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

Monday, 14 July 2014

Holy Georgia: The Gelati and Motsameta monasteries, Kutaisi

Tskaltubo Resort
We are staying for two nights 12 km NW of Kutaisi at the Tskaltubo Resort. This was built by German prisoners of war after World War II and was a popular Soviet Union health spa and resort and sanatorium, much frequented by the rich and enjoyed by Stalin for its recreational facilities. There are the remains of a railway line from Moscow which serviced the center. The approach drive is almost spooky, as we pass massive buildings in process of restoration, amidst neglected and extensive Italianate style gardens which were clearly once opulent. The hotel accommodation itself is modern and fairly simple, but very clean and comfortable. Opening the window in my room, I am rewarded with the cleanest crispest smelling air imaginable, filled with exuberant birdsong.

Tskaltubo Resort the Restaurant Building
Next morning I am awoken at 5am by the noisiest and most glorious dawn chorus of birds I have ever heard anywhere. What a total joy to hear. Strolling through the grounds before breakfast I find some beautiful flowering Oleander and a glorious Magnolia. The meals are taken a short walk away through the gardens, in a huge building adorned within by marble pillars and fountains, the latter not currently functioning. Like Marmite, this hotel is to love or hate. I loved its quirkiness and faded charm, the glorious wild life and clean air, the vast gardens a relic of a different era. Efforts are clearly being made to slowly restore the whole complex to something of its former glory.
For the tourist there are caves to visit nearby, at Kumistavi, with 15 chambers underground, including an underground waterfall, and the habitat for 10-12 species of bat. But we are pilgrims so the bats are given a miss!
Monday morning sees us setting off at 9am after a good breakfast at the hotel to visit Kutaisi itself. The road to the town is sadly littered and unsightly, but I am pleased to see that at least some people care; I see a man picking up litter outside a small roadside café, and an old lady is sweeping the pavement in front of her small shop. And the town itself, as with most towns we visited here, was relatively clean and tidy.
beautiful frescoes, Cathedral of the Virgin, Gelati Monastery
At the time of our visit it is Georgia's Independence Day, with lots of celebration going on across the country. There are events in the town center here so some roads are closed and security appears tight. We pass the town's statue of King David the Builder, much revered King of Georgia from the tender age of 16, then we cross the river and climb up out of town into the mountains, through deciduous woodland and lush green glades, past small fields of sweet corn and groups of placid grazing cows along the roadside.

the mosaic Virgin and Child in the Apse, Cathedral of the Virgin,
Gelati Monastery

King David's grave

The iron gate at King David's grave

the rather curious St Nicholas church
with the bell tower behind
We are visiting the Gelati Monastery, founded by King David whose statue we had just passed in town. He wanted to create a new Jerusalem or Athos here to serve as a major center of Christianity in Georgia. This is said in the guidebooks to be one of the most beautiful spots in Georgia. Maybe, but we will see other strong contestants for this claim later in the week. The guidebooks also warn about the crowds of pilgrim and tourist groups visiting this site, although when we visited it was very quiet. The Cathedral of the Virgin, the centerpiece of the monastery, features many rather fine and colorful frescoes, dating variously from the early 12th century through to the 17th century.

information plaque at Gelati Monastery
But most remarkable is the stone mosaic in the apse, made with 2.5 million stones, featuring the Virgin and Child and the two archangels Michael and Gabriel, dating back to the 1130s. It has suffered some earthquake damage and the lower half controversially restored by painting rather than mosaic. Other features at this monastery are the bell tower, the south gate with King David's grave, the Church of St Nicholas (one of the oddest designs of church in Georgia, and the Church of St George (closed but apparently often opened at weekends for weddings). King David died in 1125 and at his request was buried in the center of the South gateway, so that churchgoers would be forced to walk over him and remember him for ever! The battered iron gate there was built in 1063 in Ganja, then in Persia but now in Azerbaijan. David's son Demetre I brought it back from Persia in 1129.

One of the best detailed descriptions of the Gelati monastery complex is at the UNESCO website.

Having spent some time at Gelati, we retrace our steps in the coach to Motsameta (meaning; martyrs) Monastery, founded in the 8th century. This is smaller than the Gelati Monastery, and again we have the place pretty much to ourselves, at least to start with, although as at Gelati, the liturgy is being said at the time of our visit.

I still find it very difficult to take photos whilst respecting the mystery and divinity of the occasion. The present church was built in the 11th century by Bagrat III, the bell tower perhaps later, in the 16th century. The buildings are set in a spectacular cliff-side setting, with fabulous views into the gorge far below. Within the church there are two skulls in a casket, recovered and reburied from the earlier church. These belong to the brothers David and Constantine Mkheidze, now saints, who refused to convert to Islam in the 720s and were killed by Arabs and thrown into the gorge. I missed my chance here of having a wish granted. Apparently this was available to me if I had crawled three times beneath the tomb of the saints, without touching it! A missed opportunity! The church has only been open again for two years, and has modern frescoes. There may well be a secret tunnel between Gelati and Motsameta, useful in periods of the all too common invasions that this country has suffered.
Motsameta Monastery from approach road
For the tourists with more time on their hands there is a pleasant half day hike to be had between the two monasteries, and in the heat of the high summer a walk down to the river below from the gatehouse of the Motsameta monastery is a popular jaunt for the people of Kutaisi. As we drive back down into Kutaisi there are stunning views of the town spread out below, enjoyed by many of the quality villa-style houses lining the route up here. Always we can see the prominent golden dome of the restored Cathedral of King Bagrat, a striking landmark which we shall visit this afternoon.

The Bagrat Cathedral, Kutaisi

1 comment:

  1. Again, nice photos! I certainly enjoy reading about your pilgrimages - in parts of the world that few visit. I have been to Bulgaria (and a small part of Romania) and Turkey, but have never seen Georgia. These churches and cathedrals are beautiful - in the very early Byzantine style.