A mu­sic-filled jour­ney through Ge­or­gia, with a side trip to Turkey, leads to an­cient churches and moun­tain fortresses

Muscat Daily - - FEATURES -

The idea was to take a trip with my 22 year old daugh­ter, Liza, an ad­ven­ture wor­thy of a col­lege grad­u­a­tion present. We set­tled on a ten day jour­ney through the small Caucasus coun­try of Ge­or­gia, with a swing through neigh­bour­ing Turkey, in search of the long-lost king­dom of Tao.

It sounded vaguely Chi­nese and the scenery did look at times like Chi­nese scroll paint­ings: Rocky, pine-cov­ered moun­tains cut through by wa­ter­falls, fast­mov­ing rivers and vast up­land plateaus with al­ter­nat­ing patches of snow and wild­flow­ers.

But the stun­ning land­scape was just the back­drop for the trip. Although the boundaries of the Tao-Klar­jeti king­dom, as it is some­times called, once part of a larger realm ruled by the Ba­gratid dy­nasty, had van­ished from the map by the 11th cen­tury, its Geor­gian rulers left be­hind an as­ton­ish­ing col­lec­tion of churches, monas­ter­ies and fortresses. Said to num­ber 300, they are scat­tered across ter­ri­tory later dis­puted by, no­tably, the Byzan­tines, the Mon­gols, the Per­sians, the Seljuk Turks, the Ot­tomans and the Rus­sians.

These rem­nants of an­cient Geor­gian cul­ture were what drew us to join John Gra­ham, an Amer­i­can mu­si­col­o­gist and tour leader who lives in Tbil­isi, the Geor­gian cap­i­tal, and seven other trav­ellers on a jour­ney that be­gan in the Black Sea city of Ba­tumi, cir­cling through the Turk­ish cities of Kars, Yusufeli and Ar­danuc, be­fore end­ing in Tbil­isi.

Gra­ham him­self, whom I had met in Paris when he was tour­ing with a choir of Geor­gian singers, pro­vided the other lure. An aca­demic ex­pert in Geor­gian poly­phonic chant, with a doc­tor­ate from Prince­ton, he had promised us mu­sic along the trip, and he de­liv­ered - in­clud­ing in a Geor­gian restau­rant and a Turk­ish tea­room, iso­lated moun­tain churches and a rous­ing sum­mer jazz con­cert in a Tbil­isi park.

On our first evening in Ba­tumi, we were joined by three pro­fes­sional singers from the Ad­jar­ian State Song and Dance En­sem­ble, who sat down at our ta­ble and burst into song work­ing their way through a pow­er­ful reper­tory of sa­cred, folk and “ur­ban” chants. The men sang with­out ac­com­pa­ni­ment, with­out notes, their eyes fo­cused on a space above a feast of Geor­gian dishes.

As Gra­ham ex­plained, the typ­i­cal Geor­gian men’s choir sings in three-part har­mony, with a tenor who leads the song and two other voices im­pro­vis­ing backup. Mixed-gen­der choirs are rare, mainly be­cause of the close har­monies re­quired by the mu­sic.

Dur­ing the trip, Gra­ham put his skills as a choir­mas­ter to the test and man­aged to cor­ral two of our mem­bers - Alex, a col­lege class­mate of Liza’s and a jazz pi­anist who was also trav­el­ling with his mother, and Tom, a Bri­tish arts ad­min­is­tra­tor - to join him in litur­gi­cal chants in the ru­ined Ortho­dox churches on our itin­er­ary.

In­side Ge­or­gia, all the churches we vis­ited had been re­stored and re­turned to the Geor­gian Ortho­dox Church since 1991, when the coun­try won in­de­pen­dence from the Soviet Union.

In Turkey, most of the Chris­tian churches were in ru­ins, their vaulted ceil­ings now rub­ble, with bat­tered carv­ings and faint traces of once-colour­ful fres­coes left on the walls. Dur­ing Ot­toman rule, many had been con­verted into mosques, then aban­doned.

We stopped in one for­mer church in Khakhuli, now a mosque guarded by a sleepy imam who nod­ded his per­mis­sion for our group to sing un­der an apse that still bore traces of fres­coes. At Ishkhani, a 45 minute drive from Yusufeli in Turkey, an an­cient cathe­dral, re­built in the ninth cen­tury by Sabas, a dis­ci­ple of St Gre­gory of Khandztha, is be­ing re­stored in a desul­tory, and not en­tirely con­vinc­ing way.

Ru­ined or re­stored, these churches have main­tained a haunt­ing seren­ity through cen­turies of ne­glect and de­struc­tion. Our trio’s solemn, melodic chants - wed­ding songs, Easter and other litur­gi­cal hymns - con­jured up their orig­i­nal pur­pose as places of wor­ship, learn­ing and re­flec­tion, mon­u­ments to the glory of God and the Geor­gian kings and monks who built them.

“The de­vel­op­ment of mul­ti­voice chant­ing in Ge­or­gia in the Mid­dle Ages was unique in the re­gion; al­most all of the sur­round­ing coun­tries were then singing in mono­phonic mu­sic styles,” Gra­ham ex­plained. In Ge­or­gia, he said, the process seems to have been home­grown. The Ge­or­gians learned to sing three-voiced chants from ex­ist­ing poly­phonic folk mu­sic tra­di­tions. In other Ortho­dox churches, like the Rus­sian and Greek, mono­phonic chant re­mained the dom­i­nant style un­til at least the 16th cen­tury.

Some of the monas­ter­ies that we vis­ited in Tao were the very sites where medieval chant­books called iadgari, or heir­molo­gions, were col­lated by 10th cen­tury scribal monks. But for many cen­turies, it was mostly an oral tra­di­tion; it wasn’t un­til the late 19th cen­tury that this poly­phonic mu­sic was tran­scribed into West­ern no­ta­tion. This re­quired adapt­ing the dis­so­nances and har­monies pe­cu­liar to Geor­gian mu­sic to five-line no­ta­tion and de­ci­pher­ing the cryp­tic short­hand used by medieval monks to guide con­tem­po­rary singers through melodies they al­ready knew. At al­most ev­ery stop, Gra­ham had a story about the monks and church lead­ers who had left their mark on these moun­tain­sides. Manuscripts from the monastery at Otkhta in Dortk­ilise, a vil­lage near Yusufeli, even­tu­ally made their way to the St Cather­ine monastery on the Si­nai Penin­sula in Egypt. St Ge­orge the Athonite, revered fa­ther of the Geor­gian Ortho­dox Church who wrote some of the texts we heard, had been ed­u­cated at the monastery at Khakhuli, now a mosque buried in bram­bles also out­side Yusufeli. St Gre­gory of Khandztha, a lead­ing church fig­ure in the eighth cen­tury, be­gan his ec­cle­si­as­ti­cal life found­ing the Khandzta monastery in Klar­jeti (now in Turkey) and helped his dis­ci­ples es­tab­lish other ones such as the monastery of Ubisa in cen­tral Ge­or­gia. “They were crawl­ing all over these hills build­ing churches,” John said.

Our trip wasn’t just about churches. A de­ter­mined hiker, Gra­ham led us up scrag­gly paths to ex­plore moun­tain fortresses: One built in the fifth cen­tury above the Turk­ish city of Ar­tanuc, an­other above Bor­jomi, an old Soviet spa town in Ge­or­gia. We scram­bled through Hell’s Canyon, out­side Ar­tanuc, whose soar­ing cliffs pro­vided good acous­tics for our singers to ex­er­cise their vo­cal cords, and vis­ited two cave com­plexes, one at Uplist­sikhe, built in 1500 BC, and the other at Vardzia, about 35 miles from the Geor­gian bor­der city of Akhalt­sikhe.

Built in the 12th cen­tury as a haven dur­ing a time of Per­sian in­va­sions, the hon­ey­comb cave com­plex at Vardzia is as­so­ci­ated with Ge­or­gia’s famed Queen Ta­mara, a charis­matic ruler who can be seen in a fresco in the Church of the Dor­mi­tion, it­self carved out of soft rock. Leg­end has it that when an earth­quake struck in 1283, crum­bling the rock face that hid the caves, the pop­u­la­tion and res­i­dent monks were safe in­side the church, cel­e­brat­ing Easter; it was deemed a mir­a­cle. Look­ing out over the val­ley be­low from a newly in­stalled safety bar­rier, Liza com­pared the view to a scene from The Lord of

the Rings. An­other group mem­ber, Michael, an in­trepid Aus­tralian, said, as he crouched through a low tun­nel, that it re­minded him of the moun­tains of Ethiopia.

(The New York Times)

The hon­ey­comb cave com­plex at Vardzia, Ge­or­gia, into which a church has been carved

A field of pop­pies along the road to the monastery of Sa­para in Ge­or­gia

The bell tower at the monastery in Sa­para; the church of St Saba was added in the 14th cen­tury

A view of Sa­para monastery in Ge­or­gia

The church of St Saba, added to Sa­para monastery in the 14th cen­tury, is largely in­tact

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