The nun’s voice rose, strong and pure – the notes echoing round the church’s ancient vault. Then the monk joined in, his tenor melding with the harmonies. The small congregation bowed their heads, crossing themselves. The ritual, practiced in the Ananauri church for nearly 500 years, was profoundly moving.
Deer nibble grapes
Set beneath the snow capped Caucasus Mountains, the church is surrounded by high, crenulated walls. It needed to be. This Georgian outpost is just a short distance South of the Russian border. For hundreds of years invaders have marched down this gorge, its foaming waters having carved one of the few routes into the kingdom.
The exterior walls are decorated with the most exquisite stone carvings: a giant cross, on the backs of two dragons. Deer nibble at the twined grape vines – frozen in honey coloured stone.
My guide, Alex, sighed when I marvelled at the sight. ‘The church was ruined,” he explained. “Tsar Nicholas the first visited it in the nineteenth century. The interior was re-modelled in the style of the Russian orthodox church. The frescos whitewashed out. Such a pity!” And his gaze turned northwards, up the valley, from where so many threats seemed to have come.
Reading Georgian history is enough to make anyone’s head spin; so many wars; so many invasions. Caught between the Russian, Turkish and Persian empires, it could hardly be otherwise. Its rich valleys and fertile plains attracted many envious eyes. As the high towers dotting the countryside testify, to be a Georgian is to be constantly on one’s guard.
Generally they are a canny lot. Incorporated into the Soviet Union in the 1920’s and only freed in the 1990’s most Georgians seem to have a visceral hatred for their northern neighbour. Yet they cannot disentangle their histories. Stalin, after all, was a son of Georgia. A museum to the dictator still stands in his home town – Gori. Built around the one-roomed dwelling in which Stalin was born, it remains untouched – a loving homage to his achievements.
It is, the bright young curator told us, a museum within a museum. “We must preserve our past as it was,” she explained. Only one small room has been added: commemorating the thousands shot, deported and tortured by the Bolsheviks.
In the capital, Tblisi, the top floor of the National Museum is dedicated to the 800,000 Georgians who died during Soviet times. Giant photographs portray the politicians and priests who were killed. There is the side of a freight train – riddled with bullet holes – in which many died. There are the steel doors, hung from the ceiling, behind which they were beaten. The suffering was immense, but this tiny nation of four-million people has an extraordinary resilience.
Dealing with a terrible past
One photograph shows Patriarch Ambrosius – the head of the Georgian church. In February 1923, the Patriarch and the members of the Church Council were arrested and humiliated in a public trial. Below the picture are his concluding words: “My soul belongs to God, my heart to Georgia. You, my executioners, can do what you will with my body.” But such was his popularity, that the Communist didn’t dare kill him and the Patriarch was imprisoned instead.
Nor is it just a question of the past. Vast chunks of Georgia have been lopped off down the centuries. The latest were South Ossetia and Abkhazia – now effectively under Russian control.
I met David Magradze in one of Tblisi’s many restaurants. David served as Deputy Foreign Minister in a previous government. Eating aubergine stuffed with walnuts and sipping Georgian wine, David looked tired and drawn.
He explained that he might be called on to serve in government once more. Someone has to try to win the South Ossetians and the Abkhaz back into the fold. But Georgia has little to offer the people of these enclaves, who are deeply suspicious of their neighbour. It certainly will need all the finesse and the subtlety that a skilled negotiator can muster. But living in this difficult part of the world teaches skills few of us in established Western democracies can dream of.
This story was first broadcast on the BBC’s ‘From our own correspondent’ and you can listen to it here.