At the Kutaisi airport, just like at this time last year, we each receive a bottle of Georgian wine along with our stamped passports. We say thanks with madlobat, the passport controller accepts it with a grateful smile. They start to distribute the Saperavi at Christmas, by the tourist season it runs out, so it serves as a reward for the courageous, who set out to discover the Caucasus during wintertime. Which, for the time being, does not seem foolhardy, as in Kutaisi we are received by a warm spring night, and the daytime temperature rises above twenty degrees. We go into the city by marshrutka, a young father sits next to us with his little daughter, they have also come to discover the country, the mother with the two other children will arrive on the next flight. He is for the first time in Georgia, but he is surprisingly well acquainted with the sights. They want to follow more or less the same route as we with the fellow travelers of río Wang. He asks for help, how to get to different places, what to see. I give him advice, I recommend the blog for more details. “I know it”, he looks at me in surprise, “I picked up there what I know of Georgia.”
In the Soviet republics, the post-modern style which denies the past arrived together with the collapse of the system, so a good part of their contemporary public sculpture come across as infantile gags conceived as a rejection of the heroic monuments of socialism. No pathos, no lofty message. However, their sculptors also need some model, and where else could have they turned for inspiration but to the heritage of socialism. The care-free dancing and singing girls and boys, who used to proclaim from the friezes of Soviet schools and cultural centers that it is day by day better to live here, have now descended to the squares. And although they are conceived as art without message, nevertheless they apparently bring with them their original meaning, the unbearable lightness of being.
The level of Rioni falls a lot in the winter months, when no new supplies come from the mountains. The river reveals the white bones of its rocky bed. We walk along it. Its bank was once lined by wealthy merchant houses with balconies overlooking the river, the palace row was the pride of the city. After the disappearance of their former inhabitants, the city also turned away from the river, the theater of representation became the main square rebuilt in Stalin Baroque style. The merchant houses have not been maintained for almost a hundred years, their existence will soon come to an end. And through the increasing gaps-in-the-teeth, you can glimpse sights that were buried and preserved for a hundred years in the bourgeois quarter which became the backyard of the city, the archaeology of fin-de-siècle Kutaisi.
The architectural focus of the hill rising above the city is the 12th-century Bagrati Cathedral, but the center of its everyday life is the small anonymous triangular square with three old horbeam trees that developed at the intersection of Debi Ishkhnelebi Street, named after the four singing sisters of Kutaisi, and the Kazbegi Street which bends up from the river bank, and on the hilltop leads to the cathedral. During the settlement of Kazbegi Street, its level has sunk by about a meter, but the triangle between the trees has remained at its original level. It has become a raised podium, on which the locals have installed benches and an umbrella. All day long you can see four or five people sitting here, taking Nescafé in plastic cups from the adjacent small shop, chatting with each other, and, like the cats, watching from this high-up observation point the traffic in the streets, and the panorama of the city opening up to the Lesser Caucasus.
By public demand, a recording from the Ishkhneli sisters of Stalin’s favorite song, Suliko. The recording was made in the 1950s, probably during the life of Stalin
The weather in Kutaisi is mediterranean, while towards Tbilisi it is already raining, and the Khashuri Pass is covered with a thin layer of freshly fallen snow. As we are heading to the Armenian border in the dawn twilight, it starts snowing, first hesitantly, and then with more and more resolve. In the next two days, about a meter of snow falls upon Armenia, which deletes access roads from the map, blocks the roads leading to the monasteries in the highest mountains, and transforms our car into a train-car running between tire ruts in the ice. However, it also changes the mountain landscape into a dreamlike scenery which is never seen in the summer photos. “Armenia receives its dear guest with freshly fallen snow”, consoles us courteously the taxi driver in the shop at the border, where we enter for an Armenian phone card.
The monastery fortress of Akhtala was built in the 13th century by Ivane Zakaryan, the powerful general of Tamar, Queen of Georgia. Its Orthodox church, dedicated to the Holy Virgin, is not used by the Armenians, who follow a different – Gregorian – confession. Nevertheless, over the past five years, the locals have repaired the crumbling buildings, had the beautiful medieval frescoes restored, and they apparently hold worship services in the church. “Who uses the church?” I ask Volodya, the Armenian taxi driver living in the neighborhood, who with his wife takes care of the church, has the key, and runs a coffee shop and grocery store for the tourists in the ground floor of their home. “The Greeks.” In the 18th century, several skilled Greek workers were recruited to work in the local copper mines from the Black Sea, whose descendants still speak the archaic Pontic dialect. “They are also Orthodox, like the Georgians. They are several hundred, they fill the church on Sunday. They even had a priest brought in, he lives down in the town, next to the cable car of the mine.”
A curious modern sculpture stands next to the gate of the monastery fortress, which looks like two bicycle tires leaning to each other. “What is this?” “Two wedding rings,” explains Volodya. “The newly wed couples go through it. It is believed that the couples who went through it, will never divorce. When Russian couples visit the monastery, I often encourage them to go through it. They laugh, but they don’t go. Among them it is not usual to get married for a long time.”
In the canyon all along the river Debed, copper mines operate, once a quarter of Soviet copper production came from here. The town of Alaverdi had been founded in the 1780s for their exploitation by the Argutinsky-Dolgoruky family, the descendants of the Zakaryans, and the town was developed into a huge industrial city by the Soviet system. The literature deduces its name from the Arabic term Allah-verdi, “blessed by Allah”, but Armenian pride traces it back to the Armenian term Ալ-վերտ, Al-verd, “red stone”. Although its cliffs are not red, the river once flowed red from here, one of the most polluting of Soviet industrial cities, toward the Kura and the Caspian Sea. After the disappearance of Soviet industry, the river became clean, but the city dead. We approach it on the road clinging to the wall of the canyon, high above the river, we look down upon it from the edge of the road. The city is lying beneath us, like the decomposing corpse of a huge dragon fallen in the riverbed, with bizarre cliffs towering above it like protruding ribs, the empty eyeholes of its factory buildings have been blackened, many parts of the former industrial city fabric are dissolved in ruins. In some places, a patch of life has remained, a dilapidated Soviet housing estate where people still live, those who have managed to keep some work at the here and there still fuming factory chimneys, or those who simply had nowhere else to go.
The only surviving monument of the old Alaverdi is the stone bridge built in 1196 over the Debed river, on whose side rails four lazy stone cats bathe in the February sunshine. On the hill above the town stands the royal monastery of Sanahin, built in 996, its columns are also flanked by stern-looking cats. Alaverdi apparently used to be the city of cats. Whether they left the city because of the downturn, or on the contrary, their departure caused the end of the city’s prosperity, we will never know. In Alaverdi today there are no cats. Hungry stray dogs roam the abandoned squares of the city.
The monastery of Haghpat was a center of medieval Armenian church. The monastery, founded in the 10th century by the kings of Armenia, was the burial place of the Northern Armenian branch of the Bagratuni dynasty, a famous monastic school and library, as well as a singing school, where Sayat Nova, the legendary 18th-century Armenian poet and bard served as a priest. The monastic community survived the Khorezmian, Mongolian, Uzbek, Turkish and Persian invasions, they only disappeared in Soviet times. A friendly young man comes up from the village with the key, he saw the car stopping in front of the monastery. He happily explains how they managed to organize a community for the restoration of the church and the monastic buildings over the past ten years. They have done a huge labor indeed, more or less professionally. “What time is there worship in the church?” “Every day at ten a.m. and at five p.m.” “So often?” I say in surprise. “Will you have it today at five p.m. as well?” “I do not know. It always depends on whether the priest comes up from the village. I am here every afternoon at five o’clock, I open the church, ring the bells, and wait. If he does not come, I close the doors, and go home.”
At the side of the road between Kobayr and Vanadzor, Armenia, we come to a shack advertising food, a steamy one-room eatery smelling of ash, smoke, mutton and cabbage. We step inside and find the only available table next to a wood-burning stove, and we sit down in the sphere of its heat. Two pots sit on the stove, one with a block of butter melting into some peas, the other covered. Three men are playing cards at the only other table, grumbling out their bids and arguing over each other’s playing, while a woman prepares their food. We order coffee and discuss tomorrow’s itinerary.
Recording by Lloyd Dunn
From the valley of the Debed river a steep serpentine takes you up to a plateau overlooking the gorge, to Odzun, the Village of Snakes. At the pass, an old khachkhar stands on top of the vertical cliff, from here you can see the whole valley, from the bend of Sanahin to the monastery of Kobayr. On the riverbank, small buildings, a railway station, blocks of flats. They were already there in Gábor Illés’ photo of forty years ago, but then they were much more orderly, now you can see the signs of disintegration even from this height. Huge birds circle above us. Griffon vultures, the dwellers of lonely cliffs, we will meet with them many more times in the Armenian mountains. At first only the male appears, he describes broad circles above the gorge. Then, when I photograph him using zoom, suddenly his mate appears as well, and as if they felt that a recording is going on, they perform a superb, precisely coordinated, dance in the air. In the end, the female flies to the south, towards Odzun, and the male comes toward me, passing quite low, exactly over my head, as if winking at me, to find out whether I loved the show.
(to be continued daily until the end of the journey)