Monday, November 9, 2015

Jvari Monastery and the City of Uplistsikhe, Georgia

In the summer of 2015, I had the good fortune to travel to formerly Soviet Georgia for a few days. Having long-desired to visit this beautiful Orthodox country, I was only able to stay for three and a half days, but it was a highlight of my year and I hope to return!
                 Photo by Caroline Carson, July 2015                    
When I return, I'd especially like to see the Caucasus mountain region and some of the high country! I flew into the capital city of Tbilisi, found my hotel, and immediately ventured out to walk down the street to one of the town squares. Tbilisi proved to be very friendly, clean, beautiful, and full of sites and activities. As I also wanted to see some of the surrounding areas and get into the real countryside of Georgia, I talked to several people while at dinner and strolling around with gelato later that evening. After several recommendations, I entered a tourist shop featuring t-shirts, knick-knacks, and tours. 
Collage of photos by Caroline Carson
I hired a driver, through a travel agent/clerk, to travel to Uplistsikhe, a city I knew nothing about, but which seemed intriguing and was itself a UNESCO World Heritage site. Of the several dusty brochures in the store, this city had the prettiest pictures and was not very expensive. It ended up being about $25 for about 9 hours of tour! What an AMAZING journey! After an early morning stroll downtown, I met up with my driver and a van full of Latvians who would soon be my new friends. Before long, my fellow adventurers and our Russian driver, Georgi, were singing (me humming), Russian Orthodox melodies to the radio in a beat-up, smoke-infused van on the way to see one of the earliest important crossroads cities between the Orient and Oxident in the world. 
                 Photo by Caroline Carson, July 2015                    
On the way to Uplistsikhe, we stopped at the Jvari Monastery which is on the top of a hill and absolutely amazing. I had no idea that we would be stopping here at all! This could be due to the fact that I do not speak Georgian, Russian, or Latvian. Jvari is a UNESCO site.
Photo by Caroline Carson, July 2015
The Jvari Monastery is the "Monastery of the Cross" and was built in the 6th century. It is near the beautiful city of Mtskheta, one of the oldest cities in the country and one of the oldest continuously inhabited places on Earth. Mtskheta is about thirteen miles outside of Tbilisi so a very easy trip to make. It was the capital of the ancient kingdom of Kartli (Iberia) and has become known as the "Holy City" because it is the birthplace of Christianity in Georgia. In the fourth century, Saint Nino, a female saint, placed a large cross on the hillside at the site of Jvari monastery. After time, there began to be rumors of miracles and strange, yet wonderful happenings at the mountain. A church was built on the site and later, a monastery founded. Around the back of the monastery, we were treated to stunning views of Mtskheta and the Aragvi and Mtkvari rivers below. 
Photo by Caroline Carson, July 2015
Inside, the smell of incense wafted through thickened sunbeams, bringing a hush to everyone who entered. Donning a scarf to cover my head, I stood in silence for several moments, just taking it all in. I did wish we had more time, even if I hadn't previously known we were stopping here. There is something quite special and holy about the sacred spaces of Orthodox churches with the thin candles leaning in quiet effort to the Divine and the fragrances of incense and flowers in the air. The light in these places always has a different quality to threaded with purpose and meaning. 
Photo by Caroline Carson, 2015
After being still and saying a few prayers, I went out of the monastery chapel and walked the grounds a bit. I found these three hanging bells, calling to the hills and claiming together a congregation of anyone who could hear them.
Photo by Caroline Carson, July 2015
Next, we were back in the van, already drenched with sweat and gulping water. I think it was about 100 that day (I know it was 103 the following day when I visited Azerbaijan.) After an hour or more, Georgi took us off the main highway and toward an embankment of low, rolling mountains. Here, somewhere, was Uplistsikhe, the famous cave city, known as "The Ruler's Fortress" and often called "The Lord's Fortress" of long ago. An ancient city hewn out of the mountainside, Uplistsikhe was one of the oldest urban centers in Georgia and became an important religious, trade, and political center. It is in the midst of what is known as the Kartli region.The road began to be rocky and VERY bumpy, enough to where I was wondering how many spare tires might be in the back. A few cows were sighted, what looked like several abandoned townlets, and a river. 
Photo by Caroline Carson, July 2015
When we finally got there, our driver parked and we got out. There were a few old men sitting at small, rusting tables, selling wares and a ticket desk leading to a snack cafe and a very small museum. Our driver gave us a few hours and so I took off to climb the old city and see what I could. After a few large rock outcroppings that I climbed, there were sets of stairs, about 50 steps each and boy were they RICKETY. Each step consisted of metal bars lined on the top with a rotting wooden plank. I will add here that I am ok with two or three flights of stairs and then I'm not ok. I have to stop a lot and hold on to things and take it slowly. It was also extremely windy and I couldn't use my umbrella to escape the relentless sun so I just gave up and prepared myself for massive sunburn. I was a bit surprised that handrails were not in certain places and that getting from one set of steps to a higher area involved leaps from one rock to the other. If no one had been around, I would have been on "all fours" at times (and I'm ok with that if I want to climb on steep rocks), but I did ask a hand from a stranger to get up onto one rock where this picture was taken.

Finally, I made it to the top and could explore some of the cave rooms. There were cave ceilings with decorations on the top and it seemed that the inhabitants had thought of everything from cooking pits to individual cells, to a theatre and to wine presses in the ground! A couple of the ceilings were so ornate that it reminded me of a Western European Baroque style. Here is one example of the decorated ceilings.
There were several "temples" carved and I was told they were to a Sun goddess who was worshipped by the pagans in this area before Christianity arrived in Georgia. The sloping sandstone cave city was founded in the late Bronze Age (before 1000 BC) and inhabited steadily until the 13th century with, at times, both Christians and pagans. The Christianization of surrounding areas such as Tbilisi and Mtskheta pushed the city to lose favor in deference to the larger cities. Over time, Uplistsike and parts of Georgia were conquered by the Mongols, Annatolians, Arabs, Persians, and more. At its highest population, Uplistsikhe was about 20,000. It didn't look that large to me, but then again, I only had a couple of hours to explore it and it was about a million degrees so I wasn't in top form. The short film in the small museum mentioned that Uplistsikhe's rock-cutting styles were influenced mostly by Northern Iran and Cappadocia's (Turkey) rock city formations.
Photo by Caroline Carson, July 2015
Another hike took me up to the top of the city where there was a monastery and beautiful small chapel. This has been rebuilt a few times, but is still very old. 
Photo by Caroline Carson, July 2015
I always feel good when I look down at where I have come from on one of these hikes. I can accomplish a great distance, even in my slow, labored style. I'm always so glad I ended up doing it.
Photo by Caroline Carson, July 2015
Making my way down the mountain, I nearly collapsed from the heat once I was low enough to where the wind wasn't so strong. 
IT WAS SO HOT. If you decide to go, PICK A NON-SUMMER TIME.
I wandered into the snack cafe and bought a chilled (not exactly "cold") Georgian lemonade. It was slightly carbonated and sweet, but was the best thing 

                                                              IN. THE. WORLD. 

Pretty soon, my Latvian buddies came in and we sat, drinking lemonade and beer and cokes, trying to will the temperature down with sheer contempt for the tragic sun's crusade to melt.....EVERYTHING.
Next, we went to the museum and watched a small film about Uplistsikhe and its history and then saw some amazing archaeological finds. 

The way out of the city took the whole van's determination. I'm not quite sure what kind of lemonade Georgi was having while we were exploring, but we missed the main road and ended up stopping at a giant hay pile. Next, we crossed a small riverlet, but not the one we had first come across. We ran into three men on scooters and asked them which way to go. This led us to a road made of small boulders and big sticks, nearly toppling the van twice. FINALLY, we saw a highway and took it. Next, we were headed to the Batumi fortress and the town of Gori (where Joself Stalin was born), and the wondrous Svetitskhoveli Church. 
I'll also share a bit of travel to David Gareja (also Davit Kareji) monastery and crossing into Azerbaijan.
Photo by Caroline Carson, July 2915
Here is a link to my Facebook album of my photos from Georgia
I HIGHLY recommend seeing the city of Uplistsikhe if you have time while in visiting Georgia. Bring sunscreen, wear good shoes, and know ahead of time that parts of the city slope steeply and there is always the possibility in brushland of both snakes and larger-than-I-want-to-describe spiders. Also, wear your sunglasses as it is very windy and bright.
I love, love, LOVE ancient archaeological sites like this one. It is well worth it to step in the same paths of our ancestors and to touch our own planet's ancient history as our cities were being formed.
Photo by Caroline Carson, July 2015

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