Caucasus: People of the Virgin
The Georgian Orthodox Church, the national branch of the Eastern Orthodox Church which dominates Russia and the Balkans, is a crucial aspect of the country, a pillar of people's identity and aspect of their heritage which they have fought to maintain over the centuries of Russian and Soviet domination. Churches are all over the landscape - someone told me there was one for every twenty people in the country - and many of them are centuries old. Because of the heritage aspect, expressions of faith are evident even among the non-religious. People will cross themselves even walking or driving by a church, and I don't think I rode in a single vehicle which lacked a cross and at least one icons. These expressions of faith are more intense than I've seen elsewhere, as well. It's a common practice in Orthodoxy to kiss icons. Many Georgians, however, practically make out not only with the icons, but with the church buildings themselves, whether the doorways, interior, or outside walls. The culture is also conservative with regards to proper religious practice, and modesty codes are enforced at church doors, involving sleeves of decent length for men and headscarves for women.
Like other peoples of the region, Georgians have long claimed Christianity was first brought to their land by the apostles, with St. Andrew and Simon the Canaanite being commonly cited. The most coherent official story, however, claims that the apostles and others close to Jesus drew lots for where they would go, and the lot for the region of modern Georgia went to the Virgin Mary. However, she was told not to undertake the journey, and that another would eventually go in her place. That person was St. Nino, the daughter of a Roman slave in the 4th century who developed a fascination with Jesus's robe. One night she had a dream in which Mary appeared and told her to go convert the people of Iveria (modern eastern Georgia), where the robe was buried. When she awoke, Nino was holding a cross.
The holiest city in Georgia is the small town of Mtskheta, about 20 km north of Tbilisi and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This city, located at the junction of the Mtkvari and Aragvi rivers, is overlooked by a number of large hills at the top of one of which stands the 6th century Jvari Church, built at the spot where Nino planted her cross at the start of her mission to convert the Georgians. Like other Georgian churches, it is designed in the traditional Orthodox style, meaning there are no pews, and people stand or sit on the floor, at home in their Father's house. The building is very small, manned by a single bearded priest who sells candles and icons.
Two other churches of note at Mtskheta are the Sveti-Tskhoveli Cathedral, the alleged site of Christ's burial robe, as well as a replica of the chapel of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Sadly, the main church building was closed for renovation, and I couldn't check out its accuracy. I did, however, enter the Samtavro Church, today the home to a bunch of black-robed Orthodox nuns. Built on the spot where Iveria's pagan kings once lived, it is also a former home to St. Nino, who prayed on the spot of a small side chapel.
There are also plenty of churches in Tbilisi, such as Sioni Cathedral, home to the Georgian Orthodox Patriarch and the cross of St. Nino. More accessible are Metekhi Church, a modern building on a promontory overlooking the river where there has been a church almost continuously since the 5th century. Another is the Kashveti Church, associated with an early leader named Davit Garejeli. One story associated with him is that he went to Jerusalem and took three stones that were associated with the city's peace. He escaped with one, which is today among the relics kept in Sioni, while without it Jerusalem can have only 2/3 of peace.
There's more to Georgia than just Christianity, though. Tbilisi is overlooked by a huge ruined fortress, an Ateshgah fire temple, and a white statue of Mother Georgia, holding a sword in one hand a a container of wine in another. Georgians claims to have invented wine, and it is sold at street stands in Tbilisi and elsewhere, as well as taking up a huge portion of the local grocery stores. I should also note that this is the first place I've been where everyone is crazy about George W. Bush. They even named a street for him, and one guy told me I must be very happy to have such a great leader for my country.
Before Republicans in the crowd get too excited, however, I should mention Gori, a city a little over an hour west of Tbilisi where there is a huge statue of Georgia's modern national hero, who also lends his name to the main street and has a huge museum dedicated to him. This hero is - wait for it - Josef Dzhugashvili, who would take the surname Stalin and go on to lead the Soviet Union. The Stalin Museum is almost a shrine, with a side building preserving inside the small house where Stalin grew up. Inside, you can through the chain of exhibits follow Stalin throughout his life. Paintings depict him entering and being thrown out of an Orthodox seminary in Tbilisi, then rallying workers in Georgia to the communist cause. Through photographs, preserved correspondence, and other such relics you can follow his association with Lenin, rise to leadership, life as a family man, crucial role in defeating the Nazis in World War II, after which the exhibits sort of peter out. One of the last chambers features a mural of him lying in his coffin, which his death mask lies under a gentle spotlight surrounded by white pillars; silence is expected.
You would be wrong, however, to think that Georgians long for the days of the Soviet Union. In fact, quite the opposite is the case, and they are quite proud of the 2003 Rose Revolution, perceived as being largely an uprising against Russian influence as well as on behalf of democracy. They're also resentful of the Russian role in supporting separatists in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The new President, Micha'el Saakashvili, has placed Georgia on a firmly pro-Western footing, taking advantage of the BTC pipeline to break free of Russian influence, hosting American military personnel who help train the Georgian army, and even aspiring to join NATO.
I was there for part of the Russia-Georgia espionage crisis, and in fact one of the other people in my homestay was a New York Times reporter covering the crisis who got to interview Saakashvili himself. It wasn't the sort of thing you see signs of on the streets, but people did seem to be keeping an eye on the news, wondering in particular about the fate of Georgians working in Russia and the remittances they send back which are important to the Georgian economy - Russia has now begun cracking down on both of these. I even accidentally got close to Russia itself when leaving Gori I got on the wrong marshrutka and instead of going back to Tbilisi, wound up headed past a rebel checkpoint into South Ossetia, where Cyrillic gradually replaced Latin as the second alphabet on signs, and on to the Russian border, where I had to explain my presence to a Georgian military guy with the aid of someone who knew German.
Sadly, I'm not exploring Georgia very much, though I will go out through Adjara. Parts of the country are unstable, and not only are there bandits in the northern mountains, but Lonely Planet itself recommended that those who plan to travel extensively there should make sure their insurance has something called hostage coverage, which apparently usually pays ransoms up to $5 million. I have no idea if the Mosse Fellowship includes that or not, having never heard of hostage insurance, but now that I know it exists, I've decided to make it my policy never to travel on any itinerary for which it is recommended. Call me a coward if you like =)