Living on the edge: Vardzia and David Gareji

A view of the cave-city of Vardzia
A view of the cave-city of Vardzia
The Dormition church
The Dormition church

The cave-city of Vardzia in southern Georgia is surely one of the wonders of the medieval world, a burst of imperial exuberance.

Georgians built this extraordinary place, conceived as both monastery and citadel, in the 12th and 13th centuries, at the height of their country’s power.

An immense network of tunnels, residences, churches, barns, wine cellars, stables and libraries was hewn from the living rock. The Persian chronicler Hasan Bey Rumlu described Vardzia as a “wonder”, “impregnable as the wall of Alexander the Great”.

A four-hour journey by marshrutka took me from Tbilisi first to the leafy town of Borjomi, famous for its mineral water, then on to Akhaltsikhe, a pretty place dominated by a medieval castle. The road followed the upper reaches of the Mtkvari, the river on which Tbilisi stands.

The surrounding hills on the approach to Vardzia are rocky and arid, but the valley is green and alluring, popular with picnickers.  This entire region, called Samtskhe-Javakheti, is dotted with fortresses and churches. But the jewel in the crown is Vardzia. not far from the Turkish border.

A couple of kilometres from the ruined city I found myself a farm bed and breakfast, next door to a nunnery. It was the rural idyll, Georgia style – a few cows, some hens, 13 beehives, apple trees, walnuts, maize and sunflower. As I breakfasted outdoors, a brood of chicks headed off with mum in the direction of the walnut grove.

A panorama of Vardzia
A panorama of Vardzia

The Vardzia site, close to the fast-flowing Mtkvari river, opens at 10 a.m. and I was there on the dot. In the heat of a Georgian summer you don’t want to scramble over a rock face under the midday sun. The caves stretch along the cliff for about 500 metres, up to 13 tiers deep.

Even today, with the help of hand-rails and wooden steps, it benefits the visitor if she has a few wild goat genes in her DNA. Some of the time I found myself shinning up or down tunnels and then emerging to admire the view from a totally different vantage point.

Vardzia was designed to be self-sufficient in the event of siege and that meant a lot of work. According to my audio guide, a five-kilometre tunnel was cut into the cliff wall, about seven metres above the ground, to convey water from springs.

The tunnel had enough headroom for residents to be able to check that there were no problems with the ceramic piping. The water supply could provide up to 207,360 litres per day, enough for up to 7,900 people.

The construction of this mind-boggling structure coincided with a period of expansion and self-confidence, Georgia’s Golden Age.

Building began during the reign of Giorgi III (1156-1184), who clearly graduated from the School for Strong Medieval Kingship. Giorgi faced a rebellion by nobles who wanted to put his nephew on the throne. He suppressed the revolt and ordered his nephew to be blinded and castrated.

Work at Vardzia continued during the reign of Giorgi’s daughter Queen Tamar (1184-1213), the most revered monarch in the country’s history. During her reign Georgia grew to the peak of its power, holding sway over lands from modern-day eastern Turkey, through the south Caucasus and into western Persia.

Vardzia became a spiritual, economic and political centre, with 420 store rooms and wine cellars and 15 churches. A chronicler describes how Queen Tamar addressed her troops from the balcony of Vardzia’s main place of worship, the church of Holy Dormition, before the battle of Basian against the Seljuk Turks. This battle, fought around 1203 in what is now northeast Turkey, was a victory for the Georgians.

The Dormition church contains a famous wall painting of Queen Tamar, an iconic piece of medieval Georgian art.

In 1283, an earthquake seriously weakened Vardzia as a citadel. But it lived on until Persian troops captured it in 1551, after fighting in the caves themselves.

Today five monks live at Vardzia, sharing the cliff with thousands of birds such as martins and swifts who help to bestow on this exquisite place a sense of peaceful sanctuary.

The Lavra monastery at David Gareji
The Lavra monastery at David Gareji

David Gareji

Back in June, I visited another rock-hewn monastic complex on the edge of the Christian world, David Gareji, in the southeast of the country on the border with Azerbaijan. It was founded in the sixth century by David Gareji, one of 13 Assyrian holy men who arrived to spread Christianity.

Like Vardzia, David Gareji is an enchanting place with exuberant wildlife, including Egyptian vultures. The day I arrived it was alive with dancing butterflies, flowers and lizards. The guide books say to be careful of poisonous vipers, but I didn’t spot any.

Again like Vardzia, David Gareji’s heyday was during the Golden Age of Georgia and it grew into an important religious and cultural centre with hundreds of caves, serving as monastic cells, churches and refectories.

David Gareji was the scene of a terrible massacre in 1615, when on Easter night Persian soldiers led by Shah Abbas killed 6000 monks and destroyed artistic treasures. The monasteries never fully recovered and they closed after the Bolshevik conquest of Georgia in 1921.

In the late 20th century the Soviet Union used David Gareji as a firing range, training its forces as it fought a war in Afghanistan. Georgian protests against this Soviet desecration of a holy site were part of a swelling nationalist movement which led to Georgia’s recovery of independence in 1991.

When the Georgian army returned to the bad old ways of Soviet times in the late 1990s activists camped out on the site and put a stop to the military exercises.

A lizard surveys the plains of Azerbaijan
A lizard surveys the plains of Azerbaijan
Medieval frescos at Udabno monastery
Medieval frescos at Udabno monastery

Four hundred years after the slaughter of the monks, this region feels quite empty of human beings. The landscape is lunar, green in the early summer but still with a feeling of the desert.

Today at David Gareji monastic life has revived on a minor key – there is one working monastery, Lavra, with 10 monks. This picture postcard monastery has both solar panels and monastic cells cut from the rock.

From Lavra, I walked up onto the ridge and took in the great sweeping views of the Azerbaijani plains below. A footpath leads down on the other side to the caves of the Udabno monastery, with frescos from the Middle Ages.

There is a low-level border dispute between Georgia and Azerbaijan over the David Gareji site. Ideally, Georgia would like the monasteries on the Azerabaijani side of the ridge to be brought back into its national territory.

Walking along the narrow path to regain the ridge after visiting the caves I nearly bumped into two well-armed Azerbaijani border guards. We exchanged warm greetings and I walked on back into Georgia.

What am I doing in the Caucasus?

Torrential rains hit Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, in mid-June

“Stephen, what the hell are you doing in the Caucasus?” spluttered a German friend in a message back in the spring.

I was in fact about to set out on my travels when this message landed and I kept my answer simple: “Look at photos of Georgia. The place is utterly stunning.”

Having spent some six weeks in Georgia I have seen with my own eyes that the country is indeed prodigiously beautiful. This wonderful land of mountains and mystery drew me and continues to draw me.

I have spent the last month back in Britain to attend my daughters’ graduation ceremonies, to see family and friends and to reflect on my travels so far. I can now give a fuller account of what the hell I am doing in the Caucasus! It is about more than the physical beauty of the land, though that is an important part of it.

At one level, I am on a Boys’ Own adventure and one old friend suggested that the occasional mishap would be a good idea. I’ll see what I can do! The trip shouldn’t be too cosy and predictable.

The journey is also unfolding on the level of ideas, thoughts about the contemporary world and lessons to be learned from the areas that I am visiting.

I have experienced Georgia as a country where the pace of life is relaxed, where traditions of good food and wine and hospitality are very much alive and where the natural world is rich and exuberant. I had the Georgians down as bons viveurs who knew how to enjoy themselves while looking after their environment much better than most.

Yesterday I had a shock. I checked to see where Georgia stands in the World Happiness Report, an annual study launched in 2012 which attempts to say something sensible about levels of well-being in different countries.

Georgia is in 130th position, below the Palestinian Territories, Ukraine, Iraq, Congo (Kinshasa), Liberia and Zimbabwe. None of these is exactly an exemplar of the good life. These countries also fare better than Georgia’s neighbour Armenia, which is 127th. The list encompasses 158 countries in all.

Either I have been taking a hopelessly romantic, wrong-headed view of Georgia or the “science of happiness” is spewing out bilge.

I am about to go back to Georgia and will give myself the task of digging deeper and trying to find out how people perceive their lives. What’s working for them, what’s not? Are the peoples of the South Caucasus really some of the most miserable folk on the planet or is this a heinous libel?

After the rains, many Georgians turned out to clean up the city
After the rains, many Georgians turned out to clean up the city

World Themes

Every individual journey unfolds against a backdrop of events in the world as a whole. In a complex global society we do our own sense-making with help from others. My sense of what is going on internationally informs my writing and my idea of why I am in the Caucasus.

So, here are two authors who have influenced my thinking during my break from travels.

Yuval Noah Harari is the author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, which is a stimulating gallop through world history. Harari, an historian at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, argues that the Industrial Revolution brought about “the most momentous social revolution that ever befell humankind: the collapse of the family and the local community and their replacement by the state and the market.”

There have been strong stirrings of revolt against the central role of the market for some time, but I sense that now there is a groundswell which will bring big changes.

The other author is Pope Francis, who in June published in eight languages an encyclical entitled Laudato Si’, (Praise Be to You), on care of the environment.

“The Earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth,” writes the pope, who is strongly critical of the current importance of the market in our culture.

The encyclical is a talking point with, inevitably, enthusiastic supporters and critics. The pope is stirring things up nicely. Thank you Your Holiness.

To relate all of this back to Georgia, when I look at the country with an outsider’s eye I see an international leader. This country is not a pile of filth. Nearly 40 percent of its land is still covered with forest and it can boast of bears, wolves, lynxes, jackals and eagles, just some examples of its gloriously rich fauna.

This part of the world has also retained the pre-capitalist values identified by Harari in more convincing fashion than, say, Britain. In Georgia, the family has most emphatically not collapsed. Extended families live together in one house and in the countryside practically no one lives alone. The local community, while under strain in the villages because of the universal phenomenon of the flight to the cities, is still very real, with neighbours dropping in to help one another with tasks such as planting potatoes.

I was in Tbilisi in mid-June when a torrential downpour hit the Georgian capital, causing the deaths of at least 20 people and enabling wild animals, including a hippopotamus and a white tiger, to escape from the zoo. Many people took part in the clean-up and I certainly picked up a sense of community, of social solidarity.

So why is Georgia in 130th position in the World Happiness Report?

Watch this space for my attempts to give an answer, whilst also coping with the occasional mishap, delving into history and describing the views.

Select Bibilography

Harari, Yuval Norah, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, London 2014

Pope Francis, Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’, Vatican 2015

The 2015 World Happiness Report is at http://www.worldhappinessreport

See also article The end of capitalism has begun by Paul Mason, Economics Editor of Channel 4 News in The Guardian of 17 July 2015.

Georgia’s most famous son, alas

A statue of Stalin outside the museum in the Georgian town of Gori where he was born
A statue of Stalin outside the museum in the Georgian town of Gori where he was born

If Stalin could return to his home town in the central plains of Georgia, he would have reason to be gratified. Sixty-two years after his death the modest house where he was born is carefully maintained as a shrine in his honour.

The brick and wood house, now encased within a pavilion, is part of a large museum dedicated to his memory. It pulls in the punters and puts a favourable gloss on the life of one of history’s bloodiest mass murderers. To visit the Joseph Stalin Museum in Gori is to witness first-hand the human ability to present a selective truth which is a travesty of reality.

Having decided to take the pulse of the South Caucasus I cannot ignore this monument to Stalin, born Joseph Vissarionovich Djugashvili. He was by any measure a political Colossus of the 20th century and some Georgians still honour him. The violence of his rule is given very little prominence in Gori.

The first thing you notice about the museum is its sheer size. It is housed in a big palazzo with a tower and a series of arches at ground level, conveying the message that this is a place of substance. Inside there are carpeted staircases and chandeliers.

The Joseph Stalin Museum in Gori
The Joseph Stalin Museum in Gori

During my visit an English-speaking guide materialised, a large woman of mature years who looked as if she had come straight from Soviet Central Casting. She carried a short stick to point out objects of interest and, presumably, to emphasise her authority.

What followed was an interesting exercise in finely tuned propaganda. The whole performance was skilful to a degree.

She told us things that were interesting and true – always a sound policy. She related that Stalin was a poet who had verse published in the Georgian language, that he was a most gifted singer. An example of Stalin’s poetry hangs on a museum wall.

But one rather awkward exhibit she ignored totally. She had nothing to say about a famous postscript to a Testament written by Lenin in 1923, a year before his death, describing Stalin as “too rough” and calling for his dismissal as General Secretary of the Communist Party.

The museum’s treatment of this Testament is symbolic of what feels like a real ambivalence over how to deal with the whole subject of Stalin. On the one hand, it is to the museum’s credit that Lenin’s criticism is on display. On the other hand, the text is presented solely in Russian, which limits its usefulness as an exhibit.

The museum has one section on Stalin’s family, a delicate topic. The guide told us in neutral tones that Stalin’s first wife died of typhus and the second committed suicide. That’s the wives dealt with then.

She put the spotlight firmly on his son Yakov, who was a prisoner of war of the Germans in the Second World War. The Germans offered to swap Yakov for Field Marshal Friedrich von Paulus, captured by Soviet forces after the Battle of Stalingrad. But Stalin refused, saying of Soviet soldiers “All of them are my sons.” Yakov died at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in 1943. The point of the story is clear – Stalin was a leader who wasn’t swayed by personal feelings.

It could be argued that a museum dealing with a political leader does not need to focus much on the man’s wives. But for the record, Stalin’s first wife, Ekaterina (née Svanidze), died at the age of 22 after he took her to live in the hot, dirty city of Baku, while he led what British historian Simon Sebag Montefiore called “a life of banditry, espionage, extortion and agitation”.

His second wife, Nadya Alliluyeva, shot herself through the heart with a Mauser pistol at the age of 31, after a public row with her husband, by now Soviet leader, at a Kremlin dinner party. She killed herself on 8 November 1932, the day after the 15th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. The official announcement said that she died of appendicitis.

A happy Soviet tractor driver sets the tone at the Stalin museum
A happy Soviet tractor driver sets the tone at the Stalin museum

Against the odds, the museum creates an upbeat mood, with use of classic Soviet propaganda. There on one wall is an iconic poster of an attractive woman tractor driver, beaming ecstatically as she lives the Soviet dream.

Our guide dealt with the whole subject of Soviet collectivisation of farming in a few brisk sentences and said that “mistakes were made”. I saw nothing in the museum chronicling the famines that swept the Soviet Union as a result of Stalin’s policies.

Welsh journalist Gareth Jones did more than anyone else to alert the world to hunger in Ukraine in 1933. Defying a travel ban, he went to Ukraine to see for himself and reported that he found “famine on a colossal scale”.

No one knows how many died. The Soviet census of 1937 found eight million fewer people than anticipated. U.S. historian Timothy Snyder, in his book Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin, wrote of the census: “Stalin suppressed its findings and had the responsible demographers executed.”

Snyder estimates that about 3.3 million people died of starvation or hunger-related illness in Soviet Ukraine alone in 1932-1933.

A statuette of Stalin, holding his trademark pipe, for sale in the old Georgian capital of Mtskheta
A statuette of Stalin, holding his trademark pipe, for sale in the old Georgian capital of Mtskheta

Another subject ignored in the Gori museum is Stalin’s treatment of the citizens of other countries.

Many Polish tourists come to Georgia, but I can’t imagine that the museum in Gori is high on their list of priorities. One of Stalin’s crimes that will live in infamy is the Katyn Forest massacre of about 22,000 Poles in 1940. Stalin’s government blamed the Nazis and the Moscow government admitted only in 1990 that it was Soviet bullets that ended so many Polish lives.

It is hard to read about these killings even today without shedding a tear. The victims were mainly Polish officers but also included engineers, doctors, lawyers, teachers, priests and journalists. They had fallen into Soviet hands after the Soviet Union invaded Poland in 1939 and the motivation for the slaughter seems to have been to weaken any future Polish state.

The chief executioner of the Soviet NKVD secret police, Vasily Blokhin, carried out many of the killings. Wearing a butcher’s leather apron and cap, he personally shot 7000 Poles over 28 nights.

The only part of the museum devoted to the subject of Stalinist violence is two small rooms on the ground floor. One room is a reconstructed secret police interrogation room and the other is a prison cell and ante-chamber adorned with the clothes of Gori citizens arrested and shot under Stalin. This section was added five years ago.

Our guided tour of the museum ended in a railway carriage which Stalin used for the last 12 years of his life – he didn’t like flying. Standing in the carriage’s dining room, I asked our guide what Gori citizens feel about Stalin today.

“I don’t know,” she said, but then added: “I think most of the older generation like Stalin.” Any other answer would have stretched credibility. The guide’s entire demeanour throughout the tour was one of deep respect and admiration.

Back in Tbilisi after my Gori visit, strap-hanging in the city’s metro, I noticed that the man next to me was reading a magazine article which included a photo of Stalin looking every inch the handsome father of the nation. Monster though he was, Stalin is clearly a part of the mental landscape of Georgia still.


Select Bibliography

Applebaum, Anne, GULAG: A History of the Soviet Camps, London 2003

Montefiore, Simon Sebag, Young Stalin, London 2007

Montefiore, Simon Sebag, Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, London 2003

Snyder, Timothy, Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin, London 2010

The website has details on the life of journalist Gareth Jones.