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On Andrew’s first visit to Iran in 2003, he learned that the kindness of strangers can redefine one’s idea of hospitality. Journalist Andrew Burke has written three editions of Lonely Planet’s guide to Iran. A version of this story first appeared in The Australian Financial Review. This story does not represent an endorsement of Travel the Unknown. Follow Andrew Burke on Twitter @andrewburke I didn’t know what to expect from spending Christmas in Iran, but I wasn’t expecting to be standing by a dusty road in Khur, an oasis townin the Dasht-e Kavir desert, waiting for a bus to Tabas. It was noon when an ageing Land Rover pulled up and smiling army engineer Vahid told me the next bus to Tabas wasn’t until 11pm. Lunch at his place, Vahid suggested, was a better idea. Lunch was delicious – oranges, flat bread, cheese, dates and tea. Vahid’s brother-in-law Sadeqi sat beside me, feverishly polishing shoes for his cousins’ wedding that afternoon. An hour later I’m the surprise guest of honour at the wedding of Ali and Maryam. The typical courtyard home was a tumult of traditional, non-alcoholic and largely sex segregated good cheer. Ali danced his way into a new suit and a delicious meal was had sitting on the floor. By the time Vahid dropped me at the 11pmbus I was halfway to redefining my concept of hospitality. I awoke in Tabas to the news an earthquake had destroyed the historic city of Bam and decided to travel there to cover the disaster. Bam was 700km south across the desert and after a 90km taxi trip I found myself beside the road again, waiting for a bus that wasn’t due for six hours. This time, however, my luck was in. Within two minutes of deciding to hitch I’d squeezed into the cabin of a truck with driver Rustam and three of his friends. The journey south was sombre yet starkly beautiful. After sunset we stopped for a dinner of bread and kebab. Rustam not only insisted on paying, but returned with a bottle of home-distilled whiskey, insisting it was his obligation as host to provide an after-dinner drink. Bam At 10pm the hydraulic brakes failed on a downhill into Zarand, a regional centre still 200km from Bam. Rustam told me the truck must wait for repairs, and that it was too dangerous for me to stay. He flagged down a pick-up carrying two bearded men who agreed to take me to a hotel in Zarand. The men barely spoke a word of English and what little I could make out concerned the ‘hotel Hossein’. We reached Zarand, gassed up and were driving out of town again when I started to feel a little anxious. My requests for a hotel or mosaferkhaneh (guesthouse) were being ignored and we were now on a dirt road in total darkness. A small village appeared and when we stopped outside a large, metal gate, I briefly considered jumping out. But when a woman appeared I knew it would be alright. My driver was, it turned out, called Hossein and his one-room home was the ‘hotel Hossein’. We sipped tea and ate apricots, walnuts and oranges while his wife and six children watched fascinated by the stranger with the photographs of kangaroos. The next day I made my way to Bam. By noon, I’d become the first foreign journalist to reach the devastated city. That’s another story, but I’ll always remember the journey that redefined my idea of hospitality. Hossein and his familyRead Full Story
Starting at an elevation of only about 100m in New Jalpaiguri and rising to around 2,200m is the Darjeeling Himalayan railway – the world’s tallest railway network. Whilst the length of this track is only 78km long, the Darjeeling Himalayan railway (fondly know as the ‘Toy Train’) is a must-do for travelers to this part of the world. Located in the state of West Bengal, Darjeeling was annexed to India by the British after the East India Company purchased it from the rulers of Sikkim in 1835. The station at Darjeeling was established when the British decided that the cooler climate here would be ideal for British residents who wanted to escape the heat of the Indian summer. The climate here was good for soldiers but also perfect for growing tea and it’s tea that firmly has placed Darjeeling on the world map. Since it came into service in 1881, the DHR has managed to retain most of its original features and still runs 16 trains a day. The popularity of the DHR is undoubtedly in its use of steam locomotives that operate on a 2-foot narrow-gauge track. Despite being over 130 years old, the same steam locomotives carry passengers over a meandering single-track system through tea plantations and mountains to the terminus at Darjeeling. Use of the same steam engines evoke memories of a bygone age, but remain temperamental and labour intensive. After travelling on the Toy Train from Siliguri to Darjeeling in 1896, Mark Twain wrote that the railway journey is ‘so wild and interesting and exciting and enchanting that it ought to take a week.’ Despite all of this, the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway has had its difficulties. In recent years, the main worry was that in order to survive the DHR would have to become an amusement ride, which would mean that it lost its place at the heart of the community. The DHR was almost scrapped by authorities in the 90s, but thanks to global petitions and local protests, the railway line was formally declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1999. Today, the DHR’s future seems assured and, like tea, it has become an enduring part of the identity of Darjeeling.Read Full Story
With over 36,000 km of coastline, it’s not surprising that the Philippines has the world’s richest marine ecosystem. Nestled in the so called ‘coral triangle’ which is home to more than three quarters of the world’s coral species and over 2000 marine plants and animals, the Philippines truly is a diver’s paradise. Vast coral reefs, sea grass beds, and dense mangroves are home to such species as eagle rays, pygmy seahorses, blue ringed octopuses, and dugongs (better known as ‘sea cows’). Whale sharks and scythe-tail thresher sharks can also be found here, along with 6 out of 7 of the world’s endangered species of turtles. Reefs nurture life in the sea and are natural habitants for thousands of marine species. A square kilometre of healthy coral reef may yield to about 30 tons of fish every year. There is however trouble in these waters. A host of harmful activities such as pollution, urbanisation, destructive fishing practices, as well as the warming of waters through climate change, has resulted in a huge population decline in the Philippines’ different underwater ecosystems. It is estimated that 20% of sea grass areas have been destroyed, that 70% of mangrove areas are damaged, and that 90% of coral reefs are endangered. Only 1% of the Philippines’ marine ecosystems remain pristine. The natural abundance of the water benefits more than half of the Philippines’ 98 million citizens, so the destruction marine life is felt throughout the country. Conservation projects are now thriving though. Just off the south-eastern tip of the province of Negros is Apo Island, which was the first area in the Philippines to adopt a marine conservation programme in 1982. This programme was mainly aimed at stopping harmful fishing techniques (such as blast fishing) but showed that through education and local cooperation, fish stocks could be increased three fold just by sustainable fishing. Apo Island has served as a model for fishing communities and there are now over 750 sanctuaries nationwide. In addition to these projects supported by locals, there are also a number of non-profit organisations. These organisations are focused on gathering more scientific data, planting coral in degraded areas, and putting pressure on local governments to put in place their own projects of restoration. Awareness is key and it seems as though the process of restoring and protecting the Philippines’ marine population has really been set in motion. Images: www.freeimages.co.ukRead Full Story
Azerbaijan is rarely a destination to top traveller’s bucket lists, but this wasn’t the case for Jo Gilbert, here she tells us about what she found. Awhile back, I travelled to Armenia and Georgia but didn’t take the three-day add-on to Baku. Later, I read Ralph Peters’ ‘Looking for Trouble’, which included a bit about the Azerbaijan and Armenia conflict. Azerbaijan promptly went on my bucket list. And now, having spent two weeks there I am so glad I waited, for three days in Baku would have not shown me much, other than an urban oil rich Islamic city overlooking the Caspian Sea. Two weeks gave me a flavour of the regions and nationalities populating this most diverse country. Jo Gilbert This was a two person tour, arranged through a British travel agency, Travel the Unknown. We had local guides with a driver in Azerbaijan and with time to wander about on our own, or not. We were based in Baku, passing through as we travelled on the Absheron Peninsula and into Naxcivan plus the Northwestern, Northern, and Southern parts of the country. Since I had a twelve year old Lonely Planet guide, we were able to appreciate recent changes. Our Azeri guide was a middle aged man, precise in movement and language. He taught himself English and been a guide for ten years. One of the Azeri refugees from Armenia after the difficulty over Nagorno Karabakh, he had spent two years with the Russian army in Siberia. The Naxcivan guide was a younger man, married with several children. Both wanted the present regime to continue: the so-called Aliyev dynasty had brought stability to long conflicted territories. Baku is a contrast of old and new, religious and secular. Lots of shiny, new architecture: some appropriate and some tasteless in places, a bit Las Vegas. Three glass skyscrapers molded into the shape of three flames over look the Old Town, related to the Zoroastrian tradition Baku, the City of Wind and Flame. We wandered about the waterfront area, a lovely park where families were enjoying a Sunday outing. Nizami Street was a walking street with a collection of upscale stores. Most buildings, old and new, had an Islamic motif. Most of a day was spent in the Old Town; starting at the glassed flamed buildings and working our way down. We climbed up the Maiden’s Tower, likely a defensive stronghold in early times, wandered about the Palace of Shirvan Shahs and the pathways of old city. This was the last of the sunny days – wet and fog the rest of the visit! On a second try, we got into the Rostropovich Museum, a collection of memorabilia in his childhood home. I didn’t get the feeling they got many visitors. We missed the carpet museum. Another day and we moved onto the oil rigs and fire temples of the Abseron Peninsula. Plus YanarDag, a natural gas outlet, very unique! So back through Baku and onto the Greater Caucasus, ending up at Sheki, where we spent several nights. There were stops at a small mountain village and various historical sites dating from 12th-18th Century, including a palace built by one of the early rulers which had glorious glass work. Wonderful mountain country, though weather limited some planned explorations. A local village Jo visited Then two nights at Ganja, in the Lesser Caucasus, noted for its Mosque, Mausoleum and the Bottle House. And an Archaeological museum, mud volcanoes and petroglyphs – all at Qobustan. Then back through Baku and on to Quba, the principal northern town with its sad little zoo. Here we were invited for tea at a local weavers home after having spent time in a rug factory. In visiting a local synagogue – there is an small Jewish population nearby – we ran into two young, impolite Israelis, looking for religious services. Quite moving was a Memorial – the unrestored skeletons of Azeri victims from 1918 Armenian activity. Azeri Memorial We then flew out for a day in Naxcivan – that bit of Azerbaijan, briefly independent, that is not connected with the mainland but rather, surrounded by Iran, Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh. Pristine and lovingly restored, there wasn’t a trace of trash about. We were taken to mosques and mausoleums but most interesting was the collection of musical instruments, ancient and contemporary; the carpet museum, and the unusual salt caves now used for medicinal purposes. The final segment was a trip to Lerik in the South – high in the mountains, through rain and fog and over bad roads courtesy of rock bearing trucks. A dark and spooky ride! It’s an area inhabited by a long living Caucasian Talysh ethnic group. We made stops at Shirvan National Park with its affable manager, at Lankaran at a tea plant and then the prison and lighthouse where Stalin had been and then escaped. Now back to Baku and flights home. It was a good trip. The exchanges with local people were friendly with no feeling of tension with the extant regime. While some women were covered, many weren’t. There were several checkpoints but they seemed quite routine. Not a lot of tourists, but that’s to be expected this time of year. Azerjbaijan looks like what it is: a secularly run Muslim majority country. With money. With scenery. At the moment, peaceful. Accommodations: From a quite authentic Kervansaray to standard 3-star to resort hotels. All comfortable and all with WiFi albeit standing outside in the Kervansaray’s courtyard for use. Food: Various breads, lentil and chicken (with a bony piece of chicken included) soups, eggs, tomatoes and cucumber were standard. Both of us were non red meat eaters so occasional chicken kabobs and fish. A couple of exceptional meals but mostly routine. One horrible greasy breakfast omelet with equally unappetizing male companions at the Kervansaray forced us to pay for breakfast at a hotel across the way. Comment: You really have to understand this country in relation to the other parts of the Pinochle: Armenia, Georgia and Russia (and Turkey?). All having had a part in the action over the years and thus influence the present.Read Full Story
History & Archaeology
More than just a city, Istanbul marks the point where East meets West and nowhere else is this more apparent that at Hagia Sophia. For nearly 1000 years it was the largest enclosed building on earth, but what is unique about Hagia Sophia is how it carries the history of Christianity and Islam within its walls. Today, its function is as a museum, which isn’t surprising considering the site’s rich history. Hagia Sophia is the third church to stand on this site and near the entrance marble stones with reliefs are the last reminders of the second church. Built in 415 CE, the second church was destroyed during riots in 532. Having just managed to retain power, Emperor Justinian I resolved to rebuild the church on a grander scale. Five years later, the main structure of Hagia Sophia as it is known today was completed. The importance that Hagia Sophia had for Justinian and subsequent leaders can be seen by some of the other, perhaps more overlooked parts of the site. A number of the columns here were taken from the Temple of Artemis, one of the seven ancient wonders of the world. The presence of runic inscriptions that were carved by Vikings also shows this importance. The Varangian Guard were an elite unit of Vikings who acted as special bodyguards to the emperor. Allowing these men to leave their mark at Hagia Sophia shows how special the church really was. For any visitor to Hagia Sophia, the grand dome is undoubtedly the highlight. Rising 50m high and 30m across, the grand dome symbolises heaven and the way that the light reflects through the interior of the dome really helps communicate this. Hagia Sophia briefly spent time as a Roman Catholic Church after knights of the Fourth Crusade seized Constantinople. After 57 years, the church returned to its Orthodox roots after the Byzantines seized back the area, but Hagia Sophia would not remain a church for long. Weakened by the Crusades, Constantinople fell to the Ottomans in 1453 and Hagia Sophia was declared by Sultan Mehmed as the new imperial mosque. Over the next century, the four prominent minarets that surround the site were constructed under imperial orders. As the centuries progressed, Hagia Sophia was extensively strengthened with supports to its exterior, which would make it less susceptible to earthquakes. Inside, the Christian mosaics on the walls were covered with plaster and a vast carpet was laid over the marble floor. These actions would inadvertently preserve all the mosaic and marble work until it came to being uncovered once more in the 1930s. In mid-19th century, giant calligraphy discs inscribed with the names of Allah, Muhammad, the first four caliphs and the two grandsons of Muhammad were hung on the walls; however, by 1935 anymore additions to Hagia Sophia ceased when the site was turned into a museum. Today, images of Islam and Christianity coexist under one roof, reminding visitors that Istanbul is truly the place where East meets West.Read Full Story
History & Archaeology
Considered one of the most important prehistoric sites in Southeast Asia is the Plain of Jars, located in Laos’ Xiangkhouang Province. Throughout the valleys of this area stand groupings of ancient megalithic stone jars that date back to the Iron Age. Sculpted from an assortment of rock types such as sandstone, granite, limestone, conglomerate and breccia, the exact purpose of these vessels still remains unknown. The fact that many of these boulders were quarried and then transported to their final resting place indicates the important role that they played in society. The question of how these jars (some estimated to weigh up to 1000kg) were moved also remains a mystery. Interest in these megalithic jars rose after a French archaeologist named Madeleine Colani led an excavation to one of the numerous jar sites. Remains of burnt human bones, teeth, glass, iron tools and carnelian beads offered the explanation that these giant stone jars were in fact urns that were used for burial practices. When excavating the land surrounding each jar, human remains were found in pits buried under stones. It is thought that the jars were used to contain the remains of nobility, whilst the poorer classes were simply buried around these vessels – their proximity to the jars possibly indicating their social standing. Colani also excavated a cave containing these urns and found that the walls had been heavily blackened by smoke. Colani also noted that the holes in the ceiling of the cave were man-made in order to create chimneys. This discovery greatly strengthened Colani’s burial rites hypothesis. Although new research has recently begun, many of the jar sites are still not accessible due to unexploded war materials that are scattered throughout the countryside. Between 1964 and 1973, Laos was bombed every 8 minutes for 24 hours a day with the area belonging to the Plain of Jars as one of the worst affected. The pock marked landscape and craters left from explosions are visible throughout the area and many jars have been damaged. Whilst many of the areas have now been cleared, something that remains striking to any visitor here is how the recent history of the Laos conflict is now so closely intertwined with the mystery of these megalithic structures.Read Full Story
I was sat on the runway in London waiting to take off, thinking about how Ireland shared a number of things with Moldova – both sat at the periphery of Europe, with a similar size population and landmass (give or take), a capital of about 1 million people and a history of being dominated by powerful neighbours, when my brothers contacted me on Whatsapp and discovered I was going somewhere. I told them I was flying to Chisinau, and set them the challenge of telling me where exactly I was going (no internet allowed for this challenge naturally, on gentlemen’s honour). The guesses came flying in, a host of Stans, Hungary, Slovakia. I gave some clues, someone hit on Romania, getting warmer, eventually they got there, but if it was 20 questions the guesses would have been up. And that’s the point; whereas Ireland has managed to make its mark on Western culture and consciousness through a mix of literature, music and booze, Moldova has not even gotten started. Most people have no idea where it is, nor know a single fact about it. Chisinau doesn’t exactly roll of the tongue when you think of capital cities. Roma lady , Chisinau market When I arrived into my apartment, I turned on the television and flicked through the channels – mostly Russian language, or Romanian channels ruled the waves. No BBC World, no English channels, instead a crude Russian spy movie with Romanian subtitles. On another, Dara O Briain bounded around the stage pestering the audience in thick Russian. I was almost certainly in an alternate universe. The next morning, I met my guide Natalia, and Mihaela, from a local tour company. I was surprised to hear them speaking in Russian. Natalia explained that as she was the eldest and a native Russian speaker, this was their first choice language. We drove North towards Transnistria, a quirky wannabe state, where everyone speaks Russian. See my Transnistria blog here. Cricova Winery Next on the visit list was Cricova, the state run winery. Putin celebrated his 50th birthday here, but it has seen many other famous guests whose pictures adorn the walls – Angela Merkel, John Kerry, Joe Biden, Manuel Barroso, Donald Tusk, John McCain, Erdogan, Jiang, China’s former president, Yuri Gagarin (of first-man-in-space fame), Sepp Blatter (ahem), as well as sitting presidents from Poland, Ukraine, and beyond. The cellars are impressive, and stretch for 80km, with a small collection of private cellars for some of the rich and famous, as well as a wine Jerusalem from 1902. Moldovan wine is available in much of the world these days and Cricova leads the way. Our next stop was the cave monastery of Orheiul Vechi. Built into a cliff by 11 monks in the 15th century, it has been inhabited ever since. It is set in what is probably the most beautiful landscapes in all of Moldova with sweeping escarpments, sheer rock faces with rolling green hills and a river that cuts its way through the land. The monastery is austere and living there must be a real sacrifice, especially in winter. The current and solitary monk who lives in the monastery looks every bit the part. Natalia explained to me that he has lived there now for 12 years. In a previous existence he was an engineer and had flirted with Buddhism before deciding Orthodoxy was where his soul belonged. Orthodox monk from Orheiul Vechi We continued on to Curchi monastery, which was founded in the 18th century by a bandit, Curchi, who during his lawless days had accidentally killed his own parents during a hold up. Repenting of his wicked ways, he decided to live a contemplative life and do good work. He set up the monastery here, where an active monastery thrives today. A wedding party in full regalia looked a little out of place, but didn’t seem too bothered. On the drive back to Chisinau Natalia explained that despite its small size, Moldova has an impressive diversity – as well as Russian and Moldovan/Romanian speakers, in Gaguazia in the South was a Turkic people who spoke Turkic (and usually Russian too). While ethically and culturally similar to Turks, they are Orthodox Christians. In terms of religion, Orthodoxy rules Moldova but it comes in many flavours – Russian Orthodox, Romanian Orthodox, Old Believers. There are some places where Russian Orthodox masses will be given in Romanian or even Old Slavic. Wedged in the middle of Gaguazia near the Ukrainian border is a community of Bulgarian speakers (in the Taraclia district). In the Northwest of the country are the main Roma communities, who speak a language of Indian origin, which has no script. My head was beginning to spin. “Do svidania”, I said goodnight to Natalia. Landscape around Butuceni I was really taken with the area around Orheiul Vechi, so I decided to go back and spend a couple of days to relax and take some walks in the area rich with apple trees, apricots and vines. It was the perfect place for a bit of quiet and relaxation. Before I left Moldova I discussed the country’s lack of fame with Natalia and Mihaela and we explored if there was anything we could hook onto, perhaps any famous people I thought out loud. “Stefan the Great”, they both looked at me expectantly. Yes, I have heard of him, but I hadn’t last week. “Alexander the Good” was another name offered rather hopelessly. Not sure he was going to cut the mustard as a famous historical figure, having been outgunned in the name stakes by a Macedonian. “What is the most common reason people give for coming to Moldova?”, I asked them. “Because they had been everywhere else”, Natalia sighed. We tried to think up some “famous” facts about Moldova. Below is the best we could manage: Russia’s national poet Pushkin was exiled here for 3 years Cricova is Putin’s favourite winery, where he celebrated his 50th birthday On the Cricova theme, Yuri Gagarin, Soviet space hero, got lost and spent the night in the cellars, barely able to walk when he left, claiming it was harder to come out of there than back from space Moldova is Europe’s poorest country Moldova is rated in the top 10 in the world for high speed internet Moldova ranked in top 20 least-visited countries in the world The wine cellars of Mileștii Mici are the largest in the world, holding almost 2 billion bottles and stretching almost 200km Cricova is second in the world with 1.2 billion bottles and 70km of cellars Ok, so Moldova doesn’t have any “iconic sites” so to speak, but it is a safe, friendly and fascinating place, and certainly worth a few more visitors I think. For tours to Moldova visit our Moldova webpage. – DavidRead Full Story
The border guard looked me up and down, scribbled some details in his book and handed back my passport. “Dobro pozhalovat v Transdinistr” (welcome to Transnistria), and I had checked off another country on my list. Well, not quite. Transnistria (also known as “Transdniester”) is a Russian-speaking, break-away “republic” North of the Dniester river in Moldova. Recognised only by three other wannabe nations – Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia and Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan (but claimed by Armenia). The three share a tiny embassy in Tiraspol, the capital of Transnistria. Though wholly dependent on Moscow for its continued existence, even Russia doesn’t recognise Transnistria’s claim to independence. Pro-Russia propaganda abounds Not that any of this holds Transnistria back. The region has its own flag, government, parliament, military, police force, currency and collection of Lenin statues. Yes, Transnistria is yet to fully accept the fall of the USSR, and the communist architecture and Soviet style statues, memorials and the like make many refer to it as an “open air museum”. As relations between Ukraine and Russia have deteriorated, Transnistria’s border and trade with Ukraine has become more complicated, leading to modest shortages of goods. There are always other ways, and most trade continues uninterrupted. The open air market in Tiraspol is buzzing and the bright computerised display show which units have been rented out ($2 a day is the going rate) and a modern sprinkler system keeps both punters and produce cool. And it is spotless. No rubbish anywhere. Natasha, my Russian-speaking guide, explains that this is how everywhere was in the Soviet Union. “Not like the market in Chisinau” she remarks. Though it is more expensive here, she prefers to shop here. There is a good vibe it must be said. People are smiling, people are buying. Lenin looks out from the front of the Transnistrian parliament Transnistria is not without its problems. Corruption is rampant. Sheriff, a local company, have fingers in every pie imaginable – supermarkets, petrol stations, textiles, car sales, publishing, cognac, TV, mobile phone operators and advertising. They also bankroll FC Tiraspol, Moldova’s most successful football team over the last decade or more, and stuffed full of foreign players. And of course suspected shady dealings with Smirnov, the long time former president. The region’s status makes it ideal prey for such types. Putin allegedly refers to Transnistria as the “Republic of Sheriff”! Hard currency is so short in supply, that Transnistrians no longer turn up their noses at Moldovan Lei. Don’t be surprised when you join the queue to change money into Transnistrian roubles if a local joins the queue behind you to see if they can get a hold on whatever it is you have just changed. The Hammer and Sickle live on Popular stops here include the bookshop (maps and flags from the middle of nowhere anyone?) and the post office. Postcard from the Soviet Union for your granny? There is also a historic fort at Tighina as well as an atmospheric war graveyard, some ancient monasteries and some very respectable cognac distilleries. For tours to Moldova and tours to Transnistria visit our Moldova webpage. – DavidRead Full Story
A country that has witnessed its fair share of turmoil, Georgia lies at the crossroads between Europe and Asia. Georgia’s geographical location has meant that it has been under the control of the Greeks, Persians and Mongols. Up until the collapse of the USSR, Georgia was even known as the ‘Soviet Riviera’.
Despite the constant invasions and subsequent re-settling, Georgia has managed to retain a strong sense of national identity. At the heart of this is Christianity, which is so closely linked to Georgian identity.
Georgia is one of the oldest Christian countries in the world and its origins can be traced to the city Mtskheta, about 12 miles north of Tbilisi. Everything started when Christ’s apostles are said to have visited the city in the 1st century AD. Among them were St Andrew and St Simon and they helped establish Christian communities here and in the surrounding areas. The apostles lit the flame for Christianity but the fire was fanned by a young Cappadocian woman named Nino. The culmination of Nino’s preaching came when she baptised the king of Georgia in 337 AD. Georgia was now a Christian country and, following her death, Nino was canonized St Nino the Ilumanatrix of Georgia.
The continual invasions throughout its history has meant that Georgia has always had to defend its faith. Near Mtskheta is the Jvari Monastery, which is one of Georgia’s oldest religious buildings. Jvari was built on top of a hill overlooking the city and was fortified by stone walls during the Mongol invasion. Jvari means cross and it is thought that this site was where the first cross in Georgia was erected.
Also in Mtskheta is the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, which is one of the finest examples of a Georgian renaissance church. Surrounded by walls, this cathedral is one of the most sacred sites in Georgia and shows how closely knit Christianity is with the people here. Svetitskhoveli is where Georgia’s kings have been crowned, and for at least ten of them, where they have been laid to rest. The cathedral also displays the baptismal font that St Nino is thought to have used to baptise the royal family with. What perhaps draws people most here is the legend relating to Christ. According to written sources, Christ’s robe was bought from a Roman soldier at Golgotha and then brought to Georgia. Once in Georgia, the robe became trapped in the hands of a Georgian woman, who died instantly from the emotion of touching such a sacred object. The robe could not be removed from the woman’s hands so was buried with it at Svetitskhoveli Cathedral.
Christian history is also written into the rock of Georgia, as seen with the impressive Vardzia cave complex. Used as a monastery, Vardzia is a complex that measures over half a kilometre in length and is thirteen stories high. Hand carved out of the rock face, Vardzia at one time had more than 3000 caves and could house as many as 20,000 people. Today, only a few priests live here; but Vardzia offers a very physical reminder of the presence that Christianity has played in Georgia’s history.