The Mount of Olives is located east of Jerusalem and has three peaks. The middle peak is associated with the history of the life of our Lord Jesus Christ and of His Holy Ascension. This history is first mentioned in the Bible 1,100 years before the birth of Christ and is written in the 2nd Book of Kings, which states that King David was exiled from Jerusalem and went to the Mount of Olives to pray (Genesis XV, 23-30). This is also mentioned in the books of the Prophets Zacharias (14) and Ezekiel (11) regarding the end of the world.
All four evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) narrate the main events of the life of Christ on earth and all are linked with the Mount of Olives, such as the Entrance of the Lord to Jerusalem (Matt:21), the prophecy about the last days of Jerusalem (Luke: 19), the Last Judgment (Matt: 24), the farewell guidance to the disciples, the prophecy about the apostle Peter’s denial, the night after the Last Supper (Matt:26, Mark 14), Christ’s promise to meet with the apostles in Galilee after His Holy Resurrection and, finally, His Holy Ascension mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles 1-12.
Ascetics began to populate the Mount of Olives since the first centuries of Christianity. Archeologists found ruins from the buildings of the first three centuries because they were trying to restore the past of the mountain.
Evidence goes back to the times of Queen Helen, Equal-To-The-Apostles, who built the basilica “Eleon” above the cave where Christ the Saviour talked to the disciples. It is now a monastery of the Carmelites. In 385 a.d. Silvia Eteria, a pilgrim, described a different building directly above the place of the Ascension as a round church chapel, which was later turned into a mosque. For centuries a footprint of the foot is Christ is kept here. Around 375 a.d. Melania the Elder built a monastery here and also the House of Mercy. The Mount of Olives was the first home for monasticism in Palestine.
In 432 a.d. another monastery was built by Melania the Younger. History clearly reports about the life of the great ascetic of those times, St. Pelagia, the recluse, who lived on Eleon and reposed in the Lord in 457 a.d. The readings from the Menaion for February 25th, mention a holy event which is the finding of the head of St. John the Baptist in the 2nd and 4th centuries; first by the ascetic Innocent and then by two monks who were on their way to Constantinople.
In the 5th and 6th centuries a.d., monasticism was blooming in the Holy Land as evidenced by many graves of the monks which were found. Lavsaik also mentions the strict ascetics who lived on the Mount of Olives. Twenty-four churches existed during those times on Eleon. All of them were destroyed by invaders many times, but were once again rebuilt. These existed until the year 614 a.d. and again were destroyed by the barbarians from Persia. 1,207 Christians were martyred on Eleon after Jerusalem was destroyed. “Eleona” basilica was considered the main shrine until the 10th century. In the beginning of the 11th century Khakim, who occupied the Holy Land, destroyed everything.
In the 12th century with the Crusaders’ invasion destroyed churches were once again rebuilt. After Jerusalem was occupied by Saladin in 1187, the Mount of Olives was given to a Muslim sheikh who destroyed monasteries and other buildings. The churches which were left untouched became degraded and religious life on Eleon froze. Before the Russian Ecclesiastical mission started to develop in the 1960’s, no people lived here.
In 1870, Archimandrite Antonin (Kapustin) purchased several pieces of land on the Mount of Olives and was able to build a main church in Byzantine style which is dedicated to the feast of the Ascension of the Lord. A 64-meter bell tower was erected and up to fifty other various buildings to accommodate pilgrims who came from all parts of Russia, eager to visit the Holy Land.
In 1907, construction of the chapel, named after the feasts of the first and the second findings of the head of St. John the Baptist, was finished. The ancient mosaic floor has a cavity, marking the actual place where his precious head was found. The feast day of the chapel is on february 24th (march 9th) when the church celebrates the first (iv century) and second (452) findings.
The church in the refectory was built later on and it is dedicated to the Righteous Philaret the Merciful.
Services there are conducted once a month. The feast day is on December 1st (14th).
When Archimandrite Antonin reposed, his works related to building the Russian Eleon were continued by his closest ascetic hieromonk Parthenius. It was Father Parthenius’s wish to establish a monastic community on the site. With this in mind, he started performing services twice a week. And at the same time, he continued labors of construction, excavation, and planting, by his unflagging energy inspiring all to take part in the work.
Slowly, pious maidens began gathering and in 1906 the Holy Synod formally acknowledge the community of the Mount of Olives as a women’s convent. Hieromonk Parthenius was the abbot of this monastery and the nun Eupraxia (Milovidova) was the superior.
On August 12, 1906, the birthday of Fr. Antonin Kapustin, the community was solemnly opened. It consisted originally of fifteen sisters.
By August of 1907 it had grown to 100.
For support, the sisters opened an icon painting studio and did embroidery, which is done to this day.
Overall, the convent’s area is 54,000 square meters, surrounded by a wall, a kilometer and half in length. It has a large olive grove which provides Monastery with olives and oil.
One of the interesting and important sights of the monastery is the rock, on which, according to the history,
the Mother of God stood during the Ascension of Her Son to the heaven.
There are also two especially revered icons of the Mother of God in the Monastery:
Miraculous “Quick-to-Hear of Eleon” (Chernigov) and “Vzyskaniye Pogibshikh” (Recovery of the dead).
In 1914 difficult times began for the convent to due war. Borders were closed in Russia, therefore, pilgrimages also stopped. There was no income for the monastery. All priests and some sisters (mostly senior ones) were expelled to Egypt because Turkey, who owned Palestine at that time, was at war with Russia. The Church of the Ascension was sealed by the American Consul so that the Turks would not destroy it. Monastery life completely stopped. Damianos, the Patriarch of Jerusalem, protected and helped the Russian monastery.
In 1919 priests and senior sisters came back. Slowly, the quiet and poor life of the Mount of Olives Convent began to revive. Damages could be seen everywhere. Sisters did not have any clothes, shoes, food and had to work rebuilding the roads. In 1924 the Holy Archbishop Synod of the Russian Church Abroad sent Archbishop Anastasy (Gribanovsky) to Jerusalem as a chief of the Russian Orthodox Mission. After ten years of his services the monastic life of the Mount of Olives Convent in the Holy Land was raised to a very high level. After several wars in the middle 1950’s a more peaceful time began in the Middle East. Pilgrimages of a Russian immigration have once again started from different parts of the world. This was a big help to the Holy Convent in its needs..
Russians from Russia started visiting the Holy Land in the 1990’s. Russian sisters have joined the monastery since that time. Also large groups of pilgrims continue visiting the convent.
About the third of the sisters are local Palestinians who have lived here since early childhood. They are the descendants of those Arabs who converted to Christianity from the hands of Holy Apostles sent to preach by Christ Himself. Now they are already elderly nuns, perfectly speaking Russian, well knowing the Church Slavonic language and church services rules.
The monastery consists of sisters from Russia, Ukraine, France, Estonia, Palestine and Romanians. Some Russian sisters have never lived in Russia. They are children of emigrants. What language do the natives of our monastery speak? In Russian? Yes, of course, almost everyone knows it. However, the most important thing is always the language of love, the most intelligible and faithful for those who want to follow the steps of Christ.
During the convents’ over hundred-year existence, the following served as mother superiors:
Schema-abbess Antonia (Abbess Paula) – second time,
Abbess Moisseia and
the present mother superior is Abbess Varvara.
This, in brief, is the history of our monastery, which was established by Archimandrite Antonius (Kapustin) and his faithful fellow Abbot Parthenius. May their memory be eternal!
Glory to Thee, our God!