adventure in the borderlands
D’s first full day in Tbilisi coincided with a national holiday — Georgia celebrates Mother’s Day on March 3. D had planned to spend the day wandering around the city and getting acquainted with its charms. Instead, his colleague suggested a trip out to David Gareji, an ancient complex of rock dwellings, churches, and monastic caves that straddles Georgia’s border with Azerbaijan.
There are two roads to David Gareji from Tbilisi: the recently paved main highway to Kakheti, Georgia’s wine region, and the route D’s colleague took. In her defense, she was following the advice of two young Georgians who also work at the Embassy and who came along for the trip. In retrospect, given that neither of them had previously been to David Gareji, theirs was likely not the best advice to take.
Tacking in a southeasterly direction from Tbilisi, the road cut a black line through the otherwise dull-colored, endless steppes that eventually lead into Azerbaijan. Having chosen this route, the way forward lay through Rustavi, a grimy industrial town that is almost completely engulfed by a sprawling steel production facility and the associated small businesses it has spawned. The plant was opened shortly after the end of the Second World War — the first fully integrated metallurgical complex in the Caucasus. Although it is now under new management and remains one of Georgia’s largest industrial enterprises, Rustavi does not inspire the visitor with anything other than a sense of bleak despair and an urgent yearning to leave as soon as possible.
After getting lost in Rustavi’s post-apocalyptic industrial maze, backtracking several times and asking enough locals for directions to establish a modicum of consensus, D and his hapless companions finally managed to find the right way onward. Before arriving at David Gareji, the road hugs the Azerbaijani border. To be honest, “road” might be too strong a word for the shabby, potholed stretch of asphalt, eroded in some parts almost in its entirety, that led from Rustavi towards the ancient monastery. At some point, even the pretense of pavement fizzled out, leaving nothing but a rutted track. A helpful soldier on an ATV who was understandably surprised to see the gang of disoriented adventurers in a diplomatic-plated car so far away from any signs of civilization explained how to get back on the right track.
The soldier’s instructions led to the first of several signs that had been sporadically placed along a rough dirt road that wound through the desolate wilderness. A dozen kilometers later, D’s colleague parked the car at the foot of a small rocky outcrop that concealed the remains of an ancient monastery. It was not St. David’s Lavra, which D and his friends had set out to see, but after two hours of directionless driving, it represented a tangible sign of success. In fact, this monastery — Natlismtsemeli — is part of the David Gareji complex. It is simply one of its less frequently visited sites.
David Gareji was founded by an Assyrian monk in the 6th century. Despite its location in what is now a remote semidesert landscape, for centuries after its construction the monastery complex remained an important religious and cultural center. Georgian monarchs patronized it, whole villages blossomed around it, and it was richly supported by extensive agricultural lands. The original Lavra was extended, and ultimately no fewer than fifteen separate convents, together with cave dwellings for the faithful, were built over an expanse of several miles.
After its heyday, David Gareji suffered several centuries of devastation and neglect, precipitated by the Mongols’ sweep through Europe and exacerbated by a series of attacks perpetrated by a rotating ensemble of would-be conquerors. Its manuscripts were burned, its monks massacred, and its frescos largely destroyed. The monastery enjoyed a brief revival, but was shuttered again when the Soviets took over Georgia in 1921. The Red Army used the open steppes of the Caucuses as a military training ground, inflicting further damage to the convents and their remaining murals.
Though small in number, Orthodox monks are beginning to return to David Gareji. A prayer service had just concluded when D entered the caverns of the Natlismtsemeli monastery. The handful of men who had joined the monks in their prayers pointed the way towards St. David’s Lavra and explained how to get back to Tbilisi on the paved road from the main compound.
The Lavra and the Udabno convent that lies behind it are the largest parts of the David Gareji complex. They are located just inside Georgia’s border with Azerbaijan, in a range of mountains whose vibrant mineral deposits recall the terrain of Death Valley. The fact that some of the complex stretches across the border is a point of contention that has sparked a land dispute between the two countries. Georgia wants the entire complex to be under its control due to its historical and cultural value while Azerbaijan claims the land for its strategic and military importance.
The Udabno convent contains David Gareji’s best-preserved frescos, but the guidebook noted that it would take several hours to visit both the Lavra and Udabno, and it was fairly late in the afternoon by the time D and his friends reached the Lavra gate. In many respects, David Gareji reminded D of the cave monasteries he visited in Cappadocia, only not as well preserved, so he was not particularly sad to miss the remnants of the Udabno frescos.
On the way back to Tbilisi, D’s colleague made a stop in the tiny village of Udabno (not to be confused with the convent of the same name), the only outpost of civilization in this otherwise uninhabited land. Improbably, there is a rudimentary eco-hostel that is operated by a handful of Polish volunteers there. They served freshly made pizza and hot tea, which tasted especially divine considering that neither D nor his travel mates had thought to bring any food or water. A local boy of about eleven wandered in, and D whiled away the rest of his visit trying to hold his own at backgammon despite clearly being overmatched by his young opponent.