Georgia a gift from God
The crossroads of continents and religions where the guest is revered
ASTERN- FACED black bearded young monk approaches. Without looking at any of us directly he silently points at a basket in an oratory, gesturing at women to make ourselves decent before entering his church on the edge of the world. My jeans, caked in mud and dust from a bone-shaking journey through a gorge in the remote Greater Caucasus mountains and the steep trek on the last stage to 2,200m, vanish inside a black communal wrap around long skirt.
We stoop to enter a medieval miracle of masonry on a lofty isolated perch, its ancient stones decorated with intriguing carvings, some old enough to be pagan in origin, met by dazzling icons and vibrant painted frescos that glow in the gloom.
The spectacular location of the Gergeti Trinity Church about ten km as the crow flies from the Russian border, perched high on the Kazbek mountain range, the towering snowy peak of Mt Kazbek rising behind it has made this place a symbol of Georgia.
Christianity came to Georgia in the 4th century and over 80% of the population of 4 million are Orthodox Christian, many of them regular churchgoers.
Georgia is often compared in size to Ireland sitting between the subtropical Black sea coast and the snowy peaks of the Caucasus, bordered by Azerbaijan, Armenia, Turkey and Russia.
In times of danger – and there were numerous occasions for a country on the Silk Route, sandwiched between enemy nations – treasures and relics from the ancient religious and commercial capital of Mtskheta were brought up here for
safety. You can see how the church became a Fort Knox, only accessible via a rough steep circuitous track.
Back in the Eighties, when the area was a popular holiday getaway for senior Russian officials, the Soviet authorities constructed a cable car line to the church. Believing their sacred place, whose beloved monks ‘offer an open door to troubled souls who go up there desiring to break bad habits like drug and alcohol addiction’ would be desecrated the people of Kazbegi in the valley pulled it down.
But the times are a changin’. Here in Kazbegi, now officially named Stepantsminda, a couple of hours drive from Tbilisi, intrepid backpackers, trekkers and mountaineers exploring the Caucasus region are increasingly joined by mainstream travellers.
Closer to heaven: Georgia’s Gergeti Trinity Church