The country of Georgia is located in the South Caucasus. Along with Armenia and Azerbaijan, it is located at the crossroads of Eastern Europe and Western Asia. We spent a few days based in Tbilisi, its capital city, and took several day trips into other areas of the country. This blog covers our tour of Central Georgia which contains historical sites, cultural attractions and natural beauty.
A short drive from Tbilisi is Mtskheta, one of the oldest cities in Georgia and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This is where the patron Saint Nino converted the local kingdom to Christianity in 327 AD. It was also the capital of the Central Georgian region until the 5th century when the capital was moved to Tbilisi. The city’s religious heritage is centered on being home to the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral and secondarily, the Jvari Church.
The huge Cathedral was built in the 11th century on the site of a smaller 4th century church. Not surprisingly, its creation was based on a belief that Christ’s robe is buried there and a miracle, the miraculous moving of a column that facilitated the building of the cathedral. Its elaborate stone carvings and its pretty, although now fading frescos make it one of the more beautiful in the country.
The Monastery is set atop a hill and is visible for miles. It is thought to have been built in the late 6th century. The river below it was the site of mass baptisms as a large number of inhabitants converted to Christianity. The church is very small. Its low dome has little in the way of decoration today. Yet its religious significance is much larger than its size. It is the site where Saint Mirian erected the area’s first a wooden cross. It also has a nice view.
Gori is known as (and in some cases reviled as) the birthplace and childhood home of Joseph Stalin. Russian bombed and briefly occupied it in the 2008 war—hence there are a number of refuge houses between Tbilisi and Gori. We even passed a place where we could see Russian encampments over an open field.
But our primary reason for visiting was the museum dedicated to the man that effectively created the Soviet Union.
The Museum details the life of the man who changed history. After all, he was instrumental in defeating Hitler and in transforming Russia from an 18th-century agricultural backwater to an industrial giant within a couple decades. At least this was how he was generally portrayed under Soviet control.
Today we have a more balanced story of Stalin. He had an initial alliance with Hitler, was responsible for a ruthless invasion of eastern Poland, he helped to create a devastating famine in Ukraine, he subjugated East Europe, repressed and created gulags in Russia, he had a role in the proliferation nuclear weapons, and so forth.
The museum, however, does not tell this story. It spends little effort at objectivity and there is certainly little effort to tell it in a way that people who do not read Georgian can understand. The museum is overwhelmingly photographs with cursory explanations. And while our group was forced to employ a museum guide, she spoke and moved through the museum so quickly and has such as thick accent that nobody in our small group could understand her or cared about the details on which she dwelled. Thankfully our own guide tactfully managed to dismiss the guide and provide comprehensible explanations.
Even so, the museum tells the story of his life (again, primarily in pictures and artifacts). He had childhood hopes of being a poet (and his mother’s hope he would become a priest). He was involved in the underground and was arrest. When he tried to escape, he received a broken arm, resulting with his left arm being shorter than his right. He rose to power in the Communist Party—despite Lenin’s strong recommendation that Stalin was power-hungry nd did not have the temperament to be an effective leader.
The museum provided a very high-level overview of his agricultural collectivization efforts, its industrialization program, and Stalin’s role in defeating the Nazis in WW II. A picture of the big three in Yalta clearly shows his relative youth compared with Churchill and especially Roosevelt.
While our guide did provide a very brief mention of his repression, that seems to be about the only hint of his faults or the negative impacts of his actions.
The site also includes the original mudbrick house in which Stalin’s parents rented a single room and where he lived for four years. It is the only building that was not destroyed in a neighborhood the Soviet’s leveled in the 1930s to build the museum and surrounding park in honor of it leader. The private railcar he used for much of his travel is also on site.
Our tour included lunch, but not at a restaurant: it was much better. Our small group was led tp a local, 200 year-old house for a blow-out home cooked meal accompanied with homemade wine, chacha, and brandy. The meal was a veritable feast of central Georgia specialties—more our group of five men and one woman could eat in a week. The dishes consisted of yogurt soup, tomato, cucumber and basil salad, cabbage rolls (at least as good as grandma used to make), fried fish, doner kebab, bean paste bread, corn bread, local cheese, marinated peppers, broiled potatoes and many more dishes. Homemade beverages began with delicious quince juice, white and red wine, chacha, cherry chacha and rose brandy—with several toasts throughout the meal. While we were originally skeptical of a meal at a private meal, we ended up being grateful for the opportunity, the wonderful food and beverages and the free-flowing conversation.
Uplistsikhe Cave City
We also spent a few hours at what remains of the ancient city of Uplistsikhe whose caves were initially inhabited about 3,500 years ago. Its position on then Silk Road helped to establish it a thriving city of more than 20,000 people a few hundred years before Christianity was even created, much less before it came to this region in the 4th century (probably 326). Even then, almost all inhabitants lived in caves.
These were not primitive caves. They had their own ovens that were vented to the outside, winemaking facilities and winecellars, water retention systems, and even jails (deep stone pits) for those who broke rules or violated established customs.
It had defensive walls, watchtowers, and established leaders. At least one of the remaining rock ceilings (many have long since fallen) is carved with Roman style designs. Another has the type of beams used to hold up roofs of traditional wood house roofs.
And since it was initially a pagan community, they had their own gods temples and places for sacrifices (typically thought to have been corn and animals). By the time Christianity came, temples, sacrifice pits, and other pagan remnants were recycled to everyday usage or to praying to the Christian God, as in an area thought to have been something of a basilica with three altars. Another large cave is thought to contain the throne of the Christian Queen Tamar.
Near the top of the city, on a plot thought to be home to its largest temple, a 14th century church now stands.