  14. I just learned something I did not know. Thank you!

  15. Wow, looks like a spectacular place to visit. Fantastic pictures.

    Herding Cats

  16. dear jerusalem!

    you are my first blog from israel, and i am
    excited, because i pray for the peace of

    thank you for the history lesson. i look
    forward to many more!

  17. Myletterstoemily, shalom and welcome.
    Thank you for your prayers for Jerusalem. We need them.

  18. I knew the custom but not the reason, thank you!

  19. Some old gospel church people also sleep with there beds facing the east here in the south.In my research of genealogy all of the old cemeteries are facing east.

  20. This looks like a very peaceful and beautiful place. Thank you for sharing, beautiful photos and I really liked reading the background information.

  21. It really is amazing what we can find out through Google. What did we do in the past?

  22. I worry about that well and its water. I hope the quality is monitored, and that it is ONLY used on the gardens!

    judging by the looks on the faces of those milling in the courtyard, Dina, this was a warm day.

    I must admit to having a bit of an East fetish myself. I am currently looking for a house, and alignment is crucial for me.

    I agree with the others: keep the history coming. It is balm to my soul.

    And once again, many thanks for your support of Taphophile Tragics. It is much appreciated.

    When will you be in Sydney next?

  23. i am surprised they all have a grave"bed" or how you call that..

  24. This was really interesting. I had never heard before that it is customary for many people to be buried with one's head to the west, but the explanation makes sense.


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