22-23 September 2018
The Queen Who Would Be King
Morning departure from Akhaltsikhe finds us venturing further southwest into the region of Samtshke-Javakheti, named for two of the original Georgian tribes, the Meskh and Javakhs. This region is often seen as the cradle of Georgian culture. The distance is short, just 38 miles, but as is the case in this mountainous country, twists, dips, climbs and time are all relative.
Stone-terraces line the hillsides. Once abandoned, many are now being renovated and new grape vines are being planted. The mountains, pastures, stone terracing and stone cliffs are awesome. Our road follows the weaving River Paravani to its confluence with the much larger River Mtkvari. High above our heads, at the meeting of these two rivers, stands Khertvisi Castle. We walk out on a swing bridge spanning the fast moving Mtkvari for even better views of the fortifications and this beautiful gorge.
Khertvisi Castle was built in the 2nd century BC and is the oldest such fortress in Georgia. Rebuilt in 985 and again in 1354, it continued in use for over 300 years. In the 19th century the area became a military base. Monks and armies knew location, location, location and here is no difference from other sites I have visited: the fortress sits high atop a rock outcrop above the Mtkvari River. It is rumored that Alexander the Great slept here – before destroying it.
But what beckons us is the valley of Vardzia whose history is closely linked to Queen Tamar, Georgia’s most beloved queen who reigned during the 12th century. Tamar the Great reigned as the Queen of Georgia from 1184 to 1213, presiding over Georgia’s Golden Age. Crowned as a co-ruler by her father, Giorgi III, Tamar was the first woman to rule Georgia in her own right. She is known for strengthening and unifying Georgian rule and also for her victories against Muslim and Turk invaders.
Queen Tamar was so beloved and honored, she was the only woman ruler to be referred to as King Tamar.
Legend says Tamar and her uncle hunted this gorge when she was a small child. The uncle hunted but Tamar scrambled around and got lost in the caves. When eventually found, Tamar was so impressed with her surroundings that her father, King Giorgi III, carved a huge cave city into the sandstone cliffs above the river valley of Vardzia. (Cliffside is somewhat reminiscent of the ancient cliff dwellers of Arizona.)
Tamar returned as an adult to expand the city that her father began. More than 80 caves go deep into the rocks and consist of 8 levels. The huge complex was built into the cliff with the intention of blending invisibly into nature.
Over 300 rooms, six chapels, reception rooms, pharmacy, bakery and cemetery are spread over a vast sandstone cliff. Twenty-five wine cellars exist with scores of wine jars sunk into the ground, Georgian style. Monastery, church and homes were carved into these cliffs and a myriad of tunnels and rooms are open for exploration. As with every place I have visited during the past few days, the views of the valley and river gorge are spectacular. Standing atop the cliffs, one understands how this site easily became a spiritual focus for pilgrims throughout the 16th century.
It is believed Queen/King Tamar is buried here. At her death, several gold coffins were prepared for Tamar. In order to keep her burial a mystery, gold coffins were moved to several sites ranging from Vardzia to Jerusalem. (Personally, I think she was cut up and little bits were sent to each honored site in a gold coffin. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.) Regardless of her exit, Tamar kicked the invaders butts in her lifetime and was one of the strong women of Georgia.
At the entrance to and inside of the chapel there are well-preserved frescoes and portraits. Church walls, ceilings, vaults, narthex and apse are covered with murals, some more damaged than others. Murals portray the life of Christ, saints and one particularly honored life-sized fresco of King Giorgi and Queen Tamar. And within a small attached room is a treasured icon of Tamar. Though not an active church, there are a few monks who are in residence and work the surrounding fields.
We scramble up steps and down paths, through narrow tunnels and duck into various rooms. The site is marvelous and views up and down the gorge are dramatic. If one is a monk, this would be the place (at least after the tourists exit the cliffs).
On our return to Akhaltsikhe, we climb the hill above the chity for a visit of the Rabikati Castle. The city was established around the 9th century as was the castle. From the 13th to the end of 14th centuries, Akhaltsikhe was the capital of this region and ruled by the Georgian princely Mtavari family. However, in 1393 the city was attacked by the armies of Tamerlane, the Turco-Mongol conqueror from Persia. Despite the invasions, the fortress continued to thrive but after the Treaty of Constantinople in 1590, the whole territory fell under the rule of Ottomans. Most of the surviving buildings were rebuilt by the Ottomans in the 17th and 18th centuries, building the first mosque there in 1752.
The fortress and its adjacent buildings were extensively rebuilt and renovated in 2011-2012 in order to attract more tourists to the area. It seemed to be working, in a way, as we strolled around the Fortress pretty much alone while the masses were enjoying the music and dancing down in the courtyard. There are commanding views of the city from the top of the Fortress. As storm clouds darkened the sky and lightening flashed over the mountains, it was a grand show with which to end our day.
The Cross-maker Who Became A Saint
I depart Akhaltsikhe. It was a pleasant, simple town but I am glad to be departing. I don’t know what I hated most – the pillows or the dogs. I think the packs of barking, fighting dogs that rule the streets at night win my award as “the most unpleasant aspect of central Georgia.” I am also about “done” with mountainous roads. My stockpile of ginger pills is getting dangerously low.
We drive south following River Paravani through undulating hills of rich fertile fields, hydroelectric power plants, cattle and sheep, past small villages and over rugged roads. Potholes gain a whole new description in this part of Georgia.
Our mountainous, twisting route passes through the highlands of Javakheti National Park to the small community of Poka. This alpine region is above 6800 ft. and is mostly above the tree line with signs of previous volcanic activity. It is beautiful, green, wide open terrain with sparkling lakes and the Agul Mountains in the distance.
Paravani Pass, often closed in winter, affords views of the rich pastures and large herds of cattle and flocks of sheep. This is a land of shepherds, open pasturelands, the ubiquitous rocks and the occasional magnificent hawk hunting for lunch. Beehives are everywhere and on a sunny, crisp morning, there lies a wonderful patch of snow in the foothills. This high mountain ridge can be inundated with snow and drifts in winter, closing the pass. The stacks of drying ‘dung bricks’ indicate a utilitarian use of abundance for the heating of homes during long winters in this treeless terrain.
Supposedly these highlands are the coldest place in Georgia in winter. So who would build their business here? In 1992, the Catholicos-Patriarch of all Georgia thought it was an ideal spot for the Poka St. Nino Nunnery. So, in the small village of Poka, we get thee to a nunnery.
Though the nunnery is modern, the Javakheti area was mentioned as early as 785 BC. The small basilica dedicated to St. Nino was built in the 10th century but not restored until 2005. As the legend is told, this is the very place where Saint Nino entered Georgia, carrying her handmade grapevine cross, before following the river Paravani to the City of Mtskheta north of Tbilisi. The church interior is unadorned except for the chancel and icons, all handmade by the nuns.
Nino, Virgin and the Apostle of Georgia, was born in Cappadocia. Her father was a Roman army chief by the name of Zabulon, and her mother was the sister of a Patriarch of Jerusalem. When Nino was twelve, her parents sold all their possessions and moved to Jerusalem. Soon after, Nino’s father left his family for the life of a monk in the wilderness of the Jordan. Then her mother was ordained a deaconess, leaving Nino in the care of an old woman who instructed her on Christianity. It was then that Nino learned how Christ’s Robe had arrived in Georgia, a country of pagans.
Nino began to pray to the Virgin Mary, expressing her desire to travel to Georgia in order to be in proximity to the holy robe. Legend reads that she had a dream in which she was told to go to Georgia with the Holy Virgin as her protector. She awoke from her dream with a cross of grapevines in her hands. She then tied it securely with strands of her own hair. Thus was born the Georgian cross, symbol of Georgian Orthodoxy.
Nino took a somewhat circuitous route from Jerusalem to Rome to Armenia, performing baptisms and miracles along the way, and narrowly escaping the persecution and death inflicted upon many of her fellow Christian travelers. When she finally arrived in Georgia, still carrying her protective grapevine cross, Saint Nino was greeted by a group of Mtskhetan shepherds near Lake Paravani and she began preaching to the pagans of this region.
Nino moved down the valley, probably using the same terrible road we drive upon today with little modifications nor improvements. She continued to preach, produce miracles, and convert people to Christianity. Nino eventually stopped, as we did a few days ago, in the city of Mtskheta. More preaching and more miracles, one healing the terminally ill queen and one saving a scared king from a violent storm, and the pagan King Mirian swore fidelity to the faith. Thence forward, Georgia was established as a nation solidly rooted in the Christianity.
After helping to found the Church in Georgia, Nino retired to the life of a hermitess, spending the rest of her life in prayer. Saint Nino remained in the village of Bodbe in eastern Georgia and, according to her will, she was buried in the place where she took her last breath. King Mirian later erected a church in honor of Saint George over her grave. King Mirian had to recognized a strong women when he met one, and he met his match with Saint Nino.
St. Nino Nunnery is of modern architecture and nothing special. However, from the beginning, the convent dedicated itself to mastering agriculture and animal husbandry. In the process, the nuns developed a knack for creating delicious products and crafts. They create Cloisonné jewelry and art and used their skills to create all the beautiful icons and mosaics adorning the church. It is also their food for which tourists navigate winding roads.
Their shop is full of French style cheeses of at least 15 varieties, from Monastique Bleu to Poka to Albio dans des Pots, all with unique shapes and even colors. Cookies, chocolates, assorted confectioneries, breads and jams abound. Crafts include candles and Cloisonné enamel and mosaic pieces from bowls to jewelry. Cloisonné is an ancient technique using inlays of gemstones and glass to create amazing pieces of art. I especially liked the bees, of which they have many as indicated by the constant hum of nearby swarms. All this and these amazing nuns manage to cook for tourists and pray at least 5 hours a day.
After enjoying the views and a wonderful lunch, we once again set out on, you guessed it, twisty switchback roads across these Lesser Caucasus. We have maneuvered over 600 miles of Georgian roads through an incredibly beautiful, hospitable country.
Georgia’s First Feminist
Barbare Jorjadze (1833-1895) was a Georgian princess, author, and women’s rights advocate. If there ever was a modern day strong woman, Barbare would be that woman.
Jorjadze was the daughter of Prince Davit Eristavi and her beginnings were not that auspicious. She was married off to Zakaria Jorjadze when she was 12. “I was so young at my wedding that I thought it was some sort of game.” When a bat flew into the church during her solemn ceremony, Barbare told one writer, she nearly went chasing after it.
But such travails and challenges do not stand in the way of the strong woman.
She began writing in 1858, publishing her poetry despite public disapproval. A few years later, Barbare participated in public debates on the modernization of the Georgian language, challenging the traditions of centuries. Her play, “What I was looking for and what I found,” was first staged and was performed throughout Georgia. But it is for her cookbook for which Barbare is best know. And why I have met her.
In 1874 Barbare published Georgian Cuisine and Tried Housekeeping Notes. Poet, playwright, essayist and feminist, Barbare was the Julia Child of the 19th century. Along with over 800 recipes for the preparation of traditional Georgian cuisine, she also gave etiquette tips on dining and maintaining the proper Georgian household.
I am privileged to experience this expertise at the Georgian Family Restaurant of Barbarestan and its proud presentation of Barbare Jorjadze cuisine. A few years ago, it’s owner was shopping a flea market. His life-changing moment was finding a copy of an original Jorjadze cookbook. Three years ago, he opened this restaurant dedicated to the sole cooking and presentation of Barbare Jorjadze cuisine. The restaurant, presentation and cuisine are excellent.
In 1893, Jorjadze published the letter “A Few of Words to the Attention of Young Men.” She continued to address women’s rights for the rest of her life and is recognized as the originator of Georgia’s feminist manifesto. She called on men to “abandon pride and envy, and let your sisters have an equal access to education and tutoring … and the new generation of women will spare no labor and energy to contribute their share to progress.” Wise words that should be heeded.
This day we return to Tbilisi and and say our farewell to the ultimate strong woman – Mother Georgia. High atop Sololak Hill, this sixty foot woman looks over her Georgians with a bowl of wine and a sword. Her pecks and biceps are buff, her smile welcoming. Mother Georgia may be typical. Come enjoy our wine and friendship; but don’t mess with our love of life. We have a long tradition of strong women and they will protect us.
Georgia’s Women of the Twenty-First Century
Indeed, perhaps today’s strong women of Georgia are a product of these four women. One such woman is our guide, Nino. Triathlon strong, educated, knowledgeable and welcoming, Nino reflects the type of woman Barbare Jorjadze predicted when she encouraged the men of Georgia to “let their sisters” share in equal opportunities. Barbare knew such access would produce strong women who would share in leading the country forward. I think she would be proud of Nino and the women of Georgia.