On our third day, we set off from Tbilisi to the south eastern border of Georgia with Azerbaijan. Eka informed us we would be driving through the green desert to the sacred monastery of Davit Gareja. Davit Gareja was an Assyrian escetic who came to Georgia to spread Christianity in the 6th century. He made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and reputedly took three stones from the holy land but was asked to return them. Only two were returned and the third remained at his monastery, where miracles began to be performed.
We made our own pilgrimage in our Mercedes van, driven by Gela. Once we turned off the badly damaged sealed road onto the unsealed section at Udabno, we were into 4 wheel drive territory. The landscape however was stunning, green stony hills uplifted in ancient times revealing red and yellow rocks and apparently rich minerals. Shepherds appeared with flocks of sheep. This area is under dispute from Azerbaijan and we saw soldiers patrolling the border area where some monasteries still stand, along side shepherds and their sheep. The oil rich deposits here are desired by Russia and Azerbaijan but the area remains critical in Georgia for its historical and religious significance. Climbing up to the cave church embedded in the surrounding rock, we entered the cool, dark Lavra church and monastery where Davit Gareja is buried. The church and tomb dates from 562AD. There are 12 monasteries covering 25 sq km here, many under threat. A rather severe monk in black sold us a postcard depicting the sacred stone or egg which is now held by the Patriarch in the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Tbilisi.
We journeyed on to Sighnaghi, also known as the ‘Town of Love’. Perched on a hill top the town was fortified via a wall around the city. The twenty three towers used as fortresses are named for the twenty three villages surrounding Sighnaghi and where these towns could go for protection in the 18th century, when the area was under siege from Persia.
The Bodne Monastery nearby is dedicated to St Nino, a fourteen year old Cappadocian maiden, who brought Christianity via Armenian to Georgia in the 4th century. The church was originally built over St Nino’s grave in the 4th century but the frescoes inside date from the 19th century.
Georgia was only the second kingdom after Armenia to convert to Christianity. Prior to St Nino’s arrival, the Georgian people practised Zoroastrian religion, worshipping at sun, moon and fire temples. Persian influences remained high especially in the east of the country. Later Arab cultures tried to tear down the Christian churches and burn their icons. Most recently, the Soviet regime also tried to rid Georgia of its Christian heritage however the many churches and monasteries remaining today are a testament to the people’s faith. And there’s more to come about these incredible buildings!
Our long day ended in the Royal Batoni hôtel in Kvareli, perched on a lake beside the Alazani river. It was as if we had been transported to a medieval castle.