Friday, July 27, 2007


Just 15 miles outside of Tbilisi lies Georgia’s ancient capital, Mtskheta. We had been meaning to go there for the longest time, yet we kept putting it off because of its proximity to Tbilisi. But as we are leaving Tbilisi this coming Monday, we finally made the trip on Wednesday.

In addition to our usual crew of Fr. Theodore, Derek, and me, we were joined by Loyal and Nino. Nino is a film history student in Moscow and had returned to Tbilisi for summer vacation. She speaks very good English and is an invaluable source of knowledge of Georgian history. Loyal is a photography grad student from Missouri State University who met Fr. Theodore at a photo exhibition a couple of years ago, and they have been good friends ever since. Almost on a whim, Fr. Theodore a few weeks ago invited Loyal, who’s never been to Georgia, to come to Georgia for two weeks. The purpose of his visit is to help Fr. Theodore set up his dark room and digital light room and also, of course, to photograph Georgia.

The first day I met Loyal he was still very jetlagged (he had quite a rough time getting here; you can read more about it on his blog) and kept dozing off during our brief meeting. But since that first meeting, Loyal has proved himself to be quite active and alive, especially when a camera is in his hands. I’ve never spent time with a photographer before, and I guess what struck me the most was just the sheer number of photographs he takes.

Our first destination was Jvari Monastery (and Church) set upon a hill overlooking the town of Mtskheta. Jvari means “cross” in Georgian, and it is so named because St. Nino, the Enlightener of Georgia, is believed to have planted a cross there in the 4th century. The current structure was erected in the 6th century and encloses the foundation of the original cross planted by St. Nino. For a better description of what the church looks like both inside and out, see my photos. Fr. Theodore showed us a monk’s cell carved into the hillside beneath the church. Carefully, lest we fall off the hillside, we crawled into the dark, cool chamber which measured no more than 10 feet by 4 feet by 4 feet high.

Next, we visited Sveti-Tskhoveli (Church of the life-giving pillar) Cathedral in Mtskheta. The current structure was completed in the early 11th century, but the history of the site dates back to the 1st century. A Georgian Jew from Mtskheta named Elias was in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion and was converted. He bought Jesus’ robe from a Roman soldier and brought it back to Mtskheta. When his sister Sidonia touched the robe, she instantly died, but the robe could not be removed from her grasp so she was buried with it. From her grave grew a magnificent Lebanese Cedar. In the 4th century, this cedar was chopped down to construct the first Christian church in Georgia. Seven pillars were fashioned from the tree, but the seventh pillar magically rose into the air and it was only by St. Nino’s incessant praying that it was brought back to the ground. Since then, this pillar, its site still marked within the cathedral, has been known to work miracles—thus the name “Church of the Life-Giving Pillar.”

Our third stop was at yet another ancient church: Samtavro monastery. Like Sveti-Tskhoveli, Samtavro holds great importance in the Georgian Church. It was here that St. Nino, by praying fervently underneath a bush that flourishes today, converted the pagan King and Queen of Georgia, and in doing so, all of Georgia. A cemetery for monastics forms part of the monastery complex. Most of the graves are only marked by a slab of stone, but one stands out. It is tended to constantly by the nuns who till the black, fertile soil above the grave so often that it’s almost like sand. The grave is that of a simple priest who died in the mid-90s. Fr. Theodore describes him as a “fool for Christ,” who once burned the ominous portrait of Lenin in Tbilisi’s main square, laughing the whole time. Many cases of miraculous healings have been attributed to him since his death, and visitors to his grave can ask to be anointed by oil from the lamp that burns constantly over his grave.

We finished the day with a dinner at a restaurant by the Mtkvari river. In addition to our typical Georgian meal, we were treated with barbecued sturgeon and sturgeon caviar. A delicacy, to the least, as it’s illegal to fish sturgeon out of the Caspian Sea, where our fish most likely came from…

Next post coming soon about wrapping up in Tbilisi.


Anonymous said...

Please tell Fr. T that I am longing to see his photos. He simply must put them online somewhere, somehow! I'm willing to set him up a site if he takes photos, or he can use Flickr. But please beg him for me. I know he'll need a good scanner - we'll have to work on that.

Fr. John

Ryan Erickson said...

Loyal actually brought him a good scanner, so I'll definitely insist that he upload his picture.