Pilgrimage in Piatygorsk

City of Piatygorsk (Пятигорск or Five Mountains), Russia

Xavier and I quietly enter the reconstructed Cathedral of Christ the Savior. Like many other places of Orthodox worship, the Soviets blew up the original church building in 1936. The building we enter was consecrated and reopened in December 2012.

Xavier and I quickly pass through the compact nave of the church. We are drawn towards the iconostasis.

The icons are modern replicas painted in the traditional style. My gaze shifts away from the icons to the perimeter of the building. I want to buy candles, but I didn’t see any in the vestibule. Two babushkas in the church hastily clean the melted, extinguished waste left behind by the beeswax offerings. I’m afraid to ask them.

Alain enters the building and joins Xavier near the crossing. While they marvel and take pictures of the icons, I move towards the Iveron Mother of God in the western transcript. I say a prayer for protection unaware that the icon is an exact replica of the original Portatissa in Greece. I pray for a safe journey and for the safety of my family back home.


Our Lady of Iveron Icon by St. Apostle Luke

Making my circuit around the church, I say my prayers. Alain and Xavier politely ignore me. They go outside and wait.

On my way out of the building, I encounter a parishioner. I ask politely in a hushed voice, “Где свечи?” She looks at me, slightly puzzled, as I point to her hand, which grasps several candles. She thinks for a moment and then gestures outside. She mutters something underneath her breath that I don’t understand.

Cathedral of Christ the Savior

Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Piatygorsk, Russia

Alain and Xavier are waiting for me outside in front of the cathedral’s iron entrance gate. As I approach them, I see out of the corner of my eye someone exit a small building. I tell the Frenchmen to continue and explore the city without me. I want to buy some candles, and they don’t need to wait for me. Alain and Xavier leave vowing to catch up with me later.

I enter the small building and delight at the sight of beeswax candles. I nonchalantly browse the religious books, icons, and other materials first. The shopkeeper asks if I need help. I ask her if I can buy six candles. I point at the ones that typically burn for a day. She recommends a chocolate bar with a picture of the cathedral on its wrapper. I politely say, “нет.” I don’t know what else to say. I can’t possibly explain in Russian how the chocolate would melt during the rest of my trip.

Newly purchased candles in hand, I return to the cathedral for a second round of genuflection. I complete my ceremony and notice a man placing coins in a collection box underneath a picture. I take a closer look. The picture depicts Tsar Nicolas I, who originally requested the construction of the cathedral. Tsar Nicolas I also won the Russo-Persian war, which cemented Imperial Russia’s territorial claims to the Caucasus.

I maintain a safe distance from the portrait. I don’t want to get involved in Russia’s internal affairs. The country’s long history of intervention in the region doesn’t require my financial donation or my personal blessing. I leave the cathedral to make another offering elsewhere.

Somewhere perched above Piatygorsk, a lone, bronze eagle spreads its wings over the city. Down below, in the city’s streets, kiosks, and tourist shops, I’ve seen an image of the magnificent beast on countless magnets, coffee cups, and trinkets; yet, I can’t find the statue anywhere in town.

An Advertisement Proclaims Love for Piatygorsk

Advertisement Proclaims Love for Piatygorsk

I leave our hotel and I walk past the Lenin statue and the obligatory Soviet war memorial. The temperature is in the high 20 degrees Celsius. The air is sticky and humid. The shade of the lime and birch trees along Lermontov Street keep me cool.

Hello Lenin

Hello Lenin

I take a detour through the woods. I prefer the ash, birch, and chestnut trees to the busy street. I follow a path that leads up Mount Mashuk. Reaching an overlook and the broad promenade of public bath houses on Gagarina Boulevard, I gaze out over the city. I can see several peaks in the distance. Elbrus remains hidden in the afternoon smog.

Above Piatygorsk Looking Eastwards to the Museum of Insects

Above Piatygorsk Looking Eastwards to the Museum of Insects

I scan the surrounding hills near the city in vain. I can’t see the Eagle or the nearby Chinese Pavilion.

I head back into town to visit other tourist sites on my list. I randomly choose a path that leads me back down the mountain. I encounter few pedestrians in the afternoon heat.

I stop along the way at several overlooks. I unsuccessfully try again to catch a glimpse of the Eagle. I am already back in town before I can find a single clue about the statue’s whereabouts.

Lernmatov Gallery in Tsvetnik Park

Lernmatov Gallery in Tsvetnik Park

The sidewalks teem with Sunday strollers in the relative cool of the early evening sun. Couples and families move at a slow, deliberate pace. Children dart to-and-fro between pedestrians, street vendors, and babushkas who hawk various wares. Near the Lermontov Gallery in Tsvetnik Park, I finally catch a glimpse of the Chinese Pavilion on Mount Hot (Гора Горячая).

I start to walk in an uphill direction and turn back. I realize I am going the wrong way so I double-back to cross the park from the opposite side. I follow an unmarked path hoping it leads me in the right direction. I gain altitude as I ascend above the city a second time.

I near the Chinese Pavilion. I scan the horizon through the pavilion’s wrought iron frame and finally see the Eagle.

A View of the Eagle with the Chinese Pavillion in the Background

A View of the Eagle with the Chinese Pavillion in the Background

I follow a short dirt path to the bird. When I arrive, I notice the bird has a single companion, a snake curled up in the Eagle’s talons. I climb the pedestal of the statue, take several pictures, and wonder if the bird represents the famed Caucasian Eagle (Aetos Kaukasios) who agonized Prometheus. According to the Greek myth, Prometheus angered Zeus by stealing knowledge and skills from the gods to share them with humankind. For example, Prometheus gave humankind fire. In punishment, Prometheus was chained to a rock on Elbrus, and a giant eagle tore at his liver every day, an excruciating torment.

The Bronze Eagle of Piatygorsk

The Bronze Eagle of Piatygorsk

I ask myself if the Eagle on Mount Hot is the same mythical beast. I learn later that the statue is a common symbol for the entire region. According to some reports, the Eagle represents the good health that stems from the region’s famous mineral waters.

To be safe, I beg the eagle for safe passage on Elbrus and leave before I sustain any damage to my own liver.

Peter-Paul Rubens, Prometheus Bound

Peter-Paul Rubens, Prometheus Bound

Dianna’s Grotto, the last stop on my pilgrimage, is at the bottom of Mount Hot. Although I take a different path down to the grotto, I am confident that I will quickly find the stone enclosure. I already passed it on my way up to visit the Eagle.

On a rocky trail heading downhill, I pass a rusty and dilapidated water pumping facility. The site is overgrown with lush, green foliage. A torn fence leans heavily to one side. Exposed pipes leak water the color of brown mustard. I cannot escape the pungent stench of sulfur in the warm, humid air. I am surprised that I accidentally located the original source of the city’s famous mineral waters, but I don’t stop to take a drink.

I continue down the dusty trail to the entrance of Dianna’s Grotto. I reach the man-made cave in a few minutes.

The grotto was originally built in honor of Khillar Khachirov, the first person to summit Elbrus. The grotto was later renamed in honor of the Greek goddess, Dianna, due to its close proximity to a mineral bath (hot springs) for women who would relax in the shade of the cave.

Dianna's Grotto

Dianna’s Grotto

I enter the cool darkness of the grotto. The stone walls are damp and partially covered with moss. I sit on a dry, stone bench at the back of the cave. As my eyes adjust to the darkness, I look back towards the entrance. I close my eyes, take a deep breath, and fold my hands on my lap. I silently address the domovieye (домово́й) or guardian sprites who I know must be listening. I explain the purpose of my visit. I beg again for protection. I ask them for safe passage to the summit of Elbrus.

The Inside of the Grotto

The Inside of the Grotto

I sit in silence for a few more minutes. I am completely alone in the darkness.

I open my eyes and walk to an alcove in a corner of the cave. Soft rays of sunshine illuminate a plaque. I read about the Russian author, Mikhail Lermontov, who was killed in a duel like the protagonist, Pechorin, in his most famous work, A Hero of Our Time. I touch the plaque in the hope that his spirit will help me further decipher the text that I struggle to read. A young couple seeking refuge in the grotto unexpectedly stumble upon me. I am spooked by their presence thinking I might have seen a ghost. The couple giggle at my shocked reaction as they walk away.

The Plaque in Dianna's Grotto

The Plaque in Dianna’s Grotto

Having completed my pilgrimage, I return to the fading sunlight outside the grotto. My day’s work complete, I walk back to the hotel hoping the gods will protect my teammates and I on our continued journey.

Intourist Hotel, Piatygorsk

Intourist Hotel, Piatygorsk


Waypoints Time Distance Altitude
Intourist Hotel
Gagarina Boulevard
Tsvetnik Park
Mount Hot
Intourist Hotel
1:32 hours (travel time) 4.5 km + 84 m to 613 m



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