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

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Pilgrims on a journey: The Shuamta and Ikhalto monasteries in Georgia

Akhali Shuamta from the approach
note the amazing wild flower meadow
We are on a pilgrimage with Southwark Diocese in lovely Caucasian Georgia, and our time here is sadly drawing to an end. But there is still plenty to see and experience before we pack our suit case for the last time and wend our way home!
Our target for today is the churches and monasteries of the Kakheti region, famous for its vineyards. We have the usual minibus shuttle service to take us down from the hotel to our coach by the side of the lake (now starting to fill up again, albeit slowly!), and we make our way back through Telavi to our first stop, an hour's drive away, at the new Shuamto monastery, Akhali Shuamta, high in the Gombori mountain range.
Akhali Shuamta
This 16th century cruciform brick church has beautiful frescoes dating back to the same century, but we are not allowed to take photos inside the church and we are watched by a grumpy nun throughout. Time therefore to simply stand and absorb the spirituality of the place, feel the vibes of centuries of prayer absorbed into the fabric of the place, and ponder on the state of the world today. Time to enjoy silence!
The monastery is still active, and the guidebooks did warn us that the nuns here were unfriendly! The Russians have whitened some of the frescoes, and some have been cleaned.
The Church of the Holy Spirit Ikhalto
The Ikhalto monastery complex
The church was founded by King Levan of Kakheti, his Queen Tinatin and their son Alexander. We are told of a legend that travelers arrived here and left an icon in the bushes. The next day this could not be removed and so they promised God to build a church here. I could not find this version in my later research, but another legend, found on the internet, is that Queen Tinatin constructed the monastery, because as a little girl she had a dream that she was to build an orthodox temple. It was only when she married the prince Levan and traveled across Georgia with him that she recognized the site where she must fulfill the dream. Later she became a nun there and was buried in the church. Her tomb was found in 1899 and she is remembered on September 3rd.
Icon of King David the builder
whose tomb is this in the Church of the
Holy Spirit Ikhalto?
Sadly we have no time to go just a few miles further up the hill to see the Old (Dzveli) Shuamto monastery set in splendid isolation in a hornbeam wood. There are three churches here, the oldest from the 6th century with its original alabaster iconostasis. Another church is modeled on the Jvari church we saw earlier in our travels, with an octagonal dome, dating from the 7th century. The third church is a smaller 17th century version of the 7th century church! There is said to be a tunnel linking Old Shuamto with the Ikhalto monastery, our next stop, but we travel there more conventionally and comfortably in our coach!

At Ikhalto monastery

Like  Shuamto, the Ikhalto monastery was an education center or academy, and was founded in the late 6th Century by St Zenon, one of the Syrian Fathers who established Christianity in Georgia.It began as a local place of learning but became one of the most significant cultural-scholastic centers of Georgia, (the other being at Gelati), when King David the builder further developed the academy in the 12th century. Many subjects were taught there including theology, astronomy, philosophy, as well as practical skills such as pottery and, perhaps not surprisingly, wine-making. Legend says that the famous Georgian poet Shota Rustaveli studied here. The academy was destroyed by the invading Persians in 1616 when it was set on fire.
view of the refectory and other academy ruins Ikhalto
the wine fermenting jars set deep in the ground
On the drive over to Ikhalto Levan fills us in a little on the present day Georgian education system, quite different I'm sure from what went on in the 6th century academy here. Children go to kindergarten at 2 years old, and then start preparing for main school at the age of 5. Here they go from age 6, for the next 12 years until they leave, to work or to go university. The national exam is in 9 subjects, after which the students may take the university entrance exams, with a possibility of scholarships to get 30 - 100% of the 1000 Euros annual fee paid. There is also a system of teaching minorities alongside Georgians; they learn each others' languages and study together in pairs, offering great potential for understanding and integration. What a brilliant idea!

6th century church of the Trinity
At Ikhalto there is plenty to see and some great photo opportunities - again so easy to forget we are pilgrims not tourists. To our shame some of us go scrambling over the ruins in exploration, before we have heard about what we have come to see. We see the ruins of the old academy, the buried wine clay jars typical of the region, the three churches. The main church of the Holy Spirit or Khvtaeba was built in the 8th - 9th century on the site of an earlier one where St Zenon is said to have been buried.

Levan tells us that 90% of Georgians are Christians and many go to church often, including the young people - although girls tend to be more pious than the boys. The liturgy can be 5 - 6 hours long for special days, and traditionally females stand to the left, males to the right, although nowadays there is a greater tendency to mix. I had not noticed this before really, but on the iconostasis the Virgin Mary is always the icon immediately to the left of the entrance to the inner sanctuary, the icon to the right is of Jesus.

This site was restored quite recently and there are posters with some comprehensive information about the restoration process at the entrance to the site.


  1. So interesting! I have been overwhelmed with work recently but so enjoyed taking time to read this today. Especially the paragraph on education: our daughter had a friend who was from Georgia, for about a year when she was maybe 9 or 10 (23 years ago now!!) - as where we live lots of academics come to do a DPhil or to work for a while and so the school is full of children from interesting places. I remember this child saying to our daughter that she enjoyed the freedom here: back home, security was a big feature of life ... Interesting that Christianity has survived all the vicissitudes of the region. The churches are so ancient, reflecting really early (ish) Christianity, I'd love to've seen them. This always strikes me, how far Protestantism has moved from our Eastern roots. (My grandfather's mother was from Greece: her children all baptised into the Orthodox church). You are very adventurous: where next?!

  2. Thank you Mari for your comment and I'm so glad you are enjoying this. My next pilgrimage is somewhat more mundane, to Greece in the steps of St Paul - watch this space! But I really want to go to Armenia to complete my exploration of the history of the early Christian religion - Armenia being the first country, before Georgia, to adopt Christianity as its state religion.
    Georgia is a lovely country for a holiday - my son and very pregnant wife went a couple of years ago and had a great time.

  3. "although girls tend to be more pious than the boys." I think this is the case regardless of the country or the religion!