One of the greatest things about traveling is discovering the differences and sometimes the oddities of other places, right?
Sometimes though, you find similarities as well, even when you’re miles away from your Country and you didn’t expect it!
This is what happened to me with “cave churches”: churches and cathedrals dig in the rock.
- The first one I ever saw was the famous-but-not-touristy Cave Church in Cairo:
This church is incredible: first of all, it’s the biggest church in the Middle East with 15,000 seatings, but I found just a few people (except Egyptians) that knew about it, and even less people (including Egyptians) that visited it.
The reason why not everyone wants/manages to visit is that in order to get to this church you have to cross the whole “Garbage City” area of Cairo – as you might have guessed, it’s an extremely poor area, where people literally live in the trash, dividing it for recycle. The living conditions are very poor, the smell itself is challenging, and it’s very easy to get lost.
People living there are the so called “zebbaleen“, coming from “zebbela” (=trash, in Arabic). They are all Christians.
But then you get to the mountain where the church is dug, and it leaves you breathless. It’s so huge, and so beautiful. When you cross the gates, you suddenly forget the journey and find yourself in a clean and peaceful environment.
What impressed me most about this church was the echo of the Muslim prayer coming from the nearby mosque, during the mess. The Arabic writings on the walls, that looked kind of weird at first sight – I was so used to associate this language with Islam, but of course this was wrong.
Speaking about Egypt and Coptic Christians, and referring to the events of 2 days ago (click here if you don’t know about it), I want to express my grief for the people who died in the clashes, and for no reason. May your souls rest in peace.
- Another cave church that surprised me is the San Michele Sanctuary in Monte Sant’Angelo, Apulia, Italy.
During my 2 months stay in the Apulia region, I didn’t know there was a cave church nearby until the last days, and I rushed to have a look at it! Unfortunately taking photos inside was forbidden. But I took a (bad) photo anyway, just before being scolded by a monk, ahem.
The sanctuary is dedicated to Archangel Michael, because it’s believed that he appeared several times in the area.
For some reason, the mass I bumped into was being celebrated in Russian. This sanctuary is a very popular destination for pilgrimages, but I didn’t imagine there were masses in every language! Cool.
- Last but not least: when I posted the “Travel Reportage to a Sister City: Helsinki” article, I was surprised to find out about another cave church: Temppeliaukio (=The Rock Church, in Finnish)!
I’ve been to Helsinki but unfortunately I didn’t visit that church. Serena did, and here is what she says about it:
“The Church is modern and full of light. The fact that it is dug in the rock doesn’t make it cold and gloomy – on the contrary the ceiling made in copper and the big round window enlighten the inside gracefully. This church is different from the others, and a watchful eye will notice that there are no columns, no paintings, no frills, no gold. It’s a “church for the soul“, not for ostentation and opulence. The rough, dark rock, the seatings covered in purple velvet, the black piano and the humble but large organ make this a place of peace and silence, rest and prayer. A minimal place that gives space to the power of prayer and to the perfection of acoustics. Prayers and concerts alternate in a perfect balance“.
This kind of places can tell a lot about the culture of a place. What I like about cave churches is that they are very simple, without too many decorations, statues and paintings. It’s all about the spirituality of the place. They make you think about the effort of building them, and bring your attention to faith and belief, not to what’s materially inside the church.
I discovered these three similar places by chance, in very different areas: Italy, Middle East, Northern Europe. I am sure there are more out there, so if you know about any other cave church around the world please let me know!