Georgia: Revival of a Church and Nation

text and photographs by Armineh Johannes

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Up on a hill, behind the metal doors of the Ninotsminda Monastery, Georgian Orthodox Bishop Atanesi listens attentively to the grievances of an elderly woman. His thoughtful replies bring her some comfort, but consolation is not permanent.

“Since the deterioration of Georgia’s economy, which coincided with independence (from the Soviet Union) in 1991 and the Ossetian and Abkhazian wars that followed, Georgians tend to turn to the church to seek moral, even material, support,” the Bishop says quietly.

“Of course, we are unable to provide material support for the time being, but we try to listen, console and encourage the people.”

As the Bishop sadly shakes his head, three nuns, protected from the scorching sun by century-old trees, engage in lively conversation, while a group of youngsters, pilgrims from Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, light candles, make the sign of the cross and pray in the monastery church.

Ninotsminda is located in the village of Kedeli, which lies in the heart of Georgia’s wine country, the southeastern region of Kakheti. As its name suggests, the monastery is dedicated to the nation’s patroness, St. Nino, a slave girl who brought Christianity from Asia Minor to this mountainous nation in the fourth century.

Since independence, the role of the church – particularly the historic church of the nation, the Georgian Orthodox Church – has grown considerably.

“Our primary duty to Georgian society is to encourage the Georgian people to reunite,” says Georgian Orthodox Bishop Abraham, Rector of the Theological Academy in Tbilisi.

“Our political and civil upheavals have resulted in the partition of the nation. Hence, the major challenge for our church, and for our political leaders as well, is to try to unify the people through love, forgiveness and repentance.”

Although the role of the Georgian Orthodox Church as a broker of unity is described by Bishop Abraham as an enhanced one, it is not unfamiliar. Since the dawn of the Christian faith in this buffer state between Asia and Europe, Georgians have been invaded, annexed and colonized by Persians, Byzantines, Mongols, Arabs, Turks, Russians and Bolsheviks. And, as with their Armenian neighbors, the Georgians have managed to preserve their unique national identity through their faith and language.

Ninotsminda’s church dates to the latter half of the sixth century, making it the oldest Christian foundation in the Kakheti region. Many of the church’s important architectural details, however, such as the relief carvings, brick tower and cylindrical, cone-capped dome, date to later periods. Faded frescoes in the Byzantine manner cover the walls and vaults of the interior – reminders that Georgia’s ancient culture was subject to Byzantine influences.

The village of Kedeli has conserved its Old World charm, seemingly unaware of the forcibly induced economic reforms and technological advances of the Soviets. In the town’s narrow, sinuous streets, women, their heads covered with colorful scarves, sit under trees and balconies, knitting socks or sweaters. All in a row, ducks saunter the village streets, unperturbed by the rare car that crosses their path. Hundreds of dried corn cobs, strung from window to balcony, balcony to window, lend a festive atmosphere.

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