GEORGIA, DECEMBER 2019
Famous for its monasteries, Kutaïssi, the capital of the Imeretie region in Georgia, is the third city of the country. I go there to immerse myself in its mystical atmosphere.
This is my second trip to Georgia. During my first visit, a year earlier, I fell in love with this country for the beauty of its mountains and its multi-millennial culture. From the foothills of Tbilisi to the hikes around the city of Mestia and the troglodyte monastery of Vardzia, I always found in the people I met this typical warm welcome of the country. But I had not visited the sublime cathedrals and monasteries that are located below the southern slopes of the North Caucasus mountains. I promised myself that I would return.
Today, if I am in Kutaisi, staying in this family hotel with its typical square architecture, it’s to go to the royal monastery of Gelati, one of the biggest medieval orthodox monasteries, and a real masterpiece of the “golden age” of medieval Georgia. This morning of September, I get up at 5 am to catch the very first bus. The daughter of the hotel owner who speaks English told me that it would take me to the monastery of Gelati.
I was seated in an old bus whose creaking seats seemed to tell about its youth in the Soviet era. Coffee in hand, a few tourists and a couple of old people settle on board. We leave. My eyes are still stinging, the night is just beginning to lighten. I hope to arrive before the sunrise, I would like to see the first lights of the morning illuminating the monasteries.
At 6:30 am, the bus driver throws me at the top of a wooded hill overlooking the Tskaltsitela river not far from the monastery, which he points with a big finger, all smiles.
The doors of the monastery are still closed when I arrive. I take the opportunity to walk outside. The sun begins to set the green domes of the central cathedral ablaze. The warm tones of the stone, overhung by the changing gray-green shades of the roofs, seem to give the replica to the trunks and foliage of the surrounding trees. I am pleased to see this monastery in an untouched natural environment; the desire to merge building and landscape is one of the architectural characteristics of the Georgian “Golden Age.
Gelati was founded in 1106 by King David IV “the Builder”, who had the ambition to bring together the most prominent intellectuals of the country to create a scientific and educational center. The monastery was also the seat of one of the most important Georgian academies, and was provided with a scriptorium, where monk scribes copied manuscripts. This earned it the name “New Athens”.
In 1922, the Bolsheviks expelled the monks and turned it into a department of the Kutaisi Museum. It was not before 1988 that Gelati was once again home to a monastic community.
The bell rings seven hours. It is the pope who went up to the top of the bell tower to make it ring by hand. Just the time to go down the stone stairs, and he comes to open the heavy wooden door of the monastery.
The air is cool. The humidity is almost palpable. The smell of wood fills my nose. I regret the sweater I left at the hotel.
The Pope begins his morning procession. I follow him respectfully while, with a candle in his hand, he lights one by one the oil lamps that illuminate the frescoes and medieval mosaics. They go back to the XIIth century for the oldest, and to the XVIIth century for the most recent.
The monastery of Gelati is the only monument of Eastern Asia Minor and the Caucasus that still has medieval mosaics so well preserved. Their quality is such, that they are comparable to the most beautiful Byzantine mosaics. Gelati also houses the largest collection of paintings from the Meso-Byzantine to post-Byzantine periods in Georgia, including more than 40 portraits of kings, queens, and high ecclesiastical dignitaries.
The sun starts to be high in the sky. I decide to walk back through the countryside. I was assured it was possible to follow the railroad to the city, while also passing by another monastery. Equipped with an approximate map, I slowly go down the mountain in search of rails, in vain. Not speaking Georgian, I count on the kindness of the inhabitants and on my talents as an actor, to mime a steam locomotive hoping that someone will show me the way. A new big finger and a wide smile point me to “Kutaïssi” further down, along what seems to be, indeed, a railroad.
The path is narrow and I have to jump between each concrete blade that punctuates the rails. I turn around regularly to make sure a train isn’t coming at me at high speed.
Nothing. A soothing calm, at most interrupted by birdsong and dogs barking in the distance. I walk without looking at the passing time. The tracks move away from the road and go deeper and deeper into the forest, winding through the mountain.
While I had not met anyone since I walked along the rails, at the exit of a bend, suddenly, a little human life. A few houses cluster on either side of the railroad. Cows are chewing softly on the grass. Like me, they are probably watching for a passing train.
In the shade of a hut, I see two men playing backgammon. I start the conversation in impeccable Georgian: “Kutaïssi?” They point to the rails. Phew, I’m in the right direction. They invite me to join them, to share some Chacha, a local liquor that burns the stomach. I can’t refuse it. I sit down for a few moments, swallow the glass in one go and watch them play this game I don’t understand. I run away before they take the bottle out again.
A few dozen minutes later, I see the outlines of the monastery of Motsameta taking shape between the mountains. Inside, it is time for prayer and some congregants are crowding at the entrance. I observe the procession. The road is still long, it is time for me to continue my way to Kutaïssi. I will come back.