Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The tragedy of Davit Gareja

After venturing into the snow and ice of the high mountains the next day went into the semi-desert wilderness, this time to see the monasteries in the Davit Gareja site on the border with Azerbaijan.

The earliest of these date back to the 6th century when Davit (or David) Gareja and others returned from Palestine to spread Christianity in Georgia, with the monasteries at this site their base.

The life was if anything even harder than for those in the freezing churches perched upon mountain tops. The area is incredibly dry and in summer temperatures are in the 40 - 50 degree C range. The monks living spaces were spartan, being caves they cut themselves into the sandstone.

Here they would lead a frugal life often fasting for days surviving just on the limited rain water they would collect in cisterns cut, like almost everything here, out of the rock.

There are actually a number of monasteries dotted over the landscape of which the two most commonly visited are Lavra (above, where you can see Davit's cave) and then if you climb the hill behind and descend the other side you'll get to Udabno with staggering views over the plains to the border with Azerbaijan:

You can see the path snaking away just below the cliffs at the top of the hill side, and to reach the caves you then had to scramble up over the rocks.

This time there were just the two of us, my guide and me, as the driver stayed at the base of the hill with a solitary monk. There were again no other people, but we were joined by a dog. He was known to my guide and seemed happy to follow us on the trail, jumping from rock to rock with ease.

It was a grand site, but also tragically sad. Partly this is because of the history: as in much of Georgian history it involves sacrifice, invasions, death and martyrdom. For example the complex was sacked in 1615 by the Persian Shah Abbas and all 6,000 monks killed. The story is that two ran away but then saw the souls of the 5,998 ascending to heaven as silvery clouds and so returned to join them.

Alas my 21st century response was, if that was the case how do we know this story? Was there a third who just kept running?

A similar tale was told the previous day in that some holy relics and gold were hidden in the hills above the Tsminda Sameba church by two Georgian soldiers who then killed themselves to keep the location secret - again, how do we know?

The other tragedy is the state of decay of this historic site. Being sandstone the caves have in many places collapsed and to be honest the climb up to then would have a health and safety worry bag get out their clipboard and go "no, no, no".

And then the fantastic frescos are being washed away one by one. Take this lovely one below: the smear through the centre is a new feature due to recent rain and the guide could remember when it wasn't there:

This sort of water damage is continuing all the time and there seems to be no resources to halt it. Maybe in a few years it won't be there at all.

The picture by the way tells two stories. The one to the right shows the deer that saved the monks when they were without food and water by being tame enough to be milked.

The one on the right shows a dragon that was terrorising the deer and promised to leave if Davit would let it reach the river in peace. Davit agreed but before it reached there a bolt of lightening killed it and an angel told Davit it was an evil that would have destroyed the world if it had reached the river.

My guide and I climbed our way to the top of the hill where we could look out over this amazing site and eat our pack lunch. The dog sat a few metres off and chewed discarded sandwiches, taking out the ham and leaving the bread, damp with its saliva.

Above we saw half a dozen eagles spiral round and round in a thermal.

It was another good moment to savour, before descending back to the waiting 4x4.


Anonymous said...

jp - the scenery is amazing. probably just as impressive, though, is the history. you've done a great job recreating what you've learned over there. caves that old would have so much history!

how were you able to find these places to visit? being able to see them without being surrounded by a throng of tourists I think would make it even more unique and emphasize the feeling of alone-ness those monks would experience.

great stuff.

Carol Anne said...

Truly stunning pictures, and amazing history. I guess I can forgive you for (once again) not doing NaNo -- you had more important things to pay attention to.

My first NaNo novel -- the one that wasn't a mystery but was action-adventure -- ended up stalled in Georgia. I didn't have enough information to make the setting convincing. You definitely do have that information. Maybe I should turn the plot over to you for next year's NaNo novel.

JP said...

Thanks my2fish - have just posted a reply.

Carol Anne: thanks again. Actually went to a writing workshop yesterday for an idea that's been bubbling away. It went ok, only a few thousand words so not exactly NaNo, but might try to develop it further.

Funnily enough one plot angle involved Azerbaijan, so used the time there to pick up some good background.