A day in the semi-desert of Gareja to discover monasteries
A few information before going..
Davit Gareja Monastery is well-known in Georgia and is one of the religious sites that has witnessed the country’s history.
This monastery is located on Georgia’s border with Azerbaijan, and we read that it was safer to go there with a guide in case of paper checks by Azerbaijan. We didn’t understand why but preferred to play it safe and chose an organized tour. We had two options: a round trip to the monastery by the main road or one by tracks crossing the desert of Gareja. We decided to go with the second one where the paths were much more rugged, but the landscapes magnificent.
It was also a circuit that we could not have done with our car…
Getting back to the controls, there is nothing to worry about. We asked our guide, who explained that there were indeed tensions between Georgia and Azerbaijan over the strip of land that runs along the border there. However, it is possible to get there on your own.
The conflict between Georgia and Azerbaijan in a nutshell
During Soviet times, the Russian government changed the border between the two countries. This resulted in the division of the complex of Davit Gareja Monastery, a sacred place for Georgians, into two. Therefore, the part that since belonged to Azerbaijan is blocked off.
After the Russians left, the Georgian government was finally able to challenge this border. From 1996 to 2007, a commission assigned to the delimitation of the borders worked on the problem, until an agreement was signed with Baku in 2007. This agreement however confirmed the current position of the border, that defined by Russia, which forced Georgia to concede 3,500 hectares of land to its neighbor.
But Georgia continues to fight to save this cultural heritage. In its claim, it challenges the choice made by the commission regarding the topographic maps they used for the analysis.
Indeed, the study was made from maps published in 1970 under the Russian occupation at a scale of 1:500,000, while there are other ones published in the 1930s at a scale of 1:200,000, which would correspond to the historical borders of Georgia. It is based on those last ones that Tbilisi would like the border to be redefined, maps that Azerbaijan would have refused to consider at the time of the treaty.
Organization of the day
- Departure from Tbilisi (small heart at the top left of the map) at 9 a.m.
- Visit of the Garejis Sabereebi Monastery
- Visit of the Davit Gareja Lavra Monastery
- Georgian meal at a guesthouse in Udabno
- Discovery of the Mravaltskaro reservoir
- Return to Tbilisi at 6:00 p.m.
We are going to have a very busy day!
Our road trip
Our guide picked us up behind the wheel of a big 4X4, essential for crossing the semi-desert. We speak of it as a semi-desert because there is vegetation and water.
When we went this August, the plains were greener than other years, with July being particularly rainy.
After a comfortable first part of the road and a stop at a bakery for a roadside breakfast of Georgian bread, we reached the desert. We left the tarmac road for dirt roads, which became more and more rugged the deeper we went into the land.
Some views of the different landscapes along the route
The history of Davit Gareja Lavra Monastery
Davit Gareja Lavra is the first of all Georgian Orthodox monasteries built in this desert.
It was founded in the 6th Century by Davit Gareja, one of 13 ascetic monks who returned from the Middle East to spread Christianity in Georgia. His idea was to found a community in an isolated place, far from any civilization. He left the city and went deep into the desert until he finally found the perfect location — a small cave in the middle of a cliff. It now stands in the center of the monastery and is the first room in what became one of the largest monastic complexes in the country. Fifteen monasteries were carved out of the rock, and the ensemble was around 7 km long.
Unfortunately, the various invasions that followed undermined these sacred places.
The Mongols partially destroyed them in 1265, scratching out the faces of the saints drawn on the frescoes.
They were then abandoned until the beginning of the 14th Century when the new king of Georgia, Giorgi V the Shining, who ended the Mongol occupation, rehabilitated them.
But in the spring of 1400, they were again demolished by Timur, a Turkish-Mongolian conqueror. Then on Easter night 1615, the soldiers of Shah Abbas of Iran killed 6,000 monks and sacked most of their artistic treasures, completely wiping them out.
They were not restored until the withdrawal of the Russians from Georgia. Presently, a few monks live in the main monastery.
Garejis Sabereebi Monastery
It took us two hours to reach this monastery which is 70 km southeast of Tbilisi.
At that time, I told myself that the monks had found the perfect place to settle away from it all. Even now, the area is still deserted, and we didn’t see anyone else on the tour.
A particular village
At the entrance to the desert, we passed through the last village before the border of Azerbaijan. Its peculiarity is that it is inhabited by Azerbaijanis who have preserved their language and culture. The majority do not even speak Georgian. Most of them are sheep farmers and sell their meat to neighboring Muslim countries.
A situation that I found pretty surprising.
Finally, we headed toward a small piece of a cliff in which we could see openings. We found ourselves standing at the foot of one of the remains of the monastery dating from the 9-10th Centuries.
Indeed, abandoned for 200 years, there are only a few hand-dug sandstone caves left. But despite their dilapidated state, some still allow the discovery of some colorful frescoes.
To reach the different entrances, we had to walk along a ridge located at the threshold of the rooms.
Our guide gave each of us a pair of sticks which proved to be very useful as there are no really marked paths. He explained that the ground is ravaged by precipitation and the landscape changes quickly, particularly during the rainy season. Hence, he sometimes has to find a new trail to reach the cave.
As the earth crumbles beneath our feet, it is impossible to use a “rock” to climb, at the risk of it breaking off the surface and remaining in your hands.
Initially, it was made up of hundreds of caves arranged in groups adjacent one to another. There were domed churches, chapels, refectories, living quarters, and storage areas. It was possible to communicate from one point of the monastery to another by hallways carved into the rock. Unfortunately, we can’t see them anymore nowadays.
There are no written records of this monastery. It was forgotten until the 1960s when a 19th Century Georgian historian rediscovered it.
We also find here one of the peculiarities of Catholic churches; the nave faces east.
For it is “that the sun rises and the light triumphs over darkness.”
By analogy, the Christian texts consider that it is from this side that Jesus will make his return among men. At mass, believers thus pray in this direction in anticipation of his second coming.
In contrast, the west, where the sun sets, symbolizes death.
This painting dates from the 9th Century and is characterized by its warm color.
In the sanctuary, against the background of the starry sky, Christ is represented seated on the throne with the archangels. He wears a long shirt, typical of the early Middle Ages.
On the lower part of the altar are former apostles and deacons.
The monks weren’t the only ones living here. This is also where the wealthy soldiers stayed between two wars to seek peace and comfort.
Davit Gareja Lavra Monastery
Our first sight of the monastery. On the other side of the mountain is Azerbaijan, where it is impossible to climb to discover the whole sanctuary or admire the country’s view. It seems that you can see for miles around …
It is the only liveable part of the monastery where monks currently inhabit.
The cave that Davit Gareja inhabited with an icon inside
After these visits, we were expected at the guesthouse for a Georgian meal. Our guide warned us that the lunch would be huge, which is one of the facets of Georgian hospitality! And I confess that we had been served like kings. The table was filled with specialties, each more delicious than the next.
After this feast, it was hard not to fall asleep on the road to the Mravaltskaro reservoir.
With our stomachs more than well-settled, we set off again for a 30-minute drive to our next destination.
I didn’t know what to expect because a reservoir (french word) is “a concrete tank filled with water” for me. I later found out that a “reservoir” is an artificial lake.
This one was created by the Russians and served as a water reserve to supply crop irrigation systems.
Today there are no more plantations, and the lake became a fishing lake. Its banks are also a wild camping area where the locals come to spend quiet evenings.
There is nothing exceptional about the lake itself. But we drove to its other end to discover what makes the beauty and originality of this place; the hills surround the lake. We got out of the car and set off for a short walk that took us to the top of one of them.
The hills were unique in color! What was strange was that we did not see anything like this during our trip through the desert. Just here!
A very particular pattern in the soil
Due to the desert drought, the earth is very brittle and easily crumbles.
The amalgamation of small multicolored pebbles gives different colors to the hills.
But what started out as an advantage during the caves’ construction turned out to be a disadvantage during the invasions. They were indeed easy to destroy, and stormy weather and erosion continue to play an essential role in their eventual disappearance.
One last look around, and it’s back to Tbilisi.
I am absolutely not a fan of 4X4 tours. I also prefer hiking or horseback riding when possible. But despite my reluctance at the start, I must admit that it would have been a shame not to discover these landscapes and this part of Georgia.
Nowhere else have I seen such scenery. Not to mention the atmosphere of the desert, its silence and tranquility, and the beauty of the holy places that stand in this immensity. It is impossible to remain unmoved. I like to imagine that the landscapes that the monks saw in those days are the same ones we admired.
It was a lovely day that led us to the footsteps of one of the first Catholic communities in Georgia.