Tamara J. (New York)
Well, for starters, it was a fabulous tour that surpassed my expectations. You are a wonderful leader, John, and perhaps even without realizing it, you set the tone for a relaxed, informative, and fun experience... If anyone had any issue or problem, you tried to correct it immediately. So, we were all in exceptionally good hands. I can't thank Shergil and Soso enough for all of their amiability and -- best of all -- their beautiful voices!!
Celestine B. (Paris, France)
The idea was to take a trip with my 22-year-old daughter, Liza, an adventure worthy of a college graduation present. We settled on a 10-day journey through the small Caucasus country of Georgia, with a swing through neighboring Turkey, in search of the long-lost kingdom of Tao....These remnants of ancient Georgian culture were what drew us to join John Graham, an American musicologist and tour leader who lives in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, and seven other travelers on a journey that began in the Black Sea city of Batumi, circling through the Turkish cities of Kars, Yusufeli and Ardanuc, before ending in Tbilisi. John himself, whom I had met in Paris when he was touring with a choir of Georgian singers, provided the other lure. An academic expert in Georgian polyphonic chant, with a doctorate from Princeton, he had promised us music along the trip, and he delivered — including in a Georgian restaurant and a Turkish tearoom, isolated mountain churches and a rousing summer jazz concert in a Tbilisi park. Read the full article in the New York Times.
Ninette P.(London, UK)
We just finished a 12 days tour organised by John Graham to visit the Cathedrals of Tao. This was a tailor made tour, full of delightful surprises and extremely well run, with the help of a handful of carefully chosen people (including singers) who brought their own charm and interests to the enterprise. In this particular tour we also learnt and sung Georgian chants. It is indeed a privilege to be guided by a person who is deeply knowledgeable and passionate in this particular field. It was an unforgettable experience.
Anna Maria B. (Professor of Music, UCDavis, CA)
We went with a group of seven friends on John Graham's tour "The Cathedrals of Tao." It was one of the best vacations we have ever had. The nature is unlike anything we have ever seen, the music was a revelation, and we really got to meet the singers. By the end of the tour we were also singing, and it was such fun. John was an outstanding tour guide, always providing the right kind of information, not too much, not too little. Food was excellent. And the churches, monasteries combined with the spring flowers were just unbelievably moving.
Patricia A. (Manila, Philippines)
I don’t know how to begin to tell you how much I enjoyed our tour and how much more special it was because of your generous spirit. You shared so much of your knowledge and of yourself. I was telling Gina and Bettina that the flow of the tour was like Georgian chanting. It was based on drone polyphony, structured in its schedule and then again making room for improvisation, a beautiful composition. Each day built up to the next until Georgian culture surfaced gently and more clearly. I loved our interaction with the various communities you introduced us to, the chanters, the dancers, the carpet makers, the felt maker, the wine maker, the eco-tour promoter, the potter, the swordsman, all the creative people. I loved our group of seven years Luis you and Dato who shared with us and was so
much a part of our community. It brought to mind how many are called but few are chosen!!! I’m so impressed, even moved, by the capacity of each one to draw from their memories and their passion what it takes to bring out the best of their culture, regardless of the interruptions that have occurred during times of repression. It reminds me of the return and revival of indigenous species of trees which no matter how much they were trampled dug deep in the earth until one day, when the land was eventually abandoned, they sprouted from the earth to rise into what’s becoming a new forest. I am inspired to give a talk to our students on the revival of the traditional arts based on my experience in Georgia. It is indeed a good illustration of the revival of the traditional arts, where continuity is interrupted by circumstances. It was fitting that our final day was Georgian Independence Day. We caught a glimpse of the parade when we went for lunch at Mado and felt a sense of celebration.
I'm happy to comment on our trip through Kakheti with your driver-guide Dato. We have nothing but very positive comments about his professionalism, his enthusiasm and pride for being a Georgian and his dedication to making sure our trip was perfect. And, besides, he is a very nice guy. Dato is very knowledgeable about the history and culture of Georgia. We learned a lot from him and I would have no reservations in recommending him to others.
Emily S. (U. of Notre Dame, IN)
John is the perfect tour guide. He seems to know everything there is to know about Georgia, plus he has the advantage of being an English speaker and American citizen. I would highly recommend his tours to anyone looking for an authentic, safe cultural immersion!
Brian M. (USA)
Was part of a recent John Graham tour in eastern Georgia valley, including Ikalto and Kvareli areas. I highly recommend his tours - John and his team of Georgian chanters are superb singers and very knowledgeable on the history of the region. Our tour also included a traditional Georgian supra (feast) where John was a fantastic tamada (Georgian toastmaster) regaling the diners with amazing stories and legends during each of the ten times we toasted. He exemplified the best toastmaster skills - eloquent, intelligent, smart, sharp−witted and quick−thinking, with a good sense of humor.
Susan S. (retired judge, NY USA)
John Graham, a U.S. citizen, who has lived in Georgia for several years, gave our group the opportunity to see many facets of life in this eastern European nation. He has developed many friendships and we were the beneficiaries, as members of his "Arts and Artisans" tour this May. We visited people’s homes, a school for making icons, a school for making felt and felt products, a village where the women are weaving rugs in the traditional way. John has a doctorate in musicology and the subject of his dissertation, Georgian Liturgical Music , made our trip very special. The music is quite different than western church music as we learned when his friends sang for us in churches and also sang in restaurants. We were able to attend a wonderful, actually amazing, rehearsal of a dance performance. John filled our days with many activities; there was no time to be bored, although there were opportunities to opt out of the offerings. Incidentally, the price was all inclusive- the only extras we incurred were for items that we decided to purchase.
Celestine B. (Paris, France)
The idea was to take a trip with my 22-year-old daughter, Liza, an adventure worthy of a college graduation present. We settled on a 10-day journey through the small Caucasus country of Georgia, with a swing through neighboring Turkey, in search of the long-lost kingdom of Tao....These remnants of ancient Georgian culture were what drew us to join John Graham, an American musicologist and tour leader who lives in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, and seven other travelers on a journey that began in the Black Sea city of Batumi, circling through the Turkish cities of Kars, Yusufeli and Ardanuc, before ending in Tbilisi.
John himself, whom I had met in Paris when he was touring with a choir of Georgian singers, provided the other lure. An academic expert in Georgian polyphonic chant, with a doctorate from Princeton, he had promised us music along the trip, and he delivered — including in a Georgian restaurant and a Turkish tearoom, isolated mountain churches and a rousing summer jazz concert in a Tbilisi park. Read the full article in the New York Times.
Olga H. (Professor of Lit., Princeton NJ)
John Graham’s deep understanding of Georgian culture, history, geography, and politics combines with his thorough familiarity with life in Georgia today. Add to this a keen sensitivity to those around him, a warm disposition, and superb musicianship, and you have a truly exceptional tour leader who will help you not just learn about this ancient land and its people, but to experience it deeply. Dizzying views, snowy mountains, reverent frescoes in 5th century churches, a home where the lady of the house teaches everyone to make mouth-watering Georgian dumplings (ravioli meets origami), and generous hospitality and music everywhere. John’s experience and spirit shine as he graciously attends to everyone’s interests and needs. Three guides with delightful temperaments and exceptional musical abilities for nine travelers is hard to beat. No rigidity here! The tours flow. They have enough structure to preclude chaos but also enough flexibility to take advantage of opportunities that present themselves and to respond to interests of individual participants. There is no other country like Georgia and no other tour group like John Graham’s.
Mark B. (Library of Congress, Washington DC)
It is hard for me to imagine a more pleasant and well-organized way to see Georgia than on one of John's tours. The combination of interesting sites, well-planned itineraries, great food, and capable guides is outstanding. John's relaxed style coupled with his thorough knowledge of Georgian culture and history makes every day a learning experience, and his ability to adapt and modify the itinerary when unexpected obstacles arise is not to be underestimated. I can't recommend these tours highly enough.
Jan Matushka K. (Delaware, USA)
In May, 2017 I took two private tours with John. We had a full day as he drove up into the mountains to Sachkhere and Chiatura. Sachkhere is especially beautiful. Went visited both churches and important house-museums, as well as enjoyed a delicious lunch in a spectacular location along a stream in Sachkhere. I also enjoyed a one half day to sites off-the-beaten path in the Mtskheta area, visiting both a Syrian Orthodox men's monastery (where Aramaic -- the language Jesus spoke - is used), and a small female monastery. Enjoyed a great lunch in Mtskheta that gave us views over the city -- of Jvari Church and Monastery, Samtavro, etc. John is friendly, professional, knowledgeable and flexible. Was thrilled to see sites I'd never seen with him. I'd definitely go on a private tour with John again. Thanks, John!
Christine M. (Head of Greystone Academy, Philadelphia, PA)
Our June 2017 Ancient Christianity tour through Georgia and Armenia with John Graham was a moveable feast of history, nature, music, art, food, and wine. An exceptional experience. In addition to the planned sights, John introduced us to out-of-the-way treasures and many treasured people including:
- A beautiful restaurant in Tbilisi where John and his singer friends serenaded us with traditional Georgian folk music and chant.
- A personal conversation with the priest of Kvelatsminda monastery, facilitated by John’s Georgian/English translation.
- A spontaneous road trip to see medieval ruins by half the group, while the rest of us sat on the back porch gardens of our impeccable hotel, listened to the bells from the monastery on the hill, and watched a storm come in over the mountains. Something for everyone!
- The dramatic natural beauty of both Armenia and Georgia.
- A jewel of a restaurant and organic winery tucked away in a tiny town on a rural road in Georgia, enhanced with original art, artifacts, rugs, and a gourmet chef.
- The manuscript museum in Yerevan. Wow!
- The Armenian rug company for handmade rugs where artisans let us sit beside them and try our hand at the double Armenian knot.
As tour guide, John is kind and calm, providing customized attention to each tour member. John’s knowledge of the local area, history, music, architecture, and Orthodoxy make him tour guide and teacher in one. Accommodations were boutique, beautiful, and comfortable. With all details taken care of (hotel arrangements, fees, transfers, meals, timing), it was easy to relax and just enjoy. Highly recommended.
Carrie C. and Patrick E. (VA, USA)
John's tour brought us to the perfect intersection of mind-boggling history and awe-inspiring nature. We hiked a desert mountain covered in blue and pink springtime flowers, we stood in quiet reverence of the grave of a millennia-old saint. We stood at the top of the crumbling rampart of an old fortress and contemplated the green valley below, where hundreds of years earlier the farmers of that rich land feared the ever-present threat of raiders. John's engaging commentary brought the landscape to life, and fortunately he also knew the countryside like the back of his hand, so he navigated winding, unmarked roads with ease. Often, the end destination was a delicious meal at an off-the-beaten-track restaurant. John conveyed his love for Georgia, and convinced us to fall in love as well. We can't wait to go back.
Allison and Eric J. (Atlanta, GA)
To fully experience the beauty, culture, religion and cuisine of Georgia, I highly recommend “John Graham Tours”. I was lucky to be connected to John through a mutual acquaintance, and from the moment I reached out to him, I knew we were going to experience a trip of the lifetime. John organized a private tour for my husband and me to hit the major sights of the country while staying in deluxe hotels. He helped me to identify regions of Georgia that I may have missed had I not contacted him. John personally picked us up from the airport and took us to the hotel in Tbilisi and arranged a private driver and guide, Dato, to take through the rest of our trip.
Upon meeting Dato, I knew we were going to have an amazing time. Dato is extremely knowledgeable and passionate about Georgian history and culture. He took us back in time as he told us stories of Saints, Kings, Queens and the turbulent history of Georgia’s past. I felt as though I personally knew St. Nino and upon finally reaching her burial spot at the end of the trip, felt a deep appreciation of everything she had done to shape the religion of Georgia. As an avid hiker, he also took some of the most beautiful walks I have ever experienced in my life. He introduced to the absolutely amazing Georgian cuisine helping us navigate through menus and encouraging us to try dishes we otherwise would never have known about. After our tour of Georgia, John arranged for a driver to pick us up at the Azerbaijan border to take us to Baku. Dato walked us through the checkpoint and personally made sure that our driver was there! This was so above and beyond what we expected.
My husband and I can’t thank John and Dato enough. Our trip would have not been nearly as special without them and now we don’t only have a much better appreciation of Georgia, we have two new friends! I highly recommend you go to Georgia and you plan your trip with John Graham Tours.
Jim W. (Minneapolis, MN)
I have had the good fortune of traveling all over the world with all sorts of tour groups and guides. This, by far and away, was one of the best and most memorable trips of my life. John and the group members were simply amazing! I am already thinking to myself -- how can I get back to Georgia? John thanks for guiding me on this trip! I give it five stars.
Amanda C.-E. (Yale University, CT)
John was a tremendous resource when the Yale Women's Slavic Chorus toured Georgia in 2016. He is a careful planner, deep listener, and excellent teacher, eager to share his knowledge and love of Georgia's culture, music, and landscape. When I started to plan the choir's tour, he was one of the first people I contacted, and he helped ensure our tour was successful and on budget. John's suggestions for our tour included the perfect mix of musical workshops, sightseeing, feasting, and time spent reveling in mountainous beauty of Georgia's countryside. I am forever grateful that John shared his contacts with me; he has close relationships with amazing teachers like Soso and wonderful guides like Dato, and together John and his friends ensured that our tour was not only instructive but also inspiring. John's strength is in crafting complete experiences - tours that showcase the diversity of Georgian cuisine, traditions, and geography. His passion for Georgia is infectious and his knowledge incomparable.
Tamara J. (Dean of Mercy College, New York, USA)
Well, for starters, it was a fabulous tour that surpassed my expectations. You are a wonderful leader, John, and perhaps even without realizing it, you set the tone for a relaxed, informative, and fun experience. If you were annoyed by anything, you never let it show, and kept your good humor the entire trip. If anyone had any issue or problem, you tried to correct it immediately. So, we were all in exceptionally good hands. I can't thank Shergil and Soso enough for all of their amiability and -- best of all -- their beautiful voices!!
Margarite L. (Boston, MA)
The Pilgrimage to Georgia Tour was an absolute delight! John, Soso and Shergil were like gracious hosts and friends, making sure we had abundant, sumptuous food and drink, and plenty of spectacular landscapes to enjoy! Many of the ancient churches and monasteries were hidden jewels that would have been impossible to visit without them. Plus, their voices in all those sacred spaces were unforgettably moving. I highly recommend JohnGrahamTours, as they provide an intelligent, thoughtful, and insightful Georgian experience, in addition to warm and welcoming hospitality at every turn. You will come away loving Georgia.
Natalia M. (Falls Church, VA)
Dear John, Thank you again for organizing and leading one of the best tours I have ever taken. You and your two wonderful assistants, Soso and Shergil, made this tour memorable and successful. We visited so many beautiful sites, learned so much about the cultural, historic and religious aspects of Georgian history, discovered delicious Georgian cuisine and wines, and last, but certainly not least, heard and appreciated your chanting. It was an unforgettable experience! If you, Soso and Shergil are ever in the Washington DC area, please let me know and I will be happy to assist you in any way I can. I'm attaching two photos -- of you chanting in the Shuanta Monastery and singing at our farewell dinner.
Margaret H. (New York)
Knowing you and being with you on the Georgia tour and participating in the listening and singing of the chant, was pure delight. I also keep a fond memory of our visit with the Patriarch and the ballet. Thank you for all the extra effort you put into doing these things for us... they are appreciated!
Galina T. (Florida, USA)
Hello, John, I want to thank you for your very well planned and executed group trip through Georgia. We all (we talked about it!) agreed that the success of the trip, in spite of the weather, was mostly due to your wonderful management skills and your great personality. With half the people sniffing and coughing, and some, like me having other health problems, you managed to keep everybody happy. I was very happy to meet you lovely wife and we had a nice chat and found out that we both started our Romance language studies by taking Portuguese. I wish her great success in defending her dissertation, and you as well. The Georgian chants that we were treated with in almost every church, gave it an extra glorious feeling. Please give my greetings to Soso And Shergil, without whom you would probably not have been able to manage as well. They were both terrific. I want you to know that if ever you come this way (to Florida) please, come and stay with me. I will have room for your family and will provide entertainment for all. Thank you again, Love, Galina
Fr. Lawrence and Ann (Santa Rosa, CA)
Dear John, Thank you for the email and the links. Ann and I are well, thank God, by your prayers. Forgive me for not emailing you earlier, say back in November. I want to thank you for your kindness, for sharing your talent and love for the Georgian Church, saints and liturgical singing (you’ve become a master), and for your professionalism. Reflecting back a bit, that trip was so wonderful, and enlightening. It opened up all kinds of things for me, and I have the warmest memories of a trip, a pilgrimage, strangely, without difficulty. Usually pilgrimages have all kinds of obstacles, since that’s just part of the struggle, but YOU did all that ahead of time, and privately, sacrificing yourself for us, so our trip would be smooth. Thank you so much. With love in Christ, and wishing you a most blessed Nativity of the Lord, Fr Lawrence and Ann
Andy L., MD (New York, NY)
This was a wonderful tour with many surprises. Salient among these was the arrival in Ushguli, Svaneti, where we all were overwhelmed by the appearance of the mountain, Shkhara, looming magnificently over the town. I have rarely experienced anything like this on any trip and ranks with one of the most memorable sights I have seen (for me, ranking with Red Square and Borobodur in Java).
John is a highly knowledgeable tour leader-he can talk about Georgian architecture, art, and, of course, the music. Having two other assistant tour leaders who were able to create the three- part Georgian polyphonic chant, was brilliant. Every church we entered was soon filled with the sounds of a chant ( or two). The evening supra feasts were filled with song. The food at the noonday and evening meals was varied, tasty, and very interesting. There was an attempt to always provide local specialties wherever we were. For me, struggling with the sounds and phrases of the Georgian language were an added attraction. I would highly recommend this tour for anyone interested in music, culture, history, food , and language.
Connie T. (Princeton, NJ)
Hi Everyone! My return flights were smooth and I arrived in Princeton appropriately tired. Monday found me at my icon painting class, an annual event, working diligently on an icon of Elijah. Finished the class on Friday, but the icon remains a work in progress, and then began my "recovery" from the jet lag. I want to tell all of you that I enjoyed meeting you, and sharing the Georgian Experience! Beautiful singing at table and in the churches/monasteries will remain in my memory for all time! Good food, conversation and wine capping off each day, I can only describe as beyond any expectation. I look forward to seeing the pictures you post online, and thank you in advance for sharing them with me. Most appreciated since my hand isn't as steady while holding a camera as it used to be. Be well everyone; have fun, and laugh a lot!
Marilyn B. (Art Professor, Missoula, MT)
The Road to and from Ushguli. The journey to a place, for me, can be as significant as finally arriving at a destination. Such was the road to Ushguli. Immersed in Orthodoxy on this tour, its rich regional history, its architecture and ancient chants, all the icons, the angels, saints and martyrs, it felt that day as if we were part of the story, being guided through the landscape by a couple of spirits in the guise of bus drivers, who delighted in showing us details along the way. We stopped to pick wild strawberries and to walk through mountain streams that washed away our gravel road. We found interesting stones in the stream as the drivers helped us across. At other stops we took in the expansive view around us and tried to photograph what we have no words for. Being in Ushguli, though only for a brief evening, was the highlight, but the ascent to that magical place and the gradual leaving of it is part of a fond memory. Continuing on to Racha, we stopped to look down at melting glaciers in the valleys below while our drivers picked a bouquet of wildflowers for the ladies. Arriving back on a paved road later in the day brought an abrupt end to that otherworldly mountain experience.
Sara B. (Cambridge, MA)
To encounter Georgia for the first time, and to be guided through the country by John and his remarkably talented friends, is a uniquely enriching experience and, I imagine, quite a rare opportunity. Georgia itself is nothing short of spectacular. I was continually surprised and awed by its cultural nuances and natural wonders, and these alone make a visit to Georgia memorable and even life-changing. But the credit for making this a particularly meaningful trip is due to John’s warm-spirited nature, his depth of scholarship and practice of Georgia’s ancient musical traditions, and his seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of many other subjects as well! I can easily imagine traveling in Georgia alone, with no language, no local connections or friends to host you, no idea how to best experience the remote beauty or the tiny chapels in forgotten villages, no immediate introduction to the music or the supra tradition (which both add so much to the full experience). It could be a very lonely, limited encounter with a country that has so much to offer.
John’s command of Georgian history, culture, and language is remarkable and enlivened by his apparent love for the country. Most impressive was his skill at knitting a group of foreigners into the dense tapestry of Georgian family life, sacred space, and cultural tradition with ease. He has clearly endeared himself to his Georgian friends, and their generous hospitality is extended to anyone traveling with him. I feel changed for the better by John’s tour of Georgia and would say that it provides the best of what travel has to offer to human experience: awe, adventure, history, cultural exchange, natural splendor, spiritual/personal reflection, new perspectives on living, and deep moments of community, humility, and friendship.
Matthew A. (Music Professor, Iowa City)
I went on John Graham’s Cultural Heritage Tour through Western Georgia with the principal aim of learning more about Georgian music, particularly Georgian chant, in its own spatial, social and spiritual contexts, in order to be able to study it properly. I had high expectations for the trip, because soon-to-be Dr. Graham is the foremost researcher on Georgian chant in the English-speaking world and an experienced tour guide, and because Georgia is a beautiful and bounteous country. Even so, my expectations were but shadows of the wonders and insights that I experienced. The people are generous and spirited. The food and wine are incredibly sumptuous. The music is haunting and robust. The land is heaped with variously colored hills and mountains, not unlike the heaps of varied dishes at a Georgian feast. And I was able to pepper the captive Mr. Graham with incessant technical questions on the long car rides, thereby gaining a better picture of the music. I also acquired six recently published but rare volumes of Georgian chant scores and a rare CD of folk music and chant with traditional tuning.
The tour was enriched by the singing of our three guides, John Graham, Shergil Pirtskhelani, and Soso Kopaleishvili, who are all professional musicians. They would sing at each church or monastery that we visited, allowing us to hear the music’s proper tone and resonance. They also regularly sang table songs at dinner. Toward the end of the tour, Mr. Kopaleishvili had to leave, and Mr. Graham and Mr. Pirtskhelani taught me a couple chants and allowed me to sing with them. This opportunity was a great honor and pleasure.
The tour was also enriched by the music of other Georgian musicians. In Batumi, I came across a quartet of folk musicians on the boardwalk. In a village in Svaneti, we had lunch with the two masters of Svanetian folk songs in that area and heard them sing. And in Tbilisi, I attended a Vespers service and heard two styles of chant from antiphonal choirs. Something I have realized from my various experiences is that Georgian music is extremely varied in style, taste, and skillfulness, and its theory and practice are contested and changing. This realization is at once humbling and inviting.
Peter T. (retired lawyer, Chicago USA)
Inter alia: I would like to commend the graciousness, hospitality and kindness of the Georgian people; the beauty of the landscape and its many ancient churches and the singing; the courteousness and lavish generosity of our host John Graham; the wonderful food and commodious accommodations during the tour; and finally, again, John was extremely knowledgeable and unstinting in sharing Georgia with all of us.
Vivian P. (ceramicist, Maine)
The Tao-Klarjeti and Svaneti tour proved to be a transformative event in our lives. The sights, the sounds (absolutely nothing can compare with hearing your tour guides chant in magnificent churches or monastery ruins and break out with folk songs during fabulous Georgian dinners), and the new friends we made... it made this trip unlike any other we’ve taken before or since. As if the incredible sights in Tbilisi, Vardzia, Oshki, Ushguli, Batumi and Kutaisi weren’t enough to keep us enthralled, John Graham and his Georgian colleagues Soso and Poti gave us their attentiveness, their caring, their humor and especially their musical mastery added an element of pure magic. An added joy is that a few years later we’re still corresponding and visiting with friends we made on this tour.
Steve G. (Boston, MA)
On our 2014 tour, I want to say that all our informal group interactions, taken together, became the main highlights for me. All the meals we shared together and the music you professional chanters sang at those meals (as well as at the monasteries and other places) were unforgettable. And again, the 1st class accommodations that you arranged were an unforgettable and unexpected delight. Thank you again for that! Another highlight was witnessing the consecration of the bishop and the beautiful music that was part of that ceremony. It was just sublime! We will never forget that. We listen to the CD of that beautiful music...that you subsequently gave us...both in Maine and at home. It creates a heavenly vibration in both places, puts us at peace and vividly reminds us of that experience.
Michael S. (Brisbane, Australia)
What a find!! Looking for something to tack onto a trip to Armenia I chanced upon John’s Monastery Tour. It turned out to be the best decision I have ever made in regard to holiday travel. The itinerary was well thought out, the meals and wine were superb and the chanting of John, Soso and Shergil is a memory to cherish forever. Dinners were turned into feasts with their music and singing. Other highlights (realistically the entire trip was a highlight) were the visit to the Vardzia cave complex, Davit-Gareji Monastery with a climb over the hill to view the cave murals and a trip to the Gergeti Sameba Monastery in the High Caucasus. So memorable was the Monastery Tour, I joined John again in 2016 for Cathedrals of Tao itinerary. Another great experience. Thank you John for such wonderful tours.
Lin M. (lawyer, Dallas, TX)
The 2014 tour to Tao-Klarjeti and Svaneti, among other destinations, was one of the most remarkable experiences of my life, and my wife feels the same way. The breathtaking physical beauty of Svaneti was a revelation. Those towers in those alpine landscapes have lingered in my memory ever since, and in our dining room I’ve mounted four 30x48 inch paintings of the magical mountain village of Ushguli. Walking on dirt roads there one early morning, elegant towers against mountain backdrops in every direction, is for me a particularly treasured recollection, as is the memory of one morning in Turkey, when John Graham led us to the deserted ruins of a medieval Georgian cathedral, out in the countryside, where one felt far removed from the modern world. There is another specific memory that is really not of a particular moment, but of many moments that have fused together in memory into one. Night after night we had Georgian feasts, at which John introduced us to local toasting customs. Almost giddy with the quality of the wine and the company, we all made and heard expanded toasts, and became real friends at a surprising speed.
John Graham is the ideal guide for journeys to Georgia. He is a charismatic and extremely articulate scholar who is deeply learned about the place and its history. Long a resident, and married to a Georgian wife, he has a deep understanding of the local culture, cuisine and wine, and has perceived and perfected exactly how to impart the essence of Georgia to his fellow English speakers. If you want to see a often neglected corner of the world on a trip that is at once exciting, intensely pleasurable, and a profound learning experience, a John Graham tour is just what you need.
Carol W. (Hanover, NH)
My Georgia tour with John Graham was hauntingly memorable. There were vast open spaces, cattle in the roads, rural monasteries and incredible meals shared with the entire gang and wine toasts to life, to our incredible trip and its guides. Every destination monastery was punctuated with views of towers, historic chapels, filled with frescoes of the saints, friendly monks who loved our visits and enjoyed sharing John's. Soso's and Shergil's vocalization of ancient chants that echoed throughout the historic churches. What made the trip so unique was the multi-layered culture and John's close relationship to the people, the history and heritage of Georgian regions, the locals with whom he related and the music that surrounded us throughout the trip. John is fluent in the Georgian language, culture and music. The trip was one of the best of my life and I have recommended it to others who then went on his tours. They returned to tell me their experiences were exceptional and equal to mine. I look forward to going on another trip with John and know that it will be of the highest quality possible. Hoping to go on another trip next year!!!
Carol W. (New Jersey, USA)
The 2013 Monastery Tour exceeded my expectations at every turn! Without doubt, it was the finest trip I've ever experienced. Georgia was an amazing cultural experience, and John Graham and his co-workers did everything imaginable to add wonderful touches to the trip. It was a spiritual, cultural, culinary, and intellectual feast, with amazing, unexpected delightful surprises at every turn.
Marian B. (New Jersey, USA)
The music and the sacred spaces: surely the most memorable and moving of all our Georgian experiences. Yours, Soso’s, and Shergil’s beautifully blended voices raised in chant in the churches and cathedrals transformed those visits into worship. Deeply moving also was the response of people who had the good fortune to be in church at the moment of your chanting.
Terry C. (Texas, USA)
I think differently now. Georgian drivers do not ignore the white lines at all. In fact, they use them for alignment: two tires on the left side of the line and two tires on the right. As oncoming traffic is doing much the same thing, driving can resemble a perpetual game of "Chicken." If you need to pass, no problem. By all means do so, whether on the right or the left. If you are going around a curve, just go for it anyway. Do not concern yourself with the oncoming traffic. They will scoot over. Or not. And so now I realize that Georgian drivers are simply the best in the world, as they maneuver around cows, pigs, switchbacks, and potholes the size of small bedrooms, all with effortless aplomb. Our driver, Archilko, proved to be the best of the best.
Tamara J. (Michigan, USA)
Well, for starters, it was a fabulous tour that surpassed my expectations. You are a wonderful leader, John, and perhaps even without realizing it, you set the tone for a relaxed, informative, and fun experience. If you were annoyed by anything, you never let it show, and kept your good humor the entire trip. If anyone had any issue or problem, you tried to correct it immediately. So, we were all in exceptionally good hands. I can't thank Shergil and Soso enough for all of their amiability and -- best of all -- their beautiful voices!!
Tim T. (Washington DC)
Myself, Parker Jane, my daughter Phoebe, and Fred Binkholder from the Capitol Hill Chorale have participated in a ten-day tour with John. While there, we had a fascinating tour of the country’s geography, including a series of breathtaking sites of monasteries not easily accessible to most persons, including Georgians. Repeated highlights of this trip were our informal concerts by seven of our group, plus John and his right hand man Shergil, - that is nine persons, split into three groups and led by John in singing the unique-to-Georgia “Georgian three-part harmony chants”. Western singing is based upon the Bass voice part, with harmonies moving to the higher voices; in these Georgian chants, the upper voice sets the scale and the other voices form the harmony -- all together an unique sound.
I can think of no person more knowledgeable or more immersed in this country’s musical culture than John Graham. He has lived in Georgia for years, speaks the language fluently, married a wonderful Georgian lass with whom he has had a daughter. And he incorporated other professional singing groups with our fledgling triple-trio – it was marvelous. As a host, teacher, tour leader, and Georgian music savant, John is without peer and I cannot recommend him more highly.
Parker J. (Washington DC)
I was on John’s Georgian tour with Tim in 2012, and I had wonderful experiences on tour. As the founder of the Chorale, the musical editor responsible for resurrecting a major early twentieth-century Georgian choral work, and a co-author with John Graham on a journal article about that work, I can offer an additional perspective on the potential of an exciting partnership between John and any company.
First of all, although it is not widely known in the West, Georgia has one of the most fascinating and longest continuous choral traditions of any country, stretching back well over 1,000 years. Georgians developed true polyphonic singing hundreds of years before it appeared in Europe. To me, Georgia is one of those few special countries – along with Wales, South Africa, Bulgaria and some others – that have a special and unique tradition of choral singing that should appeal to music lovers generally, and lovers of singing especially. Georgian vocal music, though, is significantly different than Western music, including different tunings that may sound strange to western ears. Also, Georgians are used to ensembles that are much smaller than the size of most western choruses.
What I think John can uniquely offer clients instead is not only an exposure to but an immersion in Georgia’s fascinating musical traditions. As Tim described, on our tour we visited monasteries across Georgia. At each monastery and church, John prepared us to sing a piece of Georgian chant – an indescribable way of experiencing this music. For me the culmination was chanting during a Sunday service, at the request of one of the priests, in one of Georgia’s oldest and most revered churches.
A note about John. He is, simply, the preeminent expert in America on Georgian liturgical music, with years of research and performance experience in the country, and a recent doctorate in the field. He is also a superb tour organizer with almost 15 years of organizing tours for Americans and others in Georgia. He’s engaging, personable, a wonderful tour leader, and seems to know everyone in the country. If your taste doesn’t go beyond the Mozart and Brahms Requiems, this probably isn’t for you. But for musicians with curiosity for uncovering new delights, it’s hard to beat. I’m happy to talk more if you’d like, but hope this gives you enough encouragement to take a next step.
Marilyn B. (Professor, Missoula, MT)
All of Georgia in a Bowl of Wine
We arrived shortly before Vespers at the Martvili Monastery on the afternoon of June 23. The bishop was in attendance. John and Shergil sang with the men chanters, alternating with the women chanters. We stayed for part of the service and were then shown a loft room at the back of the church, now made into a small museum, where King David the Builder (12th century) would attend services and pray and study. As a child, David had been raised by the Bishop of Martvili, we learned, and had always returned for Great Lent fasts. Because John knew one or more of the monks, we were then invited to visit the Monastery's wine cellar, where wine was made according to Georgian tradition. Grapes, skins, seeds and stems are all pressed and aged in the particular Georgian vessels called qvevri, underground beeswax-lined clay vessels. Nothing is added. The grape skins themselves contain the yeast to ferment the wine. A monk poured a clay bowl of red wine for each of us. There were toasts and the singing of chants. I did not want to offend by not drinking it, as wine has always made me ill. But I took a sip. It was the color of dark red velvet. It had a rich texture. The taste was complex, earthy and mellow. It was unlike anything else called wine. I had heard stories about the meaning of wine to Georgians over their history, experienced the Supra tradition where Georgians toast to the health and long life of everyone at the table, and I grew up with Bread and Wine as the Sacrament. But I had never experienced wine as in that clay bowl.
Georgian music drew me to this country. Music and Georgian hospitality draws me back. Here I was in a Monastery cellar, with its history of prayer and endurance, its saints and martyrs. I was in a place described as “probably the most beautiful country on earth,” and I was drinking it all in, in that clay bowl of red wine. I slowly savored every drop and gave thanks for the gift of that moment.
Richard D. (Professor, Missoula, MT)
In my opinion you put together a wonderful 2012 Monastery Tour. I thoroughly enjoyed it and would do it again--provided it had more stops at wineries. 🙂 You showed us a lot of the Georgian countryside as well as giving us a good look at the people and culture. I liked that because when I go to a place I want to know about its people. Additionally, you gave us an "inside" look at the Georgian Orthodox church, which was important because from what I saw the church is like a glue that holds the country/people together. If I'm wrong about that, please tell me.
For me there were several high points on the tour. First was the chanting. It was lonely and I was moved by it. You did a great job getting the members of our group up to speed. The high point in the chanting was our experience at the church in Ubisa. When those young women surprised us with their chanting we were amazed. For awhile with the two groups we had the dueling chanters. Too bad we couldn't have traveled a little with them. There were several other small things that were high points for me; meeting the bishop at the vespers service, tasting the wine at the monastery, buying--and devouring---raspberries, the relatively long hike to the monastery, the meal with the family in the village, the toasting at meal time and many others.
Alix K. (San Francisco, CA)
I have some deeply fond memories of Georgia in my heart – especially the Orthodox moments (touring and singing in the churches, the services); a few of the special moments when our voices really seemed to meld and come together; the mountains (I wanted more of those!).
Most of all I treasure the soul and spirit of the Georgian people, their awareness of the joy and blessings touching them at each present moment, and their readiness to thank God for it and express their love for the people sharing in their joy at every given time. I learned from them the importance of solid faith and conviction in belief, of the need to be aware of every good thing and to find a way to share what is in the heart instead of taking it for granted and keeping it inside oneself. For this I am very grateful. There were several times – especially our last night together, when the locals joined us – that I felt the richness of community within the people in whose company we were lucky enough to be. I spoke to Luarsab about this, that your little group of friends seems so unusually loving and caring towards each other. And every one of the people in it seems especially talented, unique, blessed by God. Something else I felt again and again was how truly Orthodox a country Georgia is. It's felt in every passerby, on every street corner. More so than Russia, than Serbia... First of all, I never felt threatened or unsafe, even when I was alone. The people share a common love and dedication to their faith. Even the youngest and most masculine of Georgian men find a way to preserve their manlihood on the exterior while being mindful of God at heart, mindful of their faith, and not afraid to show it.
Favorite moments – walking along the path leading from Vardzia Cave Complex, tearing bits of random plants to both sides of us, and finding each one to be an incredibly fragrant and unusual herb. Being stopped by a shy monk after vespers in Sapara Monastery, who gave me an icon of the Theotokos – which just happened to be the Diveevo “Mother of God of Tenderness”, a very special icon for me personally. Singing with the Georgian girls in Ubiza church after a chance meeting of choirs. I remember that the frescoes in that church were especially unusual and striking, so it was a true blessing to sing among those ancient and holy images. Sharing stories from our lives with each other over a dinner table overlaid and overflowing with food and wine, finding inspiration in the toasting tradition of the country hosting us, and the bravery to overcome whatever qualms we may have had in our faraway homes. Starting off on a leisurely evening walk and ending up embarking on a three-hour hike through river-beds and up fortress walls to the most breathtaking view imaginable.
Chris W. (Nantmeal, PA)
It was hot. Ice cream was in order. However just saying ‘icecream’ in Georgian is no small undertaking. There is no adequate transliteration with Latin characters for ‘naqini'. The 'q' consonant is something between a ‘k’ and an ‘h’, said as far back in the throat as humanly possible without choking! Someone told me, “Imagine you are crushing an ice cube stuck in your throat and the resulting sound should be close.”
We stopped at the bazaar in Gori, and while John got some of the unpronounceable cold desert for us, I walked through the stalls, under ragged tarpaulins of blue and orange. The boxes of fresh produce were endless. Anna was curious about some of the beans in long pods that one doesn’t usually see in the grocery stores back home. She asked the man in Russian what they were called. I don’t know if she got a satisfactory answer in the way of nomenclature, but the vendor gave an enthusiastic answer all the same, “These are great! Start by cutting up some red onion, see here. Put them in the pan with some hot oil, then the beans. Cook them for about half an hour. That’s how my mother does it- dzalian gemrielia!” [it's really delicious!]
Georgia is a country rushing forward, for better or for worse, modernizing, opening up to tourism and western ways. Now is the time to come before anything else is tainted by the swift tide of globalization, while there is still so much that is wild, and old, and hilariously not first world; while there are still bazaars like the one in Gori, and soviet-era cars riding the roads piled high with whatever produce is ripe, and while you still need to try quite hard not to eat locally and in season.
The monastery tour would be worth it simply for the opportunity to travel through the dramatic landscapes that make up this Valley of Karts [meaning of the name of the country Sa-kart-vel-o]. It is a dramatic land that ranges from a rapidly modernizing capital to lush forests, dry lands, rugged untamed hills and steep river valleys. But the ten days also provided me with much more than a sense of Georgia’s history (and some incredible photos). Coming to the end of the monastery tour in July this past year I felt filled with the magic and mystery of the ancient land of Georgia, Sakartvelo. I have a vivid memory of standing in the carved out chapel in the cave city of Vardzia, looking up at frescoes that easily predate the entirety of America’s history, as polyphonic harmonies sung by John, Eka, Anna and Mama Lazare rose up around me. I was transported to another age, far from the modern western world.
Anna B. (Amherst, MA)
As a scholar of Russian literature, I have often found myself confronted with this mysterious and magical place called "Georgia." Whether it's Pushkin evoking the beauties of Georgian song or Lermontov capturing the breathless sublime of her mountains, or friends in St Petersburg extolling the cuisine, Georgia emerges as a place of beauty, hospitality, and pathos. I knew that I would not want to visit Georgia simply as a tourist. John Graham's monastery tour, which he led with Eka Diasamidze, was the perfect way to enter into Georgian culture as a visitor and guest. Through John and Eka's combined wisdom and insights, I felt like I had a unique window into modern Georgia and its relationship with its cultural traditions.
I had been singing in a Georgian choir at Princeton University for four years before the tour (some of those years with John), and music turned into a powerful force on the trip that united us with our hosts. At each monastery we visited, we would chant. Hearing and participating in this music in the sacred spaces for which it was designed was humbling and inspiring. It brought us so much closer to our hosts and made me feel a deep connection to the places we visited.
Both John and Eka's love for Georgia is palpable, and we were all the beneficiaries of their desire to share this beloved place and its culture with all of us on the trip. I have never been so well fed, seen so many varied landscapes, learned so much history, and connected with so many people on a trip before, and I return to my memories of it more often than I can say.
John C. (Washington DC)
Barbara and I were so excited to share our memories of the 2011 Monastery Tour with all of our friends, especially those having a sense of adventure and an interest in not-so-well-known countries. Your tour is by far the most interesting we have experienced. We tell friends we enjoyed every aspect of the tour. Possibly most notable was the tradition of Georgian hospitality, which necessarily includes the absolutely delicious food and wine. Visiting ancient monasteries and seeing the beauty of historically important architecture and frescoes was also tremendously rewarding. The Georgian singing, whether impromptu at the conclusion of a meal or arranged in a cathedral, added a level of cultural appreciation not possible in any other group. We highly recommend this tour to our friends.
Janine K. (UK)
Here is a story that I wrote to a friend on our return from Georgia:
Georgia was really exceptionally absorbing. We were with a small group touring just a few of the very old monastery churches, covered in frescoes reaching back to 6th century, our guides (one American and one Georgian) being passionate about orthodox monastic chant, which is indeed very beautiful. One travels in the traces of a long, vigorous and violent history in that old, old country, whose legends include the Argonauts and the Golden Fleece, colourful early Christian saints, and valiant struggles against Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Persians, Mongols and Turks, not to mention more modern times. The high Caucasus snow-covered peaks are tremendous, the wooded river gorges, the grassy plains and the profusion of wild flowers of every hue, just everywhere, were incredibly beautiful. We were starting to cope with the strange alphabet just as it was time to leave! And there is much to discover in Tbilisi, where old and crumbling dignity is mixed with the brash and modern, the tangle of dangling electric wires over dark narrow streets, against very good floodlighting of the fortress, cathedrals and dramatic rocks cradling the river. And every particularly ugly building is blamed on the Soviets and part of the reaction against that drabness is to introduce colour everywhere. Also all the churches, themselves full of colour, are always open with people evidently very engaged in the revival of spiritual and religious freedom. History and traditions have huge importance for all the Georgians we met. We found out about the tour because my husband Bernard met John at a conference in India in February, and had a good impression.
How did you find the organization of the tour?
The choice of Daniel as minibus driver was excellent for his patience, humour, stamina as well as the quality of his driving. His quiet respect and devotion for the monastery churches was an example and his enjoyment of shared meals added to ours. The variety of places chosen for visits, north, south, east and west with Tbilisi as an anchor, offered an excellent overview of the topographical variety in Georgia. The beauty and special features of the monastery churches were well explained by our guides and I appreciated the opportunities to bring the spaces to life with live chanting! The choice of the Hotel VIP in Tbilisi could not have been better, for its simplicity, friendliness, price and location. The three family homestays were all very enjoyable and gave an insight into ordinary family life, which is so important in getting to know a country.
What did you think of the guides? What could be improved?
Both John and Luarsab communicated their enthusiasm and love of Georgia and its people and traditions, including induction into the supra table tradition. Their knowledge of the historical background have inspired me to read more about it and to anchor some of the history in the memory of places we visited. Convenience and lunch stops were well chosen. A less relaxed approach to the schedule, particularly for breakfast and leaving for the day, might result in less options being dropped; on the other hand, flexibility allowed us to spend some time at unscheduled stops, such as the panorama and the poets valley on the way into the mountains of Qazbegi. Both John and Luarsab were excellently informed on the history and the frescoes of the churches and complemented each other in this, but there was not much time to enter into the liturgies where these were offered, or explanation of what was going on, either at the time or afterwards. A resumé of the Georgian Orthodox liturgies could be useful as well as an indication of the meaning of people’s devotional behaviour, such as the meaning of icons for them.
The obvious bonds of friendship, respect and shared interests between John and Luarsab and their relaxed good humour helped to put all members of the group at ease with one another. The compass of the tour was well planned to give as extensive and representative as possible an experience of various regions and places, in the time available.
What was your favorite visited location or experience on the tour?
As difficult to choose as a favourite composer! However, Kasbegi has the edge because of the feel of remoteness and the wild grandeur of the mountains. I loved the hike to the Gergeti Sameba monastery there, particularly as it was there on the ridge line whenever we looked out from the guesthouse. The sense of the valley and the rugged gorge rising from the border with the Russian territories was most impressive. Although not unique in the locations on this tour, the profusion of flowers on the slopes around the monastery and the thought of its isolation in winter, were exhilarating.
In what words would you recommend, or not recommend, this tour to future participants?
I would recommend it as an excellent introduction to Georgia, for those with an interest in the monastic and musical heritage of the country, and in the opportunities to share in some of the best loved traditions of the people, guided by enthusiastic but sensitive experts. The additional forays into other areas of interest such as the Stalin museum in Gori, or the wine cellars in Signaghi, broadened the experience.
Bernard K. (UK)
Kutaisi had everything: faded, down-at-heel elegance and cultural richness followed by the soaring experience of Gelati Monastery’s slowly bustling liturgy below the steady gaze of its icons. And if that was all too grand, there was the secret jewel of Motsameta Monastery. It was a perfect setting for a homecoming to the garden of clucking chickens (and their droppings) under the vine pergola, eggs laid under bushes, confident cats and overhanging cherry branches with the basilica skyline glimpsed through the washing on the line. Then the western sunlight streaming onto the al fresco cornucopia of a groaning table, livened with witty exchanges over homemade wine in quart jugs. The homestay’s family came and went. It could be Mother taking a corner seat on a spare wooden box, joining in. Or the bright eyes of teenage girls who had left the computer screen for a few minutes to practice their English and then join us late in the moonlight on a noisy walk up the hill to the shrine, chanting hymns and silly songs, until we longed for our pillows. In the morning we found out there had been an overnight drama because of Grandma’s allergy to a bee sting. But there she was endlessly serving breakfast cheesecake to us, big and beaming as if she had just heard that the Russians were going away forever.
Andy P. (Minnesota, USA)
The tour was very well organized, from nice places to stay to making sure we had decent toilets to use during the day. My wife and I enjoyed every minute of it. John and Luarsab really thought of the little things and made the trip as comfortable as possible. John and Luarsab's overall knowledge of what they are doing makes this trip so memorable. Getting to these places on your own would be hard enough, but to travel there with two people that have such intimate knowledge of monasteries and overall Georgian history really makes this a trip to remember. The entire tour was just fabulous. We hope to do another part of it again another year, as some of the locations change. This tour is a wonderful way to intimately see Georgia! Does not matter what prior knowledge or experience you have had, there is no experience like this. Hearing the chants in the church are simply amazing, and it is just a wonderful experience!
Vivien S. (New York, USA)
I would absolutely recommend this trip, especially to seasoned travelers. I'd recommend it because you guys are really fun to travel with; because Georgia is scenically stunning; it's off the beaten track and (so far) untouristy; friendly people; the music is wonderful; the food delicious; and the churches / monasteries / history are very interesting.
- by Rebecca S. (Asst. Professor of Russian Literature, Columbia University, USA)
I have so many wonderful memories from the 2009 Monastery Tour that it’s hard to pick out just a few to write about. I had dreamed of visiting Georgia ever since 1995, when I first heard Georgian singing (at a concert in downtown Manhattan) and, on a subsequent trip to Moscow, tried Georgian food for the first time. Funnily enough, one of the most magical moments on the tour arrived in the form of one of those predictable Georgian power outages (apparently they aren't as common as when I lived in Moscow), a moment usually hailed by the Georgians as a serendipitous opportunity for romance. On our second night in the picturesque town of Telavi, a blown fuse in the host’s dining-room prompted us to move our home-cooked Georgian feast outside, under the grapevines. A pair of guests arrived, friends of John and Luarsab from the choir of Alaverdi Cathedral, and (with John and Luarsab supplying the bass drone) they sang endless Khakhetian songs to us as the sunset faded into twilight. Candles were lit, and between songs we drank toasts with our host’s homemade wine, which he brought out specially to share with us. It was that moment – sitting among new-made friends, drinking delicious Georgian wine under the very vines from which it was harvested, listening to the gorgeously intertwined voices of Kakhetian harmony as the stars twinkled overhead – that I thought “Now I’m really in Georgia.” We met with warm welcomes and great kindness everywhere we went in Georgia, but I particularly remember an afternoon when four of us were wandering through Telavi and stopped in front of a bread bakery, or to-ne. We were marveling at the font on the sign – which made the Georgian letters almost unrecognizable to those of us just learning them! – when the baker himself popped his head out of the window and called out “Hello!” with a big grin. “Hello!” we chorused back.
He beckoned Jay over and handed him a loaf of flat bread. “A present! For you!” We were all far too well-fed to be hungry, but Jay manfully tore off a piece of bread and ate it, assuring the baker in Georgian that it was “very delicious,” dzalian gemrielia (this was an expression we learned quickly, as it applies to almost everything in Georgia). “Come!” said the baker, delighted with our newly-formed friendship, and beckoned us around the back of his store, where he gave us a tour of the bakery (one large bread-kiln, fed by an underground furnace) and -- in a mixture of Georgian, English, Russian, and gestures -- explained all about the baking process. With his encouragement, we took pictures and video, and asked lots of questions. “Come back tomorrow morning to watch us bake! Bring your friends!” (Not all of us were wakeful enough at 6:30am to take him up on this invitation, but some did.) As we left, he loaded us up with more gifts of bread, which we ate that night with our hostess’s gemrieli home-cooked dinner under the grapevines. After hiking in the desert to see the amazing cave frescoes of Davit Gareji, travelling to the high Caucasus made quite a change! For one thing, we exchanged blazing sunshine and temperatures in the high 80s for coolness, mist, and long-sleeved sweaters. For another, the elusive but unforgettable sight of Mt. Qazbegi awaited us. Wreathed in cloud for much of the day, this majestic peak revealed itself at sunrise (also an excellent time for walking through the village and watching its early-rising residents lead their cattle off to their daytime pastures), and could be seen right from the windows of our homestay!
Climbing Mount Qazbegi was, of course, not on the program John and Luarsab had planned for us (a four day high alpine adventure), but they did lead us to the summit of a more accessible mountain -- one of Qazbegi’s foothills – where the Gergeti-Holy Trinity monastery is perched at a height of 2200 meters, surrounded by breathtaking views. Being in this landscape felt like being dropped into the setting of “The Sound of Music,” with the added bonus that of course we had many singers in the group and indeed, at each rest stop on the way up the mountain, part-songs made their appearance. At the summit, Luarsab made the joyful discovery that the wind blowing across the neck of his water bottle made a low note that could serve as a drone, and began singing “Orovela” over the top of it. Would he have been so sanguine if he had known that that very night, his invincible reputation at backgammon would be shattered by the upstart rookie Jeremy Wood? We will never know. ***
Robert D. (Prof. Emeritus, U.Chicago)
An Epic on the Georgian Chant Journey
in the style of Shota Rustaveli
Composed in Kazbegi at 7:00 A.M. on July 4, 2009
I am the ancient bard of SaKartvelo,
By name and fame I pass as SaRoberto.
I sing of the Georgian heroes of old:
King Joni the Great, whose story is told
In legend and chant throughout Iberia.
He came from the faraway land of America
And conquered the Georgians with song and with charm.
I sing of Luarsab, Joni’s right arm,
The noble tamada par excellence
Who guided them all, leaving nothing to chance.
And I sing of Queen Maka, who hails from Svaneti:
Wise and courageous, witty and pretty,
Nothing about her was petty or prissy.
John, Luarsab and Maka ruled from Tbilisi.
This threesome was awesome. They led a band
Of nine chanting warriors through't the land,
Piloted by the noble Gia,
Their Argo was a white mashrutka.
First to Kakheti, that fruitful plain,
Where they drank and they drank, and drank again.
Their only warcry was Gaumarjos!
They followed the footsteps of St. Nino’s.
Signagi and Telavi fell under their spell.
In Kazbegi too they fared quite well.
Who were their friends, the inseparable nine,
Who shared their woes and their joys and their wine?
Tami the great, who hailed from Chicago
And held the key to the Georgian farrago,
That inscrutable tongue, whose consonant clusters
Are so many tongue-twisters and gum-busters.
With the help of her faithful husband Jay
She unlocked Georgia’s secrets and ruled the day.
Rebecca too and her sidekick Chris,
Who came from New York spreading wisdom and bliss.
Ian of Sidney, who followed the traces
Of Georgia’s saints to faraway places.
Nebojsa, that architectonic savant,
Who photographed every inch of the land.
Jeremy, with experience gained far and wide,
Regaled them with stories and kept them in stride.
And with Gemütlichkeit, kindness and truth,
From Colorado, the indomitable Ruth.
The ninth was this ancient bard, known as Bob-a
Whose final word is: Didi madloba!
Ian H. (Melbourne, Australia)
Life-Changing Experience at Davit Gareji
I have always been drawn to Syriac Saints -- their writings, whether prose or poetry, offer a unique perspective on Biblical texts and Salvation History that has always spoken deeply to me. The lives and sayings of the Desert Fathers also hold great affection in my heart, as does monasticism in general. The idea of withdrawing from the world to hard and inaccessible places to do battle with oneself and one’s passions, whether as a stylite in a cave or dwelling, or one living in community within a monastery.
Davit Gareji: a complex founded by Syriacs [St Davit, one of the 13 Syrian Fathers who traveled to Georgia in the 6th century, and his disciples Ss Dodo and Lukiane], a ‘desert’ environment, and a monastic life in cells on the rocky face of a mountain. The stage was set for this to be a humbling and moving experience for me: and it was -- far more than I could have expected. It was wonderful to see that the main monastery of the complex, the Lavra, is active today. The tombs of Ss Davit, Dodo, and Lukiane are in the Church of the Transfiguration, and it was a blessing and privilege to pray at their tombs, asking for their prayers. Although separated by time, and death, we are one and in communion through Christ.
Udabno: After our visit at the Lavra, it was up the mountain, via a steep hike, to the Udabno Monastery Cave Complex. During the 9th to 13th centuries, this complex was home to one of Georgia’s most important schools of painting and, thanks be to God, frescoed masterpieces from those times can still be seen inside the caves. From the sheer number of cells, whether plain or ornate, to the refectory with its stunning icons including one of the Last Supper, all cut into the rock, each moment was a blessing. Even the simple act of walking the path along the side of the mountain, and looking across the barren landscape towards Azerbaijan, had me pondering on, and praying for [I can think of no better response to the sight of this monastery] all those who had made this their home in times past.
In one sense, the Udabno Monastery Cave Complex had a feeling of a ‘museum’ as the caves are currently not populated. Active monasteries or convents are always special in that the tradition of monasticism is continuing and alive: a living and active faith. That said, in a greater sense Udabno was most definitely an inspiring experience: to stand where Saints had stood; to walk where they had walked; to see a cave complex monastery for the first time in my life — all spiritually challenging and blessed experiences. It is my prayer that places such as these may once again, as I saw constantly in Georgia, flourish as active monastic centres. Or, if these cannot, that, again as I saw in many places in Georgia, new monasteries will be built as people embrace the monastic life. In Eastern Orthodox thought, the state of the Church is often seen as reflected in the state of the monasteries — healthy, active and spiritual monasteries lead, through their very presence and the prayers and spiritual guidance of the monks/nun within, to a healthy, active and spiritual Church.
Pondering my feelings and thoughts at Davit Gareji at a distance in time and space [a month later from Australia], and also considering the many conversations I have had since my visit there with various people, a longtime dream has returned to me. And I have made the decision to keep this dream, alive, and to take steps, however small at first, to work towards it. What is the dream? — visiting Balamand Monastery and considering some theological study at the University of Balamand in Lebanon. By this I mean no slight on Georgia, for I would love to return there, and particularly return to stay at several of the monasteries we visited [Davit Gareji Lavra being foremost on that list]. But, for reasons unknown, I feel a pull towards the Middle East, and Lebanon in particular. And the thought of going for a year, just to see how I do, does not seem so foolish now; it doesn’t seem unreachable, or like something I should not do — the “calling,” for want of a better word, seems stronger and stronger. And I truly believe that the half-day spent at Davit Gareji, and the emotions, feelings and inspiration raised within me there, began the process that led to this. Thanks and praise be to God. Through the prayers of our Holy Father St Davit of Gareji and the other 12 Syrian Fathers, may the Lord have mercy on us and save us.
Leslie T. (Westminster, VT)
"Dear John, Luarsab and Nino, Malkhaz and all our friends in Anchiskhati and Zedashe, A few weeks back John wrote and asked if I would write something about my experiences on the monastery tour. I had been thinking about Georgia so much since we were there and didn't know quite how to distill my thoughts and feelings into a few sentences.
How does one describe the warmth of the relationships or the arresting and elusive beauty of Mt. Qazbegi? I’ve been thinking about the guard we met at the Russian border who seemed so relaxed and, in retrospect, so distant from any thoughts of war. I think I would have written about how at peace and how hopeful I felt in Georgia. I would have written too about how resilient and rugged it seemed and about the flowers that seemed to grow and flourish on the sides of mountains in places where I least expected them. It has been so hard to reconcile those images and emotions with those conjured by the chaotic news reports that have come our way this past week. We feel so far away and so powerless to offer anything tangible that can possibly represent our deep care and love that we feel for all of you. We are praying for your resilience and for your capacity to create beauty in hard times.
We were so grateful that Malkhaz was here with us this past week. I think we poured our love of Georgia into every interaction with him and each hug felt like we were all reaching out to touch Georgia and envelop it and all of you from afar. I don't think I will ever forget Malkhaz. In the midst of everything that was lost, I can say that I gained one true friend. That friendship is as special, unexpected and sweet as those mountain flowers that grew on the mountain-sides in Qazbegi. After four days I said to Malkhaz that I felt as though I had known him forever. He said, "I feel like this war has lasted forever." And I felt that way too.
I thought a lot about the Anchiskhati Choir on tour (in Sweden during the August invasion) and Luarsab and Nino on vacation and about how hard it must have been for all of you to be away from home. It was such torture for Malkhaz to be away from his family and we worried about all of you who were also separated from your families and swimming in the same chaotic and conflicting news reports that we were. At one point I feared the phone lines would go down and Malkhaz would be cut off completely. I am so happy that he is home safely and I hope that Luarsab you and Nino and Anchiskhati are also back in the arms of those you love.
Take care, Leslie
Vrinda C. (Princeton, NJ)
I came to Georgia on the Monastery Tour last year with several goals in mind. I was interested in Georgia’s tradition of polyphonic music, its art, culture and history, and its language, and it was my hope to gain a better understanding of all of these. With no overstatement, I can say that the tour exceeded all my hopes and expectations in helping me to achieve these goals. In touring the monasteries, I learned about the rich culture, both sacred and secular, of Georgia. We visited 6th century churches and saw the worn frescoes decorating their ancient walls. The guides at each monastery offered detailed accounts of the history of the churches and expertly described the icons and architecture. We heard about the pre-Christian traditions and the early Christianization of Georgia. We also heard many stories about the devastation wrought during the Communist period and about the current revival of the old culture, in which Luarsab Togonidze, one of the tour leaders, is deeply involved. In various churches, we were able to listen to the unique polyphonic chant which varies in style from region to region and even had the opportunity, thanks to our guides, to learn several of these unique and beautiful songs ourselves.
At Princeton, where I am a graduate student in Slavic and Theoretical Linguistics, I am part of a choir that performs Georgian music, and last summer on the tour, I was able to hear for the first time how these songs are meant to be sung and how powerful they can be in their original context. We learned the history of the music, much of which predates Christianity in the Caucasus, as well as some of the more technical aspects of the music, as John Graham, one of the leaders of the tour, is a doctoral candidate in Musicology.
My linguistic interest in Georgia was also addressed during the tour. I had studied some Georgian prior to the tour and was baffled by the seemingly endless complexity of the Kartvelian languages. In Linguistics, it is not uncommon for a theory to be valid for virtually every human language with Georgian being the radical exception. So, I took it upon myself to study the syntax and morphology of Georgian to discover that it has one of the most highly complex verbal systems of any natural language. While on the tour, I did not study Georgian systematically (I continued to study Georgian in Tbilisi after the tour ended), but gleaned some passive knowledge of the modern spoken language, being constantly exposed to it. John and Luarsab were both ready and able to address many of my questions concerning the Georgian language and I gained some knowledge of the fundamentals of Georgian syntax, which provided me with a basis for further inquiry. And what I came to understand during the course of the tour is that the language underwent a series of transformations during various invasions and occupations and that its lexicon is now filled with borrowings from Persian and other Indo-European languages.
The Monastery Tour not only provides glimpses of an ancient culture and language that are profoundly distinct from all its neighboring cultures and languages, but it also appeals to the academically minded. If your interest is in history, music, art, architecture, religion, or linguistics, the Monastery Tour in Georgia can provide an insightful introduction to these subjects that will surely inform your continuing studies.
Valeria C. (King's Lynn, UK)
I'm home safely only to be plunged into raspberry jam-making and weed eradication, hence a later reply than I would have wished. I have to say that because of the country's infrastructure, I realize that the plumbing may not always work. It would, however, be helpful to have a spare chair in the room for one's clothes/case. Also a hook for hanging the coat.
CHOICE OF RESTAURANTS - Excellent
Also TRANSPORTATION Excellent.
I loved the fact that the Nekresi Monastery stop was spontaneously included on Monday 30th June. To reach what seemed like a deserted monastery after negotiating a steep track up the hillside and there to find a fully robed priest and his deacon taking Divine Liturgy with a congregation of two novices was for me the highlight of an infinitely memorable trip. Likewise, to experience the haunting Aghdgomasa shensa chanted by the group in the St. John the Baptist cave church at Davit Garegi. It lives with me.
My only criticism was that 'start time' should be a definite departure time - not 'Georgian time' which is very hard for us Westerners to work out! Thank you all and Nino for a unique trip in a unique country - and since my return I have enjoyed re-listening to the CD! Many thanks, Yours, Valeria
Terry C. (Tyler, TX)
On the topic of the SUPRA (traditional feast)
The supra is the quintessential Georgian experience. The tradition involves much more than a simple feast. Certainly the tables are laden with food, and the wine flows, but this is merely the venue for what is actually an elaborate and ritualized ceremony.
First of all a tamada (toastmaster) is appointed. He or she is usually the host of the event or is elected from among those at the gathering to preside over the formal structure of the supra feast. Especially, the tamada is in charge of establishing the order and subject of the toasts. And only he can change the topic. He can appoint an alaverdi, whose exact responsibilities are still unclear to me. The toasts can be quite lengthy, and as the wine flows, so does the oratory.
Wine occupies a special place in Georgian culture. Their beer is excellent, and vodka remains popular. The homemade cha-cha is brought out before bedtime, or at breakfast, for a morning pick-me-up. But Georgians are, first and foremost, wine lovers. They claim to have invented wine itself. I won’t argue the point with them, but without doubt, they produce some of the very best wine in the world. To the Georgian, wine is seen in a spiritual context—a manifestation of God’s blessings upon them, and also a means of praising Him. All supras begin with a toast to God. There’s a line I like from one of the songs sung by the Zedashe Ensemble; “fill our laps with bread, fill our cellars with wine, Glory, God is glorified!”
Most Georgians produce their own personal wine. No garden is complete without grapevines. Traditionally, wine is stored in huge clay jars buried in the ground, up to their rim. Families would devote one jar for their special wine, which they would only drink when toasting their ancestors. This reserved jar was known as the zedashe.
Our first supra was on a balcony overlooking the valley, with the Caucusus Mountains beyond. The hillsides below Sighnaghi were forested, all the way down to the valley. We could see 3 clearings, however, each containing a small church. Luarsab explained that there were once villages scattered up and down the hillside. The Communists made the residents abandon their homes, move down to the valley, and establish new towns along the railroad. The forest reclaimed the towns, save for the churches, which the villagers stubbornly preserve and return to from time to time. But there is more. Families carefully marked their zedashes. And so they still return to their old home sites, and toast their ancestors as before.
The role of wine in all stages of Georgian life was brought home to me while we were at this first supra. A group of young men were gathered at an adjoining table, joined by 3 musicians. From my American perspective, it first looked like a boisterous drinking party. The bowls of wine were kept filled, toasts were being made, and one of the men broke into a traditional Georgian dance. Another was looking out across the valley, and I could tell he was close to tears. Only later did I realize the pathos of this scene. For this was a wake for a young friend who had recently died.
But back to the supra....Wine is traditionally drank out of clay bowls. You are not to fill you own bowl, nor or you to allow your neighbor’s to go dry. When you are drinking, you should grasp the bowl in a firm, manly manner, with elbow at the same level as the bowl or glass. If you are using glasses, and doing the traditional clinking of glasses together, to touch your neighbor’s glass well below the rim is to show respect to them. There is even a method of pouring the wine from the pitcher. No one is to drink while the toast is being made. When the toast is finished, everyone says “Gaumarjos!” (meaning “Victory”) and drinks up.
Our most unforgettable supra had to be the one in John's house in Sighnaghi. The event lasted 3 hours or so—nothing special for Georgians, but a long time at the table for we wimpy Americans. John had tables pushed together into a t-shape in the large back room of his wine cellar. The food, as was typical, was served in courses. And it just kept coming. Early in the dinner, the Bishop and six or eight guests showed up and joined us. This too, is typical. People just show up. We moved in closer together and made room for them at the head of the table.
The Bishop of Alaverdi was a most gracious man. He was either an architect or engineer by profession before taking vows. He spent 10 years at the Lavra Monastery at Davit Gareji. The Zedashe Ensemble members were also in attendance, so the toasts were broken up by singing and music. (For more information on this talented group, their 2007 East Coast tour, and how to order CDs, go here.) Later on, there was traditional Georgian circle dancing. Most of the toasts were quite special, although some of our tour group’s toasts towards the shank of the evening were, shall we say, overly lubricated. I particularly remember the toast made by Shergil. He is a Svanetian, living in Sighnaghi and singing with the Zedashe Ensemble. He is also a most talented woodcarver, a small wooden box he carved now among my treasures at home. Anyway, he simply said “Remember your ancestors, and the place of your ancestors. For they will keep you warm.” No more Georgian a sentiment could be made—and it is one that resonated with me.
At long last, we stumbled to our homes in the dark—full and contented, a little bleary-eyed, and feeling altogether blessed.
Terry C. (Tyler, TX)
John and Luarsab set out to teach us just a bit of Georgian chant. They chose “O Holy God” (Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, Have Mercy on Us) The words, roughly transliterated:
We chanted this hymn in at least 8 of the churches we visited. The acoustics were absolutely incredible. These old Georgian churches—with their concave ceilings, and height, width and length in just the right proportions—indicate to me that the architects of old knew a thing or two that the modern world has forgotten. To chant this, in these old churches, never failed to send chills down my spine. The above title came from a toast given by Jay, one of our tour group members. His description is apt.
Beauty—whether in nature, architecture or people—is always close at hand in Georgia, ready to be discovered anew. Jay is a Lutheran pastor who lives in Manhattan. He is also a displaced Texan. This bizarre combination makes him—if nothing else—eminently quotable. He also said: “Georgia is a tiny country where everything is famous, fabulous, extreme...As such it is an icon of the grace of God; abundant, inexhaustible—a feast where all are welcome, where nothing which is given is ever taken away...” I like that. I also like the following quote from Nikos Kazantzakis, a Greek writer who fell in love with Tbilisi and Georgia: “Handsome Georgians are careless, they’re fond of wine, war, women and freedom.” And this quote from St. Ilia Chavchavadze (d. 1907): “Christ our God was crucified for the sake of the world, and we likewise have been crucified for His sake. We bared our breasts for this small Georgia, and on our breasts, as on a rock, we erected a temple to the Christian God. Instead of stone we offered our bones, and instead of lime we offered our blood, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it!”
Terry C. (Tyler, TX)
We spent the last two days of our tour, Saturday and Sunday, in Tbilisi. Saturday morning was open—with some of us going to the Botanical Garden and others visiting with Dato the carpet-man. Later, Luarsab led a group of us to the vast Farmer’s Market. Some were looking for spices, and others (me) were looking for wine to carry home. Everyone was to meet late in the afternoon at the 6th-century Anchiskhati Church, Tbililsi’s oldest, where we would attend Vespers. Luarsab assured us that we would hear some of the most beautiful chanting at the Vespers Service here. Vespers had been pushed back a bit later, we discovered. But there was plenty going on in the church. On the right side of the nave, an infant’s baptism was taking place. On the left side, a family was bringing in food for a memorial service for a departed loved one. There before us was the complete circle of life—from birth to death—within Orthodoxy. We decided to visit another church nearby and see if their Vespers had begun. Finding an Orthodox church in old Tbilisi is about as hard as finding a Baptist Church in East Texas. Sioni Cathedral was 2 blocks away, perhaps, from which Jvris-Mama Church was one block away. Metekhi Church was just across the river. Two churches were being restored between Sioni and Metekhi. That is not even taking into consideration the Armenian churches. You get the picture.
Sioni was the cathedral church of Tbilisi until the recent completion of the Sameba Cathedral in 2004, but it is still the seat of the Georgian Orthodox Church. The Patriarch Ilia II, lives in the adjoining Patriarchal residence. Vespers had not begun at Sioni either, though there was already a sizable crowd. Several of us lit candles and venerated the icons. A woman approached me, raising money for the restoration of a 6th-century monastery in the countryside. I gave her a contribution. A little later on, she came back to me, and asked me my name. I told her and her eyes lit up. “I knew it,” she said. She handed me a small laminated card, with a picture of the monastery on one side, and an icon of St. John the Forerunner on the other. She had a sense that my name was John and she wanted me to have the icon of St. John. She thanked me again, and told me to keep the icon with me always. I have tried to do so. We then walked over to Jvris-Mama Church, where Vespers were underway. The church was more or less packed, mostly with younger people. The crowd were a little noisier than what we are used to, but this seemed to be quite normal for this church. John G. led us to the grotto within the compound, and showed us where he had been baptized a few years back. After a bit, we hiked back over to Anchiskhati Church, where Vespers were finally underway. We edged our way into the crowd, as the nave was fully packed. Interestingly, the men were on the right and the women were on the left. There was no noisiness as in Jvris-Mama. Everyone was quietly and reverently attentive.
Visiting the three churches gave us a good perspective on Georgian Orthodox worship. What really impressed me was the fact that all of these churches were packed full. And this was for Saturday Vespers. But this in no way prepared us for the experience of Divine Liturgy at Sameba Cathedral the next morning. The recently completely Sameba Cathedral is the third largest Orthodox Church in the world, ranking after churches in Moscow and Belgrade. It dominates the Tbilisi skyline. Sadly, like Orthodox everywhere, we arrived a little late for Liturgy Sunday morning. I noticed a large crowd milling around the plaza surrounding the cathedral. As I got closer, I realized that most were outside because they could not get in. I spent the next 30 minutes or so slowly inching my way into the center of the church. The immense cathedral was packed to the brim. They had even opened the balcony. I suppose there were at least 2,000 people inside, and probably much closer to 3,000. About 500 or so were outside, filtering in as others went outside for air. I have never seen anything quite like it. But that was not all. The crowd was overwhelmingly young. I felt like an old man. I would estimate that 80% were 30 or under. Probably 70% were 25 or under. Luarsab later explained that the nationwide test for college entrance was the next day. Many of these young people were in Tbilisi for that reason and came to the church service to pray. In my view, that in no way discounts what I observed. Their presence there was a testimony to the enduring faith of the Georgian people, now taken up by the country’s youth.
Michael S. (Delaware, USA)
This summer, I was privileged to travel to the Republic of Georgia with my wife on a nearly three-week tour of that country's many amazing sites: its monasteries and churches, wineries, historic cities, and, most of all, its warm, welcoming people. Never have I been in a country that felt more connected to its roots, where the past and present walk together hand in hand, the future beckoning in the distance. Beyond Tbilisi, which is striving mightily to become a European-style capital--as well as the cell phones which every Georgian seems to favor over the antiquated telephone system--modernity is hard to find in Georgia. Farmers ride haywains behind horses down pockmarked roads, battling for supremacy with ancient Fiats, Ladas, second and third hand delivery trucks late of German and French companies. Wine is still made in places the old way, by picking grapes and stomping them. 1,400-year-old churches resound with ancient liturgical chant. Men and women make crafts by hand, with loom, and knife favored over factory.
Georgia has suffered immensely over the centuries. Constantly beset by invaders from the south, east, and west; speaking a language unlike any other tongue in the world; singing songs with unique melodies and tunes; Georgians developed an insular, self-reliant mind-set. Fortified monasteries were built all over the country, places of refuge to which towns and villages could flee in times of attack. One such town even turned itself into a huge fortress in its own right--Sighnaghi. It is perched high on a hillside near the Azerbaijani border in the Kakheti region in the shadow of the Great Caucasus Mountains; its steep streets ringed by a huge network of walls studded by twenty-four towers, one assigned to each of the villages in the region, where food and weapons were stored for use when the region came under siege and the villagers had to flee to that place of refuge. Read the rest of the article here.
Alexandra L. (NY, USA)
My trip to Georgia was a remarkable experience. Of all the beautiful sites and experiences we enjoyed, the most spectacular was an overnight trip to the town of Kazbegi. The stark beauty of the countryside and the amazing mountain vista were visible as we drove to the town. Nothing, however, compared with the walk to the monastery, the awesome spirituality of the monks, or the overwhelming beauty that we encountered the next day in the Dariel Gorge. I have visited many places in my life, but these two days stand out for me as two of the most beautiful and moving days of all my travels. I have never encountered spirituality as palpably as I did in this isolated monastery with these humble monks as dusk gathered around the mountain on which we stood. And of the wildernesses I have visited, from the Grand Canyon and Yosemite to the deserts of Cappadocia, never have I been so struck by the power of nature and its ability to create a place so remarkable that I have found no way to describe nor seen any picture that can capture its beauty, its ferociousness, or its awe-inspiring heights. Georgia has many things to offer - beauty, music, food and wine - but the most spectacular and unique of all its gifts lies in the peaks and valleys of the Caucasus.
David L. (NY, USA)
Visiting the Republic of Georgia is an experience that one remembers forever, not only because it is half-way around the world and one of the most unique countries in the world, but because the place tantalizes each of your senses in turn. It’s really all about the people. Georgians will capture your heart. The expression “Guests are sent by God” permeates all aspects of life in Georgia, and from the moment of arrival, Georgians seem to do everything within their power to reassure their guests that they take the expression seriously. In spite of their history being a constant struggle to survive, having been overrun by the Persians, Turks, Russians, Soviets, and countless other neighbors throughout the ages, Georgians have maintained their independence and uniqueness. In fact, they treasure and celebrate their culture almost to a fault. Westerners who visit Georgia are often taken aback by the near arrogance of Georgians when they speak of nation and heritage. However, one has to remember that these people have survived a long and difficult history and now sit on the cusp of the future, where for once they will shape their own destiny, without interference from neighbors or enemies.
The future looks bright for this small nation nestled inside the Caucasus mountains between Turkey, Russia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia. Set free from the control of the Soviets over a decade ago, Georgia now looks to set a course that will introduce Europe and America to this country, its heritage, and resources. Tbilisi, the modern capital, is the closest place one can find that is reminiscent of western civilization. With its tree-lined boulevards, winding narrow back streets, and assorted styles of architecture, Tbilisi blends the old with the new seamlessly. Indicative of a trend to restore Georgian heritage, new structures in the capital compliment the historic architectural gems throughout Tbilisi’s famous neighborhoods. A mid-summer stroll along the Mtkvari river in Old Town Tbilisi is a glorious experience, especially seeing the numerous churches and monuments of the city lit in the amber hews of Tbilisi’s ample night-lighting. At night, the Narikala Fortress, Metekhi Church, and the newly completed Holy Trinity Cathedral radiate the warmth and hospitality of Georgia against the black velvet sky.
The rebirth of the Georgian Orthodox Church has resulted in the restoration or construction of hundreds of churches throughout the country. While the ratio of churches to people has left the Church at a disadvantage to meet the spiritual needs of the people (every church is overflowing), it has made an impact on the younger generations in Georgian society. The Patriarch of Georgia, Ilia II, is a kind and warm man. Seen as the nurturing, good pastor to the people in his native land, the Patriarch has made a concerted effort to inspire the young people of Georgia to adopt a work ethic and spiritual manner of living that will honor their ancestors and provide for their children’s generation. This approach often contrasts with strong educational values during the Communist era when people learned to get by doing little more than the minimum, eventually leading to a nation-wide epidemic of nearly 85% unemployment. Slowly, the positive results of the Patriarch’s efforts have become visible throughout the country. While their parents sit idle at home or along village roads playing chess and backgammon, young people can be found studying at university, attending church, and striving to make their lives better. Tbilisi boasts the largest advances anywhere in the country for public works, and western marvels like a ATMs, McDonald’s, Baskin Robbins, and the latest movies from Hollywood. In the local villages of Eastern and Western Georgia, modernization has not been so quick, and life remains simple.
Susan M-C (Burlington, VT)
Newly scythed grasses, strewn about the base of massive gray pillars on the terracotta pave-stone floor, breathed an herbaceous scent into the festive air. Icons, angled to the heavens on wooden pedestals (the better to be kissed), were decorated with woven flower garlands. The smells of the field mixed with the spicy aroma of church incense, and the softer honeyed tone of beeswax tapers, guttering away in candle stands, combined to produce a bewitching sensory overload. The liturgical color green, for the birth of the Church through the power of the Holy Spirit, adorns churches throughout Georgia today; it is the feast of Pentecost! Eastern Orthodoxy, for those not familiar with it, has several hundred million adherents worldwide, concentrated in Russia, Greece, and most of the countries comprising the former USSR, as well as northern Africa, and the United States. Orthodoxy is distinctly different from Anglicanism and other Protestant religions, yet also familiar. One writer, Robert Kaplan, author of Eastward to Tartary, calls it the “ancient, fierce, Asiatic face of Christianity.”
Inside the ‘Alaverdi’ Cathedral, an enormous stone cathedral nearly 1000 years old, the men stand on the right and the women, bright colored cloths on their heads, stand to the left. Greens are all over the floor. Ten men dressed in ordinary street dress are gathered around a podium in the south transept, chanting in impeccably tuned, but to Western ears oddly dissonant, harmony. Several hundred people stand quietly praying, (Orthodox worshippers stand; there are no pews), or walk around the church speaking quietly to each other. Finally, the Bishop's knock sounds on the heavy wooden doors; he is met by his awaiting clergy, escorted to his cathedra, and assisted into the liturgical vestments of his office. The Bishop, ‘Meope Davit’ to all who know him, is also a monk, and notably wears his episcopal vestments only during services, arriving and departing dressed as a simple monk (per Orthodox tradition). The investiture took a leisurely ten minutes, a prelude to the more than 3 hour-long service. The Divine Liturgy in the Orthodox rite is the central act of worship, as in our Anglican church, but here one notices that nearly every word of the liturgy, and the scriptural readings, are chanted! Orthodox chant varies enormously between countries, the Greeks having their style, Russians another, and so forth. The traditional chant of Georgia is an ancient, un-tempered, three-part harmony singing from the middle ages which is ferociously difficult to master. In the past year, two Fulbright scholars have undertaken study of this chant, some of whose roots can be traced back a thousand years, with a few provocative remnants pointing to the pre-Christian era.
One of these scholars, 27-year old John Graham, is our tour organizer of Medieval Monasteries of Caucasus Georgia http://www.villageharmony.org/monasticism and is now pursuing a doctorate in musicology at Princeton. His Georgian counterpart, Luarsab Togonidze, a radiant giant with a high tenor of unearthly brilliance and power, has been our Georgian master of the revels. And revel we have! We have visited twenty churches and monasteries in the past eight days, with long dinners each evening, in traditional Georgian style, frequently with local singers joining us at table for folk-singing. Sometimes there is dancing, and always a few large bowls of deliciously fresh Georgian wine, accompanied by toasts so moving and eloquent as to be genuine agapes. The evening ends as it has in Georgia for perhaps more than a thousand years, with a final toast to the Theotokos: Mary the Bearer of Christ.