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Upper Betlemi Church


When Corie heard there’s a Museum of the Book here in Tbilisi, she immediately started planning a day around seeing it.


We hadn’t had an exploring day out together for a while, so we were going to make the most of it.


Corie had been wanting to take me to a place she and her mother Helen had been to, a vantage point on one of the many steep hills surrounding the city with, what Corie described, the best views of Tbilisi she had seen.


She wasn’t exaggerating. In the shadow of the Mother of Georgia, a 65 foot aluminum monument erected in 1958 to commemorate the 1,500th anniversary of Tbilisi, one can view most of the notable churches and features of the city.


A steep cobblestone pathway descends from the Mother of Georgia towards the city’s old town. Much of the path is somewhat steep and the occasional handrail is the exception not the rule.


The path ends at the Upper Betlemi Church, ensconced in a grove of trees, vibrant yellow and orange in their fall glory.


The Betlemi Church dates to the early 18th century and was renovated in 1994.


Normally, these older churches in Tbilisi prohibit photography inside, so I’ve been travelling with a notebook to try to make a written record of what I’m unable to photograph.


My hopes rose when we notice the typical metal signage at the entryway of the church, outlining the rules for entering with a graphic red circle and crossed line: men may not wear hats or shorts, women must have their heads covered and wear a skirt. No cell phones. No smoking.


The graphic of the camera did not have a red line crossed through it.


Could it be?


Like most of its sister churches, entering the Betlemi church overwhelms you with a sense of mystery. It is dark. Small islands of candles flicker in the nave, illuminating the gold icons around the room. Filtered light from the dome illuminates the iconostasis.


I asked one of the priests, “potoebi shades leyba,” a phrase I learned early on. “Are photos permitted?”


I felt like it was my birthday when the priest replied “shades leyba.” It’s permitted.


We had spent so much time in the Betlemi Church, along with several more stops along the way (that might be the subject of next week’s newsletter) we almost didn’t make it to the Museum of the Book, the center of our original plan.


It was late in the afternoon, and we had figured, like many museums, it would take us an hour or two to visit the museum.


It didn’t.


While fascinating, the Museum of the Book is housed in the National Library of Georgia in a room about the size of a Manhattan restaurant dining room and featured about 20 books printed with the city’s first presses. A man in his early 30s excitedly told us about the history of each book, making the minimal exhibit very worthwhile.


To get to the museum, however, one goes through the most amazing room with hand-painted ceilings and walls and passes by a carved stone stairway. I’ve included a photo at the end of this newsletter so you can understand why Corie and I were speechless as we took it all in.

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