An interesting day trip from Tbilisi was a visit to the 6th century Davit Gareja monastery complex on the border between Georgia and Azerbaijan. It is set in a remote area in the Kakheti region of Eastern Georgia and public transport gets you only part of the way there. Along with a traveller from Australia who we just happened to meet at the Sagarejo minibus station (the closest town), we hired a taxi for the round trip to the monastery. The complex comprises of about 15 old monasteries spread over a large area. The road to the monastery passes through semi-arid scrubland and desert and this heightens the sense of remoteness of the place.
Davit Gareja was a Syrian monk who came to Georgia in the 6th century to spread Christianity. He initially set up Lavra, the first monastery. The religious complex grew when his disciples set up more monasteries nearby until they were several spread over a wide area. The monasteries were an important center of religious and cultural activity for many centuries and manuscripts were translated and copied here. It is also where Davit and his disciples are buried.
The monasteries were destroyed by the Mongols in 1265, revived in the 14th century by Giorgi V only to be sacked again by Timur. (The terror duo, Gengiz and Timur, left their imprint far and wide!). The worst tragedy for the monastery was in 1615 when Persian Shah Abbas' soldiers killed 6000 monks and destroyed their artistic treasures. The importance of the monasteries has grown and waned ever since. It was neglected during the Soviet era and sometimes used for military exercises but has since been restored and a few monks inhabit the monasteries again. Due to repeated destruction and renovation it has buildings dating from various periods. With fortress-like walls, a watchtower and a 17th century Church of St Nicholas, it looks dramatic when viewed from the hills above.
After walking through Lavra our next destination was Udabno monastery which is located on a ridge on the hills high above Lavra. A steep 400m climb on a trail that goes straight up to the ridge made for a good aerobic workout. On reaching the top we came across a group of friendly border guards who we assumed were Georgian. They confirmed that the ridge traces the international border between Georgia and Azerbaijan. So the low hills and plains that we could see for miles were part of Azerbaijan, a country that we had recently exited! We spent a few minutes making smalltalk with the guards, including telling them how good Georgia was. Later they were happy to direct us on the right path to Ubabno.
Udabno turned out to be much different from Lavra. It is essentially a series of of caves cut into the rocks across more than 500m of the cliff face. More than fifty caves, including churches, chapels, cells and a refectory survive, although the fronts of many have collapsed over the centuries. Frescos from the 9th or 10th century to the 13th survive in several churches and chapels. The monks’ refectory is decorated with beautiful frescoes depicting the Last Supper. Visiting some of the caves, especially ones with more intact frescoes, requires scrambling over rocks and hauling oneself over boulders. There is no doubt that the monks really wanted to be left alone!
After visiting the caves, we walked towards a stone shelter that was located high on a promontory and there were a couple of Georgian guards sitting and chatting. We noticed yet another shelter even higher and within sight of the first and were surprised to find it was manned by the pair we had first seen first even before visiting Ubadno. Seeing how friendly they had been during our first encounter, we were ready to resume on our "Georgia is a nice country" theme but suddenly realized that they were actually Azerbaijani and not Georgian! (We would have known sooner if we had noticed their armbands more carefully). We were also relieved that in our short encounter earlier our conversation had not ventured into sensitive territory. Now that their nationality was clear, we talked to them of our recent visit to Azerbaijan and how much we enjoyed our travels there. As it turned out one of the guards was a native of Sheki and was elated when he learned that we were there recently. He wanted to know exactly what places we had visited and was overjoyed to see photos of his hometown in our cameras.
We heard that all Azerbaijani males are required to spend a year serving in the military and this pair was happy to spend their one year manning this remote border with Georgia. Their daily routine involved an early morning hike up from the military base at the foot of the hill to the shelter on the top of the ridge and staying on duty for 8 hours. They felt there were worse duties they could have been assigned to. One of the guards even welcomed the opportunity to practice his English with any visitors who bothered to hike up right to the top of the promontory.
Wow, this seems as remote a place you have been to as any other.
An Azeri guard in the border with Georgia being shown photos of his home town by two Indians ....... What a small place the world has become. From , on Oct 30, 2012 at 02:39PM