Tuesday, July 11, 2006
The Treasure of Iperi
During my recent journey in the Republic of Georgia, I spent the better part of 4 days getting to, traversing across, and returning from the Province of Svaneti. In fact, I ventured as far as Ushguli, an almost surreal village nestled high in the Caucasus Mountains--the most remote village in the most remote province of a fairly remote country. It is quite literally the end of the road in Europe (that is if you play along with the Georgian insistence that that their country is in Europe). Svaneti's main draw for visitors--beyond its isolation--is its almost other-worldly look; an alpine terrain dotted with the unique 900 year-old defensive towers, 5 to 6 stories in heighth (see picture below on "Sabbatical" post).
Obviously, one doesn't go to Svaneti on the way to anywhere. From Zugdidi, a sometimes harrowing 5-hour jeep ride--on a twisting trail which hugs mountain ridges along the raging Enguri River far below--will eventually bring you as far as Mestia. The road is blocked by snow much of the year. And during the rest of the year, a road crew is clearing away the rock slides and bracing the road here and there to keep it from sluffing-off into the river.
The town of 2,300 is the provincial capital. We stayed with a nice lady named Nino, who is, in fact, the governor of the province. So, I guess you can say we boarded at the "Governor's Mansion." But before you go too far with that imagery, however, I might add that there was a clothes line in the front yard and the cows were stabled right below our bedroom window. But there were indoor "facilities." Nino and her husband were pilgrims to the Holy Land during Pascha and witnessed the Holy Fire. She set her laptop on the dining room table and we all gathered around and watched her home movie DVD of the miracle.
Svaneti, while Georgian, has always maintained a fierce independence. Among themselves, they continue to speak Svan and hold to the many of their old ways. While Orthodox Christian, many still hold to some pre-Christian traditions. On major feast days, some villagers will sacrifice a bull (but then prepare the meat for a feast). Remarkably, the towers are generally owned by the same families who built them 900 years earlier. In the bad old days of Communism, bureaucrats were shipped in to whip the region into line. Many simply never returned and the Svans went about their business as usual. Family feuds can still flare up from time to time, and the village elders are looked to for mediation. In fact, the defensive towers were as much a protection against adversarial clans as they were against foreign invaders and rockslides.
Good-natured banditry, while diminishing, can still be a problem. I say "good-natured," because the Svan highwaymen may relieve you of your money and your wine, but they are not going to hurt you. And they will probably share the wine with you, as well. On our journey there, my son and I traveled with a guide and a car and driver. Unbeknownst to us, the package price included an accompanying jeep with 3 commandos in camouflage gear and submachine guns. The tour company hired them as our protection, just in case. I appreciated them being there, even if their presence was a little off-putting. I retain an image of them, squatting on their haunches, eyeing us with curiosity, while pulling on a cigarette held between thumb and forefinger. I got the feeling that any one of them could have been on the other side, had that been where the money was.
This perception of Svaneti, however, can obscure the region's rich cultural heritage. During invasions, the Georgian monarchs of old would send their treasures there for safe-keeping. And at times, the mountain strongholds provided protection for the rulers themselves. When invaders, whether they be Turks, Persians or Communists would penetrate into the region, the villagers would take down the icons and other treasures and hide them in their homes. This has continued down to the present day, so much so that many Svanetians are still hesitant to relinquish them. Some have been gathered together and displayed in the excellent Ethnographic Museum in Mestia. Gospel books dating from the late 800s are on display, as well as beautiful icons from the 11th and 12th centuries. One of my favorites was a unique 12th Century Svanetian icon of the 40 Martyrs of Sebaste.
After Mestia, you leave the "good" road behind, and travel another 3 1/2 hours along the Enguri River to reach Ushguli. The first automobile only made it here in 1964. The road ends here. The small power line which provides sporadic electricity to the village ends here. The achingly beautiful Church of LaMaria crowns the last knoll in the valley. There, you are face to face with Mt. Shkhara, its summit hidden in clouds. On the other side--Russian Chechnya--which makes it an ideal place to turn around.
On the return journey, we stopped at the village of Iperi, about 1 1/2 hours from Ushguli and 2 hours from Mestia. Our guide, Sophie, wanted us to visit the Church of St. George there. We parked in front of the churchyard while she went to find the caretaker.
The church was unprepossessing from the outside, what I describe as the simple Georgian style with steep pitched roof, but without the soaring effect of the high Georgian style. A small village cemetery lay in front of the church. Georgians prefer black stones with the portraits of the deceased etched on the marble. So as I faced the church, the faces of the deceased village stared out at me! Americans would probably consider the graveyard an overgrown mess. Yet it was not neglected and a far cry from the sterile lawnscapes characteristic of modern American cemeteries. For the markers had bottles stacked around them. Families return to the graves periodically--and especially on the anniversary of the death--and drink toasts to the deceased. (Toasts are big in Georgia, by the way. In Ushguli, I survived 7 vodka toasts at supper...but that's another story.) The bottles are of water, soda, wine or vodka--but never beer--and the bottles are left there, for whatever reason. I see the practice as a hearty, earthy affirmation of belief in the victory over death through Christ. The separation with the deceased is not real, and at worst, is only temporary. Though totally foreign to my experience, I found the custom oddly comforting, and smiled when I speculated how some of my uptight Protestant forebears would react to a vodka toast being offered over their graves!
Eventually, Sophie returned with the caretaker. It seems that it was still one of the feast days for St. George and somewhere in the village they were boiling a bull. The caretaker unlocked the door and admitted us into the small sanctuary. There was little to see at first, as it took a while for my eyes to adjust to the darkness inside. There was one candlestand, and Sophie and I each lit a candle. Gradually, the panoply began to unfold before me.
Meanwhile, the caretaker talked of his church. The building dated back to the 11th century. The frescoes inside were painted by the court painter of King David the Builder. King David is a Georgian saint, who along with his descendant, Queen Tamar, ruled during Georgia's glory days of the 10th throught 13th centuries. During the Soviet era, the local Communists commandeered the church as a stable, and defaced all the frescos on the lower level. But since Communism's fall, the church had been reconsecrated, and a priest conducts liturgies there from time to time. The caretaker said that there would be many baptisms whenever he came. He went on to explain that his nephew was a deacon in Tbilisi, and he had hopes of him returning to the village one day as a priest.
As my eyes adjusted to the dim light, I was bowled over by the beauty of the frescoes! Of course, Christ Pantocrator was seated above and behind the altar, with the Theotokos on the left and John the Baptist on the right. Scenes from the life of Christ filled-out the front of the church. Depictions of the life of St. George (and St. Theodore)lined the sides and rear of the sanctuary.
But I had not yet seen everything. A safe sat at the rear of the church. The caretaker carefully worked the combination and opened the door. An incredible silver icon of St. George sat on display on the the top shelf. The Svanetians often depict St. George spearing the Emperor Diocletian (as this one did), instead of a dragon. Of course, they know that St. George didn't really kill Diocletian, but by his martyrdom he symbolically slew the emperor and all that he stood for. The caretaker explained that this icon was hidden in the village during the long, dark years of Communism.
He pulled other treasures from the safe--ancient silver chain necklaces for both men and women. We held them in our hands and admired their weight and craftsmanship. He then extracted a golden bowl; not a gold-rimmed bowl, not a gold-plated bowl, but a golden bowl donated to the church by benefactors centuries earlier. As we stood there, holding this priceless golden bowl, the caretaker reached over to a table and picked up an unmarked (and open) bottle. He poured a clear liquid into the bowl. Not being real quick on the take, I looked at him questioningly. He said, "Wodka!" We smiled our approval. I put the bowl to my lips and took a long draught of vodka. I passed the bowl to my son, who finished it off. I briefly contemplated the strange, unfathomable providence and mercy of God--that would bring a formerly Protestant boy from East Texas to an obscure 11th Century Orthdox Church in the Caucasus Mountains, drinking vodka from a golden bowl.
The treasures were locked securely back in the safe, and began to exit the church. As I did, I was touched by what I glimpsed. Our hardened, young commandos were approaching--perhaps to see what we were up to--all the while, crossing themselves in the wide, sweeping Georgian manner as they neared the church. Western Protestants may pooh-pooh this as meaningless ritualism, but I am assured that it is not.
The caretaker charged a nominal fee to show the church, and a little more for picture-taking. It was really a pittance and we were glad to help support its maintenance. Through out guide and interpreter, I told him to keep the change as a contribution to the church. It amounted to, I believe, something like $14 more. The caretaker was overcome with emotion. He invited us to his home, to share a meal with his family. My "western" sensibilities took over. I didn't want to "impose," and then we did have something of an entourage--the 2 of us, our driver, our guide and our 3 rent-a-toughs. Then, of course, we did need to get on to Mestia. Anyway, I thanked him profusely, and I believe he understood. Before we left, he shook our hands firmly, bowed low to us, and then kissed us on each cheek. And so we left Iperi and its treasures behind, except of course for the one I was nurturing in my own heart.