Dzveli & Akhali Shuamta

Dzveli Shuamta Monastery.

Dzveli Shuamta Monastery.

Our first stop after setting out from Telavi was Dzveli (old) Shuamta, an old monastery established in the 5th century.  The location is beautiful: up on a hillside surrounded by lovely forests carpeted with a thick green moss; it’d be a perfect place to set up camp and make mtsvadi and linger for an afternoon.  There are three churches in the clearing in the trees, though I couldn’t find any living quarters for the monks.  Perhaps they lived on the site of Akhali (new) Shuamta, where a convent was founded in the 16th century by the Kakhetian Queen Tinatin.  

The altar.

The altar.

The interiors are simple; arches separating the chapel from the altar, a few small icons and paintings of saints.  At about shoulder-level there’s a band of wax and soot on the plaster from the countless candles that are stuck onto the walls.  Small archways lead into neighbouring chapels.  These early Georgian churches are remarkable for their antiquity; although I imagine they’ve been rebuilt over the centuries, it’s quite impressive that there’s been a church here since the 5th century, when in parts of Europe woad-covered warriors were still running around naked chasing boars through the forests, or sacrificing bulls to Mithras.  I’ve been curious about the history of the Orthodox church, particularly in Geogia, but it hasn’t been easy finding material in English; finding unbiased, impersonal accounts is even more difficult (if anyone knows of any interesting books, let me know!).  From what little I hear, the Patriarch seems a better sort than most ecclesiastics (though as I think I’ve already mentioned on this blog, this isn’t saying very much, if the competition consists of the egregious Pope Benedict, the shockingly supine Archbishop of Canterbury, let alone the murderous Ayatollahs…); but I haven’t been able to find any substantial information on the Church and its history, so it’s hard to tell.

The dome above the altar.

The dome above the altar.

Although certain doctrines are as abhorrent and medieval as those in other denominations—they share the ancient Mediterranean horror of menstruating women, for example—they’ve certainly been less inquisitorial and bloodthirsty than the Catholics and Protestants used to be, and as many Muslims are now, though it’s possible that this is because they’ve never had the opportunity those faiths had: first trying to unite Georgians against various waves of invasions, and then suppressed under the Soviet Union.  It’d be interesting to learn more.

Soot & wax from church candles.

Soot & wax from church candles.

Inside the chapel.

Inside the chapel.

Looked at from relatively close-up, the band, of soot and melted wax droplets circling some of the chapels is quite striking; I remember thinking it looked like a Jackson Pollock; or, in various parts, a sort of stormy industrial landscape Turner might have painted.

Exterior.

Exterior.

Here one can see the three distinct sections of the church: nave, and two chapels on either side, each separated by a solid wall, a small window above each altar.  Over to the right one can see the narrow passage leading from the larger, principal church over to the second one, a sliver of which is visible on the far right.  The piles of sand and gravel stretched around to the other side of the churches too, indicating some sort of renovation, but aside from the fairly good condition of the exteriors there was no other sign of ongoing work.

The main church.

The main church.

Urns.

Urns.

These urns were presumably part of the local marani, though there was no sign of one, from what we could tell.  Looked like they’d been lying there for some time.

Exterior.

Exterior.

Akhali Shuamta, convent.

Akhali Shuamta, convent.

A few kilometers down the hill is the convent of Akhali Shuamta, a large walled-in complex once again functioning as a nunnery after having served as an orphanage during the Soviet period.  At the gate one is requested to ring the bell and wait for someone to show one around; near the wooden doors is a rack on which are folded long skirts that women are requested to put on over their trousers.

Church at the convent.

Church at the convent.

We rang several times, and despite hearing voices from inside the convent, which is separated from the church by a large stone wall, no one showed up at the door.  Eventually we walked through the gate and strolled around the grounds until at length a short, plump, scowling woman swathed in black robes strode toward the door of the church with a handful of keys and silently let us in.  For some minutes she observed us carefully from near the door, but was soon afterwards called away for a short time, so I took a few pictures of the interior.  The frescoes that were still intact were in good condition, mostly biblical scenes but also portraits of Queen Tinatin and King Levan II, her husband.

Interior of Akhali Shuamta church.

Interior of Akhali Shuamta church.

Frescoes.

Frescoes.

Icon.

Icon.

Other than the church there was little to see; the grounds around it were small and more or less featureless, and since the convent was off-limits we made our way back to our taxi and headed off to the monastery in Ikalto.

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