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Kyevo-Pecherska Lavra

Tourists and Orthodox pilgrims alike flock to the Lavra. It's easy to see why the tourists come. Set on 28 hectares of grassy hills above the Dnipro River, the monastery's tight cluster of gold-domed churches is a feast for the eyes, the hoard of Scythian gold rivals that of the Hermitage in St Petersburg, and the underground labyrinths lined with mummified monks are exotic and intriguing. For pilgrims the rationale is much simpler. To them, this is the holiest ground in all three East Slavic countries – Ukraine, Russia and Belarus.A lavra is a senior monastery, while pecherska means 'of the caves'. The Greek St Antony founded this lavra in 1051, after Orthodoxy was adopted as Kyivan Rus' official religion. He and his follower Feodosy progressively dug out a series of catacombs, where they and other reclusive monks worshipped, studied and lived. When they died their bodies were naturally preserved, without embalming, by the caves' cool temperature and dry atmosphere. The mummies survive even today, confirmation for believers that these were true holy men.The monastery prospered above ground as well. The Dormition Cathedral was built from 1073 to 1089 as Kyiv's second great Byzantine-inspired church, and the monastery became Kyivan Rus' intellectual centre, producing chronicles and icons and training builders and artists.Wrecked by the Tatars in 1240, the Lavra went through a series of revivals and disastrous fires before being mostly rebuilt, with its prevailing baroque influences, in the 18th century. It was made a museum in 1926, but partly returned to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarch) in 1988.The complex is divided into the upper lavra (owned by the government and Kyiv Patriarchy) and the lower lavra (which belongs to Moscow Patriarchy and contains the caves).As this is the city's single most fascinating and extensive tourist site, you will need at least half a day to get a decent introduction. Try to avoid the Lavra on weekends, when it gets extremely busy. If you must go, then visit early and head for the caves first.The Upper Lavra Excursion Bureau, just to the left past the main entrance to the upper lavra, sells two-hour guided tours in various languages (500uah per group of up to 10 people). Book in advance during peak periods. Entrance to the lower lavra and the caves is free of charge for pilgrims. Foreign tourists are likely to be asked to join one of the Russian-language tours (26uah, every 20 minutes) that depart from the Lower Lavra Excursion Bureau, located near the exit from the upper lavra.To enter the caves, women must wear a headscarf and either a skirt that extends below their knees or, at a pinch, trousers. Trousers are officially forbidden but nowadays a blind eye is frequently turned. Men are obliged to remove their hats, and wearing shorts and T-shirts is forbidden. Men and women will also feel more comfortable donning scarves and doffing hats in the monastery's churches. </p>