My book Why Religions Work explores religious tolerance issues. It could not be more relevant at the moment with the world in its present state.
This blog has concentrated recently on the wonderful pilgrimages I have been on - to the Holy Land and to Turkey and more recently to Holy Georgia , Greece "In the Steps of St Paul" , Ethiopia and most recently my experiences in Iran.

"If I was allowed another life I would go to all the places of God's Earth. What better way to worship God than to look on all his works?" from The Chains of Heaven: an Ethiopian Romance Philip Marsden

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Holy Georgia: in the Steps of St Nino and the Syrian Fathers - Pilgrimage Day 1 contd.

We are on day one of our pilgrimage to Holy Georgia in the Caucasus.

Metekhi Church
We start at Metekhi Church, perched high above the town on its crag looking down on the Mtkvari river below. The first church here was probably built by Vakhtang Gorgasali, the design possibly inspired by the Church of the Sepulcher of St Mary at the foot of the Mount of Olives in the Kidron Valley in Jerusalem. Eastern Christians believe this to be the burial place of the Virgin Mary although this is open to some doubt.

The current Church of the Virgin dates back to 1278-89, built by King Demetre II the Self Sacrificer. He was so called because he gave himself up for execution, hoping by doing so that he would spare his nation the ruin which was the fate of others who resisted the Mongolian rule of that time. He is said to have participated in a plot to overthrow the Mongol regional ruler Arghun Khan and as a result was tortured and beheaded. He was canonized as a martyr and saint by the Georgian Orthodox church.

This church has had a varied and turbulent history, suffering damage and subsequent restoration several times, before finally becoming the venue for a youth theater until it was restored for worship again in the late 1980s.

This is our first taste of the many interesting religious sites we are to experience in the days ahead. The impression we gain right from the start is of living buildings used regularly by the Christian people of Georgia, devout and committed to their faith and ready to publicly demonstrate this within their daily lives.

The present church shares its precinct with the much photographed statue of Vakhtang Gorgasali on his horse, which was completed in 1967 by the sculptor Elguja Amashukeli. One of Georgia's most popular historic figures, Gorgasali is credited with founding Tbilisi, as well as several other towns, castles and monasteries across Georgia. Legend has it that King Vakhtang was hunting with his falcon one day when the bird felled a pheasant, which plunged into a hot water spring. He ordered that a city should be built on this site, to be called Tbilisi, or "the site of warm springs."

Taking our lives in our hands we all cross the road at the bridge over the river - not many allowances seem to be made for pedestrians in Tbilisi - and it is then just a short walk past the Jewish synagogue (it is closed - a shame as I have always wanted to experience the inside of a synagogue and they never seem to be open for me!) to the Sioni Cathedral Church, where we are refused entry as a service is in progress. This is the one and only time when a place of worship refuses our entry, service or not. It is to be our general experience that churches are always open during the day, and people come and go in a very relaxed fashion throughout the orthodox services. I think the monk sees our cameras and mistakes us, not unreasonably, as tourists rather than devout pilgrims!

Inside Sioni Cathedral
But I do manage some photos nonetheless!

The white neoclassical bell tower across the street also catches my eye, and I learn later that this is indeed of architectural interest. It was built by the Russians in 1812 to commemorate their victory over the Ottoman Empire in the Russo-Turkish war. It is the oldest example of its kind in south Caucasus.

Russian Neoclassical bell tower

Anchiskhati Church entrance
So we continue on past the entrance to the Patriarch Residence to the 6th century Anchiskhati Church, Basilica to Saint Mary, the oldest surviving church in Tbilisi, dating back to the sixth century and the first years of Georgian Christianity. The frescoes inside are magnificent, some nearly 400 years old.

There is a YouTube clip of the choir singing at Christmas 2012 some of the ancient Georgian polyphonic choral music for which they are famous.

We have luckily arrived in Tbilisi at the time of the annual Independence Day celebrations.

Tbilisi stages a flower festival to coincide with these celebrations and we are rewarded with the sight of beautiful flowers displayed throughout Sioni Square and Shardeni Street in the Old Town. Famous florists show off their best blooms, and we even see David Austin Roses represented here, a very English company renowned for its fragrant English Roses! Girls are making floral crowns to wear, and one huge floral circle is being lovingly put together as we watch. It seems that traditionally these woven crowns contain Chamomile but I can find little information about this. Suffice to say the streets are filled with color and the displays are beautiful!

Given a short while to wander around the Old Town our limited sleep last night catches up with a few of us who cannot resist a tempting coffee house. We are soon joined by the rest of the group and soon swamp the cafe with our orders! This somewhat delays our progress and is something we have to avoid in the future if we are to keep to our packed pilgrimage schedule. This will not be the only occasion when our long suffering guide has to juggle the time table to accommodate our digressions. 

After lunch we are meant to take the cable car up to the top of Sololaki hill, but it is not operating so our coach takes us part of the way and we walk the rest.
We are rewarded by a panoramic view of the town spread out below us. We walk past the statue of Kartlis Deda or Mother of Georgia, a twenty meter high aluminium statue which is designed to reflect the Georgian character. In her left hand she holds a bowl of wine for those who visit her as friends. In her left hand is a sword, ready for those who visit as enemies. This imposing statue was erected in 1958 to coincide with the city's 1500th anniversary celebrations. We go past the silent cable car station before wending our way down past the Narikala Fortress to the gardens at the bottom and the sulphur baths, looking down en route at the one and only mosque in the town that survived the anti religious purges of the 1930s.
Built in 1895, we are told that Sunni and Shia Muslims pray here together. If here, then why not in other parts of the world stricken so much by religious differences?

We have to hurry a little as at 4pm we are due at the Roman Catholic Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary for a group Eucharist, the first of three we will celebrate during our pilgrimage....

To be contd...

No comments:

Post a Comment