17-18 September 2018
I weave eighty miles of up and down and up, endless around and around on sad roads within these Greater Caucasus. Our Georgian driver speeds us around pot holes, cows and the occasional slow driver. We cross over the Gombori Pass, our final peak at an altitude of just 5,315 feet, but the getting there is what sets my stomach on edge. Along our drive, I am distracted by the small quiet villages and panoramic views of the Alazani Valley, the beautiful waves of long grasses flowing in the gusty winds, and the white and gold salt lake of this high arid plain. Mother Nature has a way of soothing the tortured soul of God Vertigo. So do the Ginger pills I swallowed.
Our destination today is the historic cave complex of Davit Gareja Monastery, located yards from the Azerbaijan border and not many walking miles from the Armenian Red Bridge Customs Post, a rather ominous name for this part of old Russia. Complicating life for the solitude-seeking monks of Davit Gareja are the tourists and the monastery’s proximity to the Azerbaijan border as some of the complex was located in that country. Border disputes continue to be hotly debated. But the setting of this “no-man’s land” is spectacular.
Davit Gareja Monastery was originally founded as a royal monastery in the 6th century and is the largest such complex in Georgia. Its location is more harsh desert than verdant mountains. The complex includes churches, chapels, hundreds of cells, refectories and living quarters hollowed out of the rock face of the slopes of Mount Gareja.
Davit (later St. David Garejeli) was one of the thirteen Assyrian monks who arrived into the area in the 6th century. According to Georgian church tradition, this group of missionaries traveled from Mesopotamia to strengthen Christianity in the country, establishing several monasteries in Georgia.
Throughout the following centuries, despite its harsh environment, Davit Gareja complex expanded and thrived as a religious center of pilgrimage. The convent saw much use by Georgian royal and noble families (a particularly unattractive habit exercised as a way of dealing with the lesser valued females in the family). In the 12th-century, Georgian king Demetre I fled to this monastery after his abdication. It was also during this time and through the 13th century that the monastery enjoyed the height of its economic prosperity, owning area villages and vast sections of rich agricultural land. All the while, the monastery enlarged with new ones added.
With the downfall of the Georgian monarchy, Davit Gareja fell into decline. It was further devastated by the Mongols in 1265. It was rebuilt only to be viciously attacked in 1615 by the Safavid dynasty of Iran. Persian Shah Abbas massacred over 6000 monks and sacked the monastery. Many of its unique books and manuscripts and irreplaceable art works were lost.
After the Bolshevik takeover of Georgia in 1921, Davit Gareja was closed. From 1979-1989, during the years of the Soviet-Afghan War, the monastery’s lands were used as a training ground for the Soviet military. Their firing range and shelling damaged murals and buildings further. Only after thousands of Georgians took to the streets in Tbilisi and staged student hunger strikes did the Soviets remove their firing ranges.
After Georgia’s independence in 1991, Davit Gareja revived. (However, military exercises returned to the region, this time from Georgia itself. Brave activists set up tents on the firing range and successfully stopped such nonsense for good. Hopefully.)
Most structures in the complex are in good condition. Made of the ubiquitous stone of the region and with terra cotta tile roofs, they were built to last. Numerous cells and refectories are carved into the rock of the mountain and decorated with amazing frescoes. It is a serene spot overlooking the valley and ragged countryside.
The complex is best known for frescoes dating from the 6th through the 18th century. Subjected to weather, exposure to light, plundering and shelling, that these paintings still exist and retain the vibrancy they do is a miracle.
We retrace the road northwest 43 miles to Tbilisi, capital of Georgia, where we will stay for two nights. Our hotel is the Marriott Courtyard overlooking Liberty Square, just across from Dunkin Donuts.
Thankfully, we are just a few yards from pleasant Pushkin Park.
“If I walk the noisy streets,
Or enter a many thronged church,
Or sit among the wild young generation,
I give way to my thoughts.“ – Alexander Pushkin
Tbilisi was founded 1,500 years ago and became the capital of Georgia in the 6th century. Since then, the city has been destroyed and rebuilt nearly 30 different times. It has a long history of defending itself from Persian, Arab, Mongol, Turk and finally, Russian invaders. Tbilisi today is a modern, cosmopolitan city. Just in Liberty Square, outside my hotel’s door, I see Avis Rentals, Burberry, Marley (Bob) Shop, Paragliding Tbilisi, numerous ATMs and that donut place.
On this cooler, breezy morning, I partake in one of my favorite pastimes: walking historic city streets and byways with a local. Tbilisi spreads along the Mtkvari River and is an unusual mix of narrow cobbled streets and courtyards, architecturally modern bridges and buildings, parks and river walks, ancient basilicas and sulfur baths, fortress walls, and fancy casinos called Shangri La. I know not yet if I should love it, as the sign suggests, or hate it.
Not only is there a wealth of museums in the city, as the American saying goes, Tbilisi “has more churches than you can shake a stick at.” In fact, they are quite proud that there is a mosque, synagogue, and orthodox church within blocks of each other. The more I learn of this country, it strikes me that Georgians have sought modern, progressive directions, and Russian ways must have been anathema to them.
Our first stop is on the left bank atop Metekhi Hill for views of the city and a summary of its architecture and history. Here stands the statue of King Vakhtang Gorgasali (a 5th century king of Iberia/Eastern Georgia and the city’s founder) astride his horse with possibly the most magnificent view of his city.
Behind the statue of the king is Metekhi Church of the Virgin which has been destroyed and rebuilt numerous times. One of Georgia’s most beloved saints, St. Shushanik, is buried here. She didn’t loose her life to invaders but to her husband who tortured her when she refused to convert with him to Zoroastrianism in 544. And it is here where Queen Tamar prayed before the 1195 Shamkori battle and later married her Ossetian prince.
King David the Builder (same builder of Ikalto Academy visited earlier) drove the Arabs out of Tbilisi in 1122, and, recognizing a great view, moved his royal residence from Narikala Fortress to this high promontory on the left bank of the Mtkvari River. Mongols destroyed the palace and its cathedral in 1235, but the palace and church were re-built.
Metekhi and environs have experienced the usual cycle of invasions, damages, and rebuilding over the centuries. The Persian Kahn totally destroyed the area in 1795. The Tsarist regime, forever creative, used the site for a jail, housing the great Russian literary giant Maxim Gorky. An even more infamous inmate was local criminal, bank robber and thug, Joseph Stalin. Stalin was in and out of the Metekhi jail throughout his early years beginning in 1900. Some of Stalin’s wealthier friends helped to pay the fines and get him out of prison. From then until Stalin was putting his own friends in prisons, he was in and out of jails from Tbilisi to Siberia. The infamous jail was closed in 1938 but Metekhi Church of the Virgin with its traditional brick pointed dome, last rebuilt in 1748, remains to dominate the skyline.
Directly below us is the rebuilt Metekhi Bridge, the oldest in the city. Metekhi Bridge stands on the place where the first wooden bridge crossed the Mtkvari in 1821. It was later replaced by a metal one in 1870. Here also occurred what Georgians call The Hundred Thousand Martyrs. It was here that these future saints of the Georgian Orthodox Church were executed by the Khwarezmid Sultan Jalal ad-Din upon his capture of the Georgian capital of Tbilisi in 1226.
Jalal ad-Din broke into the city with the assistance of local Muslims. The victorious Khwarezmid soldiers sacked Tbilisi and massacred its Christian population. According to legend, Jalal had the dome of the Sioni Cathedral torn down and replaced it with a throne for himself. Then he ordered the icons of Christ and Virgin Mary to be carried to the bridge. He ordered the Christians to step on them. Those who refused and rejected Islam were beheaded. The chronicler put the number at ten thousand, but numbers of heads thrown into the river vary. Georgians venerate and celebrate these martyrs each year.
Did I mention the commanding views day and night? Here one enjoys magnificent views of Old Town, the river and its new Peace Bridge, the glass cupola of the presidential palace, the flying white wings of the Service Hall, the Narikala Fortress, and the monumental Statue of Mother Georgia on the top of the Sololaki range a mile away. The statue is a massive aluminum replica of a woman in historic Georgian dress, sword in one hand and a wine goblet in the other. My kind of woman!
On the opposite bank of the river is Sioni Cathedral. I am told that in early Georgian tradition, churches were named for places in the Holy Land; thus Sioni is Mount Zion at Jerusalem. First built in the 6th-7th century, it was renovated in 1112 by David the Builder and again in the 17th and 18th centuries. Its belfry dates to 1812. The Sioni Cathedral was the main Georgian Orthodox cathedral until Holy Trinity was opened in 2004.
The interior of Sioni is what I expect of an eastern orthodox church. Cupola, walls and ceiling are covered in vibrant murals and frescoes. The stone chancel dates to the 1850s. To the left of the altar is a Georgian cross (recognizable because of its drooping horizontal arms) which, according to tradition, was forged by Saint Nino, a Cappadocia woman who preached Christianity in the Caucasus in the early 4th century. The cross is reportedly joined by the saint’s own hair. On the opposite side of the chancel is another cherished treasure – a box which supposedly holds the head of Doubting Thomas.
Our walking path takes us along quieter cobblestone streets within the old city. Shops and restaurants line the way. Balconies, both traditional and new, allow residents to view the pedestrian traffic as well as hang and air their carpets. Ivy and other vines climb the sides and roofs of the buildings. The architecture ranges from several centuries old to the more modern efforts of the last two decades. And along the walkways are wonderful brass sculptures depicting everything from television characters to poets and modern art.
We pass the oldest Georgian Orthodox church in Tbilisi, the Anchiskhati Basilica. Dating from the 6th century, its construction is contributed to King Dachi of Iberia in around 530. Its original name of Virgin Mary was changed to Anchiskhati about 1675 because a priceless 12th century icon was moved to Tbilisi when fleeing the Ottoman invasions of northeast Turkey. The basilica served as a museum during the Soviet era. After independence in 1991, the basilica was again used as a house of worship.
The ultramodern steel and glass Bridge of Peace, designed by Italian architect Michele De Lucchi, opened in 2010, not without critics of building it in the historic district. The bridge stretches 500 feet over the Mtkvari River and connects old Tbilisi with the new district. Despite criticism, the bridge affords great views of Metekhi Church and the Narikala Fortress. It’s wavelike steel structure is a photo opportunity in itself. And at night, there are multiple programs of light shows which play along its surface.
In fact, the entire city lights up for the evenings. Domes, statues, fountains, bridges, churches, fortresses, and Mother Georgia put on an unforgettable light show.
Tbilisi is built on top of thermal springs. Many centuries ago, the king of Georgia discovered the sulphur springs in Central Georgia and decided to build a city surrounding them. And so, Tbilisi, meaning warm place, was built. The ancient and still functional sulfur baths are probably more for the tourists than not. But once they were the center of social life for the mothers of Tbilisi as they gathered to size up and barter for a potential wife for their beloved sons.
After lunch we visited the Georgian National Museum just down the street from our hotel on Rustaveli Avenue. It was opened by the Russian Imperial Geographic Society in 1852, had most of its artifacts moved to safety in Europe when the Bolsheviks arrived, and only retrieved them after WWII. There are several sections to the museum and something for everyone’s interests.
Not to be missed by anyone is the magnificent collection of gold filigree work dating from the 7th century BC. The Treasury from Metsketa features intricate and outstanding gold and metal filigree workmanship. Artifacts include archaeologic discoveries dating to the Bronze Age, unique early crafts, mosaics, metalwork and jewelry. With Tbilisi located at a crossroads of the Northern Caucasus’ east/west Silk Road, Armenia and Azerbaijan are a wealth of antiquities. Burial pits discovered in Georgia have provided a treasure trove of beautiful crafts dating as early as the 7th century BC.
Other interesting exhibits included Georgian Costumes and Weaponry, Caucasus Biodiversity, Stone Age Georgia, and on the 4th floor, a good exhibit on Soviet Occupation. It is easy to wander for quite some time among the exhibits.
Too short of a time has been spent in Tbilisi. I would love to walk the botanical gardens, explore the fortress, take the funicular up Mtatsminda or a boat along the Mtkvari River, visit the Museum of History of the Jews and wander more of the old historical district, a UNESCO site of its own. And just for the name I would like to see the Jvaris Mama Church and eat at the PurPur. So many enticing places and names.
We end our brief stay by attending the engaging performance of “Welcome to Georgia.” The musical play is a cultural immersion into the traditions, dance, history and song of Georgia. The audience is drawn into participating with the cast in enjoying the life and friendship of Georgia. Great fun.
Welcome to wonderful Georgia!