Unholy bread

The important day is today, but the Soviet past is chasing us all the time, and every day is a struggle for existence. In 25 years we can’t outrun Russian chauvinism and crazy ideas, wars and humiliation. However, happy independence day, my dears…” (A young Georgian)

Twenty kilometers. This is the distance that separates the city of Akhaltsikhe from the border with Turkey. Only twenty kilometers, today. In the past, it was almost impossible to cover these twenty kilometers. In Soviet times, the road linking Tbilisi with Turkey was interrupted a few kilometers after the spa of Borjomi, which was already renowned in Pushkin’s time, and afterward became the favorite destination of the Romanovs, as well as the new Tsars of the Soviet Union, with Stalin first of all. The road winds through gorges and valleys, among houses destroyed by time, as well as grocery stores. Every so often it is interrupted by the passage of grazing cows. Occasionally the green landscape is dotted by old and dilapidated concrete blocks. “It is there”, says Giorgi, a local Armenian and longtime taxi driver, “that the soldiers stood during the Soviet Union”. He makes the gesture of holding a military rifle. “And whoever tried to pass, was shot.” And later: “From here on… only with passport.” During the Soviet Union, the region was a prohibited zone, with many barracks. I have many testimonies from Armenians and Georgians sent to patrol this border zone during their military service. The most controlled zones included the spa town of Abastumani, already famous at the time of the Tsars, which in Soviet times hosted officers of the Red Army and their families. Still today there is an important astronomical observatory on the nearby mountain.

Among the several “sanatoria”, many of which have been abandoned, and among the numerous Soviet buildings in concrete, which still house the few people who remain, there still stands a small Armenian church.

“While they were eating, Jesus took the bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples […].» (Mk 14,22)

“Places do not have locations, but histories” (Tim Ingold). Built in 1898 by two Armenian brothers from Baku, the Armenian church of Abastumani is today in very poor condition, mainly because of the heavy renovations and changes in Soviet times. In fact, during the Soviet period the church was transformed into a bread oven. Besides partly eliminating and partly walling the gavit, the entrance hall of the church, the Soviets also added two buildings, partly built from the carved stones of the destroyed parts: a warehouse for oil and coal, and another for the storage of bread (to be sold in Abastumani and the surrounding villages). Still there are the big wooden shelves and the metal trays in which the ca. 3-kg loaves of were baked. The interior of the church is unrecognizable, were it not for the presence of the consacration crosses around on the walls, and a large plaque at the entrance with the description in Russian and Armenian, that explains genesis and construction of the church. Inside you can still see the big pots for the bread dough, and the large oven in the middle of the building.

bread1 bread1 bread1 bread1 bread1 bread1 bread1 bread1 bread1 bread1 bread1 bread1 bread1 bread1 bread1 bread1 bread1 bread1 bread1 bread1 bread1 bread1 bread1 bread1 bread1 bread1 bread1 bread1 bread1 bread1 bread1

The Soviet regime has partly attained its goal. The gesture of transforming a church into something else, something secular and industrial, was an attempt to eliminate any reference point and all structures that might stir the feelings of the local population, which, only a few years earlier, represented certainties. For eighty years, the Soviet regime attempted to replace the cult of the sacred with the cult of the idea.

The transformation from a church directly to the production of a foodstuff that has been always taken for sacred in every culture. The complete secularization and industrialization of bread has changed the meaning of ʻbread’ itself, which during the Soviet period, played an exclusively secular role, and even a role triggered by a secular metamorphosis.

“It is then a major disaster, in which the culture is shown to be extremely fragile and precarious, yet indispensable and irreplaceable. The same cognitive categories and symbolic figures through which a community perceives and understands the world and makes it thinkable, lose their meaning at the very moment when they are most needed. It seems that the world literally ends there. The perception of the whole and the sense of an imminent and irreparable doom become unbearable.” (G. Ligi: Antropologia dei disastri)

During Soviet times, a loft was built behind the brick oven, which was also used as a warehouse. Still there are some mills to knead the dough and perhaps to grind flour. To date, the traces of wax and soot near many crosses are a sign of how, over the years, the church has been visited by the faithful, bearing witness to the reappropriation, if not of the whole building, but at least of its recognition as a sacred place.

bread2 bread2 bread2 bread2 bread2 bread2 bread2 bread2 bread2 bread2 bread2 bread2

In Georgia, the process of transition was one of the most delicate in all the former Soviet world, not only for the violence accompanying it, but also for its contradictions.

Come with us to Maramureș-Bukovina!

Due to the successive trips to Lemberg and Georgia following each other so closely, only now do I have time to “officially” announce our journey to Maramureș and Bukovina, to be launched about three weeks from now. But since many of you have asked about it, and many of you also know the dates, it will certainly take place. The only question is whether we also will have to organize a second tour.

This year we organize our Maramureș-Bukovina tour – on popular demand, as it is already traditional here at río Wang – between 10 and 14 June (Wednesday–Sunday). We leave from Budapest by bus, and arrive through the medieval city of Baia Mare/Nagybánya, the cradle of Hungarian Impressionism and the gate of historical Maramureș, to one of the most archaic regions of Transylvania. We visit its wooden churches included in the list of UNESCO World Heritage and its Hasidic cemeteries, Sighetul Marmației/Máramarossziget, the central town of the region, cut in two by the Tisza river and the Ukrainian-Romanian border, and the “merry cemetery” of Sapânța/Szaplonca. We climb up with the narrow-gauge forestry railway to the virgin forest in the border mountains, to return in the afternoon, along with the wagons loaded with wood, to the Rusyn village of Vișeu de Sus/Felsővisó. We walk to the Horses’ Waterfall and the pass of the Radna Mountains. We visit the Renaissance-style princely monasteries in Bukovina, painted both inside and out with the full symbolism of Orthodox icons, which also feature on the list of UNESCO World Heritage. Our accommodation will be in traditional peasant farms engaged in agroturism, and – if we manage to reserve in time – in the Bukovina monasteries. And this year we will also do what last year we did not dare, due to the political situation: we will go over for a day to the Ukrainian Czernowitz, the traditional center of the region. Our accommodation will be in traditional peasant farms involved in local agrotourism, and in the Bukovina monasteries. On our similar tour of last year, you can read a detailed travel report here.

The participation fee for the five-day tour (accommodation with breakfast + bus from Budapest and back + guide) is 310 euros. Deadline of registration: 31 May, the usual e-mail wang@studiolum.com.

Our previous posts from the the former county of Maramureș (click for a full map), which will increase in the following weeks.

Welcome to Azerbaijan

Baku, this morning around the bus station, waiting for bus 85

A bus goes daily from Istanbul to Baku, it stops sometime in the afternoon on the highway around Kutaisi, at a Turkish grill. We fix the appointment by phone with the company, they will call us at the hostel from where we will have to leave. A taxi comes for us at four, it takes us to a small office in the outskirts. The Laz – a Muslim Georgian from Turkey – office manager is extremely nice. He orders a taxi, which takes us for twenty lari – about eight euros – to Zestaponi, thirty kilometers away, where the highway coming from the Turkish border through Batumi meets the Kutaisi-Tbilisi highway. At the roadside grill they serve both Georgian and Turkish food, and Turkish programs are playing on the TV hanging on the wall. Here, you can see an important function of the Turkish fast food places along the Georgian highways: they provide a continuous Turkish thread to follow for those traveling through the country. The bus arrives, with air-conditioning and wifi, the clientele is from the upper, relatively wealthy layer of Azerbaijani guest workers in Istanbul. They lunch, we leave. We stop once more, not much before the border, after the former industrial and now ghost town of Rustavi, north of the desert of David Gareja, at the Gaziantep Muslim restaurant, which is already quite similar to the roadside eating-houses in Kurdistan.

gaziantep gaziantep gaziantep gaziantep gaziantep gaziantep gaziantep

An hour later we are at the border, above Ganja. In the modern building of the Georgian border station, just like in all the country, the stray dogs stroll about freely. The Georgian border guards look astonished at the Azerbaijani electronic visa, introduced in last year, they have never seen such a thing. They ask for help by phone, but they receive none. They ask us several times whether we are sure that we can enter Azerbaijan with this thing. If not, we are welcome for the night in the waiting room. Afterfinally rubber-stamping our passports, we then make a half-kilometer walk in no man’s land, like at the Iranian border stations, with all of our luggage. For us, this is only a backpack, but most of our fellow travelers move on as a spectacular caravan. Along the walk, some luxurious duty free shops brightly lit in the night, the Azeris standing around hasten offer us their help in buying cigarettes there, it seems that those coming home cannot do this for some reason. On the Azerbaijani border they make us unpack every bag to inspect the contents. They try to open my notebook computer, after some tries I offer my help, they are grateful for it. They ask about each electronic gadget, the external HDs, the scanner, the external DVD reader, the chargers, how they are called in English and in Russian. They find it amusing. We wait a long time in the bus – even now, as I write this – for all the passengers to pass through the customs gauntlet, and in the meantime we chat with the others. The woman with bleached-blonde hair has a textile business in Baku, she goes twice a year to Turkey to sign contracts for Italian, English, and Spanish goods, just now her elegant store is being built in the new shopping quarter of Baku. “I love our President very much”, she reveals a sincere confession. “He is so positive, so civilized. And my parents really loved his father.” When was I in Baku for the last time? “In three years Baku changed so much, you will not recognize it.” Does this mean, a thing of which I am sore afraid, that they have completely destroyed the old town? On the morrow, I will give the answer.

The waiter and a local electrician – who paid for our first breakfast – try to insert the wifi code in my notebook, in Café Baku at the central bus station. Photo by Lloyd Dunn

After the Flood

The Holy Trinity Church of Gergeti was built so high up, just beneath Kazbegi Peak, right under the “roof of the Caucasus”, that, just as they say about other sites – the San Apollinare in Classe in Ravenna, or some other prominent churches –, this alone was not inundated by the Flood.

Thus the dinosaurs survived the great world catastrophe only here, and it is attested by the 12th-century window of the bell tower of the church.

Their descendants still stroll about in the village. And the bones of the dead ones are incorporated by the locals in their dry-stacked stone fences.

As the rest of Georgia, which lies to the south of the Jvari Pass, was converted by St. Nino in the 4th century, so Gergeti, lying to the north of it, was converted by a certain St. Dino already before the Flood. His companion represented in the carving of the window is St. Trichontosaurus, who, after some failed attempts to spell it, was left out of the legend, so his name has not survived.


Ten-year old pandurist Rezo plays and sings during a feast at the Katskhi Monastery

shepherd shepherd shepherd shepherd shepherd shepherd shepherd shepherd shepherd

Kutaisi awakes

The rooster is crowing

morn morn morn morn morn morn

Tamaroba / თამარობა

Vardzia Valley, this morning

Queen Tamari Bagrationi (თამარი ბაგრატიონი) (Mtskheta 1160-1212) reigned in Georgia from 1184 until her death. She was the eldest daughter of King George III (1156-1184) and Queen Gurandukht. During her reign, Georgia became the most important state of the Caucasus region. She greatly expanded the borders of the country at the expense of the neighboring Muslim powers. Her importance is shown by the fact, that, in spite of being a woman, she was endowed with the title “King” (მეფე, mefe). After her death she was followed on the throne by her two children, George IV Lasha (1213-1223), and Queen Rusudan (1223-1245). Queen Tamar’s grave has never been identified with certainty.

Under Queen Tamar, Georgian culture also had its golden age. Georgian-language literature was renewed – this is the epoch of Shota Rustaveli, author of the Georgian national epic –, and, in the wake of the construction of a large number of churches, fine arts also flourished.

Tamar-era castles in the Vardzia Valley

The castle of Abastumani looks down on the valley of Adigeni, some thirty kilometers from Akhaltsikhe. The fortress, built under the reign of Queen Tamar, has survived in a good condition. From the peak rising near Abastumani one could well control the two valleys and the neighboring highlands. The valley leads from Akhaltsikhe to Kutaisi, and in the age it was an important trade route towards the Armenian and Turkish region. This explains the construction of the large number of fortresses in the villages along the route, and the presence of such towns and fortified monasteries as Vardzia or Vanis Kvabebi. In the Soviet period the fortress was often visited, as it is shown by the several Cyrillic inscriptions on its walls. Today it is only looked up by a few tourists who know it exists, and by local believers, as it is attested by the icons and candles placed in wall niches, as well as the large cross of Saint Nino.

The icon of Queen – King – Tamar stands alone in a niche which is difficult to reach, highlighting the devotion to the Queen and her significance. Her feast – თამარობა, Tamaroba – is celebrated today, on 14 May all over Georgia.

Old photos from Kutaisi

“I commend this photo to my dear mother in memory of myself, so that she may have a picture of me, because I am far away. Look at it often, and do not forget me. Keep it until your death. Alexandre Ghoghoberidze. 21 February 1915”

Together with Jacopo and Eka, we sit in a kitchen in Mestia, beneath the mountains of Svaneti, and we pore over the Georgian inscriptions on old photos. It is not easy: in a hundred years the Georgian language has changed a lot: old dialectal forms are gone, courtesy formulas have been forgotten, the alphabet was reformed, even handwriting has changed.

“I commend this in memory of myself to my sweet mother and father, and my dear brothers. […] Tabidze. These two boys are my really good friends, Ivane and […] Mamaladze. 29 February 1904.”

The photos, by Georgian boys leaving for the Great War,  were left to their parents and brothers, so they would remember them after they died somewhere in Galicia, the Hungarian Carpathians, or under Przemyśl. On them, the authors pay respectful thanks to an editor for having published their articles in the journal of the cultural association of the small town. Officers, citizens dressed in Georgian folk costume, ladies, fathers of families stand for the last time before the photographer, and bear witness, a hundred years later, to a vanished Kutaisi.

“Ekaterina Eristavi, founder of the library of Medjuriskhevi, sister of Kita Abashidze. Shalva Eristavi, from Medjuriskhevi. [… illegible] With thanks to Ekaterina, for having so willingly published my work in the journal Iveria, thereby also enriching the readers of the reading room.”

I found these photos in the cabinet of a small antique shop on the street behind the bazaar of Kutaisi, where we went with Eti to peruse old jewelry. They permit me to take photos of them. Many of them are as if they had been taken by Ermakov, it seems that his successful photos made a school among the Georgian photographers at the turn of the century. I hope to find a photo by him, too, but then I find out that the original photos by Ermakov are kept at home by their owner, the young historian and renowned collector Ramaz Obuladze. He has already published his second book on old Georgian photographs, entitled The Georgian Attire, in which he illustrates traditional clothing kept in museums with the pre-war photographs of mountain dwellers in their traditional costumes and patriotic urban citizens dressed in folk costume. Soon I will write about this, too.

uqimerioni uqimerioni uqimerioni uqimerioni uqimerioni uqimerioni uqimerioni uqimerioni uqimerioni uqimerioni uqimerioni uqimerioni uqimerioni uqimerioni uqimerioni uqimerioni uqimerioni uqimerioni uqimerioni uqimerioni uqimerioni uqimerioni uqimerioni uqimerioni uqimerioni uqimerioni uqimerioni uqimerioni uqimerioni uqimerioni uqimerioni uqimerioni uqimerioni uqimerioni uqimerioni uqimerioni uqimerioni uqimerioni uqimerioni uqimerioni uqimerioni uqimerioni uqimerioni uqimerioni uqimerioni uqimerioni uqimerioni uqimerioni uqimerioni uqimerioni uqimerioni uqimerioni uqimerioni uqimerioni uqimerioni uqimerioni uqimerioni uqimerioni uqimerioni uqimerioni uqimerioni uqimerioni

Barcelona – Bayern München

Photo by Csaba Labancz

Sighnaghi, a small town in Eastern Georgia, on the cliff of the Gombori Range, deep beneath us the wide plains of the Kura and Alazani rivers, across the mountains of Azerbaijan. By midnight, only a small Georgian company sits in front of the wide screen in the restaurant of the only hotel, on the day of Saint George, the patron saint of Georgia, on which I first arrived to Georgia twenty years ago. Messi kicks the second goal. A member of the company rises to toast, with an archaic clay vessel in the hand, filled to the brim. Drinks it out, and passes it to the next. “What do they drink to?”  I ask of the waiter. “To the ancestors. On St. George’s night we drink to the ancestors, who died, so Georgia could live in freedom.”

The red wall board • El colgador rojo

Lemberg, Gas Lamp Café in the Armenian Renaissance house, where in 1853 a Pole and a Hungarian invented kerosene. The four floors of the café are decorated with photos, newspaper clippings, shares and objects of use in the fin-de-siècle oil fields of Galicia. In the glass-enclosed top floor with open views over the rooftops of old Lemberg, a typical red-painted Soviet-era wall board with red fire buckets and shovel. “Do you know why the bottom of the fire bucket was pointed in those days?” asks András. “So it would not be stolen. Because like this, it could not be used for anything else.”

Leópolis, Café Luz de Gas en la casa renacentista armenia donde en 1853 un polaco y un húngaro inventaron el queroseno. Los cuatro pisos de la cafetería están decorados con fotos, recortes de periódico, cacharros variopintos y objetos de uso cotidiano en los campos petroleros del fin de siglo en Galizia. En la planta superior acristalada que mira sobre los tejados de la antigua Leópolis cuelga de la pared un tablero pintado de rojo, típico de la era soviética, con cubos de incendio también rojos y una pala. «¿Por qué se harían estos cubos en forma de cono en aquella época?», se pregunta András. «Así nadie se los llevaba. Con esta forma no podían utilizarse para otra cosa».

Kutaisi, Georgia, inner courtyard of the city museum, with old Georgian grape treading tub • Kutaisi, Georgia, patio interior del museo de la ciudad con una antigua artesa para pisar la uva

Abastumani, Southern Georgia, inside an Armenian church that was converted into bakery in Soviet times and then left to decay • Abastumani, Georgia del Sur, en el interior de la iglesia armenia transformada en horno de pan en tiempos soviéticos y luego abandonada

Gelati, royal monastery

Mama o shenma. The monks of the monastery and singer school of Zarzma
gelati gelati gelati gelati gelati gelati gelati gelati gelati gelati gelati gelati gelati gelati gelati gelati gelati gelati gelati gelati gelati gelati gelati gelati gelati gelati gelati gelati gelati