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Sunday, 28 April 2013

Silk Road Splendor at Georgia’s Ancient Churches

Written by Benjamin Mack
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      Nestled deep in the Caucasus a mere whisper from Georgia's second-largest city, Kutaisi, black-robed monks flit amongst shadows framed by stone mosaics. Nary a mobile phone in sight, their presence stirs the imagination, conjuring images of medieval derring-do featuring fire-breathing dragons, duels to the death and damsels in distress.

      Sure, this alpine region is also a hair’s-breadth away from where Russian and Georgian troops fought to bloody ends in 2008, but here at Gelati Monastery life has a certain unchanging quality. And why shouldn’t it? First established in 1106, this UNESCO World Heritage Site has seen armies as diverse as the Persians and Mongols, only to be defeated by the topography of a country roughly the same size as West Virginia.

Gelati is a working monastery, meaning monks live there full-time.

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Gelati Monastery was first established in 1106. Today it is a UNESCO World heritage Site. 

      Though Gelati may be far removed from its heyday as a sort-of Oriental Hellas, as it was originally intended, it is still nonetheless impressive. Perched atop a pastoral hill with spectacular views of the valley below, a quiet stream runs through the grass-covered grounds while the ensemble of two main buildings complements each other superbly. Inside the main chapel the interior contains many fine mosaics and frescos. Though the quality varies greatly—several raiding armies of the past on occasion did sack the complex—they provide an example of Georgian medieval artwork better than any museum collection. A couple hours here pass quickly, particularly if one were to bring a picnic complete with homemade khachapuri (cheese bread) purchased from a roadside stand.

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Georgians have been making khachapuri (cheese bread) for hundreds of years. It makes for a perfect countryside picnic, particularly purchased from a roadside stand.

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Tamar Amashukeli, left, lights a candle inside Gelati Monastery. Candles are lit to pray or to remember lived ones, a tradition dating back to the early days of Christianity.

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One of the main features of Gelati are the Gates of Ganja, taken from present-day Azerbaijan as trophies by king Demetrius I in 1139.

 


 

      Kutaisi itself evokes a dusty version of an alpine village in the Eastern Bloc. Though new construction abounds—such as the parliament building on the outskirts of town—it still feels more suited for horses than horsepower. Much of the city has remained empty since the days of the Cold War. Hotels are also sparse, so unless one wishes to stay in a guesthouse (the quality of which can vary wildly), the best bet is to stay in Tbilisi and make a day trip to the area. That’s precisely what I did, though the marshrutka, or minibus  was so crowded I was forced to crouch on a metal stool for the three-hour drive.

      But arriving in the area is certainly worth the exertion. A few kilometers northwest of Kutaisi is Prometheus Cave, a subterranean netherworld built on a grandiose scale. There are several caves in the region and this one is by far the largest. Although a concrete pathway leads visitors through the winding halls, much of the cave (which was only discovered in 1983) remains unexplored. Despite its sheer size and relative deepness within a heavily forested gorge, it’s not as cold as one would imagine it to be. It is, however, exceptionally damp due to the practically stagnant river that flows almost entirely throughout. A jacket, I ruefully realized, would have been a good idea, if only to keep me dry from the moisture that percolated from the gargantuan stalactites.

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Discovered in 1983, Prometheus Cave is unquestionably massive. It was opened to tourists in 2011.  

      After my thorough soaking, it was time to dry off. Nearby  on significantly higher ground  lies Motsameta; a monastery that may be the most underrated in western Asia. Perched precipitously atop a practically sheer cliff (given the frequent seismic activity in the region, it’s a miracle it hasn’t crumbled into the Rioni river far below), the compact church evokes a more rustic Swallow’s Nest. While the vistas are stunning, Motsameta attracts crowds throughout Georgia for an entirely different reason: the belief that if one crawls under the small ark inside the chapel three times and makes a wish while touching the hallows, it will be granted by the saints interred within.

      Wishes granted or not, the thousand-year-old Motsameta makes a pleasant introduction to the region. It may be within a stone’s throw of volatile South Ossetia, but feels far removed from the violence. Also a popular spot for locals to baptize their children; it’s not uncommon to witness a ceremony during a visit. Just remember to dress appropriately; women are required to cover their hair, and men cannot wear shorts. I silently thanked Levi Strauss as I watched a baptism. Though I thought the baby was eerily quiet for being completely submerged in what must have been ice-cold water.

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Locals have baptized their children at Motsameta for a millennium.

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Though close to the disputed South Ossetia region, Motsameta and the surrounding area has seen little violence recently.

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Small stands offering bread and a restroom are common along Georgian highways, such as the E60 between Tbilisi and Kutaisi. 

      Coupled with a casual tour of a cozy museum or two (the Kutaisi State Historical Museum is particularly notable), a packed schedule is all but guaranteed in this city that just recently opened a new international airport. But no visit is complete without a stop at Bagrati Cathedral, the hulking complex that serves as a potent symbol of Georgian sovereignty. 

      First built in the early years of the 11th century under the direction of King Bagrat III (from whom its name derives), Bagrati was at one point considered a masterpiece. In 1692, it was devastated in an explosion by invading Ottoman troops, causing the ceiling to collapse and leaving the once imposing church in ruins. Or what used to be ruins.

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Youths wander along the outer wall of the grounds of Bagrati Cathedral. Devastated by the Ottomans in 1692, the church has recently undergone a massive – and controversial – restoration.

      A controversial restoration has returned the church to the way it looked a millennium ago. Today visitors can wander freely through the cavernous halls with carefree impunity. Though the restoration has endangered the church’s status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, its impressiveness is impossible to understate. The only knock is that it does not offer the same sweeping countryside vistas as Gelati or Motsameta. But after a long day of following in the footsteps of kings and queens of old, it makes a fitting climax to any adventure.

      The shadows gradually lengthening as the late summer sun slowly fades from view, even the indignity of another stool bound marshrutka ride couldn’t dampen the spirit. After all, visiting this region—romanticized by the likes of Aleksandr Pushkin and Leo Tolstoy—just north of the Cradle of Civilization is literally akin to stepping back in time. Amongst the surest evidence: an apple is first and foremost a fruit.

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Much of Gerorgia lies within the Caucasus, a mountain range stretching from Sochi, Russia almost to Baku, Azerbaijan boasting numerous peaks above 4,000 meters (13,125 feet).    

  

Article and photos ©Benjamin Mack

 

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If you go

Kutaisi Tourism

http://tourism.kutaisi.gov.ge/

Visit Georgia

http://www.visitgeorgia.ge/en/hotels/kutaisi 

 

Kutaisi Tourist Office

8a Rustaveli Avenue, Kutaisi

+995 (8)431 24 11 03

 

 

Benjamin Mack is a U.S.-born, European-based travel writer. He has written for a variety of publications including Deutsche Welle, Air India Magazine, GALO, Tape, The Local Sweden and The Swedish Institute. He currently lives in Germany.

 

Last modified on Monday, 30 December 2013