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Dmanisi


Orthodox icons hanging between weathered columns in a medieval church
Medieval Church, Dmanisi, Georgia

One of the first things I noticed was the birds.


As Corie, our driver Arman, and I made our way uphill along a well-maintained dirt path towards the medieval ruins of Dmanisi, the melodies of several unseen birds echoed around us through the verdant forest. Nature’s surround sound.


I closed my eyes and imagined that through all the years and the millennia, the background chirps and songs must have been a constant soundtrack, providing a feathered symphony for Silk Road traders, kings, and even our Paleolithic relatives.


I’m a bit of an archaeology nerd. I find excitement in hearing about discoveries that fit another piece in our evolutionary puzzle. So when I read about Dmanisi as the location for the discovery of the oldest hominid remains outside of Africa, it wasn’t a question of if Corie and I would go, but when.


It didn’t take much to convince Corie, who has a master’s in medieval studies, to take the two-hour drive from Tbilisi and wander around the remains of this important site in Georgia’s history.


There are three locations that share the name Dmanisi in the southeast region of the country, approximately 50 miles south of Tbilisi and 12 miles north of Armenia. The first is a small city, Dmanisi, with a population of around 21,000. The second populated Dmanisi is appropriately named Patara Dmanisi, or Small Dmanisi, with a population around 200.


The Dmanisi Corie and I were anxious to see and the one I refer to as Dmanisi in this newsletter, the Dmanisi Museum Reserve, is between the two populated ones.


When the three of us arrived at the top of the hill, a simple sign marked the fork in the path. To the left, the church and medieval ruins, to the right, the outdoor museum. We started off to the left.


Arman told us he had never been to the ruins until a couple years ago when a woman in her 70s hired him to take her there. Her son, he said, was an archaeologist and told her it was a must-see place in Georgia.


“She almost left me behind,” Arman said, laughing, when he told us about how his 70-year-old passenger was so excited to see it she outwalked him, a man in his mid-40s.


While the site is nowhere near handicap accessible, a person of average mobility can navigate the site, including a set of stone stairs that leads to an inspiring view of the valley below and the confluence of the Mashavera and Phinezauri rivers.


If you have ever been to any of the American Southwest Pueblo ruins, the remaining structures around the reserve’s St. Virgin Mary Cathedral would look familiar but considerably more green than their desert cousins. With the surviving stone walls, it’s easy to see how the village and its fortifications were laid out on the top of the hill.


Throughout its history from the 4th-14th centuries, the trade-route area was owned by Arabs, Armenians, Turks and Georgians. In the late 11th century, during the reign of Georgia’s David the Builder, the site became the royal city of Georgian kings and a part of the Georgian kingdom’s border defenses.


As we took in the views and explored a couple stone structures, the peaceful quiet made it difficult to imagine traders coming and going amidst a thriving population. Aside from the bird songs, the only sound to be heard was a solitary priest working the land with a scythe adjacent to the church, hardly the echoes of a trade-route stop.


Corie and I then went to see the archeological dig where scientists have discovered 1.7-million year-old hominid remains, making the location the oldest known homo settlement outside of Africa.


In 1983 scientists excavating the medieval city came upon an unusual discovery, a rhinoceros tooth. I can tell you Corie and I haven’t seen rhinoceroses running wild in Georgia and scientists knew they weren’t anywhere to be found in this region during the Middle Ages. With that discovery, the scientists probed deeper and, in 1991, found a jawbone belonging to an early hominin. More fossils of extinct animals and stone tools were discovered then, in 1999, researchers discovered two more hominid sculls.


The site rewrote the world’s narrative on human evolution and migration, and research is still producing fascinating evidence to our past.


While a stroll around the medieval remains to the left of the path’s fork is free, the museum charges a 15-lari admission, approximately $7. While the paleolithic site is much smaller than we expected and there was no current excavation work while we were there, it was well worth it to stand on a site that housed such a broad scope of human history.


A light rain started falling when we left the paleolithic site. Corie walked back to the car, and I took one more stroll around the village ruins with the camera. The priest, who had been so diligently working before was resting under the protection of a mature tree.


With my hand, I motioned to the hilltop and ruins and said the only Georgian word I knew that would sum up the area: lamazi. His weather-worn face lit up as he laughed and repeated the word, lamazi. Beautiful.


They say the journey is half the fun in travel, and that certainly was the case on our drive this week. I hope you join me in next week’s newsletter as Corie, Arman and I discover a 18th-century fortress on the way to Dmanisi.


Weathered carved stone in a medieval church
Stonework, St. Virgin Mary Cathedral, Dmanisi, Georgia

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