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