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Women who Built Jerusalem: Elizaveta Feodorovna

Updated: Nov 22, 2022

Princess Elizabeth of Hesse-Darmstadt and by Rhine, or by her familiar name, Ella, was one of Europe's most glamorous princesses. She had countless suitors among the bachelor princes of all royal houses. Painters and photographers also stood in line for her portrait and, indeed, dozens of her portraits can be found. She was highly eligible and free to choose herself any husband she might desire. Painting by Friedrich August von Kaulbach, ca.1882.

The sixth and final of the series of Women who Built Jerusalem also began her life far away from it, and although it was chance or fate that brought her to the city, it was love for it, that bound her here.

Princess Elizabeth of Hesse and by Rhine, who later became Grand Duchess Elizaveta Feodorovna Romanova of Russia (1864-1918). She is known today as Holy Martyr Elizaveta Feodorovna. In Family circles she was called 'Ella'.

Her pedigree was extremely impressive: the daughter of Ludwig IV, Grand Duke of Hesse and by Rhine, who was married to Queen Victoria’ daughter, thus making Ella Victoria’s granddaughter. She married Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich, the Tsar's fifth son and his wife Princess Marie of Hesse and by Rhine. She was also a great-aunt of the late Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, husband of Elizabeth II, the late Queen of England.

Elizabeth's Family. She was the daughter of Ludwig IV, Grand Duke of Hesse-Darmstadt and by Rhine, his wife, Princess Alice of Great Britain, the daughter of Queen Victoria (top right). We see Elizabeth as a girl (top left). Below her, her younger sister Princess Alix, who will eventually become Russia's last empress - Alexandra Fyodorovna, wife of Emperor Nicholas II. Actually, it was Elizabeth who made the match. Both the Emperor and his wife were executed in 1918 during the Communist Revolution in Russia. The boy in the picture is Prince Ernest Ludwig, who inherited his father's throne and was the Grand Duke of Hesse, until he was ousted, upon the establishment of the German Republic in 1918. He died in 1937.

The heraldic arms of the Grand Duchy of Hesse-Darmstadt and by Rhine, featuring the family's domains and titles. You couldn't get more pedigreed than this girl! Heraldry is a visual, pictorial language, with highly precise rules and definitions. The central escutcheon, of the "Lion barry gules and argent on azure" (Red and white barred lion, blue background) is still the coat of arms of the modern state of Hesse, in Germany to this very day.

They knew each other as children, through their parents, and Elizabeth did not go head over heels about the prince, who was a little rigid and strictly pious. As they grew up, he he became more enthused about her. It took her a little longer to warm up to him, and she succumbed to his courtship to the displeasure of her grandmother, Queen Victoria. Elizabeth converted from her Protestant faith and Russian Orthodox, although it was not required by the law of the land. They got married in 1882.

Of all eligible young men she could pick, she finally went for Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich,the fifth son of Tsar Alexander II, a cousin she had known since childhood when he visited Germany. He was not in any succession line to the throne. She wasn't that thrilled by him in the beginning. He liked her. Sergei was melancholy and strict. When his mother died, she warmed up to him, probably sympathizing after her own mother's death. She accepted, to the chagrin of grandma, Queen Victoria, who remained unimpressed. After getting married they seemed to get along, yet remained childless.

In 1882, the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society (Импера́торское правосла́вное палести́нское о́бщество), was established, and began to buy land in Jerusalem, and acquired much real estate in strategic locations all over the Holy Land: several extensive areas on the top of Mount of Olives, as well as a large area at the foot of the mountain, north of the Jewish cemetery, called the Russian Gethsemane, where the Church of Saint Mary Magdalene was built. In addition, a plot of land was purchased near the Church of the Holy Sepulcher for the building of a consulate, now called the Alexander Nevsky Church, or "Alexander's Court." The Russian Compound plot was also purchased and an huge estate above the then Arab village of Ein Karem, where a Gornenskiy monastery is now located, as well as areas in the Jaffa suburbs and Mount Carmel in Haifa. Sergei became chairman of the the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society and Elizaveta Feodorovna developed a bond to the country and city.

The Russian Orthodox Church of Mary Magdalene, with its golden onion domes, is always a spectacular sight on the Mount of Olives, in Jerusalem, and has a wonderful view of Temple Mount. The church is dedicated to Saint Mary Magdalene, the disciple of Jesus. Mary Magdalene was the first to see Jesus after his resurrection, according to Mark 16: 9, and is considered a crucial and important messenger of Jesus.

The church was built in 1886 by Tsar Alexander III and his brothers in honor of their mother, Empress Maria Alexandrovna of Russia, in the traditional Russian style of the 16th and 17th centuries. The church has seven golden onion domes. The couple, who were very devout, showed great interest in Jerusalem, and headed the Russian delegation to the Holy Land, which came for the dedication of the church in 1888. They represented the Russian Tsar, Sergei's brother.

When they returned to Russia, Grand Duke Sergei was appointed governor of Moscow. It became apparent he was very cruel to all subjects, and especially the Jews. In 1898, he brutally expelled the Moscow Jews from the city. It was carried out violently, without warning, when thousands of people were ordered to pack up, leave their homes and start walking, it is said that when Elizabeth learned of her husband's actions, she was shocked and sadly said: "We will all be severely punished for this act." Indeed, she was right in her premonitions: tragedy stroke. Her husband, Sergei, disliked for his heavy-handed treatment of the citizens, was assassinated during the 1905 Revolution. She turned her back on the glamour of the court and became a nun. She dedicated her life to the poor, and took up the chairmanship of the Imperial Orthodox Society for Palestine and supervised the constructions in Jerusalem. The Russian hostel in Jerusalem was then called ("Sergei Dormitory", today - Sergei Palace Hotel), in memorial of the murder.

Here she signed the photo as Ella.

Painters and photographers adored her and she has dozens of portraits taken of her, even as a nun.

Elizaveta became a nun and tried to atone for her husband's sins in acts of charity and support for the weak and poor. She founded in Moscow a large monastery, the Marfo-Marinsky Convent, which was dedicated to Saints Martha and Mary. As she became the chairperson of the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society, she continued to oversee construction in Jerusalem, both at the Russian Compound and at the consulate in the Old City, today known as the Alexander Nevsky Church. Furthermore, she continued to run various charities, but at the outbreak of the Bolshevik revolution in 1918, she was arrested by revolutionaries, under Lenin's orders, who knew how popular she was with the people. She was brutally executed that year in a remote mine in the Ural Mountains, with ten other eminent figures of the imperial family.

In her lifetime, she expressed her desire to be buried in the church she had built on the slopes of the Mount of Olives. Her body and that of her companion's, nun Varvara, were transported, through clandestine routes to China, and finally arrived in Jerusalem. Her relics are on display at Saint Mary Magdalene Church, along with those of nun Varvara. She was declared a martyr in 1992, of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Hostels and hotels were built from 1860 in Jerusalem for Russian pilgrims, especially in the Russian Compound area, just outside the walls of the Old City. With the pilgrims also came intellectuals and artists. One of them was Vassili Polenov, a member of the "Peredvizhniki" (Wanderers) Movement. He paints Jerusalem as it must have looked when Sergei and Elizabeth visited in 1888 (top). The Russian compound in the 1870s was partly completed. The Trinity Church had already been built. Here Sergei and Elizabeth will stay in the hostels, at the head of the Imperial delegation in 1888. Sergei Yard was built later and called after him when he was murdered in 1905.

Holy Trinity Church, at the Russian Compound, Jerusalem. Jesus Pantokrator on the central dome of the Holy Trinity Church in Jerusalem. In almost all plots of land the Russians have acquired, churches were built in a distinct style. In Jerusalem, Jaffa etc. Present day Sergei Palace Hotel on Munbaz Street with view of the Holy Trinity Church.

Mount of Olives about 1880. The Garden of Gethsemane is surrounded by a wall, at the bottom of the picture. Most churches have not yet been built. Dominus Flevit, 1955 Mary Magdalene 1886 and Gethsemane 1924. The only visible belfry is at the top of the mountain, the Convent of Pater Noster, built in the 1850s. Next, Mary Magdalene at about 1887 is in full construction. The royal visit. Sergei and Elizabeth arrive at the inauguration of the church of the Saint Equal of the Apostles, Mary Magdalene. At the visit, the grand duchess expressed her wish to be eventually buried here. The Church of Saint Mary Magdalene, is easily recognizable for its golden onion shaped domes.

Scenes from the life of Saint Mary Magdalene, decorate the church walls. Next there are the relics, the mummified body of Elizabeth. In 1917, the Bolshevik revolution happened. The Romanovs were removed from power and slowly eliminated. On the night of July 18, 1918, Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna was brutally murdered by the Bolsheviks: she was thrown alive into the Novaya Selimskaya mine 18 km from Alapaevsk. Together with her in the mine died eight more minor members of the royal family. All of them, except for Grand Duke Sergei Mikhailovich, who was shot, were dumped alive into the deep shaft of the mine. When the bodies were removed from the mine, it was discovered that some victims lived after the fall, dying of hunger and wounds. At the same time, the wound of Prince John, who fell on the ledge of the mine near the Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna, was bandaged by part of her sash. Nearby peasants said that for several days singing of prayers came from the mine. On October 31, 1918, the White Army occupied Alapaevsk. The remains of the dead were removed from the mine, put in coffins and were buried in the city’s cemetery church. However, with the advance of the Red Army, the bodies were transported many times further to the East. In April 1920, they were met in Beijing by the head of the Russian Theological Mission. From there, two coffins - Grand Duchess Elizabeth and sister Barbara - were transported to Shanghai and then by boat to Port Said. Finally, the coffins arrived in Jerusalem. They were buried in January 1921 in the Church of Equal-to-the-Apostles Mary Magdalene in Gethsemane. Thus, the greatest desire of Princess Elizabeth to be buried in the Holy Land, expressed by her during the pilgrimage in 1888, was fulfilled. These are the remains of the grand Duchess on display at the Church.

The Church of the "All Saints Who Shone on Russian Land", Собор всех святых, в земле Русской просиявших, located inside the Gornensky Monastery in Ein Karem, near Jerusalem. It had been the initiative of Elizaveta Feodorovna in 1911. It stood there unfinished for many years, until construction restarted in 2003, completed in 2007.

Canonization and Sainthood

Canonization: in 1992 the murdered prisoners were declared holy martyrs of the Orthodox Churches. This is a 2018 iconic painting by Igor Tokarev, of Elizabeth, nun Varvara and the rest of the princes executed in the event. On the bottom left of the painting: Lenin in a famous speech, and bottom right – the burning of St. Catherine's church in Alapaevsk, where the martyrs used to pray.

On July 18, 2018, a memorial service took place on the hundredth anniversary of the murders, near the relics of the modern martyr , in Saint Mary Magdalene Equal to the Apostles Church, with the participation of the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilus III and other church leaders

Alice, Princess of Greece

In a modest room at the entrance to the church is buried another European royal figure, who was Elizabeth's niece. This is Alice, Princess of Greece.

Alice was born in England, of the German Battenberg dynasty, and was born deaf. She married Prince Andreas of Greece. Not long ago, she was featured in the "Crown" television series, and the representation of her character finally did her some historic justice. She was the mother of Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, husband to Queen of Elizabeth II, and the grandfather of Prince Charles. Alice lived a complicated life, she was thought mentally ill, and was even removed from her children at a certain time. She became renown for having saved a Jewish family in Athens during the Nazi occupation. "Yad Vashem" honored her the title of "Righteous Among the Nations."

She, too, sought to be buried in this church, near her aunt Elizabeth whom she admired and was buried here in 1981, 12 years after her own death. She is buried in a small room at the entrance to the church, capable of containing only her gravestone, but contains so much of European history connected with it and the royal families with whom she was associated in one way or another. (See the description of the flag covering the grave). This modest little room was visited by all the princes of the United Kingdom: Philip, Charles and William, who laid a wreath on their ancestor's grave. A tree planted in her honor at Yad Vashem.

Princess Alice of Battenberg in the 1930's. Princess Alice's grave, in the little crypt, covered with the ex-royal standard of Greece. See the description of the flag

This episode has been the final sequence in the "The Women Who Built Jerusalem" series. I wanted to bring some stories unfamiliar to most of the public. I hope you enjoyed. Soon I will start a new series of tour-stories in Jerusalem and the country and as soon as we can return to some semblance of normal life, I invite you to join me in real tours to these wonderful places, so close to us and yet so far away.

The spectacular view of Temple Mount/Haram a-Sharif from Saint Mary Magdalene church. Let us take a deep breath. Hereby concludes the last chapter of this series of the "Women who Built Jerusalem". I hope you enjoyed it and invite you to join me in one of the tours of Russian Jerusalem.

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