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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Kiev's Caves Monastery Is Crumbling

ReutersScaffolding envelops one of the monastery churches. Its golden domes have towered over Kiev for 1,000 years.
KIEV -- Its golden domes have towered over the capital for a millennium.

Awed by its mysterious beauty and intrigued by catacombs containing the remains of scores of monks, thousands pray every day at the Caves Monastery, a spiritual symbol of Slav culture.

But visitors are unaware of impending danger -- the monastery is crumbling. Rain, snow, rising underground water and human negligence threaten to reduce the site to nothing. Monks and architects say time is running out and demand urgent action to protect the Caves Monastery complex, known in Ukrainian as the Pechersk Lavra.

"We need to hurry to preserve its main treasures and monuments, key elements of this ensemble," said the Lavra's chief architect Tatyana Kulik. "We have no time. Caves have already fallen in."

Rising behind Kulik on a chilly winter day were the golden cupolas of the medieval Uspensky Cathedral, mysteriously blown up during Nazi occupation in World War II and rebuilt in 2000.

A grand complex with striking belltowers, resplendent churches, chapels, gates, monuments and seminary buildings, the Lavra was founded by monks near the Dnieper River in 1051.

Over the centuries, it has become the main sacred site of Orthodox Christianity in Eastern Europe. It now draws millions of tourists to its upper and lower sections, a short drive from Kiev's bustling city center.

The upper section is a museum under government control. The lower part is home to about 150 monks. Both are in a dire state. "The lower part ... is in more or less acceptable condition. Every day we walk around the territory, check which wells are filled with water, to inspect cracks in churches or buildings," said Pavel, the senior priest who runs the monks' community.

"The story is very different in the upper part. The sewage and water supply system have not been repaired. Snow has started to melt. Pipes are filling up. The water is coming down, tearing out walls and pipes. Two buildings are in a terrible state."

A few meters from Pavel's study, a cosy room filled with golden Orthodox icons, there emerges a picture of slow decay.

A supporting stone wall is riven with cracks as are church walls and seminary buildings. A chapel lists dangerously. Stone steps are worn and in danger of disappearing. Monks and builders work feverishly to reverse the decline. Truckloads of sand and concrete arrive at the site daily.

"We are working to strengthen the walls of the near caves against landslips," says Father Varsonofiy as he leads the way underground to a site of a cave accident in 2005.

Caves collapsed meters away from the cell of St. Anthony, the first monk to inhabit the caves almost 1,000 years ago. His remarkably preserved body is kept nearby. As Father Varsonofiy shows new props installed to bolster the ancient corridor. Visitors descend the flight of stone steps, each with a candle in hand.

Experts still cannot explain why the caves collapsed.

"The processes of deformation accelerated in 2005. We do not know what will happen this year because no scientific research has been conducted," Kulik said. "We have not studied the reasons for the accident."

She believes the monastery's location on hills near the river is one factor in a long list of problems.

Negligence, ageing sewage systems, mistakes in planning the city's drainage system and construction nearby also played a role, undermining stability underground.

Lack of funding underscores all the difficulties. Ukraine's government pays scant attention to historical monuments at a time when public sector wages and pensions remain top concerns.

"The state must take heed," says Pavel. "This is the only sacred place of such rank in Ukraine. It is called 'the second Jerusalem'. We should preserve it at whatever price. We, monks, are ready to sacrifice our lives."