You’ll have read in previous posts about my ongoing exploration into faith and pilgrimage in Poland and back home in Ireland. This project has been influenced more recently by Alys Tomlinson’s work Ex-Voto. In both the last post and this, I visited sites that I’d discovered through her book.
As is the case every other year, we were to be in Poland for Christmas, and as usual, while my wife spends time catching up with her friends and family, I rent a car and set off to explore the country. On this occasion, I drove to Warsaw, Poland’s beautiful and endlessly fascinating capital city to spend the night. An earlyish start the next day, and a couple of hours later I’d be close to the Belarusian border at the holy mountain of Grabarka.
Unlike the previous, Catholic pilgrimage sites that I’ve visited in Poland and Ireland, Grabarka is Orthodox Christian, a religion followed by only 5% of Poles, but more popular further east. In 1710, a local man received a vision that he should lead members of his community that were suffering a cholera outbreak to the hill and that they should build a cross and pray for salvation, before washing themselves in the stream at the foot of the hill. They did this and sure enough, were cured.
This legend has grown and now each year on August 18th and 19th, the days of the Orthodox Church’s Feast of Transfiguration, over 10,000 pilgrims make their way to the hill where they climb the steps to pray and sit up for night-long vigils. Those who seek to be healed or cured carry crosses which are blessed by priests and then put into the ground surrounding the small chapel on the top.
None of these crosses are ever removed and as a result, tens of thousands of them are placed around the hilltop chapel, many of them ‘returning to nature’ as they rot away. They range from lolly sticks tied with string, through to steel structures, several meters high that have been concreted into the ground. Many people carry offerings (ex-voto) or letters containing prayers to leave on the hill. The rosaries, figures of Mary or Jesus or handwritten letters are attached or hang from the crosses.
By the stream at the base of the hill is a bucket containing the bloody bandages of pilgrims that have washed themselves in this water, hoping for a cure (a note on the bucket of bloody rags asks people not to hang them from trees!). There’s also a pump so that people can draw water from this stream (it didn’t appear to be upstream from the washing place) and take this magical water home with them.
There appears to be a string of holy sites along the Podlaski Szlak Sakralny (the Podlaski Holy Trail), including the nearby spring at Radziwiłłówka. Here, it is said that a church was swallowed up by the ground and that the spring water has similar healing powers to that at Grabarka. It was an eerie place with just a line of crosses above a damp hole, and cups and jugs hanging from trees for the faithful to wash themselves with.
Finally, I wanted to travel to the Belarusian border and see ‘Russia’ for the first time. Google maps showed me to a place that was 100m or so from the frontier and where stood a magnificent (bright blue) wooden church. As at me previous two stops, I didn’t see another sole as I explored.
The red and white post is Poland, the red and green is Belarus. The distance between these posts is 3m or two hours. For someone from the UK, time zones change when you cross the sea, not by walking a few meters of muddy no man’s land.
The previous post was my film pictures, taken with a Yashica-MAT 124G and Ilford FP4+ film. For the pictures above I used a Leica M (typ 262).
Click on the pictures below and you’ll be able to scroll through at your full-screen leisure…