Welcome to Week 1 of life in Georgia!
Culture shock is fierce. Not due to Georgian culture, per se – living in a capital city, you see more international brands than local ones, and people live accordingly. Rather, it’s life outside of Asia shock. Every Asian country I’ve ever been to amazed me. Georgian culture is the kind of modern Western culture I grew up in and it feels like being back home, albeit with a few slight differences, like travelling regionally to a different area of your country.
However, the beauty of travel is that every place – even those in your own backyard, but all the more so further afield – offers its own set of pottery clay for you to make sense and shape of.
(Cult temple) city life
Today, at Uplitsikhe, I had one of those illuminating mind flashes that only travel can induce. That moment when the unknown unknown becomes the known unknown. When you come to face to face with your own ignorance and thank your lucky stars that you’re learning about this not because you’re a fastidious student soaking up knowledge from third-party sources, but because you’re there now, walking your way into insight and understanding.
Up until this moment, my idea of cave dwelling was resigned to (by modern standards) unsophisticated ancient peoples drawing hunting pictures on stone walls.
Uplitsikhe changed that. In a region which, in Hellenistic and Roman times, was known as Iberia (Kartli in the local language), there existed from 3000 BCE onwards a complex cave-dwelling society that housed, at its height, an estimated 20,000 people.
Overlooking the river Mtkvari, this pagan culture worshipping the sun goddess Nana, cut – via a vast slave population – an entire city out of the rock towering out over the surrounding landscape.
In Kartli (which today is part of Eastern Georgia), Uplitsikhe was a renowned religious, political, and economic centre. Today, little evidence remains. Apart from the fact that much of what would’ve adorned the cavernous kingdom have either decayed over the ages or been buried in the earth by the sands of time, a 1920 earthquake in the region destroyed much of the settlement. What remains today is, as with all ancient ruins, a decidedly underwhelming representation of the flourishing society it was at the time.
Translating to “the lord’s fortress”, there was initially nothing Christian-like about it, no matter how much the Orthodox Uplitsikhe Church built within the complex in the 9th to 10th centuries (or the 6th century rock-hewn basilica preceding it) would have you believe differently. Instead, as an original strategic stronghold, it was originally a pagan-oriented urban settlement. What did prevail, from long before the country’s adoption to Christianity in 326 AD, was Georgian wine culture. Clay vessels dot the landscape, carefully strewn carelessly around to serve as a reminder that this land is the birthplace of wine cultivation.
Uplitsikhe offers the oldest evidence of human settlement in Georgia and one of the oldest in the Caucasus region. Sporting a defensive wall, ditch, tunnel, streets, water pipes, and draining channels, the complex lost its prominence after the onset of Christianity, and was abandoned after the Mongol invasions in the 13th and 14th centuries.
At times you can spot on the rockface the carvings of modern humans immortalising their own fleeting existence through the names given to them by their parents, leaving behind a legacy of an unknown person attempting to carve-bomb their way into greatness by linking the identity they inherited at birth with that of the rulers of Antiquity.
The question it raises, of course, is why we bother at all, when to dust we shall return, and so, too, the legends and legacies we build, fight for, and are willing to die over.
Working class hero (mass murderer)
A stone’s throw away, over in Gori, stands the single bedroom Joseph Stalin’s impoverished parents rented in a landlord’s house. Today a hammer and sickle-adorned roof shields it from the onslaught of the elements, and its existence is eclipsed by an embellished museum trumpeting the life and times of Georgia’s most infamous export: The perpetrator of the USSR’s industrialisation efforts. At the time, Gori was part of the Tiflis Governorate and Georgia part of the Russian Empire.
Born Joseph Dzhugashvili, Stalin – a nickname given to him by the Russians, around which grew a powerful but erroneous myth as to its meaning
– grew up with an alcoholic father who had a cobbler’s workshop in the basement of their rented dwelling. By the time Joseph was a teenager, his mother managed to get them away from her abusive husband, and at the age of 16, he joined the Gori Seminary in preparation to enter priesthood. A scholarship to the seminary in Tbilisi followed, but the shrews of fate had other plans for young Ioseb. Already a deep thinker who found expression as an avid (and published) poet, after discovering the works of Karl Marx, Stalin instead started walking a path that would lead to him becoming one of the most influential figures of Communism production.
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His first (Georgian) wife having died of typhus, his second (Russian) wife Nadezhda – Russian for hope, and the name of which mine is a diminutive – committed suicide when she was 31 years old.
Cracks and slivers of light
Thinking about this symbolically, it begs the question whether hope can triumph over despair (in a certain context, typically brought about by despotism). In front of Gori Fortress – a secondary citadel in ancient times should the royal family need to flee Tbilisi – stands a statue of a man sitting atop a lion. Inscribed is a famous line from a 12th century epic poem, The Knight in the Panther’s Skin
(considered a masterpiece of Georgian literature written by medieval poet Shota Rustaveli): “Borotsa sdzlia ketilman,arseba misi grdzelia.” This translates as “Kindness will always win over evil.” Incidentally, Rustaveli Avenue is Tbilisi’s most sought-after high street, and dotted across the city are statues and street names commemorating important artists and cultural figures.
A sentiment shared by most all cultures the world over, one can’t help but wonder – judging by the decidedly unkind state of the world and the endless signs that so-called evil (whether in politics or commerce) does indeed triumph, whether this is a typically human flight of fancy infused with hope, or a control mechanism used to keep the masses at bay while those in control have carte blanche to do what they will.
Today we honour the leadership of Uplitsikhe for their ingenuity, while at the time (of course in keeping with the times), they put subjects who didn’t do their bidding in dungeons. Stalin, while viewed by the world as a war criminal, is nevertheless honoured by the people of Gori as the man who freed the world of Nazism, industrialised agricultural nations, and turned an impoverished country into one of the top two global superpowers during the Cold War.
Forever is one long day’s night
I tend to think of myself as an optimistic nihilist. As I make my way through the world, my youthful naïvety being replaced by a sobering eyes-wide-openness, I suspect it’s travelling itself that I owe this change to.
Seeing the best and also the worst in people and the world has made me less idealistic (a pity, for oh how I did love my idealism). But it’s been replaced with an even deeper appreciation for our humanness: How beautifully fragile we are, how magnificently resilient, and how we have the power to create heaven on earth or sheer hell for self and others. We’re complex, messy creatures, and the footsteps we’ve impressed onto the annals of history is nothing but an endless tale of the ebb and flow of this fleeting life that, while in the process of living it, we’re convinced is endless.
“Every rose will fade and wither, no matter though it once was fair.
The dry rose falls within the garden, a new rose arises there.”
― The Knight in the Panther’s Skin
Illustrated by Uplitsikhe and Joseph Stalin’s legacy in Gori, Georgia, the fleetingness of power is best experienced by walking backwards through time.
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