When God decided to divide Earth among the people, a famous Georgian legend tells that the Georgians were too busy feasting and drinking that they turned up late. Furious, God asks them what took them so long, to which they reply that they were busy toasting the meal to him and peace. Moved, God gave them a piece of fertile land that he had reserved for himself.
And there, in the hidden heart of the ancient kingdom of Iberia, a land that has withstood, over time, conquests from the Turks, Persians, Mongols and of late Soviet Russia, I find myself immersed in a setting that brings with it an air of pensive mystery, of that of an old man who has laboured his way through life to see the fruits of the seeds he once lay that his future generations will never know of.
What drew me to Georgia was perhaps its perceived, incongruous setting. Just like Istanbul, caught amidst the cultural and geographical boundaries of Europe and Asia. Ask a Georgian how he feels, West Asian or East European, and he is bound to respond that culturally he feels inclined towards the latter.
Perhaps it is because Georgia, unlike its western neighbour Turkey, isn’t Islamic, not having fallen prey to any of the Mohammedan conquests that were widespread in the region. Georgians are Orthodox and lay claims to being the home to historically modern civilisations as old as 8000 years, whilst retaining an identity and a script that has no parallel or equal.
At first sight, Tbilisi, the capital city, feels like a small town bearing shades and residuals of a quintessential communist-planned setting. Among the narrow streets of the suburbs housing unprepossessing buildings that threatened to crumble sooner than later, old men gathered over games of cards, chess or checkers while little boys waited around them eagerly to be requested a favour – to buy tea, beer or cigarettes – in exchange for a small fee. The streets and structures serve as a haunting reminder of the turbulent crisis Georgia underwent after its disassociation from the Soviet state in 1993 until as late as 2007.
In days gone by, the streets of Tbilisi, closer to the centre, have been restored to remove any elements of communism that may have existed. In fact, it may have gone too far for there is a President George W Bush Street on the way to the airport with debatable roots, relating to America’s assistance in preventing a Russian capture of Georgia ten years ago.
Changes are even more pronounced near the Old Town, a historic quarter set between the Mtkvari River and the Narikala fortress at the centre of the city. The neighbourhood houses an assorted mix of buildings and structures, some of them as old as from the 5th century – uninhabitable and beyond economic repair. Façadism in the name of tourism has taken away most of the charm that I am pretty sure once existed, for now it is a tourist trap akin to most of its European counterparts.
And there, in the hidden heart of the ancient kingdom of Iberia, a land that has withstood over time conquests from the Turks, Persians, Mongols and of late Soviet Russia, I find myself immersed in a setting that brings with it an air of pensive mystery, of that of an old man who has laboured his way through life to see the fruits of the seeds he once lay that his future generations will never know of.
It was bright and sunny every morning I was in Tbilisi. It was early August, summer hits Georgia late. Yet, the sun only intensified the glow reflecting against the matchless brown walls of the Narikala fortress, while the restaurants and cafes opened up for business at a tonga’s pace. There is a home-made, almost amusing, surrealism about chic cafes masquerading as traditional Georgian outlets with pictures of the khachapuri, cheese-filled bread, the kind of heedless consumerism that is redecorating the streets of Old Town Tbilisi. Although grudgingly acknowledged as a commercial district, it is still graced by sights of old, restored churches at a distance along the slope.
But that shouldn’t stop you from climbing up to the fortress, especially before sunset, to get a panoramic view of the city. A cable car alternatively gets you to the top, but the climb is short and gentle.
Yet, the real centre of Georgia – as any traveller would acknowledge – lies around its mountains and monasteries, far away from the contours of Tbilisi, trying its best to resemble its European sisters.
The very quality of the air you breathe changes as you drive away from Tbilisi, closer towards the Caucasus mountains. It may be less so if you took the Marshrutka, like I did, where I squeezed in with twenty-five other co-passengers in a torn-down Mercedes mini-bus, which I am quite sure was one of those many left behind by the Soviets after the breakdown. But the price of 6 lari [around 2.5 US Dollars] sweetened the experience, even if only by a little bit.
The ancient capital of Mtshketa, for instance, still retains a sense of faded reserve and cultural glamour where its black-robed monks with long beards walk through the cobble-stoned lanes surrounding the churches and a cathedral that was established during the 4th century when Georgia adopted Christianity.
Now a UNESCO world heritage site, and therefore a tourist destination, it isn’t uncommon to spot among the monks, kids running around and blowing soap bubbles.
Inside the cathedral, paintings reflect the medieval times adorning kings influential in spreading the word of Christianity. Most of them are buried in sites within the cathedral’s vicinity.
I meet a Polish pastor, Mateuz, leading a tour group from Warsaw who were on a cultural trip across Georgia and Armenia to understand the nuances of the Orthodox faith, which fails to recognize the pope.
After briefly recollecting fond memories from my trips to Warsaw, and an awful attempt at trying to pronounce the name of the neighborhood where I was put up the last time I stayed there, he reiterated a notion that I had so often heard every proud Georgian mention during my stay there – the resistance put up by the people, historically, against invaders of different faiths and ideologies despite being within the vicinity of the epicenter of history’s barbaric belts.
And sometimes, even their own. Further west, 75 kilometres away, the insignificant town of Gori would have been unnoticed by many passing through had it not been the birthplace of one of history’s most brutal dictators: Ioseb Dzhugashvilli. Or Joseph Stalin, as the world infamously knows him.
Stalin divides opinion among generations alike in Georgia. To some, he is the pro-Russian revolutionary who sent troops to crush Georgia on Lenin’s orders. He is the shameful son who sent many Georgian intellectuals to their deaths.
To others, he is a folk hero. A strong-willed leader who rose from an impoverished background to become one of the world’s most powerful leader, a torch-bearer of Georgian pride and identity.
After Stalin’s death, under the Kruschev regime, when Stalin’s statues were being torn down in the USSR, and especially more so after Kruschev’s speech denouncing him, Stalin sympathisers in Georgia decided to build a museum in Gori to “protect his good name.”
Built on the foundation of the house that he grew up in during his early years, this is a museum dedicated to Stalin by those who adore him. I found it disappointing that it shed little insight in to the atrocities committed by him and his regime, instead focusing on his remarkable gift as a poet and his rise as a ‘great’ leader. At a personal level, I found the periodic maps detailing his arrests and escapes from prison quite amusing.
Stalin’s Museum aside, Gori is a short marshrutka ride away from the ancient cave settlement of Uplistsikhe, the significance of which dwindled since the christianisation of Georgia. The Mongol raids during the 14th century led to the eclipse of the town and was seldom used since then. A modest 9th century church is the only remains of this settlement.
Lost in the backdrop of a rapidly urbanising Georgia is the remote town of Kazbegi, nested in a valley between the Caucasian mountains bordering the Russian province of Dagestan, north-east of Georgia. It seems as though time has stood still here since the 18th century.
The seductions of snow-covered peaks coupled with the sight of the Gergeti Trinity church at a distance, on top of a hill being overlooked at by Mount Kazbeg, effaces the shyer effects of the Georgian countryside. The weather, cool and overcast, provides relief alongside shelter in a local homestay exhibiting the unforced hospitality of Georgians.
Barring the conspicuous Google Market, a local grocery store, there is little about Kazbegi, named after the famous writer Alexander Kazbeg, that seems out of place. It is said that the ancient rulers of Georgia left behind over 300 churches and monasteries in the Caucasus. Otherwise, the landscape is still: pine covered slopes with waterfalls and rapids cutting through them, and mud-splattered farm animals roaming through the plains. The Russian poet Boris Pasternak compared this landscape to a ‘great, rumpled bed.’
The two hour trek up the hill towards the Gergeti Trinity Church throws clearer views of the snow-capped peaks. It is supposedly a pilgrimage, which when done on foot, brings good luck and fortune. It is a holy site for the Orthodox Georgians. The bearded, black-robed monks pour wine on to little clay chalices and pass it on to the worshippers for consumption, as they move from one small room to another.
The slopes along the eastern side of Georgia’s Caucasus, known as the Khakheti province, are home to some of the widest varieties of grapes used to make wine. During the Soviet days, wine from Georgia went to as far as Vladivostok in eastern Russia.
Signaghi, a city in the Khakethi province, is a two hour ride by marshrutka from Tbilisi. It is here that St. Nino helped convert the Georgian royalty to christianity during the fourth century.
The region is dotted with wine cellars, where crushed grapes are fermented below the ground in Kvevris. In addition, tunnels drilled by the Soviet military are used these days as wine cellars.
The homestay where I was put up was run by an old, kind lady called Nina and her daughter. When I had attempted to make a booking a few days before, she had expressed her skepticism in confirming my reservation as she had plenty of bad experiences with Indians, Arabs and Asians who made bookings but never came. I had assured her that I was a well travelled person and was definitely visiting Signaghi.
When we met in person, she was kind enough to apologise for raising the concern and said “I guess a good traveler is usually a good person.”
“Who did you think I was? Indian? Arab? Asian from elsewhere?”
She thought for a while and stared at me deeply and questioned, almost hesitatingly: “are you Mongolian?”
Last time I checked, I was not one of those four Asians who is a descendant of Genghis Khan.