Monastery Tour Impressions, June 2006
The Davit Gareji Monastery, in the desert of south-eastern Georgia on the Azerbaijani border, was founded in the 6th century by one of the great 13 Syrian missionaries that came to Georgia at that time. The Monastery has an illustrious but sorrowful history, as many monks have been killed within the caves and monastic buildings that dot the 30 mile long ridge. Davit Garegi is actually a large area where many thousand monks have lived and prayed. There are frescoes surviving in these caves from the 9th century onward, and one can see graffiti from all the ages carved into the light yellow sandstone.
One of the most horrendous incidents in Georgian history, and one commemorated to this day by the Orthodox Church of Georgia, was the slaying of 6000 monks on Easter Day by an invading Persian army. As legend would have it, the monks, led by their bishop, went willingly to meet their fate, except for two, who watched from a nearby hillside. When these two witnessed thousands of golden crowns ascending into heaven, they realized their position, and returned to the site of martyrdom to receive their crowns with their brothers.
The monastery never quite recovered from this incident and has been in disrepair since, but under the aegis of the Georgian government, restoration began in 1997 and our guide, Luarsab, said that he himself had helped to clear some of the chapels of sheep droppings. Our guide for the day, Mamuka, himself a fabulous chanter, was non other than the head architect on the restoration project and helped describe the different eras of construction and influence evident in the peaked and rounded arches of the various buildings. Happily, there are now monks coming to live at the monastery again.
After seeing the main building, we proceeded to have a picnic lunch of chicken croquettes, tomatoes, cucumbers, cheese, fresh baked ‘puri’ (half way between flat-bread and a baguette, a staple at every meal), tarragon soda, and fizzy lemonade. Then we climbed a short distance using stairs cut out of the solid rock to an outlook point that advantages miles of view into the Azerbaijani desert to the south. The view was fantastic, and we stood in the lee of an ancient tower, gazing out of the fortifications exactly as generations of monks have.
On top of this promontory, the high blue stillness was punctuated only with the sound of the breeze blowing through the brittle scrub trees. The wind fanned our cheeks. John mentioned that the lovely but somewhat eerie, undulating landscape had been deposited by an ancient inland sea, and later heaved up through a process of faulting, sculpted by wind and water again so that now, gazing out, the land looked once again sea-like. The land itself felt like a sea, with wave on wave of ridges fading into the eastern distance. Although technically a desert, in early June it is spring, and countless varieties of wildflowers, alive with insects and clouds of vigorous butterflies, were blooming all around us.
The road in and out of this remote monastery complex is completely decrepit, so as we ever so slowly jounced our way out of the area, our vehicle was literally overtaken by butterflies zooming past in all their brilliance.
Susan Miller-Coulter is a native of New York City and Burlington, Vermont, and is a 63 year old Peace Corps volunteer in Jordan, 2006-2008. She was a participant on the first Monastery Tour in Caucasus Georgia, in June 2006.