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, 24 August 2014

The end of our Caucasian Georgia Pilgrimage - and an old Georgian Myth

There is an old Georgian myth as to why this country is one of such incomparable beauty - but I am getting ahead of myself...
It is our last day, Sunday, and we all celebrate a final Eucharist together in the Tbilisi hotel - a fitting way to end our pilgrimage. Then we have the morning free to do what we will. I head to Rustaveli Street and those parts of the huge Georgian National Museum collections that are housed in the impressive building there. This museum is quite simply fabulous and really needs far more than the couple of hours which I have available. The collection of pre Christian gold and silver is totally absorbing and I spend a long time poring over the display cases, well displayed and mostly with English translations. The gold and silver work is astonishing in its craftsmanship - for example a tiny gold lion with the most intricately detailed mane dates from 2600-2300 BC, the early Bronze Age. Next door I spend some time in the sobering new Museum of Soviet Occupation, with just a little time left for the display of weaponry used in the wars with Persia and Turkey in the 19th and early 20th century. Sadly when I finally make my way to the shop hoping for some sort of guide to take home with me the door is firmly closed - the shop has shut for lunch!
Even a long weekend would be scarcely enough time to explore Tblisi to the full. It is such a shame that it is a long journey to get there from America and the UK.
Lunch is not included today, and most of us find the excellent supermarket near the hotel, where picnics are clearly big business at the deli counter. Our individual choices from a fantastic selection are then beautifully wrapped and supplied with plastic forks and spoons as necessary.
There is a hiccup on the flight home - a very large bang wakes us up out of our dozing making us all jump. It is turbulence or air pocket we are variously told when we inquire of the staff, but the captain makes no announcement at all from the cockpit - that would have been reassuring. In all my many flights over the years I have often experienced turbulence, but never like that!

arriving tired and wet and cold at Gergeti church nr. Kazbegi
If Kazbegi and the steep uphill walk to Gergeti (Trinity) Church at 2170 meters in the pouring rain was the low point of our trip, our last full day at the David Garedzha monastery complex was certainly the high point for me at least. But like the walk to the highest church, there were some of the party who for various reasons could not take part and time must have hung heavy for them on both days.

arrived at Udabno (desert) monastery, tired, hot and happy!
Reflections: I would love to go back to Georgia and allow more time to further explore many of the places we visited. There were also many other churches and monasteries for which we had no time at all. This is always going to be the way with a large group, many different interests and so much to see.
It didn't always feel as much like a pilgrimage as did our previous trips last year, to the Holy Land and then to South East Turkey. But then in Turkey we stayed for several days in two different monasteries which enabled us to really get into the spirit of the liturgy and the mystery of the Orthodox religion. And of course the Holy Land is a very special place for followers of all three Abrahamic faiths, with so many of the significant places to visit within a small area. The long distances we had of necessity to travel in Georgia, tempted us at every turn into becoming tourists rather than pilgrims. I have covered the Holy Land and South East Turkey pilgrimages in previous blogs on this site.

I would like to express heartfelt thanks here to both Rosemary Nutt and her team at McCabe Pilgrimages, who organised such a splendid trip for us, and Southwark Diocese, particularly The Very Revd. Andrew Nunn, Dean of Southwark Cathedral, and his supporting team, who so ably led us with such good humor throughout. And of course thanks to our two wonderful tour guides from Visit Georgia, Maka and Levan.
My guidebook throughout the trip was Georgia, in the Bradt guide series, this one by Tim Burford, updated by Laurence Mitchell, fourth edition published June 2011, and I am grateful for much superb information supplied therein which enriched my visit to Georgia.

I think it appropriate that we should let God have the last word, and so I return to that old Georgian myth that I found on the comtourist website:

"When the God divided the Earth among the people, Georgians were late because of their traditional feast, and by the moment of their arrival the entire world had already been divided. When the God asked them to what they had drunk Georgians just answered: "To you, oh Lord, to us, to peace". The God liked their answer. So told them that although all lands were taken, he reserved a small plot for himself and now he decided to give it to Georgians. According to the God the land was incomparable in its beauty and all people would admire and cherish it forever." 

I say Amen to that!

Friday, 22 August 2014

Ninotsminda Cathedral, Sagarejo - as our pilgrimage draws to an end

Someone sitting behind me on the coach groans - oh no not another church today! We are on the last full day of our pilgrimage to Holy Caucasian Georgia and we have just had a fantastic trip to the David Garedzha monastery complex in the desert close to the Azerbaijan border. It's fair to say we are all exhausted. It has been very hot and those of us who took the strenuous climb up to the higher Udabno (desert) monastery are truly whacked! We have seen amazing frescoes and a glimpse into the lives of the many monks who once lived and worshiped in this incredible setting. We have marveled at the dedication of the few monks who still occupy the Davitis Lavra monastery, founded by St David, one of the Holy Syrian Fathers, in the 6th century.
poppies in pretty gardens at Ninotsminda

We fondly believe that we are now heading back to Tbilisi and our final night before heading for home tomorrow. So imagine our dismay to be told that there is another sight on the itinerary for today before we can have that welcome shower and drink at the hotel!
I guess it is the relative familiarity of a return journey that always makes it feel shorter than the outward trip. It therefore seems but a short time before we arrive back in Sagarejo, and somewhat rested after the coach journey, we do somehow find the energy and enthusiasm to explore Ninotsminda Cathedral, (not to be confused with the Bodbe convent also sometimes known as Ninotsminda near Signaghi).
within the chapel at Ninotsminda

This is now ruined as a result of earthquakes in 1824 and 1848, but it is very impressive for all that. It was built in AD 575 but there was a church used here for Christian worship from the 5th century. It is an interesting building because it is built in the cruciform style, predating the Jvari Church in Mtskheta which we visited earlier in our week.

There are the remains in the eastern apse of a fresco of the Virgin and Child, vandalized with bullet holes by bandits in the 18th and 19th century. The defensive walls were built around the cathedral in the 16th and 17th centuries and are well preserved.
There is further detailed information online at eurasia travel for example.
Mid 16th century Bell Tower Ninotsminda
Just 3 or 4 nuns now live here, and they are the friendliest nuns we have met on the whole pilgrimage! They maintain beautiful gardens which enhance the ruin, and we are told that it is possible to take a retreat here, at the nuns' discretion. A small chapel is built into the walls and there is a service in progress as we arrive. The chapel is quite busy, and even very young children stand quietly with their parents, aunts, friends; the girls wearing neat little headscarves like the adult women. There is an equally friendly monk welcoming everyone who enters, and the whole atmosphere is relaxed and peaceful (As I stand their alongside these families I wonder to myself why in the UK do we think we need special "all-age" services which often fail to please either the young or the old?)
Many of us take advantage of this opportunity for some Orthodox liturgy and spirituality, standing quietly and discretely at the back, and we soon find we have been given far too little time there before we have to hurry back to the coach for the final stretch of the journey back to Tbilisi. We agree that we are so glad with hindsight that we paused for a while here.

the Ministry of Internal Affairs building
posters in Tbilisi for 15 June local elections
It is now clouded over and considerably cooler - and as we journey on towards Tbilisi the sun becomes murky in the sky and the atmosphere becomes sultry and humid. It feels like a storm may be brewing. The main road here is attractively undulating and scenic, with smallholdings dotted along the route. We cross the river Iori again (further back we saw people paddling in this same river). There are small calves tethered in the fields - presumably destined for the veal market. At least their short life is a happy one, grazing the lush pastures. Further over in the middle distance I had already spied long low sheds and feared that these may be for intensive pig farming, as pork is very much on the Georgian menu and I had seen no pigs at all outside in the fields during the whole week. Several little streams flow down through these meadows from the mountain range to our north, and beautiful yellow broom once more covers the roadside slope. But still, sadly, there is always that unsightly litter. Soon we enter Tbilisi, past the all-glass building of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. We are told that normally at this time of day, between 6 and 7pm, there would be bad traffic jams, but today, Saturday, many families go out of town or stay at home for rest and relaxation. It is election day tomorrow, June 15th, in Tbilisi, and there are posters everywhere!
the Virgin and Child Fresco in the apse
We all enjoy a group supper at a local restaurant before returning to the hotel and our final packing! This for many of us has been the highlight day of the pilgrimage, but our tour is not quite at an end. Tomorrow we will celebrate a final Eucharist all together in the hotel…

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

The Davit-Gareja Monasteries - the highlight of our pilgrimage to Georgia

the entrance to Davitis Lavra

This visit to the David Gareja complex of monasteries is for me the highlight of our pilgrimage, organised by McCabe Pilgrimages and led by Southwark Diocese.
dramatic monks' cells in the rock face!
Bronze Age tombs and pottery found in this area show that it was populated at least 4 millennia ago. In the 1st millennium BC iron smelting led to the eventual deforestation of the area and its gradual desertification. When we are there in May the area is transformed by the bursting into bloom of the many wild flowers which are simply wonderful, and often covered with clouds of beautiful butterflies. We are warned to watch out for the poisonous vipers, on the walk to the top caves and within the caves themselves, but fortunately we see none. The heat is intense and bottles of water are an essential part of the kit. But we are rewarded for our strenuous climb by the most stunning views and some very beautiful frescoes in the various cave churches and other cave chambers at the top.
inside the Church of Transfiguration at Lavra
The Lonely Planet website has a very good description of the two main sites which we visited, the lower Davitis Lavra monastery, founded by one of the Syrian Fathers, St David, in the 6th century, and the Udabno or Desert Monastery constructed between the 8th and 10th centuries, to which we climbed. As with much that we have seen in Georgia, these monasteries have had a turbulent history, their worst moment being when the Persian Shah Abbas' soldiers killed 6000 monks and destroyed the artistic treasures, which they had amassed in their role as an important center for the development and teaching of the techniques of fresco painting.
the lower courtyard, looking up to
church of St Nicholas
In the Lavra Monastery we visit the Church of the Transfiguration or Rock Church, where David and Lukian are buried. In the lower court here there is a spring of water known as the Tears of David.

looking down on the Lavra monastery 

gazing out at the top towards Azerbaijan
Tragically this whole area was used as a Soviet artillery training range in the late 20th century, and the monasteries often became the direct targets for their firing, sustaining bad damage. The practice ceased after the end of the Soviet war with Afghanistan in 1989, and after nationalist protests, but ironically the Georgians themselves used the area for similar training in the late 1990's until this was stopped after protests from civilians in Tbilisi.
This is now one of Georgia's most popular tourist and pilgrim sites and we are told that there will be many Russian, Ukrainian and local tourists here. There are certainly many people, and the car park is soon full of dozens of coaches and minibuses. But the climb to the top gets us away from the crowds!!
the monastery is now a long way below us!!
note the deer - reflecting how close the
monks were to nature

butterflies on bush

fresco within cave church at Udabno (Desert)
monastery - note icons left by visitors/pilgrims

more beautiful cave frescoes
beautiful cactus

the trek up with Azerbaijan below us

the Last Supper fresco in the refectory in the Ubadno
monastery complex

note the indented individual places for
each monk in the refectory 
We meet and chat with a young German couple right at the top of the climb to the cave churches, looking out over towards Azerbaijan, under the half hearted gaze of a Georgian border soldier and his dog. The couple share my horror at the quantity of unsightly and polluting litter everywhere. In Germany, they tell me, there is a 25c deposit on bottles, which helps to prevent a litter problem. When life is harsh and involves a struggle for survival from day to day, then it is easy to see why litter is of no consequence to most people. But with the arrival of independence, peace and relative prosperity perhaps this wonderful country with its hospitable citizens will wake up to the importance of keeping its beautiful countryside and its towns and villages free from the ravages of litter pollution. Many tourists from overseas will come to expect this and may well be deterred unless there is a clean up. I was pleased to observe a few small indications that some citizens care about their environment - elderly women sweeping the pavements in front of their own houses, an old man picking up litter in a lay-by, for example. May this continue and develop into a wider civic pride so that Georgia may capitalize on its natural beauty and its many cultural treasures.

Monday, 18 August 2014

Our journey to the David Gareji (Garedzha) monastery complex

the transfer between minibus and coach
at Hotel Royal Batoni

crossing the river Iori south of Sagarejo
We wake up to a wonderfully sunny morning and enjoy breakfast on the terrace - looking down on the lake, now slowly filling up again! I find the food choices better at breakfast than for supper - being a wheat intolerant vegetarian can be tricky sometimes (!) - and so I make the most of the breakfast spread, refuelling for the long day ahead of us with salad, eggs and the fabulous Georgian Sulguni cheese. Because today we are off to the very isolated David Garedzha Monastery complex, founded by another of the Syrian Fathers, St David, and his disciple Lukian. It is all carved out of the sandstone in a stark semi-desert landscape close to the border with Azerbaijan and it will be hot!
This is one of the holiest Christian places of pilgrimage in Georgia. There is stone here transported from Jerusalem in the 6th Century, and three visits here by Christian Georgian pilgrims is said to be equivalent to one pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
This hotel we are bidding farewell to today, the Kvareli Royal Batoni Hotel, was only reopened a year ago, in July 2013, at the site of an old castle. It is truly an amazing place, with wonderful views, superb rooms, horizon swimming pool, and pleasant ambiance inside. It was a great shame for us that the lake was temporarily empty for our short stay. The photos on the hotel website do it full justice and I will certainly want to stay there again when I next visit Georgia.

typical concrete irrigation channel

a salt lake in the desert
typical large herd of cows in the desert
We have Morning Prayer on the bus as usual - today, 31st May, commemorates the visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary to Elizabeth, and we hear the reading of the story from the Holy Gospel according to Luke, Chapter 1 vv. 39-56, including the wonderful Magnificat, "My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, and my spirit exults in God my saviour…" I simply love singing this at choral evensong. In some ways this is a social activism song, imagining a social transformation, bringing an end to poverty and hunger and the huge injustices of the world, as relevant now as then. Mary sings of God filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich empty away, of pulling down princes from their thrones and exalting the lowly. But this song is not Mary's alone. About one thousand years previously, Samuel's mother Hannah prayed a very similar song, as given in the First Book of Samuel in the Old Testament, Chapter 2 vv. 1-10.
Prayers over, we settle back for the long two and a half hour journey, due to arrive about midday, the hottest part! We are driving south towards Azerbaijan, and its neighbor Armenia to the West. The Georgian Military Highway, which we traveled on the other day, is a vital trade route between Armenia and Russia to the North of Georgia. We now climb up into the Gombori mountain range, entering a thickly wooded region and through this onto a high and extremely fertile plateau, where wheat and maize is ripening and plenty of water melons and other cucurbits are being grown and harvested. There is a solitary man in a huge field laboriously watering his crop of what looks like cucumbers, with buckets of water he has brought here in his large white truck. There are two ladies hoeing between the rows by hand. A car overtakes us with its roof rack loaded high with crates of bright red tomatoes, clearly heading for a market somewhere. Back in the plain to the south of the mountain range, and just before we turn off the main road at Sagarejo, there is a comfort stop at a petrol station, with untypically luxurious loos! Here we also have the opportunity to stock up on essential water, and to buy a ice cream.

Soon we're on to an altogether different kind of road. It's a single width track really, the surface of which steadily deteriorates as we drive ever further into the desert towards David Gareji. To start with all is green, with the now familiar crops of grapes, sweet corn, barley, green beans and so on. But it is getting ever hotter and drier. We cross the River Iori as it meanders its way through the landscape. Horses and cows struggle to find shade under high pylons at an electricity sub station. A large herd of goats has better luck, huddled close together among a thicket of trees and shrubs. There are isolated homesteads in the distance and the occasional lone man keeping watch over one of the animal herds, or leading them to a water reservoir for a drink. Sometimes these keepers are on horseback. Some herds know when to come in for milking and need minimal tending during the day. There is a large salt lake, where the salt is collected for the cows; an essential part of their diet. Levan tell us that the trees here were felled in huge quantities for industrial purposes and that is why there is now this desert. The main source of income in this desert is cheese and milk which is sold in Sagarejo. There is minimal public transport here and life must be tough. A minibus goes to the town in the morning, returning at the end of the day. A lone man, elderly and weather-beaten, is walking along the road seemingly miles from anywhere, shovel on his back. I guess he is filling in some of the potholes on this ever deteriorating track….we are nearly there...
the track across the desert

for the highlight experience of our pilgrimage...with just so many fabulous photos of the day I shall have trouble choosing which ones to show here...

scenery close to the monasteries

first views of the monastery complex - promise of wonders to come

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Pilgrims on a journey to Georgia: the Alaverdi Cathedral and Nekresi monastery

the 18th century defensive walls at Alaverdi
the gatehouse to Alaverdi - note dress code instructions
Alaverdi cathedral 
We soon have to be on our way again, to another Christian place of worship founded by one of the Syrian Fathers, this time by St Joseph, who is commemorated on 28th September each year. This Alaverdi Cathedral of St George is wonderful! Again there are no photos allowed inside, but the remnants of the frescoes, which date from the 11th, 12th, 13th and 15th centuries, are beautiful. They have survived earthquake, attack by the Mongols, and whitewashing by the Russians in the 19th century, and have been gradually uncovered and restored since the 1960s.
The guidebook tells me that there is the carving of a hand in the flagstones to the left of the entrance inside. But I cannot find it and can find no one to find it for me! The legend is that a local prince was captured and killed by the Turks, asking that his hand be first cut off so that it could be returned to Alaverdi Cathedral and buried in the holy ground there.
sad about the litter - everywhere!
The monks here make and sell their own wine but there are lots of pilgrims willing to part with their cash and there is no wine left in the shop! Neither were there apparently any English guide books to be found - a missed opportunity for them to make some money out of us. There is a pilgrimage and folk festival here every year in the first two weeks of September.
the typical Georgian lunch spread
Back on the coach Levan now explains the Georgian coat of arms - this was designed afresh in 2004 - proclaiming that "strength is in unity" - recalling the story of the sticks in a bundle; It is impossible to break the bundle but any one of the single sticks will easily snap. Above this motto are two rampant lions supporting St George on his horse, his spear piercing the dragon sprawling below him. He also shows us a picture of the new Georgian flag. This is reminiscent of the Jerusalem cross, and the four crosses in the four quarters signify the four evangelists. The previous flag, with a black and white rectangle in the top left hand corner, on a brown background, was considered to give the wrong message for the new independent country. Black signifies dark, evil, predominant over the white which stands for peace….
the plane tree
Now it is time for lunch - as ever very good - at the CafĂ© Marleta Telavi  but there is no milk for tea or coffee and there is one toilet for us all - so we are advised to stagger our visit through the meal. The light bulb in the toilet is also missing, so we are supplied with a candle! But the facilities are modern, clean and tidy with paper and running water - sheer luxury!

Well refreshed and watered, we are now bound for the Nekresi monastery complex, but first, about 10 miles further down the road after lunch, we stop in the center of Telavi to become tourists for a short while and to take a short stroll to a massive 900 year old tree with a girth of nearly 12 1/2 meters. That's big! Wiki says it is a sycamore. I rather think it is a plane tree. The direction sign agrees with me!
sign at the bottom of steps to Gremi Citadel
Back on the coach and a 30 minutes drive further on we stop at the Gremi Citadel and Church of the Archangels high on a hill to our left. Again this is just to stretch our legs and to buy ice creams! There is no time to climb the many steps and explore further.
I read afterwards that there is indeed something of interest for us here… is this icon at the foot of the steps to the castle a photo of the one which according to a trip adviser review was used as an operating table when the church was used as a hospital during the soviet occupation?

panoramic view from the Nekresi monastery complex

is that clear?!?
litter at Nekresi
Our last stop for this very full day is at the Nekresi Monastery complex, at the end of a very steep and long brick road up from the car park (with an appalling litter problem). Even the bus carrying us up there seems to be struggling, especially around the hairpin bends, of which there are quite a few. There is only one bus which shuttles back and forth, and this only carries 18 - 20 at a time, all made much worse because the schools are now on holiday and many students are also jostling for a seat. So our group is split into two, and somehow we all manage to get to the top. And we are rewarded by the most stunning of views, and one of the oldest churches in Georgia - a late 4th century little basilica. There are inscriptions here claimed to date from the 1st to the 3rd centuries, making them the earliest examples of the Georgian alphabet. (Also today we saw one of tallest Georgian churches, the Alaverdi cathedral - as I said at the start, Georgia is a country of superlatives!).
I buy a couple of icons, for which the monk double charges me. He grudgingly acknowledges this and refunds the difference - I don't begrudge the money to the monastery - but I am upset when they try to extract it from tourists in this way! apparently pigs are still sacrificed here - to remember when the Persian army was defeated by rolling pigs' heads down the hill at them.

This place was the base of another of the Syrian Fathers, Abibos, in the 6th century. He was martyred by the Persians after he quenched a Zoroastrian sacred fire by pouring water on it.
View at Nekresi

Saturday is going to be our last full day, to be spent at another monastery founded by the Syrian Fathers, this time the David Garedzha Monastery complex in the desert very close to the border with Azerbaijan. I'm very excited about that. 
There is a large party in the evening in the hotel which lasts well into the night - with band and dancing and definitely better food than we had (!) - but with typical Georgian hospitality we were invited to join in the fun and quite a few of our party did just that. I'm afraid that after our night prayer as a group I was happy to go to bed, and catch up on sleep; boring I know but I guessed I would need maximum resources of energy to get the most out of the day to follow and how right I was!

the little basilica at Nekresi
The astute reader will notice that this is not the first time I have mentioned litter! Dear lovely Georgia, please may I respectfully suggest that you try to clean up your beautiful countryside and the wonderful historic sites - the litter bins seem to be generally provided but there is the feeling that many see no harm in throwing litter down and there appears to be no attempt to clean this up at your historic monuments. There are all sorts of issues here, not least being the long term pollution from litter - of the soil, the water sources and ultimately the sea, with pollutants entering the food chain at all stages of this journey. Perhaps education must start in the schools with young people.

shafts of sunlight at Nekresi