On the border with Azerbaijan, Davit (or David) Gareja is perhaps the most remarkable of all Georgia’s ancient sites. Comprising about 15 old monasteries spread over a large, remote area, its uniqueness is heightened by a, semi-desert landscape. Neglected during the Soviet era, Davit Gareja has since seen some restoration and is now again inhabited by monks.
Lavra, the first monastery here, was founded by Davit Gareja, one of the 13 ascetic ‘Syrian fathers’ who returned from the Middle East to spread Christianity in Georgia in the 6th century. The monasteries were destroyed by the Mongols in 1265, revived in the early 14th century by Giorgi V the Brilliant, sacked by Timur and then suffered their worst moment of all on Easter night 1615 when Persian Shah Abbas’ soldiers killed 6000 monks and destroyed most of their artistic treasures.
We got off the night train to Tbilisi at 6ish in the morning. It was a cold walk to the Hostel. They didn’t have our rooms ready yet, but we were allowed leave our bags. We were signed up to go on a tour of Davit Gareja Monastery at 7:45, so we had time to kill. We walked up and down the pre-dawn streets of Tblisi to stay warm.
Met up with Brooke, Andy as his sister at the designated rally point- McDonald’s. The organizer of the tour was a young entrepreneur named Gulchina. She is an accountant during the week and hopes to grow this tour company to a full time career. She used a well-known Facebook page, that most ex-Pats are members, to advertise tours to various parts of Georgia.
We had about 22 people, all TLG, in a rented Marshrutka. It took close to two hours to get out there. And by out there, I mean out in the desert wasteland between Georgia and Azerbaijan. I am baffled that Davit hiked it all the way out here to build a structure in the desert, but I guess that’s what the monks did back in those days…. ol’ school.
We got to the Monastery and looked around the place. The view was breathe taking and contrasted by the simplicity of the monastery itself. After milling around for a while, we thought the tour was over. But then we started walking up the mountain behind the monastery. And we walked… and walked. On the other side of the mountain was an amazing view of Azerbaijan. Further along the ridge were more monk cells. At the very top of the mountain were two tiny monastic structures. Posted at one were two Georgian soldiers.
*Aside: The historic site of Davit Gareja is contested by the country of Azerbaijan. Kind of weird, but a fact nonetheless.
As I was standing further up at the other tiny monastic structure looking off at the mountain vistas, two Azerbaijani soldiers approached me. I waved and said, ‘Hey’. One of them responded in English, ‘Hey’. He spoke great English. I asked if I could take a picture with him and they consented. That began a long line of paparazzi with the soldiers.
Soon we began the long descent back down the mountain. We thought we were finished with the tour, but there was another monastery to visit.
This one was currently in use with a religious service that we were able to witness. In a spare centuries old monastery etched out of a mountain cliff in the middle of the desert, Georgia faithful convened to listen to holy scripture and chants given by ascetics of one of the oldest Orthodox religions in the world.
“I got soul, but I’m not a soldier.”
All These Things That I’ve Done, The Killers