With only one day left, it’s time to finally visit the sight that dominates all of Tbilisi, the Holy Trinity Cathedral. Also known as Tsminda Sameba Cathedral, it was only consecrated in 2004, yet its physical presence is something that can’t be ignored and it is well worthy of the 30 minute walk from the Old Town to reach it.
En route it is worth taking in the Baratshvili Statue, which honours a man often referred to as Georgia’s second best poet (after Rustavili which nearly every town has a street named after).
From this rather dashing figure, you simply need to head up Elia Hill until you reach the imposing Cathedral. Amazingly, construction of the church was made possible mostly by anonymous donations from several businessmen and common citizens. Maybe that’s how Auckland’s city rail link should’ve been funded!
At 101 metres tall, the cathedral is the third tallest Eastern Orthodox church in the world (Russia takes out 14 of the top 20 tallest Eastern Orthodox churches). It is also one of the largest religious buildings in the world by total area, with an interior measuring 5,000 square metres.
Whilst it’s easy to be impressed by the Cathedral’s immense nature, it also exhibits its own kind of beauty especially when seen “nestled” amongst its gardens.
The cathedral, itself, consists of nine chapels, five of which are situated in a large, underground compartment, whilst the overall complex also contains a free-standing bell-tower, the residence of the Patriarch, a monastery, a clerical seminary and a theological academy. Having been built so soon after Georgia won its independence from the Soviet Union, it is hard not to be impressed.
Inside the church there is a range of impressive iconography, including a large handwritten bible in Old Georgian that weighs one hundred kilos and is printed on calf skin parchment. Unfortunately, no photos are allowed to be taken inside, so having toured the entire complex it was time to head back down the hill to check out St George slaying the dragon one more time in Freedom/Liberty Square.
This central location is well known as a site for mass demonstrations having first been named Freedom Square in 1918 when the Georgian Republic was declared following the Russian Revolution. This initial taste of freedom didn’t last too long, however, and by 1921 it was once again invaded by Russia and the country became a Soviet Socialist Republic the following year. During the Soviet era, the square was known as Beria Square and then Lenin Square, where a large statue of Vladimir Lenin was placed in 1956. In 1991 Georgia had another more permanent crack at freedom after it seceded from the Soviet Union and the Lenin statue was toppled.
The square was also party to demonstrations during the Rose Revolution of 2003, which marked the end of Soviet era of leadership in the country. George W. Bush stood in this square two years later in front of 100,000 people, lauding the Georgian people for the way in which leadership change was peacefully effected. For his efforts he had a live grenade thrown at him by a Georgian-Armenian dissident attempting to assassinate him. Luckily for George W, the cloth that the grenade was wrapped in prevented the grenade from exploding.
In 2006, fifteen years after Lenin’s statue was torn down, the current Liberty Monument was unveiled in the same place. The symbolism of Georgia defeating Russia rings loudly.
Georgia has been amazing. It’s a complex and historically rich country that continues to struggle to escape from underneath the shadow of its monumental brother to the north, Russia. The fully fledged Russo-Georgian War of 2008, over the Russian-backed self-proclaimed republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, most aptly demonstrates this, although it would be wrong to cast Russia as the sole belligerent. Georgia’s pro-Western stance, including its ongoing stance to accede to full NATO membership will ensure good relations with Russia will always be tenuous but that doesn’t seem to stop the hordes of Russian (and Ukranian) tourists from visiting.
The country is now on the cusp of becoming a significant tourist destination for tourists from further abroad. Most notably, visitors from the Middle East have soared and it won’t be too long before ever increasing numbers of Europeans and Asians visit this wonderful country. The country’s tourism infrastructure will improve and my read is that the Georgia of today, whilst not being unrecognisable from that in 10 years time, will certainly be a different place. English will be spoken more widely, roading standards will be improved and consequently transportation will become easier. With it also will come increased service standards - who knows, you might even get a smile from the waiter who delivers your beer. Unavoidably, Georgia will become more expensive, but if that means more Georgians experience a higher standard of living, then no one should begrudge them that.
My hope is that none of these changes seriously impact what makes the country so brilliant to visit. Bagrati Cathedral’s loss of UNESCO World Heritage site status illustrates what can happen if things are done wrong. I seriously believe that Georgian pride in their history and traditions will ensure that its historical attractions, beautiful countryside and culinary treats will continue to wow visitors unabated.
It wouldn’t be entirely honest to suggest that everything about Georgia was plain sailing. We’ve had our share of painful moments, frustrations and disappointments. Four weeks was certainly a long time to spend in the country and yet circumstances also meant we didn’t get to visit one of the undisputed highlights of Georgia, Mtskheta, which is one of the country's oldest cities and home to the 6th century AD, UNESCO-listed Jvari Orthodox monastery. Likewise, we also didn’t manage to get to Mestia and the land of the Svans. This still annoys me now sitting here writing this, most especially Mtskheta which is only 20 minutes from Tbilisi.
But such is life. There’s always bound to be disappointments and its best not to dwell too much on them but instead to look forward to other amazing things in front of us. We’re now off to Prague and the girls are convinced that they’ll be travelling in style to get there.