There is still a drizzle in the air as we walk up the short climb to the entrance of the Holy Virgin rock church. We are in the Lom river valley, and have arrived at the Ivanovo rock churches, which together comprise the monastery of Archangel St. Michael. We are the only ones here, it is quiet, and the end of the afternoon in the middle of a pandemic. Still, when we enter the opening to the church, a friendly man behind a small table asks us to pay for our ticket. He then comes from behind his disk, and gives a detailed explanation about the church, its history, and the frescoes that cover all walls and the ceilings. He is clearly happy that, after perhaps hours of solitude, and just before going come, he has visitors to his World Heritage site. Even though the sky is still full of clouds, there is enough light to shine on the works of art i this rock hewn church.
After examining the small chamber at the entrance, we walk to the main church room. The walls, and especially the ceiling, are covered in dazzling frescoes. Unlike some newer churches we have seen, the colours are soft, but still very well preserved. it gives them a delicate look, soft on the eye, and makes them irresistible. It is amazing that the colours have withstood the passing of so many centuries. They were done in the 14th century, and are among the best surviving examples of Palaeologian style. The artist apparently knew what he was doing! The guy points out the different scenes depicted in the frescoes: they are all separated by orange lines, somehow making them look like cartoons. They mostly depict the life of Jesus, major church holidays, as well as saints.
After admiring the mind-blowing frescoes, we step outside on the small balcony. Our guide now tells us that originally, this used to be the entrance. We look at him in disbelief: we are standing more than 30 metres above the valley floor, with a vertical drop. He points out that the entrance of a church is always on the west side, and that monks used to make their way around the exposed rock face to reach the entrance of the rock-hewn church. The monastery of Archangel St Michael, of which the Holy Virgin church is a part, was also a haven for icon-painters and pilgrims. My thoughts go back to the equally impressive, and even older, rock hewn churches in the north of Ethiopia. After leaving the church, we walk past some small caves where monks once stayed, until we reach an open area with views all around. We are desperately trying to spot an Egyptian vulture, a rare bird that can be seen here, but alas - we have to do with smaller birds. When we are down at the foot of the mountain again, we look up towards the Holy Virgin church, imagining monks shuffling around the vertical cliffs high above us to enter their beautiful cave church. We still cannot believe it.
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