Georgia in Photos
No, not the state. For the past few weeks, I have been traveling throughout Georgia (, Republic of) as a graduation gift to myself. After two quick stops in Ireland to visit a friend, then Istanbul to check some things off my bucket list, I headed to the Caucuses and flooded my Facebook page with pictures I was taking on my phone. However, these are from my “big” camera — enjoy.
Georgia’s capital, population 1.5 million, formerly known as Tiflis when the country was part of the USSR. While Georgia itself is mostly ethnically homogeneous, Tbilisi is a remarkably multiethnic city. Historically, it was once a city of Armenians. Today it is inhabited by Georgians, Armenians, Azeris, Russians, Jews, some Germans, ex-pats, and a growing population of immigrants. It’s the type of city where you can find a church, synagogue, mosque, and a still-functioning Zoroastrian fire temple — all in old town:
By walking around Tbilisi, you can tell how many times this place has been conquered by what has been left behind. The mosque is the only mosque left in Tbilisi, and for that reason Sunni and Shia Muslims pray together here. The synagogue was built in 1904, but Georgia’s Jewish community is one of the oldest in the world. They trace their roots in the region back to the 6th century BC, and some still speak a language called Judeo-Georgian. Georgians are mostly Christian, part of the Georgian Orthodox Church, one of the oldest in the world. Georgia was the second kingdom to adopt Christianity, shortly after Armenia. Inside the mosque and synagogue, and a video from mass at a Georgian church:
Tbilisi gave me the impression that it was an ancient place that has been continuously added-on to. Some of the areas are remarkably old, and there are some places where Soviet-era apartment buildings dominate the streets. Yet in others there are these massive, 21st-century structures that stand out. I understand there was a devastating earthquake here in the 1980s, and you can still see a lot of cracks and abandoned buildings. But even in my first hours there, what struck me was that there is construction everywhere. It will be interesting to see what this place looks like in 5, 10, 20 years.
Tbilisi also had a number of charming, small details in the way it’s built. The old-style houses all have wooden or metal balconies, carved into intricate shapes, then painted. Colored glass windows seemed common. The architecture here is different (in a good way) from anything else I have ever seen. It all had a very rustic, eclectic feel.
Davit Gareji is a monastery complex built into hill along the border with Azerbaijan that was constructed in the 6th century. Part of the complex is still inhabited by Georgian monks, but the entire area is part of a border dispute between Georgia and Azerbaijan. You can walk around the complex, which is somewhat of a diplomatic “no-man’s land.” While most of the inhabited portions are closed off to visitors, the abandoned caves are open to explore. They feature Christian frescoes and paintings from 1,500-2,000 years ago, and many have been vandalized or have had names carved into them by visitors. It was rather sad to see, but the history is amazing to think about.
The inhabited portion of the complex:
The abandoned portion:
Davit Gareji also is an example of something exceptional about Georgia — for such a small country, it’s land is varied when it comes to climate. Just over an hour south of Tbilisi, this monastery is in the desert. An hour north of Tbilisi, and you’re in the mountains. Wine country is east, and an afternoon’s drive west puts you on the sea.
It was only once we got back to the inhabited portion did we learn that there are venomous vipers that live in these hills, and the monks had been out of anti-venom. Oops.
The Caucuses are made up of three countries: Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan (and a country called Karabach, depending on who you talk to). Given that they’re all very small, you can get to the borders very quickly. The hostel I stayed at offered a day excursion to see the monasteries of northern Armenia, where the first institutionalized Christian church was formed. We visited three monasteries and had lunch with a local family (delicious). It’s bizarre, as an American, driving between countries so easily. The road sign to Tehran was also a nice reminder of where I was, geographically. We bought a watermelon on the side of the road that had been picked in Iran that morning.
At one of the monasteries, local high school kids were having their graduation pictures taken. Those with the highest marks had red diplomas — a tradition inherited from the Soviet days. All of these monasteries were mostly abandoned. Under the Soviet Union, religion was illegal, and most churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, etc., were shut down, destroyed, or turned into storage facilities or museums. We learned that in this region, the local authorities managed to get the monasteries turned into storage facilities for the nearby factories, which greatly upset the people there. It was only later did they realize that the officials were doing what they could to try and at least save the structures from being destroyed.
There were so many local stories/legends at each church. The one that stands out the most is from the Mongol invasion. When the army was seen, all the local people hid in the walls of the church (each monastery was built a double layer of walls so they could support each other during earthquakes. There was a massive earthquake in Armenia in the 1980’s that killed tends-of-thousands of people. All of the Soviet construction crumbled — these monasteries did not). When the Mongols arrived and found nobody, they were confused, until they heard a baby cry in the wall. They fired a cannon at the church, which hit the dome directly at the intersection of the cross carved into it. The hole is still there, and it is regarded as a miracle.
Armenia is definitely a country to explore further one day.
Mtsketa is the capital of ancient Georgia, and is home to the most sacred church of the Georgian Orthodox Church. It’s a small town that’s a short ride from Tbilisi via marshutkra (spelling may be wrong) — mini buses that you can buy tickets for at cheap prices. There’s the main stretch of the town, then Jvari Monastery that overlooks the entire valley.
Here’s why the church is so important, at least as the legend goes. The sister of a Georgian king was in Jerusalem when Christ was crucified. The legend says she was turned into a believer when she saw him on the cross, and she took his robes that had fallen back to Mtsketa. It was there she died holding them, and they were unable to pull the robes from her hands. The burried her with them, and built the church over the grave. Whether or not it’s true, it’s a cool story.
My weekend in Georgia’s wine country, the oldest in the world. Not many Westerners realize that Georgia is the cradle of winemaking. A few years ago they discovered archaeological evidence of winemaking dating back 8,000 years; the oldest in the world with a complicated history the past 100 years. Traditionally, there were hundreds of unique grape varieties found in Georgia for both white and red wines. Under Soviet rule, the planned economy only allowed for a dozen or so to be grown, mostly geared towards the Russian palate. It has only been in recent years that Georgian wine is having a comeback, and they are growing grapes that had not been turned into wine for over 100 years (I got to try a few, they were good).
The traditional way of producing Georgian wine is to ferment the grapes in these giant clay pots that are buried in the ground. While most wineries now use the “European” method, they still do produce some in the way they have been for thousands of years.
During my stay, I slept in the attic of a family I met in the town of Signaghi, Georgia’s “City of Love,” where I was treated with fresh bread and cheese for breakfast and homemade wine whenever I wanted. There were grapes growing up the side of every house. Apparently the entire region is a huge party every fall when they harvest. I’ll have to come back one day.
The one day I had to venture into the mountains, but only the beginning of what Georgia has to offer in this regard. On the way to the village:
The church at the top of the smaller mountain is the main attraction here. For Greek mythology fans, the snow-capped mountain behind the church is where Zeus chained Prometheus for giving fire back to man, Mt. Kazbegi. This goes to show how ancient Georgia is.
This was another of the day excursions through the hostel I stayed at in Tbilisi. We stopped along the way to see some sites, and before making the climb to the church at the top of the mountain we had lunch with a local family who cooked a homemade Georgian meal for us (complete with homemade wine and chacha, the local spirits). Before we ate the matriarch of the family had us all come back into her kitchen so she could teach us how to cook Georgian food and make dumplings. She said I was a natural, and had to open a Georgian restaurant back home.