Nestled amongst the hills on the outskirts of Jerusalem stands a relic of Russian architecture embedded in the local history, the Gornensky Monastery. Join me in a tale about a devout Victorian-era scholar and nuns as I unveil a morbid murder mystery that occurred between the walls of the Gornensky monastery and, through it, marvel at the beauty of the region.
During one of the many lockdowns we faced over the past year, I decided to start a blog about places within the quarantine radius that speak to our dark souls. Little did I expect just next to where I live; there is such a place that I’ve been planning to visit but never got to yet.
Through an investigation on the net, I revealed an interesting and dark story that happened within the walls of this particularly beautiful monastery in my city, Jerusalem, the tale of the Gornensky monastery murder.
The Ecclesiastical Mission To The Holy Land
Let us travel back to the end of the 19th century, the Victorian Era, when empires of Europe acquired territories in the Holy Land and Jerusalem in particular, to secure their hold and presence in the area, providing their pilgrims with places of worship, welfare, security, and comfort.
The Russian Patriarchate was no exception to this trend, and in 1865 they sent the Archimandrite Antonine Kapustin as head of the ecclesiastical mission to the area. Kapustin, in his turn, acquired lands such as Alon Mamre in Hebron, a plot on the Mt. of Olives in eastern Jerusalem where the church of the Ascension stands, and lands in the southwestern part of the city, on the hills overlooking the village of Ein Karem. There, in 1871, he established the Gornensky women’s monastery.
The Gornensky monastery, also known as the Moskovia compound, is spread out over hundreds of dunams overlooking the picturesque woodland valley of Ein Karem, once a village and now considered one of the neighborhoods of Jerusalem. The place is of great importance to the church as some think it to be where John the Baptist was born. Consequently, it serves as a Christian center of great significance, as indicated by the many churches built in the area.
The Moskovia consists of houses and gardens belonging to the nuns, hostels for pilgrims, two small churches, a big church known as the unfinished church, and several graveyards. It is home to 48 nuns and two priests.
The main church was initially built in 1911 by Elizabeth von Hessen-Darmstadt, also known as Elizabeth Feodorovna Romanovna, granddaughter of Queen Victoria and spouse of the grand prince Sergei Alexandrovich Romanov, who build Sergei square in downtown Jerusalem. When the First World War began, Elizabeth returned to Russia, where she later found her death at the hands of the Bolsheviks, during the Red October revolution, as did many other members of the Romanov family.
Her death left her ambitious architectural project unfinished and for nearly a century it stood incomplete, a hull of its intended glory. Gladly, construction resumed in 2003 and within several years the church was completed with its golden domes and elegant bell towers, gleaming over the pastoral hills beneath.
Today, you can catch sight of the magnificent church, perched on the hillside overlooking the valley in splendor. You’ll notice, as you travel down the way to Hadassah Ein Kerem hospital, its golden domes peeking out over the road, its unique architecture a reminder of the Russian presence in the area.
As someone born and raised in Kyiv, Ukraine, I hold this type of architecture with its golden domes dear, as it reminds me of my roots. Having it here in Israel, next to where I live, makes me feel whole.
Murder Over An Open Grave
Since the spread of the pandemic, the compound has been closed to visitors, so I won’t dwell much on the interior of the buildings. I will elaborate more on them when they reopen their gates, but for now, let us dwell on the morbid tales lurking amongst the graves.
As mentioned, there are several graveyards in the compound. One is dedicated to the nuns who met the grim reaper during the cholera epidemic of 1916 that befell the city during World War One. The main graveyard consists of white tombstones that adorn the graves where the nuns are buried. However, one of the graves is perpetually left open, awaiting its next eternal dweller. Whenever a nun dies, she is buried in that grave, and a new one is dug instead. The purpose of the ritual is to serve as a lingering reminder to the nuns of the “correct” way, to evoke fear and reflect on their beliefs and ways, or to make sure you don’t mess with the wrong nun.
There are two more graves over which a dark and morbid wind blows. These graves belong to two nuns, a mother and daughter named Barbara and Veronica, who found their deaths on a spring night of May 1983.
Let me tell you this dark tale…
The date was May 20th, 1983, it was a warm spring morning when the tranquility over the pastoral Gornensky monastery in Ein Karem was snatched away by a vile deed that tore through the peacefulness of the nuns’ homes. A mother and daughter, Barbara (68) and Veronica (43), whose husband and father fell in battle during the 2nd World War, resided at the monastery that became their graves.
A fellow nun, suspicious about the absence of the two from the morning prayer, decided to look for them, but upon entering their house on the outskirts of the compound, she revealed the gruesome truth. She found the two women sprawled dead on the floor in a pool of blood; they had been mercilessly stabbed to death during the night.
A few days later, it was all over the media, and the hunt for the murderer began.
The local police carried out an investigation, and an account was procured from two tourists, Corine and Alice, who were familiar with the accused and revealed the man and his motives behind the murder. They told the police that it was a 29-year-old man named Al, a supervisor at one of the inns in the valley where the girls had stayed, that had committed the murder. Corine revealed that Al was a nice fellow that had suddenly snapped and lost his wits. She recalled that conversations she had with Al were beginning to be hard to have, and he began talking about skulls and blood and the fear that he might hurt somebody. He told her that he had gotten into witchcraft and that he saw himself as the messiah, and that he could talk to the trees. After agreeing to collaborate with the police, Alice met with Al a few times with a tape recorder hidden in her purse. During one of their meetings, he admitted to Alice that his spirit murdered the poor nuns in an attempt to save the king of Israel (which king is yet to be revealed…) because they were mind-bending agents sent by the K.G.B to commit an act against the king.
Later on, he was referred to in the media as a Satan Cultist, a term often used in the ’80s and ’90s to demonize anything strange or bizarre (or just people wearing black). The truth about his deed might never be revealed, be it witchcraft, ghosts, K.G.B, or the Jerusalem Syndrome, a mental syndrome often triggered by a long visit or living in Jerusalem and involving religiously themed obsessive ideas, delusions, and other psychotic experiences.
After this morbid event, the nuns erected a higher wall around the monastery and closed its gates, and up until recently, they didn’t let anyone in. Some say, even nowadays, they are wary of visitors and might not always be nice.
The Long-Forgotten Tower
Perched on the hills above the monastery stands a two-story stone tower, hidden between the pines, overlooking the monastery with an adjacent cistern that can be seen when visiting the place. You might also gaze upon the tower on your way when traveling on the Hadassah hospital road, a very popular hangout spot this past year.
Through an excavation on the wide net, I revealed that the tower is sometimes referred to as being built by Ibrahim Peha, the Egyptian ruler during the first part of the 19th century. It served as a strategic point between the Ottoman and the British forces during world war I and later served Israel during the war of independence. However, it was most probably built by none other than the above-mentioned archimandrite Antonine Kapustin as part of the Moskovia compound.
Unlike his fellow clergymen, Kapustin was a polymath. He found interest in science, astronomy, numismatics, archaeology, and some even say photography. Born in Russia and educated in Kyiv, Ukraine (another connection to my hometown), in 1847, he was sent to Athens, where he supervised several archaeological excavations and fell in love with the field, as many of us archaeologists fall for that trap. Later on, when arriving in Jerusalem and Palestine, he supervised various excavations and contributed to the archaeological research of the area.
Old photos show a road that connected the tower to the monastery; an investigation in Kapustins’ journals reveals his daily routine involving extensive tea-drinking, praying, and retiring to a tower nearby, where he used to observe the stars with his two telescopes. Inspired by this Victorian-era astronomer and archaeologist, I raided my wardrobe to find my various steampunk trinkets and accessories created by my beloved man and myself. I dusted off the Items that had been thrifted over the years from my favorite shops in town, and together with my friend Avi Cashman, check out his Instagram to see his work, we ventured out into the forest as a steampunk archaeologist and photographer to tell the story of the place.
Some Tourist Info
As mentioned above, the monastery is currently closed, but regularly, you can visit the place via the entrance from Hadassah Ein Karem dormitories. However, if marveling at the monastery and enjoying a nice day outside is what you seek, I suggest the other two options. One is to take a nice stroll along a promenade beneath the light rail tracks leading from Ora junction down the hill toward the Hospital, where you can almost touch the golden chapels of the church and enjoy a beautiful view over the valley and hills of Jerusalem. You can take this walk with a friend, your beloved, a stroller, and even with a horde of kids, who can run up and down the hill, skate, or ride their bikes. At the end of the road, you can reach the compound entrance when it reopens for visitors. If you decide to do so, I suggest parking your car at Ora Junction, or if you come by public transportation, you can reach the area with bus no. 19 from downtown or by Light Rail and then bus no. 27 or 150 from Mt. Herzl station to the junction.
If you are coming from Ein Karem, then after parking in the center of the neighborhood, you have a beautiful path leading up the mountain from Miriam’s spring in the center of the village, head left and uphill where you see a wooden door and then follow the path straight and up.
It’s a beautiful and picturesque way with hidden tree groves where you can have a nice picnic. If you wish to reach Ein Karem by public transportation, take the light rail to Mt. Herzl, and from there either stroll down to the village or take bus no. 28.
You can reach the tower by hiking up the path from the road leading down to Hadassah (marked on the map), or you can reach it from the hiking paths within Aminadav Forest.
If you are in the area, I suggest checking some of the springs scattered throughout the forest, serving as a cooling refreshment, especially during the warmer days. Beware, however, during summer, and especially on weekends, the springs are pretty packed.
You can also check out some of the many cafes and restaurants in Ein Karem, some of them with a splendid view of the area, the monastery, and the forest.
When the place reopens its’ gates, I’ll be sure to update the visiting hours.
The tower is open to the public 24/7; however, I’m not sure how safe it is for climbing, although I see many people doing it, so at your own risk.