- By Doug
- In: Tales From The Track
- 30 Oct 2009
Desert, Deer and Dragons
Clinging to the remaining rock wall in the shattered cliff-top room, a dusty, defaced fresco depicted a haloed bloke reaching between a deer's legs. There had to be a story...
Gigi had stuttered awesomely when introducing himself as our guide, but there, high in the sky in Georgia's wildlands, he was in his element and all trace of nervousness was gone. His eyes lit up as he told us of the miracle the fresco recorded.
When the founders of this eyrie had first come here, they had lived on grass and water. A herd of deer arrived not long after and although wild, the does offered themselves to be milked. Being the country of St George, naturally a dragon wasn't far away. The dragon preyed upon the deer, scaring away a source of sustenance no doubt much valued by the monks. Not being St George, their leader entreated the dragon to peacefully depart. The dragon said he would, on the condition that the monk promised to watch him until he disappeared from sight, for "If you take your eye from me, I shall surely die!" The monk agreed that he would watch the dragon fly away, but before the dragon had disappeared the monk's gaze was distracted by the sight of a heavenly angel. The dragon, deprived of the promised attention, immediately fell dead from the sky, his body becoming the very ridge into which these frescoed halls were carved.
We guessed the tale was symbolic of Christianity's replacement of the old religions, but it seemed unduly harsh on an uncharacteristically amenable dragon – to say nothing of what was to be made of the integrity of the holy man's promise!
Our entire truckload of overlanders had crammed into a minibus to see these masterpieces of medieval Georgian religious art. The ancient monastic complex of David Gareji is only 25km as the crow flies from Tbilisi, but it's a 65km journey on an ever-deteriorating road to the arid, stony grasslands of Kakheti province.
Sometime after the fences disappeared, the road surface dissolved to dirt and stones. The resulting track did its best to stick to the high ground as the landscape began to break into valleys slung low between rock ridges. The rocky spine above us to the south was suddenly punctuated by the stone exclamation mark of the Chichkhitury watchtower – the first sign that this landscape concealed more than wildlife and roaming shepherds and their flocks.
The semi-desert landscape here was the focal point of a hermitage founded in the 6th Century by St David Garejeli, one of thirteen Assyrian monks sent to consolidate Christian teachings in Georgia, which 200 years before had become one of the first countries to adopt Christianity as a state religion. The appellation of Gareji refers to the practice of solitary meditation and withdrawal from worldly concerns that motivated his choice of this barren and remote area to found a monastic community. Beginning with a single lavra – a group of cells for hermit monks - the community grew to number nineteen cave monasteries, with over 5000 monks' cells and ritual spaces, as well as rooms housing the varied industries required for life in what eventually amounted to a small town.
Our journey ended on the shoulder of a broad valley whose red-ribbed floor spilled eastward to distant lowlands. Above us rose the stone-walled Lavra Monastery, backed by the heights of the plateau of Iori. A broad stone staircase led to a doorway framed by massive sandstone blocks upon which was carved an arch, its apex filled with an inscription chiselled in the fantastic, cryptic whorls of the original Georgian alphabet of Asomtavruli. Within the keep, we stood in the meditative atmosphere of the monastery's main courtyard, beside flat-laid gravestones embellished with later iterations of that intriguing script. Small groups of pilgrims prayed before the eroded remnants of cells hollowed from the rock face fifteen hundred years before by David and his disciples Dodo and Lukiane.
Behind us in the walls of the monastery courtyard was the door to the 9th century Church of the Transfiguration which was erected over David's grave. Unfortunately for us, it was locked and Gigi didn't have the connections required to grant a special opening. He consoled us with an exploration of the tiny Church of St Nicholas that lay atop the courtyard walls, its whitewashed interior enclosing a space where light from burning tapers and small windows mingled to illuminate its evocative icons.
Monastic life resumed here after the fall of the Soviet Union and the current inhabitants uphold their predecessors' convictions - the only monk we saw was the man staffing the monastery's modest souvenir shop which lay outside the walls. We skirted the monks' quarters where signs begged privacy and quiet and began the climb to the ruins of Udabno on steps scalloped by the footfalls of centuries.
Beyond the broken square of a watchtower that crowned a spur behind the monastery rose a steep expanse of smooth rock carved with footholds and scored with channels. The flumes converged near the base of the rock face, guiding rainwater to a cistern above which a pair of gnarled trees stood sentry. Behind the trees, a cross-emblazoned door concealed the Spring of Father David's Tears. The region's only source of water, it's said the spring rose in response to several days of David's earnest prayer. In the cool of the grotto a spray of nodding ferns and the ambience of wind and water seemed to murmur confirmation of Gigi's telling of the tale.
It was a good thing the sun waited until we crested the ridge before emerging from the morning's cloud, because the climb, though short, is steep. Nowhere near as steep as the plunging slope on the far side of the plateau, though. We rested in stunned silence at the sweeping panorama before us. Wild and empty grasslands covered the gently undulating landscape far below. A steady wind brought the scent of spring wildflowers and provided updraughts in which birds of prey hung like kites. The suspended raptors would occasionally peel away to slide across a boundary invisible to both them and us. Gigi informed us that we had just crossed into Azerbaijan.
David Gareja is known in Azerbaijan as Keshish Dagh and the disputed border between Georgia and that country cuts across the plateau, slicing a substantial portion of the ruins from Georgian territory. Some Azeri authorities assert Udabno was built by Azerbaijan's earliest inhabitants. The available archaeological evidence doesn't support the claim, but there's no doubt this region was settled long before the Garejian fathers chose it as their refuge. The spectrum of human settlement in the region extends back to prehistoric times, and the remains of Iron and Bronze Age communities have been discovered nearby. The border issue remains contentious, given the Azeri's view of the strategic value of the plateau's high ground and the cultural and religious significance of the site to the Georgian people. We had heard that border guards from both sides were sometimes to be found patrolling this upland, but none disturbed the plateau's majestic, lonely serenity on the day we visited.
Standing atop the ridge, our view encompassed miles of folded landscape that faded south and east to a blue-brushed distant horizon. Our group was alone on the heights and the altitude and sensation of disconnection from the lands below created a feeling of peace and security that tempted us to linger.
A feeling of peace and security is a far cry from the real thing though. Although apparently far removed from the troubles of the world, the monasteries of David Gareji have repeatedly been the focus of violent tribulations. In 1265 Genghis Khan's armies emerged from those seemingly tranquil eastern grasslands to sack the monasteries, an event which put an end to Udabno's glory. Far worse befell in 1615 though, when the invading Persian army of Shah Abbas took the plateau, destroying countless ancient artefacts and manuscripts in an orgy of destruction that culminated with the torture and Easter Day slaughter of 6000 of the monasteries' inhabitants.
Gigi indicated the small church occupying a level area just below us on the slope: "Here is where the Garejeli fathers were martyred." The grasses clothing the slope below the church were spattered with the red blooms of poppies – a pretty scene made suddenly much more sombre by the knowledge of what had happened there.
From the Church of the Martyrs a narrow path led toward the toe of the promontory. On one side rose the rocky cliff that capped the ridge while from the other a vertiginous slope tumbled to the Azeri pasturelands below. Carved into the cliff above the path were room after room of the once mighty Udabno Monastery. Some were easily accessible from the path. Others required scrambling over rocky ledges or forced us to gingerly negotiate creaking planks that spanned voids where floors and staircases had once been.
Upon the broken walls and ceilings of these ancient spaces remained frescoes from the time of the Georgian kingdom's glory days in the 11th to 13th centuries. Angels, kings and the Garejian fathers gazed down upon us. A rendition of the last supper adorned the refectory wall above long stone tables where each monk's place was marked by a bowl carved into the tabletop. Gigi pointed out that a bowl which couldn't be picked up couldn't be dropped or spilled to mar the silence.
It was remarkable that the frescoes adorning these rooms had survived their turbulent history, not to mention the depredations of the weather. Some were brilliantly lit by virtue of missing walls, others would slowly develop from the darkness of an interior room as our eyes adjusted. They were mesmerising. Some shone with the light of orange, yellow and white, others were earthy and serious in lapis, sienna and black.
We noticed that many of the figures had been effaced and wondered if the Mongols or Persians had been responsible. "No, no – not Mongol or Persian!" Gigi exclaimed. Most of the vandalism occurred during the Bolshevik invasion of Georgia, after which the monasteries had been closed. A second wave of damage occurred during the 1980s when Soviet forces used the heights of Udabno to train troops bound for the Afghan battlefield. The fallen walls and shattered ceilings we had attributed to the forces of nature were actually the result of artillery fire during the Soviet army's mountain assault training. Incredibly, the Georgian army continued this practice after independence! It was 1997 before widespread protest and occupation of the site by activists finally resulted in a ban on military activity.
A few of the broken rooms of Udabno had fresh timber walls from which new windows looked out into the vast blue above the fields of Azerbaijan. Some monks apparently find the bustle of the more accessible Lavra Monastery too distracting from their contemplation and have begun to resettle this eyrie, continuing a tradition of fifteen hundred years. Hopefully in this day and age they won't need to fear leaving a light burning at night – an event which allegedly drew the attention of Shah Abbas' army those four hundred years ago.
Our path below Udabno eventually regained the ridgetop at the Church of Easter Day, near the shrine at the place where the Garejian fathers had been tortured. Three hundred degrees of far horizon, the springtime sun and wildflowers. So incongruous, the history of bloodshed and violence in an environment so conducive to peace...
Behind me, the bones of the amenable dragon curved away into the west. The Chichkhitury watchtower spiked the base of his tail and the lavras of David Gareja pocked his head and shoulders. We hadn't asked if the deer had returned after his downfall, but I guessed they never had.
I couldn't help but feel it might have been a very different story, if only Father David had watched that dragon fly away.