Rachaaaah: 1

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After 11 years, it was time to return to my wife’s father’s homeland for a visit. We had last been to Racha as part of our honeymoon. Then, we had no vehicle and the roads in the province were in a far worse state than their current, renovated condition. We took public transport, taxis, or our own two sets of feet. Now, we hired the same driver who had taken us last summer to Tusheti, and with whom we had become good friends. Again, we were a party of 6 passengers in his Delica 4x4.

My wife and I met the rest of the party at the Terjola turnoff of the main Georgia highway, having traveled there in our own 4x4, and we set of together. Our first stop was to be one of Georgia’s most beautifully decorated old churches, Nikortsminda, in the village of the same name.

Nikortsminda was built from 1010 to 1014, when Bagrat III was King of Georgia. It was then repaired in 1534, and its magnificent frescoed interior completed in the 17th century. As a result, it displays several different styles, but in great harmony. It had been on my “bucket list” of things to see in Georgia for many years, and I could finally strike it off.

The exterior of the church features many richly carved stone panels, depicting a variety of figures and scenes, again in diverse styles. I took close-ups of as many of these as I could with my long lens, then moved inside. Here, I had to switch to two wide angle lenses, but I was still free to shoot as much as I wanted, undeterred by crowds or the lady selling candles.

The paintings cover almost the entire interior of the church, and the colors are still rich. Stories from Bible accounts and Georgian history are mingled, as they have been anyway in the centuries since the country became Orthodox in the early 300s.

One theme which caught my eye was something I have not seen often in such a setting. In a corner low down on the left-hand side after you enter the main interior, three naked women are entwined with snakes, looking most sorry for themselves. Next to them, what seems to be happening is a man being forcefully penetrated from behind by something spearlike by a devil, or the Devil himself. Opposite this nighmarish scene, on the right, are the haloes of a large group of saints. Hell and heaven… left and right. Damned, and saved.

We did not stay long as more roads and destinations awaited us, but I photographed all I could of this fascinating edifice. I was glad that it has survived the centuries of often turbulent and Muslim-forced iconoclasm of Georgia’s sad history, perhaps by being less accessible than other parts of the country, like Kakheti to the east or the rest of the lowlands. Even the country’s brother Orthodox “protector”, Russia, from the early 19th century was complicit in the whitewashing of many gloriously painted church interiors. Thankfully, some survive, like this one. Nikortsminda is well worth a visit, regardless of one’s faith, simply to see it.

This year’s greatly truncated tourism season has meant much more travel opportunities for my wife and me inside Georgia, and on this trip we also saw the diplomatic plates of a number of cars from various embassies. So, other foreigners here are also taking the opportunity to acquaint themselves better with what they cannot escape anyway. We have explored more of Kakheti, Tusheti, Khevsureti, Adjara, Guria, Svaneti and Racha so far, less encumbered by our own guests at home. While we all bemoan the losses to Georgian tourism, our own travels can make up for some of these, enriching us as guests and our hosts at the same time.

Tony Hanmer has lived in Georgia since 1999, in Svaneti since 2007, and been a weekly writer and photographer for GT since early 2011. He runs the “Svaneti Renaissance” Facebook group, now with nearly 2000 members, at www.facebook.com/groups/SvanetiRenaissance/

He and his wife also run their own guest house in Etseri: www.facebook.com/hanmer.house.svaneti

By Tony Hanmer

22 October 2020 16:03
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