My book Why Religions Work explores religious tolerance issues. It could not be more relevant at the moment with the world in its present state.
This blog has concentrated recently on the wonderful pilgrimages I have been on - to the Holy Land and to Turkey and more recently to Holy Georgia , Greece "In the Steps of St Paul" , Ethiopia and most recently my experiences in Iran.

"If I was allowed another life I would go to all the places of God's Earth. What better way to worship God than to look on all his works?" from The Chains of Heaven: an Ethiopian Romance Philip Marsden

Sunday, 29 June 2014

Holy Georgia: in the steps of St Nino and the Syrian Fathers - Day 2

Cows! There are cows everywhere. They not only graze in the (mostly unfenced) pastures, which are wonderfully rich in wild flowers, but they also stroll on the verges by the side of the road, even along main highways, seemingly unperturbed by the fast moving traffic swishing past, perilously close to them. They look like Jersey or Guernsey cows, honey colored with big doleful eyes, but we are told they are a Georgian breed, especially sure footed to cope with the mountainous terrain.

Cows are of course revered by the Hindus as a source of food and life (contrary to popular perception they are not worshiped or regarded as sacred by Hindus. See Why is the Cow Important to Hindus ).  But Georgia is a very Christian country and that is why we are here; as Christian Pilgrims, come to follow the route of St Nino and the Syrian fathers through the beautiful churches, monasteries, cathedrals and sacred places of this wonderful country. As well as all the cows, I am enthralled by the many broom bushes here along the roadside, in full flower in May, the yellow blossoms almost luminescent in the sunshine. But it is not sunny today. We wake up to rain and it feels very muggy and humid. This may be short lived. It looks as if it may clear later although first we are destined to drive through torrential rain and a dramatic electrical storm.

It is Day 2. Yesterday we completed the first day of our pilgrimage to Holy Caucasian Georgia at the Roman Catholic Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary where we held a group Eucharist, the first of three we will celebrate during our pilgrimage. The priest at the church is proud to give us a talk on the history of Christianity and Catholicism in Georgia, and of his church in particular, before we commence our service. The church standing today dates back to the early nineteenth century, but an earlier church here was built in 1671. The present church was closed during the Soviet period, and was used as a storehouse, before it was restored and reopened in 1999 for the visit of the Pope St. John Paul II to Georgia. The architecture is eclectic, with elements of pseudo-gothic and baroque styles.

There are currently about 50,000 Roman Catholics in Georgia. They date back to the Ottoman period when the Muslim rulers were more tolerant of Catholicism than of Orthodoxy. Many Orthodox Christians became Roman Catholics at that time rather than convert to Islam. It has to be said that today there does not appear to be total harmony between the Catholic and the Orthodox Christians - see for example "Being a catholic in Georgia"). There is seemingly a negative attitude towards Roman Catholics in Georgia and some dispute over certain churches assigned to the Orthodox Christians at the end of the Soviet era. Some of us found the acoustics in the church difficult and missed some of the explanations but there is plenty to be found on the internet for those who wish to learn more of the history of Roman Catholicism in Georgia.

We had an early dinner last night, most of us glad to retire to our rooms to catch up on our sleep. We needed to restore our energy levels in preparation for our drive westwards to Imereti, setting for the story of the Golden Fleece stopping off en route at Mtskheta, (pron. Skayta) Georgia's ancient capital and still its spiritual capital today, the center of its religious life. It is just 20 km and an easy 30 minute drive away from Tbilisi.

The Jvaris(Cross) Church Mtshketa
There has been a settlement here in Mtshketa for over 3000 years. People used to come here to make gifts to their pagan gods, as it was the center of the pagan cult of Armazi.. Bulls were apparently the most common sacrifice and there used to be a statue on the hilltop to Armazi, but only the description remains, of an iron warrior, with golden helmet and shield, visible from all around.

Now Christian pilgrims come here from across the world to visit Svetiskhoveli Cathedral.

Svetiskhoveli Cathedral
Here tradition holds that fragments of the crucifixion robe of Christ are buried, brought to Georgia by Elias soon after Christ's death. Elias's sister Sidonia is said to have been so enthralled by this relic that she died of joy clutching it in her hands so tightly that it had to be buried here with her. A cedar tree grew out of her grave, the wood from which was used to build St Nino's first church, on this spot, in the fourth century. This is also the area where in the same century St Nino erected the first Christian cross.

Only one month before our visit, the head of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Catholicos-Patriarch Ilia II, announced Mtshketa to be the Holy City of Georgia, during his Sunday sermon on April 6th 2014 at the Cathedral of Saint Trinity in Tbilisi. He said that the decree on bestowing the title of Holy City upon Mtskheta had already been enacted and furthermore that this was fulfilling formally the wishes in the final will of Melkisedek I, the first Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia, who reigned from 1010 to 1033. He has been revered as a saint by the Georgian Orthodox Church, canonized on October 17th 2002, his feast day being October 14th. Of all the icons I took photos, I cannot believe I do not have one for this vitally important saint. So I am sorry that I have had to resort to the internet instead!

In 1994 the whole of the old city was included as a UNESCO world heritage site.

In my next post I shall say much more about these sites which are so sacred to Georgian Christians....

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Holy Georgia: in the Steps of St Nino and the Syrian Fathers - Pilgrimage Day 1 contd.

We are on day one of our pilgrimage to Holy Georgia in the Caucasus.

Metekhi Church
We start at Metekhi Church, perched high above the town on its crag looking down on the Mtkvari river below. The first church here was probably built by Vakhtang Gorgasali, the design possibly inspired by the Church of the Sepulcher of St Mary at the foot of the Mount of Olives in the Kidron Valley in Jerusalem. Eastern Christians believe this to be the burial place of the Virgin Mary although this is open to some doubt.

The current Church of the Virgin dates back to 1278-89, built by King Demetre II the Self Sacrificer. He was so called because he gave himself up for execution, hoping by doing so that he would spare his nation the ruin which was the fate of others who resisted the Mongolian rule of that time. He is said to have participated in a plot to overthrow the Mongol regional ruler Arghun Khan and as a result was tortured and beheaded. He was canonized as a martyr and saint by the Georgian Orthodox church.

This church has had a varied and turbulent history, suffering damage and subsequent restoration several times, before finally becoming the venue for a youth theater until it was restored for worship again in the late 1980s.

This is our first taste of the many interesting religious sites we are to experience in the days ahead. The impression we gain right from the start is of living buildings used regularly by the Christian people of Georgia, devout and committed to their faith and ready to publicly demonstrate this within their daily lives.

The present church shares its precinct with the much photographed statue of Vakhtang Gorgasali on his horse, which was completed in 1967 by the sculptor Elguja Amashukeli. One of Georgia's most popular historic figures, Gorgasali is credited with founding Tbilisi, as well as several other towns, castles and monasteries across Georgia. Legend has it that King Vakhtang was hunting with his falcon one day when the bird felled a pheasant, which plunged into a hot water spring. He ordered that a city should be built on this site, to be called Tbilisi, or "the site of warm springs."

Taking our lives in our hands we all cross the road at the bridge over the river - not many allowances seem to be made for pedestrians in Tbilisi - and it is then just a short walk past the Jewish synagogue (it is closed - a shame as I have always wanted to experience the inside of a synagogue and they never seem to be open for me!) to the Sioni Cathedral Church, where we are refused entry as a service is in progress. This is the one and only time when a place of worship refuses our entry, service or not. It is to be our general experience that churches are always open during the day, and people come and go in a very relaxed fashion throughout the orthodox services. I think the monk sees our cameras and mistakes us, not unreasonably, as tourists rather than devout pilgrims!

Inside Sioni Cathedral
But I do manage some photos nonetheless!

The white neoclassical bell tower across the street also catches my eye, and I learn later that this is indeed of architectural interest. It was built by the Russians in 1812 to commemorate their victory over the Ottoman Empire in the Russo-Turkish war. It is the oldest example of its kind in south Caucasus.

Russian Neoclassical bell tower

Anchiskhati Church entrance
So we continue on past the entrance to the Patriarch Residence to the 6th century Anchiskhati Church, Basilica to Saint Mary, the oldest surviving church in Tbilisi, dating back to the sixth century and the first years of Georgian Christianity. The frescoes inside are magnificent, some nearly 400 years old.

There is a YouTube clip of the choir singing at Christmas 2012 some of the ancient Georgian polyphonic choral music for which they are famous.

We have luckily arrived in Tbilisi at the time of the annual Independence Day celebrations.

Tbilisi stages a flower festival to coincide with these celebrations and we are rewarded with the sight of beautiful flowers displayed throughout Sioni Square and Shardeni Street in the Old Town. Famous florists show off their best blooms, and we even see David Austin Roses represented here, a very English company renowned for its fragrant English Roses! Girls are making floral crowns to wear, and one huge floral circle is being lovingly put together as we watch. It seems that traditionally these woven crowns contain Chamomile but I can find little information about this. Suffice to say the streets are filled with color and the displays are beautiful!

Given a short while to wander around the Old Town our limited sleep last night catches up with a few of us who cannot resist a tempting coffee house. We are soon joined by the rest of the group and soon swamp the cafe with our orders! This somewhat delays our progress and is something we have to avoid in the future if we are to keep to our packed pilgrimage schedule. This will not be the only occasion when our long suffering guide has to juggle the time table to accommodate our digressions. 

After lunch we are meant to take the cable car up to the top of Sololaki hill, but it is not operating so our coach takes us part of the way and we walk the rest.
We are rewarded by a panoramic view of the town spread out below us. We walk past the statue of Kartlis Deda or Mother of Georgia, a twenty meter high aluminium statue which is designed to reflect the Georgian character. In her left hand she holds a bowl of wine for those who visit her as friends. In her left hand is a sword, ready for those who visit as enemies. This imposing statue was erected in 1958 to coincide with the city's 1500th anniversary celebrations. We go past the silent cable car station before wending our way down past the Narikala Fortress to the gardens at the bottom and the sulphur baths, looking down en route at the one and only mosque in the town that survived the anti religious purges of the 1930s.
Built in 1895, we are told that Sunni and Shia Muslims pray here together. If here, then why not in other parts of the world stricken so much by religious differences?

We have to hurry a little as at 4pm we are due at the Roman Catholic Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary for a group Eucharist, the first of three we will celebrate during our pilgrimage....

To be contd...

Friday, 27 June 2014

Holy Georgia: in the Steps of St Nino and the Syrian Fathers - Pilgrimage Day 1

We are a party of 36 pilgrims from the Anglican Diocese of Southwark in the city of London, visiting many of the ancient churches and monasteries of Caucasian Georgia, following in the steps of St Nino and the Syrian Fathers.

View of Tbilisi
We arrive weary at our first hotel, in Tbilisi, on the Friday night, after two long flights with a transfer in Kiev in the Ukraine. Descending into Kiev airport at the end of the first leg of the journey we see the Dnieper River spread out below us. This is one of the major rivers of Europe, rising near Smolensk and flowing through Russia, Belarus and Ukraine to the Black Sea. It is Ukraine's longest river. As we take off again for Tbilisi in Georgia there is the most wonderful red sunset.

covering trousers with skirts 
Our Georgian guide Maka meets us at the airport on arrival and we are introduced also to our driver who will safely look after us on all our journeys over the next nine days. It will be hot tomorrow we are told, with the slight possibility of a little rain, so we should dress accordingly, and bring comfortable shoes and water, for a walking tour of the Old Town of Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, and dating back 1500 years in parts.

headscarves for the ladies before entering churches
Also essential for the ladies throughout the trip are headscarves, as we must always show respect by covering our heads when entering the churches and monasteries on our itinerary. Some places will even require skirts to be worn rather than trousers for the ladies, and the men are advised not to wear shorts. Fortunately the strictest churches and monasteries on the route invariably have a supply of wrap-around skirts and head scarves at the entrances for us to use as necessary.

As we speed along from the airport to our hotel I notice that the lower trunks of the many trees lining the roads seem to be covered with white paint. An initial thought is that the paint renders the trees more visible to motorists at night but I don't think so, as the pattern is repeated across the country. Someone says this may be to protect from animal damage. Perhaps, but a brief scan of the internet tells me that this is more likely to be to avoid scorching damage and the harmful effect of extreme changes in temperature between night and day from the force of the sun's rays, exaggerated in snow, particularly as the sun is at a much lower angle in the winter. Otherwise the trunks are prone to cracking and disease. It's apparently a latex paint, not oil based. (If any one has any more information on this, the botanist in me would love to hear!)

We also see many of the grim blocks of flats from the country's communist days. These are in stark contrast to the fantastic looking all glass modern building for the Ministry of Internal Affairs. We are told it has been a new policy since 2003 that all government buildings are thus designed, as a symbol of total transparency with regard to all government affairs.

George slaying the Dragon, Tbilisi
There seems to be plenty of life around at 1.30am - there are even cars being washed at car wash centres! The Old Town is beautifully illuminated, as we drive past the old city wall and Freedom Square or Liberty Square with the Liberty Monument depicting St George slaying the Dragon high up on a column. During the Soviet period, this square had a large statue to Lenin but this was symbolically torn down in August 1991. On November 23, 2006, the current monument, created by Zurab Tsereteli, was unveiled in the same place. Very striking at night is the floodlit TV broadcasting tower on the top of the hill above the town, and at nearly 275 meters clearly visible from all around. The Georgians seem to have some affection for this tower. 1.4 million of the 4.5 million population live in Tbilisi, and Maka tells us that like every lady, the town is striving to appear ever younger and more beautiful!

There is much scholarly debate as to the origins of the name Georgia, which contrary to popular assumptions may not be derived from St George, its patron saint.

Metekhi Church
We have barely five hours of sleep before we have to be up and breakfasted to commence our first day walking tour of the Old Town of Tbilisi.

We are reminded by our Dean who is leading our group that we are on a pilgrimage not a holiday! 

This is something we have to remind ourselves about quite often during the coming days; there is so much to see and experience in addition to the churches and monasteries which are to be our main focus.

Vakhtang Gorgasali
one of Georgia's most popular historic figures 

We start at Metekhi Church, perched high above the town on its crag looking down on the Mtkvari river below…

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Holy Georgia In the Steps of Saint Nino and the Syrian Fathers

Pilgrim; from Chambers's Twentieth Century Dictionary:

"a wanderer: one who travels to a distance to visit a holy place: allegorically or spirituality, one journeying through life as a stranger in this world." That's me!

Mother Georgia statue
Georgia, in the Caucasus region of Europe (and not to be confused with the American state of Georgia), has the highest level of biodiversity, the highest human settlements, some of the highest mountain peaks, the oldest prehistoric Hominid bones, and the highest Orthodox Christian church. It boasts stunning countryside and scenery, good food, renowned wine, and wonderful hospitality. Its state language, Georgian, is one of the oldest living languages in the world. This beautiful country, at just under 70,000 square kilometers, is slightly smaller than Austria or the Republic of Ireland and under half the size of the American state of the same name. It may not be great in size, but it is a country full of superlatives.

Some of the superlatives are not so good. Against all odds Georgia has survived probably one of the most turbulent histories for a country of this size. Significantly for us, it is also only the second country, after Armenia, to adopt Christianity as its state religion, and today something like 80 - 90 % of the population is devout Christian and these attend their orthodox church regularly.

Bodbe convent site of St Nino's tomb
Christianity was introduced to Georgia in the 1st century by the apostles Andrew, Simon and Matthew. Later a female slave from Cappadocia, St Nino, so impressed the Georgian Queen Nana and later her husband King Mirian with her miracles that they both converted from paganism to Christianity, and this became the official state religion in AD 337, making it the world's second Christian nation. St Nino's tomb within Bodbe Convent is a sacred place for many Georgians. But it wasn't until the arrival in the sixth century of twelve Syrian missionaries from Antioch, with the foundation of several monasteries, that the religion became firmly established.

That is why we have come to Georgia, a party of 36 pilgrims from the Anglican Diocese of Southwark in the city of London, assisted by McCabe Pilgrimages, to visit many of the ancient churches and monasteries, following in the steps of St Nino and those Syrian Fathers.

Me on the border between Georgia and Azerbaijan
We don't know it yet, but our tour will involve some strenuous mountain treks. One will involve bitterly cold and soaking rain and the danger of bathing in mud. The other will be in dry desert heat, with the added excitement of poisonous snakes, said to be particularly aggressive at this time of year (don't worry if you are ophidiophobic - this particular climb is optional and I will not be sharing photos of these!). For some this will prove to be the highlight of the trip. But those joys are saved for much later in the week.

Over the next few weeks the story of our pilgrimage will unfold on this blog with plenty of photos as well so please come back for more - and I hope you enjoy!

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

New blog on the way soon...!

Following the huge popularity of my lavishly illustrated blogs on our pilgrimage to the Holy Land and then to South East Turkey with Southwark Diocese last year, I will shortly be posting here our recent amazing pilgrimage experiences in Georgia in the Caucasus.

So watch this space...