Years ago, in another world, when I was living an Irish version of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City, I shared a house with an Australian lad. Although not even six months in the country, he could navigate the city of Dublin by the pubs. Mention anywhere in the city and he’d ask: Is that the one next to such and such a pub? Nothing short of remarkable, even considering the plethora of pubs in Dublin in the 1980s.
When in Georgia recently, I figured that one of the best ways to navigate the country is not by its pubs, but by its monasteries. There are two within spitting distance of Kutaisi. And we went to both.
Gelati Monastery, which sits 11 km to the northeast of the city, was built at the beginning of the twelfth century. With three churches and an academy, it was variously referred to as the ‘new Athens’, and the ‘second Jerusalem’. Its academy was home to some of the most celebrated Georgian scientists, theologians, and philosophers of the time. Stepping inside is like going back in time. It takes a minute to realise that the murals on the walls, in all their faded glory, are untouched originals. Spectacular. Being a church-going Catholic well versed in kneeling, standing to a schedule, I was once again struck by the seeming randomness of the Orthodox services. With a little more exposure, I might even get used to it. But whatever the random nature of the service, the devotion was palpable.
I was particularly taken by the roof tiles on one of the churches in the complex.
As we wandered around, it became clear that it’s still very much in operation with monks living on the premises and talks and lectures still going on in the academy. To think, that all these years later, the wealth of knowledge shared within its walls is still preserved. It really is a special place.
Next up was Motsameta Monastery, a mere 5 km from Gelati. This dates back to the same time but unlike Gelati, it’s not accessible by public transport. Taxis are plentiful and inexpensive though. It sits on top of a cliff overlooking the Tskhaltsitela River and is even more magnificent in its remoteness. It is here that the two martyrs, brothers David and Konstantine Mkheidze, are entombed. It is said that if you crawl three times under their tomb (that little space to the right of the steps ), your prayer will be granted. I did. And I am waiting. Patiently. Only time will tell.
It seems as if Georgians might outsource their prayers to those willing to pray for them, perhaps a little like what the Carmellites used to do in Majk. People sit at the entrances to the monasteries and line the paths leading up to them. They have boxes in front of them and seem to be prayer. Those passing donate money. I thought at first it was your run-of-the-mill begging but now I’m not so sure and wonder if what’s going on is a trade in supplications. [As a complete aside, check this blog on outsourcing prayer in India.]
Here, too, the monks are in residence. An unfortunate translation had me worrying about the welcome on offer as a sign on their quarters warned FOREIGNERS that their entrance was prohibited. I’d like to believe it isn’t just non-Georgians they don’t want, but anyone not of the Order.
Both monasteries are worth the time it takes to visit. Both are accessible by taxi from Kutaisi. Entrance is free. If you do go, light a candle for me.