A woman lights a candle in a recently decorated chapel, Tetri Giorgui Church. (photo: Armineh Johannes)
The cathedral of the Virgin (1125), Gelati Monastery, near the town of Kutaisi, was built by the beloved king, David the Builder. (photo: Armineh Johannes)
A modern statue of Georgia’s fifth-century king, Vakhtang Gorgasali, and the 13th-century Metekhi Church of the Virgin, overlook Tbilisi. (photo: Armineh Johannes)
A monk explains to a pilgrim a passage from a prayer book, Zedazeni Monastery. (photo: Armineh Johannes)
Catholicos-Patriarch Ilia II blesses the congregation gathered at Sioni Cathedral, the seat of the Georgian Catholicosate in Tbilisi. (photo: Armineh Johannes)
Villagers of Kedeli prepare tomatoes for the winter. (photo: Armineh Johannes)
Up on a hill, behind the metal doors of the Ninotsminda Monastery, Georgian Orthodox Bishop Atanesi listens attentively to the grievances of an elderly woman. His thoughtful replies bring her some comfort, but consolation is not permanent.
Since the deterioration of Georgias economy, which coincided with independence (from the Soviet Union) in 1991 and the Ossetian and Abkhazian wars that followed, Georgians tend to turn to the church to seek moral, even material, support, the Bishop says quietly.
Of course, we are unable to provide material support for the time being, but we try to listen, console and encourage the people.
As the Bishop sadly shakes his head, three nuns, protected from the scorching sun by century-old trees, engage in lively conversation, while a group of youngsters, pilgrims from Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, light candles, make the sign of the cross and pray in the monastery church.
Ninotsminda is located in the village of Kedeli, which lies in the heart of Georgias wine country, the southeastern region of Kakheti. As its name suggests, the monastery is dedicated to the nations patroness, St. Nino, a slave girl who brought Christianity from Asia Minor to this mountainous nation in the fourth century.
Since independence, the role of the church particularly the historic church of the nation, the Georgian Orthodox Church has grown considerably.
Our primary duty to Georgian society is to encourage the Georgian people to reunite, says Georgian Orthodox Bishop Abraham, Rector of the Theological Academy in Tbilisi.
Our political and civil upheavals have resulted in the partition of the nation. Hence, the major challenge for our church, and for our political leaders as well, is to try to unify the people through love, forgiveness and repentance.
Although the role of the Georgian Orthodox Church as a broker of unity is described by Bishop Abraham as an enhanced one, it is not unfamiliar. Since the dawn of the Christian faith in this buffer state between Asia and Europe, Georgians have been invaded, annexed and colonized by Persians, Byzantines, Mongols, Arabs, Turks, Russians and Bolsheviks. And, as with their Armenian neighbors, the Georgians have managed to preserve their unique national identity through their faith and language.
Ninotsmindas church dates to the latter half of the sixth century, making it the oldest Christian foundation in the Kakheti region. Many of the churchs important architectural details, however, such as the relief carvings, brick tower and cylindrical, cone-capped dome, date to later periods. Faded frescoes in the Byzantine manner cover the walls and vaults of the interior reminders that Georgias ancient culture was subject to Byzantine influences.
The village of Kedeli has conserved its Old World charm, seemingly unaware of the forcibly induced economic reforms and technological advances of the Soviets. In the towns narrow, sinuous streets, women, their heads covered with colorful scarves, sit under trees and balconies, knitting socks or sweaters. All in a row, ducks saunter the village streets, unperturbed by the rare car that crosses their path. Hundreds of dried corn cobs, strung from window to balcony, balcony to window, lend a festive atmosphere.
The villagers of Kedeli are hardworking folk who, while the weather is mild, are busy preparing their winter provisions. The dried corn is pulverized to form flour. Kvevris, large terra cotta amphoras, are filled with wine and then stored in the ground. Some of the women are cooking crushed grapes in large cauldrons to make tchouchkhela, a delicacy of stringed walnuts coated with the boiled grape substance and then baked in the hot sun. Bright red tomatoes and green peppers are cleaned and canned. There is little time left to do anything else.
We are very proud of our village and of our Ninotsminda, says Nana, a young villager, as she meticulously hangs bunches of grapes along her cellar wall to dry.
Though I do not always have the time to go to church I have a lot of work to do I carry my faith in my heart.
For almost 70 years, since the oppressive antireligious campaigns of the Bolsheviks began in the 1920s, Georgians have had no choice but to carry their faith in their hearts. Of the 2,455 churches functioning in Georgia until 1917, only 80 remained in the hands of the church in the mid-80s.
Our monastery was closed for almost 40 years, Bishop Atanesi reports, until [the Soviet authorities in] Moscow allowed it to reopen in 1957.
While the monastery church was closed, people practiced their faith in secret, worshipping in small chapels hidden in the dense forest.
The authorities were unaware of the existence of such chapels, says the Bishop.
Priests who had been forced to resign from their missions would secretly travel to these chapels to baptize the children. Not a single child in these parts has grown up without being baptized. I was baptized in the middle of the night in the nearby village of Kardenakhi.
Many of these priests were later found out by the Soviets and deported to Siberia.
Although baptism was customary in Georgia, religious instruction was not. In many regions, Georgians are aware that they are baptized Orthodox Christians, but they do not understand what it means to be a Christian, nor even how to make the sign of the cross.
We have to consider that for 70 years we have lived under an atheist regime, and that as soon as we achieved independence our country fell into civil war, Bishop Abraham says with a sigh. Church and state are separate in Georgia, but religious education has been taught to children beyond the third grade for three years. The Ministry of Education has proposed additional reforms.
A series of unexpected events, such as civil strife and an economic collapse, have surfaced in the post-Communist period, the Bishop states, compelling the Orthodox Church to act. Consequently, Georgias priests must be ready to embrace this expanded position of the church in post-Communist Georgia.
There are many youngsters who attend the Divine Liturgy, says Bishop Abraham. Many wish to have a religious education and enroll in theological schools.
In 1988, we had one theological institution, which only 30 students were permitted to attend. Today, we have two theological academies and four seminaries. Almost 500 seminarians, all in their late teens, are preparing for the priesthood, he continues with a smile.
Under the leadership of the Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia, Ilia II, the Georgian Orthodox Church has proceeded with an intense program of renewal that reached new heights in 1992 with the baptism of the Georgian President, Eduard Shevardnadze.
In 1994, 450 Georgian Orthodox churches and chapels were in use, 288 parishes were served by 422 priests, 13 monasteries were inhabited by 100 monks and nine convents housed 78 nuns. The government has also promised to return additional churches, all in various states of repair.
Back in the village of Kedeli, Bishop Atanesi, who has been stationed at Ninotsminda Monastery for 18 years, now serves four nearby regions. The Bishop visits some 20 parishes celebrating the Divine Liturgy on feast days.
But his heart remains with the villagers of Kedeli and Ninotsminda Monastery.
We celebrate the liturgy on the weekends. About 50 villagers (only 50 households remain in Kedeli) attend the liturgy and, on special occasions, pilgrims from Tbilisi join the celebration.
The villagers are nearly self-sufficient, the Bishop says with pride. They grow their own fruit and vegetables and make their butter, cheese and yogurt; they are always busy with their farms and livestock. Hence, they cannot attend liturgy often, but this does not mean they do not have faith.
Armineh Johannes, a Paris-based photojournalist, frequently travels to the Caucasus.