|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|
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
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.