MUSIC AND ANCIENT HISTORY IN THE CAUCASUS
A music-filled journey through Georgia, with a side trip to Turkey, leads to ancient churches and mountain fortresses
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 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