Monastery of the Cross

About this place

The Eastern Orthodox Monastery of the Cross is in the Valley of the Cross, near Jerusalem’s Nayot neighborhood. Christian tradition holds that Adam’s head may have been buried here. And that the wood for Christ’s cross came from a tree that grew on the same spot. The place where the monastery stands has been held sacred since the 4th-century when Roman Emperor Constantine consecrated the ground. Today you can visit the monastery basilica and see where the sacred tree once grew.

Religious Tradition of Lot’s Tree

Traditionally, three trees, (cedar, pine, and cypress) grew together into one tree which was used to make the True Cross. Orthodox icons depict Abraham’s nephew, Lot watering the tree which became known as Lot’s Tree. One legend tells how Adam was sick and sent his son Seth to the Garden of Eden to get a healing balm. The angel at the garden gate refused to give Seth the balm, but gave him three seeds from the Tree of Life (Tree of Knowledge).

When Adam died, Seth buried his father with the three seeds beneath his tongue, as instructed by the angel. The tree grew from Adam’s grave, and the wood was used to make Christ’s cross. This strengthens the legend connecting Adam’s sin with Jesus. Adam committed the original sin, and Christ died to pay for mankind’s sins. A popular tradition holds that the cross was made from dogwood, and another claims that mistletoe was used.

History of the Monastery of the Cross

Christian Emperor Constantine had the first church built on this site in the 4th-century. In 327 AD, he gifted the monastery to the Georgian monarch, King Mirian III, when the Georgian Kingdom officially adopted Christianity. The 4th-century structure was destroyed by Persians in 614, and rebuilt in the 11th-century, by a Georgian monk, Giorgi-Prokhore of Shavsheti. It became an important monastic and cultural center. The monastery was home to 100-800 monks, scholars, scientists, and artists.

One resident was the Georgian poet, Shota Rustaveli, who wrote the epic poem The Knight in the Panther’s Skin. Not long after that, the monks were executed by the Mamluk Sultan Baibars, on suspicion of being spies for the Mongols. The Georgians reclaimed the site in 1305 and continued to inhabit the monastery. In 1685, the Georgians sold the monastery to the Greek Orthodox Church. The Greeks expanded the complex and many of the Georgian fresco inscriptions were painted over with Greek wording. A description of the church written in 1697 describes the stump of Lot’s Tree beneath the church altar.

The Monastery of the Cross Today

Over the years, the monastery and church have been restored and renovated several times. Most of the complex dates back to the 12th-century Crusader structure. The monastery complex includes the basilica, living quarters, a library housing Georgian manuscripts, a gift shop, and a small museum. The basilica has a central dome, and an interior covered completely in 12th-17th-century frescoes. Many of the paintings depict the story of Lot’s Tree. You can still see part of a mosaic from the 4th-century church.

The complex looks more like a European fortress than a religious complex. This is probably because they built it in an isolated location, outside the city walls, and the monastery would have been vulnerable to attacks. As the years have gone by, the city has grown up around the valley. Today the monastery is no longer isolated, and the valley is surrounded by Jerusalem neighborhoods. Looking down onto the Valley of the Cross is the Israeli parliament building (Knesset) to the north and the Israel Museum to the west. The monastery is inhabited by a few monks, who welcome visitors to see the church and place where Lot’s Tree once grew.

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