After 21 posts, I am becoming anxious to bring this travel narrative to a close, so pardon me if I begin to abbreviate the account somewhat. But as this journey was billed as a "Monastery Tour," I feel compelled to comment on the monasteries we visited. In Tbilisi we visited 4 churches (of which more in subsequent post). Beyond this, however, we visited at least 17 churches and monasteries in the Kakheti and Mtskheti Regions.
A few general observations are in order:
1. Georgian churches are thriving. Services are packed--primarily by young people.
2. Monastic communities are alive and flourishing. Largely closed during the 70 years of Communism, most are now reopened, growing and becoming an integral part of Georgian life once more.
3. Without sounding triumphalist to the non-Orthodox, I must say that the timelessness and resiliency of the Orthodox faith is a wonder to behold--and not just to me. On our last night together, one of our Minnesota Lutherans toasted the Georgian church. He said he was "plotzed" (to use an old Midwestern term), meaning he was just floored, so to speak, by what was happening in the Georgian Orthodox Church. The only explanation he could see was that it was the work of the Holy Spirit in the Georgian church. I agree.
Luarsab, a nun, Maia & Frederica at Ninotsminda Monastery
John and Luarsab set out to teach us just a bit of Georgian chant. They chose "O Holy God" (Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, Have Mercy on Us) The words, roughly transliterated:
cmi da o ymer - to
cmi da o zli e ro
cmi da o uku da
o se gvi cqa len cuen
We chanted this hymn in at least 8 of the churches we visited. The acoustics were absolutely incredible. These old Georgian churches--with their concave ceilings, and height, width and length in just the right proportions--indicate to me that the architects of old knew a thing or two that the modern world has forgotten. To chant this, in these old churches, never failed to send chills down my spine.
We visited with numerous priests, monks (even a Bishop or two), and nuns. Photographing them is generally discouraged, and I respected that wish. Consequently, I have few pictures of the monastics themselves. I was sorely tempted though, when I saw the nun pushing a lawnmower.
Ninotsminda Monastery, built by King Vakhtang Gorgasali in the 5th-century, honors St. Nino, who established Christianity in Georgia in the 4th-century. St. Nino is "big" in Georgia, and remains the most popular names by far for Georgian girls. This was the first attempt at a domed church here. It has been been destroyed many times, mainly by the Persians. It was rebuilt badly in the 17th-century and subsequently fell in an 19th-century earthquake. The fresco of the Theotokos, which survived, was damaged either by Soviet soldiers or Dhagastani bandits. Nine nuns are currently in residence and there plans to rebuilt the church yet again.
Monastery of St. Stephan of Kirsa
Our new stop was Khirsa Monastery, or the Church of St. Stephen. The church was established in the 6th-century by Stephen, one of the Syrian Fathers. These were 13 monks who came from Syria to Georgia in the 6th century. Each one established at least one monastery throughout the country. They left an indelible and continuing influence on Georgian culture. St. Stephen's tomb is to the left of the altar. During the 19th-century, the Russians white-washed over the frescoes. And of course, the church was closed throughout the Communist era. Monks returned to Khirsa only 3 years ago. Repairs and improvements are being made and some frescoes have been salvaged, though the work is just beginning. But Georgians are a patient people.
Bodbe Monastery is my favorite. It is a simple basilica, with no dome. But the perfectly-proportioned church is just exquisite. If I could build an Orthodox church in the US, it would be on this model. Bodbe is one of the major pilgrimage sites in Georgia, due to its association with St. Nino. In fact, she is buried within the church, to the right of the altar. We joined the line of faithful waiting to venerate her at her tomb. The monastic compound is in the process of being restored and modernized within. There may be as many as 45 nuns at this convent. I particularly enjoyed observing the iconographer in her studio.
Iconographer at Bodbe Monastery
Davit Gareji is another of the most important monasteries in Georgia. Located in the remote and wild country along the southeastern border with Azerbaijan, the monastic complex here was founded in the 6th century by the Syrian Fathers. It had long been a center of learning and the arts. In the 17th-century, Shah Abbas of Persia, swept through here on his way into Kakheti. He murdered 6,000 monks on the this hilltop where I am standing. This is a somber and Holy spot for Georgia, as it should be for all Christians. Bishop David of Alaverdi was at the Lavra Monastery at Davit Gareji for a number of years.
Until the recent construction of the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Tbilisi, Alaverdi Cathedral was the largest in the country. We were running a little late, but were able to be there for the last of the Divine Liturgy. There was a nice-sized crowd in attendance, even though Aleverdi is out in the country, away from any town. John Wurdeman was standing next to me and translated the Bishop David's homily. He spoke of the centurion who asked Jesus to heal his servant, and how this was a lesson of humility for us. Bishop David spoke of humility and faith as two sides of the double-edged sword of spiritual discernment. After the Liturgy, as the Bishop was leaving, the congregants formed 2 long rows. As he walked between, he would place his hand on our heads, giving a blessing to all.
New Shuamta Church
The new Shuamta Church dates to only the 16th-century. Queen Tinatin, who built Shuamta, later became a nun and is buried within the church. Many of the Chavchavadze family (Georgia's equivalent of the Washington/Lee families, the Roosevelts and the Kennedys--all rolled into one) are buried there as well. Shuamta was reactivated as a convent in 1995. The Russians whitewashed the walls, but what frescoes remain are stunning. Old Shuamta, nearby, is a much older basilica church.
Old Shuamta Church
Ikalto Church was one of my favorites. The church was the center of a once-thriving community. A noted college, the Ikalto Academy, was established here in the 9th-10th century. Shoto Rustaveli, Georgia's most famous writer, studied here in the 12th-century. His epic narrative, The Man in the Panther Skin, is known to all Georgians. The institution was open to all Georgians of talent, regardless of money or social position. Alas, it fell to Shah Abbas in the 17th-century, as did most everything else. The earliest church is the tiny 6th-century basilica of the Holy Trinity Church, which sits behind the main church, built in the 11th-century or so. Again, the interior had been largely whitewashed by the Russians. Ikalto is the burial place of St. Zenon, one of the Syrian Fathers.
Ruins of the Ikalto Institute
The caretaker, the proverbial "little old man," was a poet at heart. Years earlier, he had published a book of poetry, entitled "My Fireplace." He sang us a song, and also recited a few lines from a poem:
The sun rises
and the sun sets
the wind blows
but the doors of Ikalto creak forever.
Gremi Church lies on the other side of the valley, close up against the Caucasus. This church, dedicated to the Dormition of Mary, is relatively new, dating only to the 15th century. For some inexplicable reason, the Russians did not whitewash the frescoes during the 19th-century. We chanted our hymn inside, which moved the little old lady manning the candle and icon booth to tears. She asked Luarsab and John to sing another version with her, which moved the rest of us to tears. King Levon is buried within Gremi.
On the spur of the moment, we all decided to visit Kvelatsminda Monastery before returning to Tbilisi. This 8th-century church was well hidden, and very hard to find. It is unique in that it has 2 domes, a transitional phase between basilicas and domed churches. There are 8 monks in resident, one of whom was Fr. Josiah, who hailed from Luarsab's native village in Racha.
Ananuri Church is on the Georgia Military Highway as one begins to ascend into the Caucasus. It setting, overlooking a mountain resevoir on the Aragvi River, is storybook perfect. The church dates only to the 17th century. When we sang our hymn in the church, a group of young Georgians joined in with us. Some frescoes have survived the Russian whitewashing. The Christ Pantocrator is magnificent, but I stood transfixed by the depiction of the Last Judgment. Christ and the host of Heaven are above. Christ is connected to an altar, and beneath the altar a hand descends, holding a scale. On the right side, demons are bringing scrolls containing the records of the sins of man. On the left, angels are carrying scrolls containing the good deeds of mankind. Below, the graves are opening with the souls of man--some in Hell, some that have been eaten by wild beasts, etc. are awaiting the Judgment. Incredible.
Gergeti Trinity Church
This is probably the most photographed site in Georgia. In the shadow of Mt. Kazbeg, overlooking Stephanstminda, near the Russian border, Gergeti Trinity Church just takes your breath away. The most famous icon in the church is a large, silver icon of the Theotokos. The Communists burned this icon. But miraculously, while the faces burned, her hand did not. This icon is considered by many to be a wonder-working icon.
Church of the Archangel Michael
This is the church in the village of Stephanstminda. Notice the carved, chained lions above the portal of the church. This is a popular motif on Georgian churches. The lions represent our passions, and obviously, our struggles to rein them in.
Jvari Church is the perhaps the most sacred spot in Georgia. On this summit overlooking Mskheta, is where St. Nino planted her cross when she began evangelizing the country. The church dates to the mid 6th-century, and is thought to be the earliest example of a domed church in Georgia. My friend Jay had visited Georgia and Jvari back in the Communist era. At that time, Jvari was a ruin. Today it is alive with worshippers--a Holy place.
A church has been on this spot in Mskheta since the 5th century, though replaced by the present structure in the 11th century. The church was built over the grave of a local Jew, Sidonia, who was said to be buried holding the robe of Christ. Svetitskhoveli has always played an important role in the life of the nation. Georgian monarchs were crowned here and buried here. The floor of the nave is covered with the tombs of the Bagrationi.
Samtavro is located nearby in Mskheta. About 35 nuns are in residence. The most noted icon in the church is a copy of the famous Iberian icon of the Theotokos that was donated by the Georgian monks on Mt. Athos. Remarkably, Samtavro Monastery was never closed during the years of Communism. That miracle is attributed to this icon. Another icon of St. Nino has a reliquary containing 22 relics of the saints--a treasure donated by the grandson of Irakli II, one the last rulers of an independent Georgian kingdom. Large frescoes of King Mirian and Queen Nona, who accepted Christianity under St. Nino, dominate the north wall. The royal couple is buried here. Outside, there is a small chapel next to a blackberry bush, where it is believed St. Nino lived for 3 years. The shrine at the grave of monk Gabriel is a popular pilgrimage site. Gabriel died in the 1990s. Among other things, the eccentric monk set fire to a large billboard of Lenin back in the bad old days.
Antiochian Church (Church of St. Stephen)
This was the last church we visited in Mskheta. It is actually only 1/3 of what was once a 3 nave basilica church. 3 nuns stay in residence here. The inside held a glorious surprise--new frescoes have recently been painted. Scenes from the life of St. Nino are in the narthex, and scenes from the life of Christ in the nave and apse. A nuns was sitting in the narthex, knotting a komboskini. She gave us all souvenir photos of the church. Inside the beautiful little chapel, we chanted our hymn. She told us that we were a "gift from God." We thanked her, but in our eyes, she and this Holy place were the real gifts.