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Finding Serenity in Sakartvelo

stream of sunlight illuminating the interior of an ornate Georgian Orthodox Church
Shio-Mgvime Monastery, Mtskheta, Georgia

There are special places in this world where one feels a complete sense of serenity and peace. Until recently, my favorite such place was the sanctuary in Chimayo, a small town in northern New Mexico.

But I think I have a new favorite.

Several weeks ago, after Corie and I returned from our U.S. trip, we decided to get out and explore more of Georgia and contacted our friend Arman for suggestions. He recommended Uplitsikhe, a cave town outside of Gori, and Shio-Mgvime Monastery, a medieval complex outside of Mtskheta.

I’ll tell you more about Uplitsikhe in next week’s newsletter.

The Shio-Mgvime Monastery sits at the top of a steep hill, accessible by a narrow, sinuous cobblestone road. Along the road, young olive trees stand in an orderly row like silent sentries. A cascade of fall color blanketed the steep limestone canyon walls towering over the complex and seemed to glow under the sea-blue sky.

With the exception of the resident monks, Corie and I were the only people at the monastery that morning. Standing in the courtyard, the only sound was the cool fall breeze shaking the drying leaves on the trees.

After Corie and I explored the chapel, admiring the richly painted religious scenes covering the walls and ceiling, I stood in the courtyard and took in the quiet, filling my lungs with the crisp mountain air.

A monk standing in a doorway was watching me with a stern look on his face. I smiled and nodded. He nodded back without losing his expression.

In the 6th century, the monastery was a center of religious activities, home to around 2,000 monks. In the years that followed, the monastery saw cycles of raids and rebuilding, ultimately closing during the Soviet occupation.

But on that fall day, it was difficult to imagine the complex’s bustling and turbulent times, scanning the canyon walls for the series of caves generations of monks carved into the canyon walls. The meditative solitude seemed to honor St. Shio, a 6th-century monk who spent his final years as a hermit in a deep cave on the site. The complex’s name means “the cave of Shio.”

Stone fortress wall with a cloudy sky in the background
Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, Mtskheta, Georgia

Almost an hour earlier, Corie and I explored the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral in Mtskheta. While the monastery was a portrait of serenity, the cathedral was buzzing with small crowds of tourists from around the globe, snapping phone photos of the 13th-century fresco depicting the beast of the apocalypse. (There is a sign prohibiting photography, so I did not take any photos inside the church.)

When Emperor Nicolas I was scheduled to visit the cathedral in the 1830s, Russian authorities whitewashed the cathedral’s interior, wanting to give it a cleaner look. Fortunately, after diligent restoration, the frescos can be enjoyed today in the UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Just a few miles away from the cathedral is a nunnery that traces its origins to the introduction of Christianity in Georgia. According to Orthodox tradition the location marks where St. Nino converted Queen Nana and King Mirian III of Iberia to Christianity in the 300s. The nunnery’s church, originally built in the 11th-century is named in St. Nino’s honor.

One would think with a monastery, a cathedral, and a nunnery filling our morning’s itinerary, we wouldn’t have room for another religious site.

On the way to Uplitsikhe, Arman decided a detour to Kvatakhevi Monastery was in order. Like the Shio-Mgvime Monastery, Kvatakhevi Monastery is a tranquil place, nestled in a forest erupting in fall colors. Like many other monasteries in Georgia, it too had an alternating history of tranquility and tragedy from its founding in the 12th century.

As I walked along a stone pathway bordering the church wall, two monks passed me on their way to fix a mid-century military jeep. As they tried to start the engine, the cranking noise resonated through the still afternoon. Despite the monastery’s ups and downs, its day-to-day life continues.

Close up of a carved stone window on a Georgian Orthodox Church
Kvatakhevi Monastery, Georgia


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