Tbilisi and Sumela: diversity and monastic magic

After nearly 11 hours on the road, our inter-city bus rolled up to the outskirts of Tbilisi. Exhausted and disorientated by the strange journey, I was dropped off at the bus station, and took a taxi to Avlabari district, bidding farewell to my fellow passengers.

Finding my hotel’s street, at first I was hesitant as the location looked more like a private home, than a hotel. The night was quite warm and I searched around the pink building for an entrance. Eventually, I located an iron gate and rang the bell. I was buzzed in and entered an exotic court yard with a grape vine hanging above the entrance. I was shown into my room and I promptly collapsed into bed, and forgetting everything about my day and not even investigating my surroundings.

The next day over breakfast, I was able to take stock and make plans for the next four days. Although my knowledge of Tbilisi from a historical perspective was quite wide, as a modern city I knew very little about it. The hotel staff very kindly advised where I could obtain a guide book as well as exchange my foreign currency. I left the comfort of the Leodora air conditioned hotel and was hit by the mid-July heat, which felt to be even warmer than Turkey. A busker was playing folk songs outside of the hotel gate on a type of lute. I would soon learn music is a common theme throughout the city of Tbilisi. After sorting out the essentials, I took a taxi to Kala, the old town.

Kala’s unique beauty is due keeping the city’s landscape remaining pure. Multi-coloured villas, soviet ‘palaces’ and above the city, a castle edifice surrounding a Georgian Church. No sky scrapers, blocks of flats, or other cement monuments, Kala is almost as if modernity has forgotten to visit the city. However, I was soon to learn below the surface, there exist little innovations. Over the next few days, I discovered there is something magical about the city, unlike any Western or Eastern capital I have ever visited.

With trickling waterfalls, fountains and running through the middle the River Kura, like all great cities, water played a key part in Tbilisi’s history. My first stop was to visit the grounds of the Armenian Cathedral of St George and the Narikala Fortress. Towering above the city, the Narikala Fortress looks in place. What city does not have a castle or the ruins of a castle somewhere? As a Durham graduate, I automatically feel at home seeing a castle in the skyline. However, unlike Durham, where the castle and cathedral are well matched, the Armenian Cathedral, looks almost as if it has been placed there as an afterthought. And indeed it was: whereas the fortress dates back to the 4th Century, the Cathedral was not established until 13th Century.

I eventually stumbled along and became lost for most of the rest of the afternoon finding unplanned charms such as the city’s Synagogue with an unusual statue on the outside of what appear to be a Cossack with drooping features. Like most cities: statues, particularly of unusual depictions were everywhere: from Pushkin to local Warrior Kings. I crossed the bridge back towards Avlabari in hopes of finding my hotel and was amazed by the Metekhi Church at the other end of the bridge with a grand statue in gold sitting in front of it. My first instinct told me this must be an image of Alexander the Great, although a passer by advised me it was in fact King Vakhtang Gorgasali, as the site marketed his 5th Century capital and where stood palaces of other Georgian rulers up until the Persian destruction in 1795. The passerby insisted I must have heard of his greatness, I nodded and confirmed I had, and attempted to hide my bafflement.

Throughout my trip, I wandered blindly up, until right at the end when I managed to obtain a guidebook. However, not knowing what monuments, palaces and other great sights were, also fuelled me to speak to Georgians. One day, I took a walk and ended up at Rustavelis Gamziri. I stopped at the Marriot Hotel, a familiar western hotel, in foreign surroundings and was pleased to find all the staff spoke English. I ordered an English tea and asked the waiter where I was. He immediately dashed off to provide me with a tourist map and advised me what sites of interest I would find in the local vicinity. It turned out I was near their Parliamentary building and after rejuvenating in the cool salon took back to the road. With greater knowledge, I was able to appreciate where I was: Tavisulebis Moedani: Freedom Square. In the centre of the busy square stood a monument of St. George slaying the dragon on a tall column. A modern edifice to replace Soviet monuments, the golden statute stands out amongst the heavy traffic and beautiful civic buildings.

I took a trip to the parliamentary buildings where a small protest was in progress demanding the resignation of Saakashvili, the President of Georgia. I also visited the Kashveti Church, where opposite a large banner was promoting a Katie Melua concert, one of Georgia’ most famous citizens.

The following day, I continued my ramblings finding myself amongst small street galleries. The Sharden and Bambis Rigi, near Gorgalsalis Moedani, are small fashionable streets containing art galleries primarily run by artists and small time dealers. Enjoying a quick lunch in the cosmopolitan atmosphere, I continued on to Abanotubani, finding a uniquely beautiful building. Middle Eastern tiles, deep blue façade like mosques found in Iran: the Orbeliani Baths. My first instinct told me, this was the mosque, indicated on my map. However, after having a look around the area I found a far more modern building which was obviously the mosque and the Persian blue building the Baths. The Orbeliani Baths and the presence of the mosque, reminded me of how multi-cultural Georgia is. In Tbilisi, Christians of different denominations, Jews and Muslims, as well as other religions, live side by side in relative peace. I considered the other states near and in the Middle East, where different groups has spent the last 150 years persecuting each other. Georgia however, has maintained relatively peaceful inter-community relations, especially with the founding of the modern state, with politics being main reason for conflict. It reminded me of an earlier time, when there were only two or three states, or empires in the region and people lived relatively peacefully. The millet as it was called under the Ottomans, brought communities together and although it may have failed in almost every other state to various degrees in the Middle East and the Caucasus, Georgia, where that morning alone I had met Georgians, Russians Armenians and Kurds of various different religions and inner-denominations: was succeeding.

I carried on up the hill passed the Baths, to the beautiful Botanical Gardens and was happy to look out across a city that only one year before was occupied by the Russian Bear, yet had succeeded in ensuring a relatively peaceful state.

On my last evening, I decided to push the boat out and take a taxi to restaurant sitting on the River Kura: Dzveli Sakhil. I enjoyed my dinner in the dusk sunshine eating small aubergaine packages covered in a sweet red current sauce, as well as a traditional Georgian take on the kebab, and a bottle of Kartli wine, before entering the main restaurant to watch traditional Georgian/Cossack dancers and music players. With the last morning of my trip approached I took a walk around Avlabari, the traditional section of the city populated by Armenians and visited the grand, gold topped Tsimnda Sameba: the Holy Trinity Church.

I returned to the bus station in order to return to Turkey, on a route that I had been promised would take only 7 hours. Thinking about my journey to Tbilisi, I ignored this suggestion and looked forward to reaching Turkey in dozen hours time.

The monastic magic of Sumela

After a sleepless night, our minibus pulled into a grey Trabzon, a grey cemented city surrounded by industry. We arrived in the small bus station at 6am. I quickly ate a rushed breakfast before washing and going out to search for a taxi. I saw little of Trabzon with my actual reason for travelling to this northern city onjk the Black Sea, was in order to visit the Sumela Monastery, in the Melá mountains. I found a taxi willing to take me up there at 8am for half a day for a $40 and went back into the bus station to find out about booking an on-going bus to Adana that afternoon. At 8am, in the taxi, I started our journey up to the mountains.

Carved into the rock face of Melá Mountain, the Sumela Monastery, now a museum, was originally the Greek Orthodox Monastery of the Virgin Mary, a secluded community who had built their complex into the face of the cliff face. Established in the 4th Century it remained an active monastic community up until the foundation of the Turkish Republic in the 1923. During the forced Greek-Turkish population exchanges, the Greek Monastic community were made to leave as well, after nearly 1600 years of residency. For some communities, modern statehood and politics sucks.

An hour on the road, we began to approach the mountains. After about 40km, our route became surrounded by green trees, primarily pinophyta: conifers and pines, rising in the mist. Rivers and streams trickled down from the mountains paths and the mists consumed the surrounding forests creating a mysterious atmosphere in the fog. The taxi stopped at a top of a cliff and the driver explained we would have to walk the rest of the way. I advised the driver that I was happy to walk up the path alone, craving solitude, however, he insisted on coming with me to ensure I did not get lost. After 10 minutes walking, the air became heavy to breath and I felt rather light headed. taxi driver pointed upwards and brought to my attention the cliff face and the Monastery overlooking the forests. Standing like a “Mount Verita” in a Daphne Du Mauriar short story, the extraordinary structure stood silent in the morning vapour surrounded by its court of dark green pines.

We climbed up the final slope and were welcomed by ‘Gunaydins’ (“Good Morning” in Turkish) from the tourist guards at the entrance. The taxi driver insisted upon paying my entrance fee to the monastery and advised me he would be waiting at the entrance until I returned. The guard showed me the direction and explained I was the first one there. I continued my climbs up the disjointed pathways through the rock edifice. Built on two to three small stories, in a range of different type of bricks and layers of history, the new structures were primarily white with the odd dark stone and traditional Mediterranean clay roofs. Whereas the Rock Church cut into the cliff face, was covered in multi-coloured Grecian frescos crumbling away, with the odd window. Inside the church, faces of saints, angels and worshippers peer down on visitors, with the Virgin Mary’s image taking centre stage amid a solemn expression of future pain, with depiction of the child Jesus on her knee. Shades of traditional Grecian golds, warm reds and blues, filled the room and smaller rectangular Stations of the Cross were scattered around showing Christ’s sufferings in Jerusalem.

I wandered around the ancient monastery in the mountains, high above the mists and enjoyed the silence. I considered my tiredness following 15 hours on the bus and a further 20 hours journey ahead of me to the other side of the country to reach Adana. I remembered my recent losses and the knowledge nothing would ever quite be the same again. And I feared the near future of having to return to the UK. Blocking it out, I remembered the historical and religious significance of my surroundings. The marvellous craftsmanship of building into the rock in the 4th Century, the common declaration of religions promoting their sovereignty and significance through the art of dazzling cathedrals, mosques, monasteries and palaces.

And in the wondrously quiet place, I suddenly heard shouting “Bak! Nerede benim kamera. Photoğraf çekmek istiyorum” and “Ne yapıyorsun? Ver. Şimdi!“. Turkish tourists somewhere in the vicinity, breaking the silent spell of my ponderings. I finished viewing the different sites of the complex, which with the magic gone, it turned back into yet another museum. To be viewed, considered and remembered, occasionally, when one thinks of Anatolia’s past.

 

Central Tbilisi with the Sameba Cathedral in the background.

Virgin Mary Metekhi Armenian church with the equestrian statue of Vakhtang I Gorgasali .

Tbilisi and River Kura.

Sumela Monastery near Maçka, Trabzon.

The Monastery complex.

Some of the vandalised frescoes of the monastery.

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Published by Asfar in London, UK - ISSN 2055-7957 (Online)