This will be my last posting in “A Georgian Journal” before we leave Tbilisi for Munich for a few days and then home to Kansas City.   But before we depart, I want to share two unforgettable journeys.

The first 019happened a couple days ago and was short.  Maybe 10 minutes.  Janet, Elyse, Doris and I were heading to the Left Bank, towards the Old City, so we hailed a cab.   I negotiated with the driver for a fare of 5 lari and we hopped in — me in the front and Janet, Elyse and Doris in the back.   As we went along Chavchavadze Avenue,  I noticed a series of stickers on the dashboard.  They were images of icons — and one, of course, was of St. George slaying the dragon.

But then I noticed another icon that was on a small piece of wood which was dangling from the rear view mirror, along with some prayer beads.   I pointed to the dangling icon and asked the 021driver (who spoke only a few words of English) who it was?   “Father Gabriel,” he replied.  I motioned with my camera if I could take a photo of the hanging icon, and he nodded “yes.”   He even held the icon steady for me as he continued to drive.   Then, using one hand, he started fiddling with the string holding the icon.  At first, I wasn’t sure what he was doing — and given the craziness of traffic here (as I’ve written about before), I wasn’t wild about distracting him from the flurry of cars and buses all around us.   Frustrated, he dug into his pants pocket and pulled out a 4 inch switchblade which he whipped out.  With no hands on the wheel — and we continued along in the thick of traffic! — he reached up with both hands so he could cut the string that was attached to the icon.   Looking back at Janet, we shared a glance that said “Wow, I cannot believe how touching this is that this guy is GIVING me his icon — but he’s going to kill us all in the process!!!”

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He handed me the icon with a touch towards his chest and I thanked him “Dee dee mahlagabot.” We then zoomed ahead and he soon dropped us off at our location.   I asked his name (“Elmzir”) and whether I could take his picture.  Having paid our fare, we stepped out into the bright sun and off Elmzir sped, his icon tucked into the pocket of my knapsack.

The next day, we took a journey which was the most spectacular of our trip thus far.

We hired a driver, David, who picked Janet up at the Free University following her work and then Elyse, Doris and I at our apartment.  From there, we drove through the west side of Tbilisi, on our way to the historic city of Mtskheta, 20 km away.   On our way out of town, we saw some of the modern trappings of many cities — the freeway with advertising, the mall, and then the watermelon sellers.

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At the edge of town, we passed a statue of King Gorgasalis greeting those arriving in the city as well as a sign for those hitting the open road.

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The highway followed the curves of the river and took us into the mountains.  It wasn’t long until we turned off and started the ascent to our first destination, the Javri Monastery.

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It’s a magnificent sight.

045When St. Nino, a Cappadocian nun,  brought Christianity to eastern Georgia in the 4th century, she had a cross erected at this site.  Around the 6th century, a church was then built to house the cross.  The current building rose up in the 11th century from those original foundations.   Inside the church (below), a contemporary cross stands.  It is anchored in the original foundation from 1,500 years ago.

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Inside the church, icons, as always, hang from all of the walls.  Janet and Doris light candles before an icon of Christ.   As I stand in the center of the church, I think of the centuries of worship that have taken place there, as the priests and the people gathered on this remote mountain perch.

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Outside the church is a small plaza where a group of Georgians are standing to take pictures overlooking the valley.  As we approach, they ask is they can take a picture with us.  This has happened on a number of occasions, and we’re not entirely sure why!

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To the immediate north one can see the confluence of two rivers and the town of Mtskheta.  There, in the center of the town,  rises the cathedral of Sveti-Tskhoveli, one of the most sacred sites in all Georgia.

028Our visit at Javri complete, we make our way down the mountain and drive to the cathedral.  We park, and walk through some town streets before coming before the 11th century church.  The original church was built on the site in 330 AD.   Legend is that a Georgian Jew from Mtskheta, named Elias, was in Jerusalem at the time of Christ’s crucifixion.  He bought the garment that Christ wore at the time of his crucifixion from a guard at Golgatha and brought it back 171to Mtskheta.  His sister touched the garment and died immediately, overwhelmed by its holiness.  They couldn’t pry the garment from her grasp and so she was buried with it at this site.  A gargantuan Lebanese cedar tree then grew from her grave site, which accounts for the name of the church (Sveti-Tskhoveli), which means “Church of the life-giving column.”)

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The cathedral is stunning both outside and in.  Notice the different colors of stone used on the exterior.

204To my great disappointment, photography was not allowed inside the cathedral — so I took one shot of the interior while crouching outside the entrance.  You notice an enormous painting of Christ at the far end of the church which dominates the interior.   Inside, the soaring ceiling leaves you still as you take in the majesty of the structure, the sunlight streaming through narrow windows in shafts, and the soft hues of candles next to the icons around the outer walls.  Inside on the right side of the church is a reproduction of the church of the Holy Sepulchre from Jerusalem — again, tying to the legend of the garment brought from Golgotha.

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Walking back out around the grounds, we can look out over the surrounding walls and see, across and up on the mountain, the Javri Monastery.

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We leave the church and head back to the car.  On our way, we pass a souvenir shop that has, among other things, a collection of traditional Georgian hats worn by the shepherds in the mountain regions.  (A number of the dances at the folk dance performance we saw in Tbilisi featured dancers with these hats.)   I weigh whether I need this for my wardrobe…

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We stop at one other church close by, Samtavro.  It’s a much smaller, but still quite beautiful worship site.  The original structure was build in the 4th century and the current structure is from the 11th century.

241What caught my interest was a gathering of people outside in the graveyard.   Doris and I walked over to see people on their knees with their hands in the dirt, praying.  I look at the headstone and recognize the picture from the icon given to me by Emzir from his taxi — Father Gabriel!

253Famished after our afternoon of touring, we head out of town to a restaurant that our driver David knows.  It’s unlike any restaurant I’ve ever been to!   The entrance is totally wooded as you walk thru an arch.

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Down some stone steps you find  the restaurant nestled in the woods with a creek running through  the center.

The main building is on one side of the creek, but there are little bridges spanning the creek and leading to individual tables that are set either along the creek or up in the trees!

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Our table is one that is nested among branches.

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With David’s help (here he is with Doris), we order a delicious lunch of fish, beans in a pot, potatoes, meat dumplings and other Georgian specialities.  It’s just delicious.

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We completed our lunch and made our trip back to Tbilisi.   It’s a city that we have come to love over the past three weeks.    From the effusive hospitality of the people, the richness of its culture and history, the ongoing practice of faith, and the continuing dialogue of the old and the new — we have come to love the city which, as the marketing poster announces, “loves you back.”

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