Archives for posts with tag: republic of Georgia

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!!!”


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.








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.



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.



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.


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.


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!


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.”)


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.


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.


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…


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.


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!


Our table is one that is nested among branches.


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.











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.”

018I drop my 5 tetri coin into the slot by all the buttons and ride the elevator in our building down nine flights to the street.   I am going out to explore for a few hours while Janet, Elyse and Doris share some time.

I walk thru some small streets, past apartment buildings and the Swedish, Romanian and Czech Embassies.   Off of one balcony, a rope is suspended over to a tree where a pulley is mounted so that the apartment owner has a good 30 feet to hang their laundry.


On another clothes line, a couple of stuffed animals are hanging out to dry.

You might think that the buildings appear unfinished (which sometimes is the case) or as if they’re falling apart a bit.   But the outside of buildings don’t always reflect what’s inside.  Rough exteriors often contain beautiful spaces within.

???????????????????????????????I make the walk to the main boulevard – Chavchavadze Street.   Most streets in Tbilisi seem to have at least 4 syllables in their name!  That’s when you see the names, because street signs are scarce in many parts of the city.  You can go blocks and blocks without seeing any — a challenge for a map fiend like me!  And when you do encounter street signs (on the sides of buildings), they are often only in Georgian.  I think Georgian script is elegant.  It appears, to me, like a cross between the flowing sweep of Arabic and rounded curls of Korean writing.

Once I get to Chavchavadze, I take one of the underground pedestrian walkways to get to the other side of the street.  These underground passages are lined with shops selling vegetables, kitchenware, electronics, clothing, pharmacy items, and a host of other merchandise.   Old ladies and men often sit on the side of the steps to sell some produce.

139One generally doesn’t walk across the main boulevards at street level — which is wise.   Even Georgians admit that driving habits here are insane.  Taxis and regular cars  constantly jockey for that extra centimeter which they can then leverage to shoot ahead in traffic, swerving abruptly to avoid merging cars and on-coming traffic that may be straying across the middle line — all while traveling at break neck speed and maintaining a continual staccato of honking.   New York City taxi cab drivers might seem genteel in comparison.

110Given this state of affairs, it’s a bit alarming that, generally speaking, people only wear seat belts in the front seat.  In the back (including in taxis), the belts are usually tucked deep into the creases of the back seat, or removed altogether (despite signs which sometimes say “Please fasten your seatbelt”!).  When we take taxis, we try to be selective (minimal dents, etc.) but windshield cracks, as on a recent ride, are par for the course.

It is, however, pretty cheap to ride a taxi — generally 5 Georgian Lari (about $3) gets you anywhere in the center city.   The yellow buses, which are everywhere and run frequently, are cheaper yet (.5 Lari per trip); and they feel safer.   So on this day,  I hop on the 140 bus and head to the Old City.   As we move into traffic, it feels to me as though the bus is like a whale with all the taxis and other cars shooting around us like schools of kelp in the sea.

082As the bus travels down tree-lined Chavchavadze, we pass Ilia State University (“ISU”!) and long stretches of shops.  Much of the avenue has ornate lanterns and balconies.   Tbilisi is known for its balconies — in many locations, they reminds me of New Orleans.  Some are very ornate, others may be just concrete slabs.  But everyone, it seems, treasures these open spaces and lookouts to the street.


Amidst these beautiful balconies and lanterns one may nearly stumble over a shocking site — a toddler left on a blanket on the sidewalk to beg.   It’s common to see older people asking 029for money (frequently around churches).   But I have been stunned to see what appears to be 2 – 3 year olds laying on small blankets in the middle of busy sidewalks holding a little cup.  The children are often asleep or look half dazed.    The added shock is that there’s no adult I see in sight watching over the children — although they presumably are somewhere close by.  I did observe one woman (at left — the mother?) one day smoothing out a blanket on the sidewalk for a child and then speaking with the child  before,  I expect, leaving them.   I have passed these children several times with my own 8 year old daughter, whom I know finds the sight disturbing.   How do you explain to a young child that a 2 year old might be left alone to beg?

These children (and families) appear to me to be of a distinct ethnic group — and I’m told they are Roma — gypsies who live a somewhat nomadic existence across Europe.  Someone who works for a  local aid organization told me that the Roma often resist efforts of assistance, preferring to rely on their own established social networks.

075As the bus turns onto Rustaveli Avenue, we pass the Opera House, House of Parliament and other large buildings.  One of these is the National Georgian Museum.  Janet, Elyse, Doris and I went the other week and saw, among some Georgian treasures, an exhibit on “The Soviet Occupation of Georgia.”   This region, sandwiched between the Black Sea and Caspian Sea, is a crossroads and has been conquered and reconquered over the centuries.  The Russians were the latest occupiers, controlling Georgia from 1922 to 1991, until they were expelled during the breakup of the old Soviet Union.  The exhibit in the museum traces the pattern of oppression which locals say persists today in two regions of Georgia (map below).


Throughout the exhibit, there are poignant  descriptions of those who were persecuted, from artists, clergy, political leaders and other regular citizens.

066The red areas in the map indicate regions of Georgia that are under Russian control today, stemming from the 5 day war you may have read about in 2008.  Georgians consider these two areas a part of territorial Georgia, but the future status of the regions, as well as relations with Russia, remain unclear.


One café owner has fun with the legacy of the Soviet occupation with a tongue-in-cheek restaurant theme!

Speaking of persecution, there was a gay rights march a couple days ago along this same stretch of  Rustaveli Avenue.  We were warned by Janet’s colleagues to steer clear as similar public demonstrations have been the scene of violence in the past.  As we heard and read later, 75 LGBT persons were peacefully marching when they were violently assaulted by a large mob.  (They were evacuated, somewhat belatedly, by police.)  We had taken a cab to another destination in the city that day and were tied up in traffic as streets were closed, sirens sounded, and the commentator on the radio spoke urgently (in Georgian) about the unfolding events.

098My bus approaches my destination, Freedom Square.  This used to be called Lenin Square, but the statue of Lenin is gone, replaced with a gold statue of the patron saint of Georgia, St. George, who is usually depicted, as here, on a horse and spearing a dragon.


I took the bus to Freedom Square because that puts me right in the midst of the Old City of 014Tbilisi.  My goal for the day is to explore the narrow, winding streets as they snake around the hills.   A guidebook recommended getting lost as the best strategy for discovering the charms and history of this old section of the city.   As soon as I get a block away from Freedom Square, the din of the city falls away and I feel as though I could be in a small hillside town.   An old woman sells her vegetables on the sidewalk, brooms are stacked for sale, flowers are set out on display.



The deeper I go into the Old City, the quieter it becomes. I often am the only person on the street.  I peek into courtyards and follow little alleys.   I don’t know that I’d do this in the evening, but in the daytime I feel totally safe.  (Tbilisi is generally a very safe city.)

033As I continue along, my eye catches a spire through the opening of a small street.   I’m in the Betlemi (Bethlehem) neighborhood of the Old City and turn into the street.  A dog (on a balcony) raises a ruckus as I walk by.  Ahead of me, the “Lower Betlemi Church” rises up against the hillside.

038There are a series of steep staircases leading up to the church.   It’s about 1:00 p.m. and it seems that people are beginning to gather for what I expect is a midday service.   I watch as a woman slowly makes her way up the steps.


055I enter the church and my eyes take a second to adjust to the darker interior, lit only by light coming thru a couple open windows and the devotional candles that people are lighting and placing in front of the icons that hang from the church’s interior walls.   People continue to come in.  Those gathering are mostly women (middle aged and older) and a few men.  People move around the open sanctuary (there are just a few benches around the perimeter), lighting their candles, and touching or kissing the icons.   People also write notes, as I saw people do at the Easter service.  I’m still not sure if these are prayers or confessions — I expect the former.  (I have asked a number of people about them, but each time, the person did not understand English.)   The priests begin to move through the church and collect the notes, the crowd continues to swell.

A few minutes later, the priests take their position in front of the choir screen and begin reciting  prayers.  As they do, five women begin singing a capella in the rising and falling tones of Gregorian chants — all the while the priests continue  their reading.


I have no idea how long this service will last.  I first thought that it might be a briefer midday service, but people are still entering the church.  Wanting to cover more ground that afternoon, I stepped out of the church into the sun.

I have been struck by the religious devotion of the people here.  Not everyone attends church, but I regularly see signs of the faith from people, young and old, along the street.  When I was walking the other day, I saw a man suddenly stop and cross himself — a prudent step of protection I thought as he was venturing into the street.  But then I realize that he crossed himself because he was walking past a church.   Yesterday, I saw a young teen bopping down a street, his iPod jamming the latest tunes.  As he walked past a church, he suddenly paused, reverently looked to the church and crossed himself.  Then he was off again, leaving a trail of guitar and drum music as he went.   Even people riding the bus cross themselves as they pass churches in traffic.

077I make my way back to the staircase that brought me to the church and continue to climb.  This entire neighborhood rises sharply up the hill, and as I ascend, I find myself at a small plaza and the Upper Betlemi Church.   The church is locked and appears to be in need of renovation.  I wonder if it is in use.   The little plaza has beautiful views over the city and some artists have taken up position to paint.

065Behind the Upper Betlemi Church is a cliff face and then a set of stairs that lead to a switch-back path that winds up the hill to the top of the ridge that overlooks Tbilisi with the Narikala fortress perched on top.   I walk up halfway so I can look back down at the church and get a great view of the city.

(The Upper Betlemi Church at right)

042It’s a wonderful panorama of the Old City and across the river to the Presidential Palace and the new Concert Hall (the modern tube-like looking structures).   The new concert hall is a source of controversy as people question whether it’s placement in the old part of the city is appropriate.  Ironically, the biggest critic is the Prime Minister who lives in an enormous,  ultra modern mansion that sits on the hillside and overhangs the Old City.


The Prime Minister’s abode.


I return down to the small plaza.  I can hear the singing of the women coming through the windows of the lower Betlemi Church as the service continues.   To the right, a narrow alleyway invites me to continue my walk.


Before long, there’s a bit of commotion as a class of school children come running past me and down the alleyway, their jackets flapping in the air.   As fast as they appeared, they’re gone, and I’m left in near complete quiet.  There’s only the occasional bark of a dog or the sound of a radio from inside a home.


Further down the alley,  I walk by this home with the blue doors and vines growing overhead.


The entrance to another home is adorned with flowers.  The vines are painted white near the ground to protect them from insects.


I encounter more balconies.  This one, with clothes pins arrayed,  is ready for laundry.


I loved the sweep of this balcony.


And then there is the blend of the old and the new across the Old City as some modern homes have been built alongside the older ones.   Or, in this case, an old home has received an avant garde roof addition to its upper terrace.


Further along, I pass a vendor with fruits and all sorts of Georgian delicacies hanging at the shop entrance.


And then there’s this man enjoying a potato chip kebab!


All of this food drives me to a café where I enjoy a cool Georgian beer and bite to eat.   When it comes to food in Georgia, it all begins with bread.   All across the city, there are small shops, often at basement level with just a window out to the street, where people make and sell bread.

baking breadThey use these large kiln-like ovens for baking.   I had seen the exteriors of several of these ovens and assumed that the bread sat on racks or shelves inside.  But when we went to a restaurant one evening (called the “Bread House,” appropriately), I was able to watch one of the bakers at work and saw how the dough is actually stuck to the sides of the oven.  Each long piece of bread that you buy here has a hole in it — which is from the prong used to pry it off the side of the oven.

The bread has a unique shape — flat, roundish  and wide in the middle, with long narrow “handles” on each end.  When you buy it from a shop, they wrap it in newspaper.   It’s a must to pull off pieces of hot bread to eat as soon as you get it.

206At a restaurant they serve bread in many forms, including this delicious cheese bread.

After bread, there is wine.  Georgia is purported to be the birthplace of wine.  We’ve sampled a number of vintages and have very much enjoyed them.

I’ve had to laugh a bit when we’ve gone to a local supermarket.  They have several aisles of wine and in each aisle are three women operating a tasting station.  You can never make it through the store (be it in the afternoon, evening or morning!) without several of the ladies approaching you and asking if you’d like to sample the wine.

203A staple on every Georgian menu is ‘beans in a clay pot.’  These come with the beans in a mouthwatering sauce which is boiling as the pot is placed on your table.  And of course, it’s perfect for dipping your bread!

Fish (mainly trout) is another feature on the menu, with grilled vegetables or a pomegranate sauce.   Janet ordered that one night.  The fish came served on a plate and was literally swimming in the pomegranate sauce.  At first glance, we thought, “Oh, that’s a dish ruined!”  Who wants THAT much sauce?  But it was absolutely delicious.

204Walnuts are perhaps the single most distinctive (as well as ubiquitous!) dietary element in Georgian cooking.  Walnuts are added to a broad range of dishes, including this cold eggplant appetizer with walnuts.

Meat figures prominently on menus — with grilled pork, chicken and beef — on kebabs or in a garlic or a (light)barbecue sauce (not like KC).   And the new potatoes, as the saying goes, are to die for.

But to describe a traditional Georgian meal by just talking about the food is to miss the essence of the experience.   Dining at a long table with Georgians is a free-flowing, warm, unhurried and completely delightful occasion.   Wine is placed on the table in decanters along with mineral water and juices, and then the food begins to arrive, and arrive, and arrive!    As dishes are passed around, the conversation easily meanders among matters of family, things local and international.     We have been included in a number of meals with Janet’s Georgian colleagues from the Free University of Tbilisi as well as aid organization partners, and they have been just wonderful gatherings.   The hospitality is unparalleled.

One adjustment when one dines in restaurants is the smoke.   Several people have commented to us that in some respects, Tbilisi resembles the United States in the 1950s when smoking was commonplace and seatbelts were unheard of.   Sometimes, it verges on the comical.   You can ride in a cab with a “no smoking” sign in the back seat, and then the driver lights up.   Or, I was walking down the street the other day and saw a man wearing one of those surgical masks that people sometimes wear to ward off pollution.  He stopped, pulled his mask down below his chin, and lit up a cigarette!

065We have enjoyed many kindnesses over the past couple weeks, from Janet’s colleagues as well as complete strangers.   My daughter Elyse, mother-in-law Doris and I were entering a church the other day.  To follow the local custom, Doris and Elyse began to fasten their head scarves before entering.   Since Elyse doesn’t usually do this, she was struggling a bit to secure the scarf.  A young girl who was standing nearby stepped forward to give her a hand.

On another day, we walked to a bus stop to try to catch a bus to a certain destination.   I didn’t have a bus map so I asked a man who was standing at the bus stop if he knew which bus we needed.   While many  Georgians  speak some degree of English (expertly in professional circles), in the general population English fluency is hit or miss.  (My Georgian vocabulary, needless to say, is exhausted in a few phrases.)   The man at the bus stop did not speak much English, but understood my question and showed me by pressing his cell phone buttons that we should take the 124 bus.   “Does the 124 bus stop HERE?” I asked.   He nodded ‘yes’ and then he hopped on his bus and was gone.   We waited.  5, 10, 15 minutes, but we didn’t see the 124 bus.   I began to wonder if the man had understood my question of whether the 124 bus serviced this bus stop.    Just as I was about to ask another person, the same man came up to us out of the crowd on the sidewalk and pointed to an approaching bus with the markings “124.”   “Your bus” he said, “your bus.”

I was so struck that this person had taken his bus, went about his business, and upon his return was still bearing us in mind.   Had he doubled back just to check on us?  Believe it or not, this exact scenario has happened to us twice.

201I finish my lunch and make my way back toward Freedom Square.   Along the way, I pass a sculpture of some lovers underneath an umbrella, which is actually a fountain.   There are wonderful sculptures all across Tbilisi.


Another favorite sculpture of mine depicts a Georgian tradition where people sing, dance and try to trick each other!   The sculpture leaves a space that seems to invite you to join in!


Back in Freedom Square, a bit exhausted from all the staircases and hiking, I climb onto the 140 bus and make my way back up Rustaveli and Chavchavadze Avenues to go back to our apartment.   As the bus lumbers along, taxis squirt ahead, veering left and right, and keep up their non-stop conversation of beeps and honks.

203My wife Janet, daughter Elyse, mother-in-law Doris and I arrived in Tbilisi in the Republic of Georgia on Wednesday, May 3rd.   We had flown from Kansas City via Chicago and Munich.   We’ve come to Tbilisi because Janet is doing her sabbatical project with a University here.  We’ll be in Tbilisi until May 25th.

Beyond getting acclimated to this extraordinary city and people, I had the special opportunity to experience the Eastern Orthodox celebration of Easter Sunday which was held today, May 5th.  In talking with Janet’s Georgian colleagues, I learned that the main Easter service takes place around midnight, at the first stroke of Easter.  Like at home, Easter services are packed, so I was advised to go early.

093I set out from our apartment by 9:45 p.m. and took a cab to the Sioni Cathedral.  Most Georgian Orthodox churches are named after places in the Holy Land – so this is “Zion Cathedral.”  I had three assumptions about what I was going to experience.  I expected (1) that we would stand for the entire service, (2) that the service would be completely in Georgian, and (3) that the service would be about two hours long.   Two of my assumptions would be correct.

The cab wound it’s way toward the Old City of Tbilisi and dropped me off by the cathedral.  People were gathering in the court around the cathedral.   I bought a candle for 3 lari ($2) and made my way to the church entrance.

It was about 10:15 p.m. when I entered church which dates from the 13th century.  (The original structure on the site was constructed in the 4th century.)   The cathedral is a soaring space with 005high, vaulted ceilings.  It’s in the shape of a Greek cross, so the four parts of the cross-shaped floor plan are equal sized (without a long nave associated with western churches).   The front “leg” of the church, where the chancel was located, was separated from the rest of the sanctuary by a tall choir screen which had two tall silver doors in the center, which were closed.  The walls of the cathedral at eye height are covered with framed icons – pictures of Christ or saints.  (The patron saint of Georgia is St. George – accounting for the name of the country and the fact that seemingly half of all men are called Georgi.)    Looking up, the walls and ceilings are painted with scenes from the life of Christ and pictures of the disciples and saints.

004There were no benches or chairs in the church.   In the center of the sanctuary was a large coffin draped with an embroidered cloth with shapes of saints, or might they be images of Christ?   Along the floor around the coffin are collections of flowers and red eggs – a Lenten tradition in Georgia.   As I stood there, a continual stream of people entered the church and bent down to kiss the embroidered cloth.

Many people in the sanctuary were reading from a prayer book as they awaited the start of the service.  The sanctuary was in subdued lighting as the magnificent chandelier above us was not yet turned on.  So a number of people were reading by the light of their candles.  I 002was particularly struck by one lady who had inserted her candle in a hole in the spine of her prayer book to read.   The candles didn’t drip!

Expecting that the service would be in Georgian, I had brought my Presbyterian prayer book along with me.  As we waited for the service to begin, I joined those reading from their sacred texts and read through the Service for the Resurrection.

The cathedral continued to fill until it was packed with perhaps 500 people standing side by side.  I had a good place, towards the front of the sanctuary.   Then at 11:00 p.m., the main chandelier was alit and a number of priests come out and offered some prayers, signaling the beginning of the service.  People crossed themselves, and as part of the crossing, reached down and touched the floor.

A younger priest (or a priest in training?) came to a lectern that was placed in the center of the sanctuary and began to sing, like a cantor, from a prayer book.  After 15 minutes of singing, he was having some difficulty with the higher notes.  He pulled out his cell phone and appeared to send a text while he was still singing.    In a few minutes someone else appeared brining a glass of water.  He would continue to sing the liturgy for another half hour.

025At one point, more priests came out carrying a wooden board and slid it under the embroidered cloth that rested upon the coffin in the middle of the church.  They carried the cloth forward on the board, the doors in the middle of the choir screen opened, and they carried it through to the chancel.  Eight other priests came out, lifted up the coffin with some effort, and carried it off toward the back of the church.  Others removed the flowers, the red eggs and other items that had surrounded the coffin.

It was midnight.  The church bells start ringing loudly, a men’s choir behind the screen began singing in rich, deep tones.  Then a priest emerged carrying a cross and 026leading a procession.  Behind him, the lead priest swung incense with silver bells clanging as he swung it from side to side.  Behind them came about another 6 priests and ten priest assistants – all carrying icons.   Some of the icons were so large that it took two men to carry them.    Following the priests came the men’s choir, singing in the gorgeous tones you may have heard in recordings from Gregorian chants.

The procession made it’s way through the crowd as people, already packed in, squeezed back to allow the priests to pass.  The priests walked through the church and out the cathedral doors and into the courtyard, incense swinging and choir singing all the 045way.  I could hear their singing as they processed further away from the cathedral.   How wonderful that on the stroke of midnight, at the opening moments of Easter, the church carries the cross out into the world!

Everyone inside the church waited in silence.  After 20 minutes, the procession returned and entered back into the church.   As the priests passed by with the icons, people reached out to touch or kiss the icons.

After the icons were returned behind the screen, the lead priest came back out carrying a small cross mounted with candles and swinging incense.   He came forward to the people and said in 053Georgian “Christi asta!”  — which clearly was “Christ is risen!”   All the gathered then responded with a Georgian phrase that I assume meant “He is risen indeed!”   The priest then said again “Christi Asta!”  and the crowd responded louder. “He is risen indeed!”  A third time, the priest called out “Christi Asta” and the people shouted in response “He is risen indeed!”  The priest motioned to the people and the light of Christ was spread throughout the church.

Immediately, the men’s choir soared into a full throated song that filled the cathedral with magnificent melodic tones that separated and resolved as an organ will often do.   The people sang along – it was transcendent.  Then a second choir of men and women in the back of the church sang in response.  The two choirs went back and forth for 10 minutes.   Then one of the priest assistants came out to read further from the prayer book.  The two choirs at different points sang in response.

Then another of the main priests came out from behind the screen with same the candle-illumined cross, and  called out “Christi Asta!”  The congregation replied in Georgian “He is risen!”   “Christi Asta!” “He is risen!”  “Christi Asta!”  “Christ is risen!”   The choir launched into spectacular voice again, the second choir responded, and another priest assistant came out for 10 minutes of readings.

This cycle repeated 7 more times.

During this time of readings and song, the head Priest came out and invited people, one at a time, to come forward for what appeared to be either a time of confession or request for a blessing.  People handed him written notes and spoke to him.  He then draped his wide stole over their head in a ritualized way, leaned in to whisper to them, and then tapped their heads with his fingers as if he was crossing them.   He would uncover their heads, have a few more words, and then they would return to the congregation.   With one woman, it suddenly struck me that the priest used his stole in this way to also create a private space with the person who had come forward.

070It was around 2:00 a.m. and the head priest came out with the Bible, read a passage, and then swung the incense out toward the people in what I understood as a blessing of the people.  At this point, most of the assembled had been standing for three to four hours.   With this blessing, I wondered if we were wrapping up.   But then another priest assistant came out to do more readings, the choirs began again, and the people sang.

It was amazing.  I looked behind me to see all the people.  I had seen no one leave.

Then some priest assistants came out to remove the lectern that was in the middle of the sanctuary.  Ah, perhaps now?  And then they went to extinguish the candles that were illuminating some of the icons hanging on the choir screen.  But then oddly, as soon as they extinguished them, they relit them!

077Then, the head priest came forward carrying something covered by some cloth.  I wasn’t sure what it was until he came closer.  Oh my gosh!  They’re communion chalices!  We’re going to have communion yet!  And then I thought, “Well, of course we are!”  One never has a Catholic – or Orthodox mass, without communion.   That’s also why no one had left.

I wondered how they were going to serve communion.   We had already experienced in a number of ways how delightful the Georgian people are.  But as Janet and I had observed, they can drive a bit wildly, and even as pedestrians don’t always seem to yield.   When our airplane had landed in Tbilisi a few days ago, we had to force our way into the aisle to be able to deplane!   So what would communion be like?

It had also struck me that this service had so far been highly liturgical.  Many, many readings and choral songs and responses.  But at that point, the head priest came forward with just an assistant with a microphone.  No lectern, no prayer book.  He drew close to the people, and began 080to speak.  It was 2:50 a.m.  His voice was different.  I then realized — he’s starting to preach.  That’s when the profound nature of this experience perhaps struck me most.  As a pastor, a preacher myself, I was just awed that here we were – it was 3:00 in the morning! – people had been standing in place for at least 4 hours! – and yet the entire church was hushed and riveted upon the words of the priest.  I can only understand a handful of words in Georgian, so the word-to-word meaning of the priest’s sermon was beyond me.    And yet, it was clear that he was preaching with urgency and passion about the resurrection of our Lord.  He preached until 3:30 a.m.

By now, I had given up attempting to anticipate when the service would end.  Perhaps they’ll go til sunrise?

Then the priests came out from behind the screen with the communion chalices.  They went to different sections of the cathedral.  The choir, meanwhile, was in full song.

I was close to the front and center and that’s where one of the lead priests came to stand, holding a chalice.  Immediately, there was a surge in the crowd that thrust me forward.  Assistants to the priest then pushed the crowd back.  I felt like I was on the bottom of a stack of people, except I was standing up.  It was hard to breathe we were sandwiched in so tight!   My mind went to the time that Janet and I traveled to Mexico City and took the subway, which was so jammed that they kept separate cars for men and women.

Standing around the priest was a circle of 4 assistant priests, arms around each other’s shoulders as though they were in a huddle, to hold the crowd back.   Then they would allow one person at a time to squeeze under their arms and be in a safe little open space immediately before the priest.  The congregants criss-crossed their arms over their chest so that their hands rested on their shoulders.  An assistant the priest would put a cloth under their chin and the priest, using a long spoon, would dip some wine out of the chalice and give it to the person.

What struck me as bizarre was the fact that the priest was taking FOREVER to serve each person, as the crowds kept pressing in tighter and tighter.   The priest was being so meticulous – was he oblivious to the conditions all around him?!!

Eventually I got pushed to just outside the circle of the assistants.  They lifted their arms and I was thrust into the space before the priest.  The cloth came below my chin and I opened my mouth to receive the wine.  It was then that I could see that there were tiny bits of bread floating in the wine in the chalice, and it took some doing on the part of the priest to just get one piece of bread per spoonful of wine – hence his deliberate pace. The priest gave me the elements and I replied “thanks be to God.”  He smiled, and then I was nudged out of the circle as another was let in.

Outside the circle, I was in some open space and able to check my watch.  I had received 092communion at 4:00 a.m.   Shaking off the lethargy of my limbs, I walked around the cathedral and was struck by one sight.  The service was evidently now over with communion.  But many people who had already received still remained there, standing, and reading from their prayer books.  I stepped outside the cathedral into the still dark early morning.  All around the cathedral, candles continued to burn in the stands, and people stood there, reading and praying.

It was an extraordinary experience of devotion and faith.   I’m sure that on the eve of every Easter to come in my life,   I’ll remember, and cherish, this time of worship into the early hours of the morning at the Sioni Cathedral.

095I sent a text to Janet, in case she was awake and wondering where I was, that the service was over.  I made my way out to the boulevard that borders the cathedral.  In the modern/ancient mix that is Tbilisi, I could now hear the loud pulsing music from a nightclub down the street where two police cars were parked with their lights flashing.  Then in the other direction were the bright lights of the Shangri-la Casino.

I waved for a cab, gave my destination, and hopped in.   The driver, as it turned out, was the Georgian re-incarnation of Mario Andretti and we FLEW through the streets.   Most Georgians only use seatbelts in the front and tuck the back seat belts into the creases of the seats.  So my morning of prayer wasn’t over!

But we made it safely.  At 4:45 a.m., I got into the tiny elevator of our building, inserted a coin, pressed the button for the 9th floor.  The elevator lurched into action and began the climb.   Reaching our floor, I could look out over parts of the city and see the first streaks of dawn light on this day of resurrection.