A synagogue, a mosque and a cathedral

Sounds like the beginning of a non-PC joke but I assure you it isn’t. We passed the Leselidze Street Synagogue every day, considered going in but didn’t, lured by the opportunity to have coffee from George’s coffee pot stand. Though this synagogue was built in 1910, a Jewish presence in Georgia dates from the times of Babylonian captivity in the 6th century BC.

Similarly, with the Tbilisi mosque which serves both the Sunni and Shia Muslims, we didn’t go in but found ourselves in the midst of the faithful pouring out after Friday noon prayer. We’d just finished our wander through the botanical gardens and physiological matters like food and drink were on our minds.

We probably could have spent all of our time visiting churches. We tried but failed to locate the one and only Roman Catholic Church. However, we couldn’t miss the Kashveti Church of St George which is opposite the Parliament building on Rustaveli Avenue. Time drifted as we admired the frescoes and observed the rituals of the faithful.

With our last morning falling on a Sunday, it seemed only fitting to go to mass. We trekked across the Metekhi bridge, and up the cobbled streets, to the Metekhi church under (or so it seemed) the watchful presence of King Vakhtang Gorgasali, founder of Tbilisi. There were people spilling onto the porches but other worshippers squeezed in so we followed. Inside, there was standing room only, as there were no pews. The priest called out and the choir and sometimes the congregation responded. I didn’t understand a word, so no different from going to mass in the desert then. Yet wrapped in a blanket of incense, the dim light of the spaghetti-like candles and the potent faith of my fellow worshippers, I felt the Divine.

The Metekhi church dates from the 13th century and is currently being repaired so scaffolding mars its façade but does not detract from the beauty of its compact garden where we sat admiring the hibiscus flowers. The same hibiscus flowers can be found in the grounds of Sameba (Holy Trinity) Cathedral which we visited the day before.

Even God has to air out his carpets as we found several basking in the sun on the side steps of the Cathedral. Once you entered there were no pews, just a lot of open space, a barred off throne area in the middle and hundreds of icons of Jesus, the apostles, saints especially St George. People milled around, repeatedly making the sign of the cross, kneeling and lighting candles. The difference to a Catholic or Protestant cathedral was at first overwhelming but I soon settled into looking at the icons and one of Jesus drew me as the light made his eyes twinkle. I gave thanks for my good fortune and prayed for my parents, husband and sons. I lit my candles including one for Val, the recently deceased aunt of a friend. She wasn’t religious but I remembered her all the same.

This is the second of three posts about our visit to Tblisi, Georgia.

Nature and Culture – a walk away

We were nearly extras in a Bollywood film. No, we didn’t go to India. We were in Tbilisi. Capital of Georgia – former USSR, not southern USA.

This was a holiday of many firsts – not just the first without the boys since the boys but also our first trip to Eurasia and our first AirBnB experience. Any one of these is enough to give one the jitters but I’m thrilled to say that much ventured, much more gained. I had no preconceived notions as one does of Paris, London or Barcelona. I did have a few expectations: access to nature, culture and food within a walking distance. Tbilisi far exceeded this expectation.

We stayed within a 10 minute walk to Rustaveli Avenue (named after the13 c poet). In the middle of the square is a huge plinth on which St George and the dragon reside in golden splendour. Our aim was to wander down to visit the museums and the Kashkeveti church but we got sidetracked by the Garden of the First Republic- a lovely square with mature trees and bushes. Kids were playing with their parents and grandparents while workers took a break. We sat and basked in the 35 degrees Celsius sun and enjoyed the breeze. So normal but so different from the 40+ degree heat we left behind in the desert.

We eventually made it to the National Gallery – lots of modern art: the ones that make you think that an unsupervised kindergarten class was let loose in a Hobbycraft store. Definitely not my thing. A quick exit and a hop to the National Museum where we spent over 4 hours. The basement boasted a display to rival any of the great jewellery houses of Paris’ Place Vendome. Many of the treasures featured my favourite gemstones, garnet and turquoise.

Another hall held currency as varied as cowrie shells and coins from 15th century Venice and the Ottoman Empire. The middle floors had exhibitions of contemporary Georgian artists. Many of the pieces were dark and foreboding and were commenting on the Soviet occupation which was explained in a balanced and at times personalized way on the top floor. With expanded hearts and minds yet aching muscles and grumbling tummies, we sought out food and bed.

The following day we crossed the spectacular Peace Bridge into Rike Park where I was a temporary pawn-eater on the gigantic chess-board. We made our way to the cable-cars that took us up to the Narikala fortress and the Kartlis Deda (Mother of Georgia), the 20 metre aluminum statue erected in 1958 to celebrate the 1500th anniversary of Tblisi. Due to her placement on the hill, it is not possible to take pictures imitating her stance, like at the Statue of Liberty (93m) or the Christo Redemptor (38m). This is a shame as in her left hand she holds a bowl of wine to greet those who come as friends and in her right hand is a sword for those who come as enemies.

We opted to descend by ambling through the verdant botanical gardens and wading in a waterfall-created pool. All that greenery and fresh air had us pining for more so the next day found us at Mtatsminda Park which I thought I’d never see due to the driver’s blatant disregard for self-preservation on the 20 minute drive up a winding road. The view into the valley was spectacular. The serenity of the Pantheon to Writers and Artists was worth the vertigo-inducing funicular ride down.

On our final day, we wandered into the market space of the Tblisi museum. We didn’t have time to explore the exhibitions but we perused the art and crafts on sale. We bought a Kakha Khinveli painting of Meidan Place. After a lot of deliberation, we purchased some pottery from the artist Gigisha Pachkoria. These two bowls are a perfect complement to our Denby Coast dinner service, some crockery we bought on the Accra-Kumasi road and a dish we got in Wensleydale, Yorkshire. Made me ponder on how similar we are despite our apparent differences.

This is the first of three posts about our visit to Tblisi, Georgia.