Between the Rehavia district of Jerusalem and the Israel Museum is the Valley of the Cross. Out of the olive-trees in the valley, on Hayim Hazaz Boulevard, rises the massive fortress-like bulk of the medieval Monastery of the Cross (Arabic Deir el-Musalliba). According to the legend Lot came to live here after being separated from his daughters and planted cedar, cypress and pine seeds, which germinated and grew together to form the tree from whose wood Christ's cross was made.
From this legend - which no doubt reflects an ancient tree cult - the monastery takes its name. Its early history is obscure. In Greek Orthodox tradition it was founded by the Empress Helen, mother of Constantine the Great, during her visit to Palestine. According to another tradition Constantine gave the site to the first Christian king of Georgia, Mirian (d. 342), who then built the monastery. Certainly there was a close connection over a long period between Georgia and the Monastery of the Cross, which had the same significance for the Christian peoples of Transcaucasia as the Georgian monastery of Iviron on Mount Athos. During the Crusader period and the subsequent years of Muslim rule, until the 18th century, the monastery remained in Georgian hands. In the 16th century there were 365 monks' cells; in the 18th there were still 220. When, after the decline of Georgia in the latter part of the 18th century, the monastery found itself in financial difficulties it passed into the hands of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, to which it still belongs. Valuable Georgian manuscripts are now preserved in the library of the Patriarchate. A few years after the foundation of the University of Athens the Greeks established a college here in which priests of eastern origin could pursue general and theological studies. The college, the first director of which was a Greek monk named Dionysios Kleophas, continued in existence until the First World War.
Until a few decades ago the monastery lay well to the west of Jerusalem, enjoying a seclusion which it has now lost with the steady expansion of the modern city. The monastery is entered through a low doorway which leads into an extensive complex of courtyards, terraces and blocks of cells, with the church in the center. The church dates from at least as far back as the 12th century and perhaps earlier; the tower shows Baroque features. Behind the high altar is a round opening framed in silver marking the position of the tree which yielded the wood for the Cross. The wall paintings, which have largely been preserved but have sometimes been poorly restored, depict Biblical scenes, Georgian kings and saints. They include a representation of Shota Rustaveli, the great Georgian poet, who was sent here as a monk by Queen Tamara (1184-1211) and wrote his "Vapkis Takosani" ("The Man in a Panther's Skin", c. 1187) in the monastery. He is depicted as a small kneeling figure at the feet of St Maximus the Confessor and St John of Damascus.