Monastery Tour 2007
The supra is the quintessential Georgian experience. The tradition involves much more than a simple feast. Certainly the tables are laden with food, and the wine flows, but this is merely the venue for what is actually an elaborate and ritualized ceremony.
First of all a tamada (toastmaster) is appointed. He or she is usually the host of the event or is elected from among those at the gathering to preside over the formal structure of the supra feast. Especially, the tamada is in charge of establishing the order and subject of the toasts. And only he can change the topic. He can appoint an alaverdi, whose exact responsibilities are still unclear to me. The toasts can be quite lengthy, and as the wine flows, so does the oratory.
Wine occupies a special place in Georgian culture. Their beer is excellent, and vodka remains popular. The homemade cha-cha is brought out before bedtime, or at breakfast, for a morning pick-me-up. But Georgians are, first and foremost, wine lovers. They claim to have invented wine itself. I won’t argue the point with them, but without doubt, they produce some of the very best wine in the world. To the Georgian, wine is seen in a spiritual context—a manifestation of God’s blessings upon them, and also a means of praising Him. All supras begin with a toast to God. There’s a line I like from one of the songs sung by the Zedashe Ensemble; “fill our laps with bread, fill our cellars with wine, Glory, God is glorified!”
Most Georgians produce their own personal wine. No garden is complete without grapevines. Traditionally, wine is stored in huge clay jars buried in the ground, up to their rim. Families would devote one jar for their special wine, which they would only drink when toasting their ancestors. This reserved jar was known as the zedashe.
Our first supra was on a balcony overlooking the valley, with the Caucusus Mountains beyond. The hillsides below Sighnaghi were forested, all the way down to the valley. We could see 3 clearings, however, each containing a small church. Luarsab explained that there were once villages scattered up and down the hillside. The Communists made the residents abandon their homes, move down to the valley, and establish new towns along the railroad. The forest reclaimed the towns, save for the churches, which the villagers stubbornly preserve and return to from time to time. But there is more. Families carefully marked their zedashes. And so they still return to their old home sites, and toast their ancestors as before.
The role of wine in all stages of Georgian life was brought home to me while we were at this first supra. A group of young men were gathered at an adjoining table, joined by 3 musicians. From my American perspective, it first looked like a boisterous drinking party. The bowls of wine were kept filled, toasts were being made, and one of the men broke into a traditional Georgian dance. Another was looking out across the valley, and I could tell he was close to tears. Only later did I realize the pathos of this scene. For this was a wake for a young friend who had recently died.
But back to the supra....Wine is traditionally drank out of clay bowls. You are not to fill you own bowl, nor or you to allow your neighbor’s to go dry. When you are drinking, you should grasp the bowl in a firm, manly manner, with elbow at the same level as the bowl or glass. If you are using glasses, and doing the traditional clinking of glasses together, to touch your neighbor’s glass well below the rim is to show respect to them. There is even a method of pouring the wine from the pitcher. No one is to drink while the toast is being made. When the toast is finished, everyone says “Gaumarjos!” (meaning “Victory”) and drinks up.
Our most unforgettable supra had to be the one in John Wurdeman’s house in Sighnaghi. The event lasted 3 hours or so—nothing special for Georgians, but a long time at the table for we wimpy Americans. John had tables pushed together into a t-shape in the large back room of his wine cellar. The food, as was typical, was served in courses. And it just kept coming. Early in the dinner, the Bishop and six or eight guests showed up and joined us. This too, is typical. People just show up. We moved in closer together and made room for them at the head of the table.
The Bishop of Alaverdi was a most gracious man. He was either an architect or engineer by profession before taking vows. He spent 10 years at the Lavra Monastery at Davit Gareji. The Zedashe Ensemble members were also in attendance, so the toasts were broken up by singing and music. (For more information on this talented group, their 2007 East Coast tour, and how to order CDs, go here.) Later on, there was traditional Georgian circle dancing. Most of the toasts were quite special, although some of our tour group’s toasts towards the shank of the evening were, shall we say, overly lubricated. I particularly remember the toast made by Shergil. He is a Svanetian, living in Sighnaghi and singing with the Zedashe Ensemble. He is also a most talented woodcarver, a small wooden box he carved now among my treasures at home. Anyway, he simply said “Remember your ancestors, and the place of your ancestors. For they will keep you warm.” No more Georgian a sentiment could be made—and it is one that resonated with me.
At long last, we stumbled to our homes in the dark—full and contented, a little bleary-eyed, and feeling altogether blessed.