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

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Holy Georgia: concluding Day 2 of our pilgrimage - Mtskheta, sacred city

Jvari Church
We start each day on the coach with morning prayer, reminding us of our purpose for being here, as pilgrims not tourists. It is not always easy with so much to see beyond the coach but somehow I manage to tear my eyes away from the window and focus on the prayers, the biblical reading, the psalm...

winged angels bearing cross
fine bas relief at entrance to Jvari Church

We are heading for the Dzhvari or Jvari (cross) church in its proud and very prominent position high above the town of the sacred city of Mtskheta. First we have a little time to watch the unfolding landscape of this beautiful country as we speed along, giving us our first impressions of the countryside outside Tbilisi. There are many vans parked along the roadside, all with enticing piles of huge water melons stacked up for sale. A large and active cement factory as we approach Mtskheta is presumably supplying the many new building projects we have already seen in Tbilisi. Before we leave the town we see many of the huge stark concrete blocks of flats from the communist era. The other housing often appears fairly ramshackle to our eyes, and there is much evidence of poverty and hardship. Many restaurants along the way also appear to be shut down, or maybe they open only in the high summer season?
We pass through some deciduous and coniferous woods. Many of the trees in the latter seem to be dying and I wonder why? Forty per cent of Georgia is covered with forest, mainly deciduous, supporting a large and varied population of fauna and flora. Wild animals include deer, bears, wolves, lynx, porcupines, foxes and even a species of leopard. We are to see none of these. There are however far too many stray dogs around, all woefully thin, somehow always managing to dodge the traffic as they scavenge for all they can get from the rubbish strewn along the way (more about that later!). But the most striking site for me on this leg of the journey, in addition to the already mentioned dazzling yellow of the broom bushes, is the Cotinus (aptly named smoke tree or smoke bush) trees with fluffy pinkish bottle brush like flower heads lining long stretches of the road up to the monastery
the confluence of the two rivers

The Jvari church is perched on a rock spur looking down on the Aragvi river and its confluence with the river Mtkvari. The rivers appear very muddy and very full, due to the large amount of rain experienced recently in the area. The church was built between the AD 580s and AD 604 by Staphanoz I and is architecturally important as it sets the pattern for many other churches built in later centuries. It is very interesting inside as there are chapels between the four apses meaning that the ground plan is almost perfectly square rather than cross-like, and the rather plain interior is lofty and spacious. On this site Nino set up her cross overlooking the pagan shrines in the hills around. A late 6th century church is in ruins beside the present one, which was closed in 1911, but re-consecrated in 1988.

We climb up from the car park and join the other small groups of pilgrims and tourists milling around. There is a service going on inside - it is after all Sunday. It feels intrusive and irreverent to go in and take photos, but many were doing so. I prefer to go in quietly, stand near the back and absorb the sounds, sights and smells around me: the mysteries of the liturgy and the copious incense being swung by the priest from the door of the inner sanctuary; the divine chanting of the four girls standing around the lectern on the left hand side of the church (Men stand on the right); the sound of the Sanctus bell rung from the bells outside. In Georgia this is always a separate building outside the church itself and we are to see many examples during our travels. This is a very simple example!

This all reminds me vividly of our experiences in the monasteries of south east Turkey last year . Only when I have shown my respect to the service in hand do I feel I can look around and upwards at the building itself, while discreetly taking a few photos of the interior for the benefit of my readers. There is a monk at the door welcoming in some small children to the service. He has such a beautiful face and smile, I want to capture it on camera, but he is deeply offended and puts out his hand to obscure his face. I feel very contrite and must remember to respect the privacy of the Georgian people in our travels.

Outside on the pastures surrounding the church I see many wild orchids in flower. Here and everywhere we go the wild flowers in the meadows are astonishing in their variety and colors. I would love to spend time studying these and identifying them all. Some are well known to us in the UK, others I cannot recognize. Here is a botanist's dream for further exploration.

Sveti Tskhoveli cathedral
We make our way back down to town in the coach. We seem to have to drive around a huge loop to get to the Sveti Tskhoveli cathedral, which can be plainly seen on the other side of the river. As soon as we arrive there is a dash by the ladies to be first in the queue for the loos in the cathedral precinct. On this trip we soon learn to take our chances when we can, as public loos are few and far between and very often of the squat variety and fairly horrible. Here we pay 5 Georgian Lari (about 2 Euros or 2.8 US $) to be given a small piece of paper by a lady at the door and wait our turn. There are small un-lockable swing doors which give us a little privacy but at least these squats are clean. In the days to come when we stop at petrol stations for the loos, some of us prefer to find bushes beyond the buildings!

Again there is a service going on as we enter the cathedral, now the second largest surviving church in Georgia after the recent consecration of the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Tbilisi. The chanting of the monks is divine! At full flow the sound they are creating gives me goose bumps and is spine tingling. They are gathered around their lectern on the right hand side of the cathedral, casually chatting quietly and even looking at their mobile phones in between their parts of the liturgy.

high sided 17th century pavilion built over the
tomb of Sidonia
chanting monks
These orthodox services are very relaxed, as people taking part seem to drift in and out as the whim takes them. Services can go on for two or three hours, particularly on special occasions, and there are no seats other than a few around the edges of the large central space for the elderly and infirm. All ladies and girls must cover their heads, and in some of the stricter places of worship skirts must be worn by the ladies, not trousers. Shawls or headscarves are normally used. I find that my pink flowery sunhat is acceptable, but I prefer to use my shawl purchased last year in Turkey. Wrap around skirts to go over jeans ad trousers, as well as shawls, are supplied outside most church buildings for those who come unprepared. Men must take hats off, and shorts are definitely unacceptable here - knees and shoulders must always be covered. Men in shorts have to suffer the indignity of wearing one of the ladies' wrap around skirts. They don't make that mistake again! We find that there are zealous monks who police these respectful dress codes wherever we go. And quite right too!

We see the end of the service, where the presiding priest uses his hand held cross aloft to bless the people, who are then all sprinkled with holy water before going up to kiss the cross and each collect a small piece of bread, somewhat resembling a small scone.
These have been blessed (they are not consecrated) and they are either eaten there and then or taken home to distribute among friends and family, to spread the blessing farther afield (yesterday in Tbilisi in the oldest church we saw these left in a bowl with handwritten lists of persons departed this life for whom prayers are requested). I may have missed some features of this sacred space, as we have to move on and I have spent too much time enjoying the service. But I did see the relic of St Andrew's foot, the cupola, the frescoes, the reliefs on the outside walls. We have to travel on…..

1 comment:

  1. Nice photos! This countryside reminds me of Bulgaria, an ancient and beautiful country.