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

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

1 comment:

  1. Beautiful photos (except for the one of litter!).
    I believe that sycamore and plane tree are interchangeable, with sycamore used more commonly in the western hemisphere, and plane tree (platane) more common in Europe.