This informal paper was presented on May 7, 2016, at a teacher training course in Tsqaltubo, Georgia. Although the setting was not ideal and I had difficulty with the delivery, I really enjoyed writing Signs of the Azure, as the topic fascinates me, and it has been only lately that I have managed to dig into some of the ancient mythologies of eastern Georgia. As I wrote this paper for verbal presentation, I have not included footnotes, but I can provide my sources on request. All photos are mine and were taken in the Alazani Valley region during the past two years.
Today I want to explore what it means to be a human being in a geographical and historical context. Through these photos, I will raise the question of the meaning of place. My emphasis is on particularity. I will not be talking about the Caucasus region in general or even Georgia in general. Rather, I will be discussing a few features of the concrete and peculiar landscape of the Alazani Valley area, which I have called home since September of 2014. The land and its history have, I believe, often at a deep or even unconscious level, a formative effect on one’s mental topography, much as they indisputably affect the growth and expression of the body.
It is to the land that I now turn. Between the hills of Gombori and the Greater Caucasus Range, the Alazani river runs down to join the Mt’k’vari in Azerbaijan. The river valley is about twenty kilometers wide and the fertile heart of Kakheti. Humans have lived in it for tens of thousands of years, shepherds have driven their flocks up and down it in a rhythm that seems eternal, and countless armies over the centuries have used it to march in and out of Georgia. It extends from the densely wooded foothills north of Akhmeta to the arid plains and broken limestone landscape of Shiraki.
Now, I want to tell you a story about trees. These are hornbeams, rtskhila in Georgian. Hornbeams are probably the dominant tree species in the Kakheti highlands today, at least in my area. As the self-described “defender of the forest” whom I once met up here explained, this is a very old forest. It is in fact a remnant of the forests that once spread across all Transcaucasia.
Fifteen million years ago, the world was warmer and wetter than it is today. Walnut, alder, and poplar species dominated the valley region. Global cooling and the slow rise of the Caucasus mountains have made eastern Georgia a far drier place. After the last great Ice Age, the valley was covered in oak forests, with elms, beeches, and hornbeams like these in the hills. Animal life included aurochs, goat-antelopes, elk, and wild horses. This world changed with the arrival of agriculture and the clearing of the valley during the Bronze Age.
Now let us look at a very different tree. I took this picture from the window of my school last year. It is a ginkgo biloba, one of the oldest tree species in existence. 200 million years ago, when the dinosaurs roamed a single world supercontinent, ginkgo was widespread. But this is not a Georgian tree; ginkgos disappeared from Europe long before humans first emigrated from Africa. It only survived in small pockets in East Asia, until about two hundred years ago when it was re-introduced to the west. The hornbeams I just showed you were in Kakheti long before the first ginkgo was imported to beautify public school yards. But during the Jurassic, when the land of Eastern Georgia rose from the Tethys Sea, ginkgos were among the species that comprised its first forests. When you look at this tree, you are seeing a twist of botanical history, the return of a primeval dynasty.
Admittedly, I suspect most Kakhetians do not think of this when they look at a hornbeam or a ginkgo. It is, however, an example of how humans shape the land that shapes them. It was human farmers who cleared the oak forests to feed and warm their growing families, and it was modern humans, a mere five thousand years later, who were responsible for the reintroduction of the gingko, which a fickle climate removed in another geological epoch. I could go on to discuss the current ecological crises that face the valley, but I think the point is clear: the human organism, despite its transience, is deeply and bidirectionally interconnected with its situation.
Speaking of the human organism, I would like to discuss one of the less transient aspects of its passage, namely, its architecture. This particular house at the Ethnographic Museum of Georgia was built in the nineteenth century, but it is a late example of an east Georgian housing style called darbazi that goes back to ancient times. These houses were usually at least half underground, their conical roofs covered in turf. There was a hole at the top that let light in and smoke out.
But like every other product of human imagination, the darbazi cannot be reduced to mere utility. The builders and inhabitants of these houses attributed enormous spiritual significance to their form. The roof signified heaven; the dirt floor, the earth; and the wooden pillars, the world-tree, which in eastern Georgia was imagined to be a poplar in the center of a garden. The ancient Georgian family thus lived and slept in an icon of the cosmos, in the middle-earth between the beauty and order of the celestial world and the chaos and darkness of the netherworld.
When you look at other architectural monuments from this part of Georgia, you see a similar story at work. Vejini, the village where we live, is an old fortress town. I do not have time to review its history at length, but I can give a brief summary. Christianity was here very early, as evidenced by this fifth century shrine to St George, pictured during Giorgoba. The ruined fortress further up the hill was built around the ninth century by the Heri or Heretian people to keep out, among others, the Georgians. It stood at least two sieges. The first was by a Kakhi-Abkhazian alliance. In the second, the Kakhis were defending Vejini from a Turkish army commanded by the King of Georgia. Today, the fortress is an active monastery, centered on a medieval church dedicated to the Ascension.
If the fortress is a testament to the political instability of the region, the churches reveal at once a similar instability, and at the same time, a constancy. These are some restored frescoes inside the Church of the Ascension. At the time it was first built, the Heretians were monophysites, a branch of Christianity regarded as heretical in the west but happened to be the preferred flavor of imperial Persia. The Georgians, on the other hand, adhered to Byzantine orthodox theology. Only a few decades after that first siege of Vejini, the Heretians converted to Georgian Orthodoxy under the leadership of their queen, a Tamar-prototype named Dinar. This church and others like it would to Georgians represent a movement, a communal ascent from paganism to orthodox truth.
The constancy, on the other hand, is exemplified by the older and humbler shrine of St George. It is well known that throughout Christianized Europe, the attributes of pagan deities were subsequently transferred to saints. In Georgia, the most famous example is St George himself, who in the eastern highlands took on many of the characteristics of a lunar deity and the god of the hunt. One of the local names for St George is Tetri Giorgi, a suggestive title now attached to a functioning church in the Gombori hills. Although in this part of Kakheti pagan customs have almost entirely died out, in the mountains still today many people follow a tradition of shrine reverence that they do not see at odds with their Christianity or, as may be, their Islam. Givargi, the ancient god, has been baptized, made a faithful warrior of King Christ; but he has not gone. Nor has the cosmological sensibility that characterizes the darbazi houses.
One Georgian creation myth states that the middle-earth was a battlefield between gods and demons, representing upper and lower worlds respectively. Then the gods got tired of fighting, and they withdrew, handing the earth off to men. But men could not resist the power of the demons. So the gods, feeling responsible, launched a grand assault and drove the demons out of the earth. The demons left women behind in their place. The marriage of man and woman is thus a grand reconciliation, a union of the celestial and the subterranean which perpetuates a median existence teetering between hostile extremes.
Now, all that remains of Vejini was built in the Christian era. Christianity has been in the Alazani Valley for fifteen hundred years, and pagan mythology is largely forgotten. But it would be a mistake to assume that Christian dogma is a thing that exists abstractly and in necessary competition to local worldviews we might regard as essentially pagan. The rivalry between polytheism, Zoroastrianism, various forms of Christianity, and Islam was enacted over souls shaped by an ancient culture and landscape that proved capable of adapting itself creatively to any of them. New characters, angels and devils, were mapped onto old dualisms and indelible local symbols.
To take an example, when a Greek literary adaptation of the Biblical story of Job found its way into Georgian folklore, distinctively Georgian elements appeared. In the Greek story, there is a moment where a worm falls off Job’s festering body, and Job picks it up and puts it back on himself, expressing his patience with the will of God. In the Georgian story, the worm that falls off Job’s body transforms into a bee; that is, a traditional chthonic symbol metamorphizes into a celestial one. Job’s body is depicted as the middle-earth, the axis and point of union between the heavens and the netherworld. Job is also paralleled by these folk stories with the vineyard worm or the silkworm, creatures seen to mediate celestial powers in the middle realm. Job eats a leaf and turns it into silk, and in some versions, he literally gets into a cocoon and is reborn as a butterfly. Though these elements are distinctively Christian, they are at the same time expressive of an ancient Georgian worldview whose potency was of enduring significance.
So when we look at the houses, churches, and fortresses of old Georgia, we may wonder how their builders viewed them, when they were new and upright, destined to last for centuries. One part of the answer is that Georgians, on some level, realized their essential fragility. Human works situate themselves on a samsaric plane which depends on the uneasy alliance of opposites. Christianity did not eliminate this duality, but taught that we are able to transcend it through the operation of sacral powers. We see this in the continuing use of ruined churches for devotion, as here, at Vejini’s shrine of St George. The building collapses and the icons fade, but behind their time-worn exterior is the glittering gold of eternity.
Kakhetians no longer watch the circle of sunlight cast by a darbazi roof travel across wall and floor, as the sun journeys between the vying waters of heaven and underearth. But their lives are still shaped by the natural rhythms that gave shape to the myths of their ancestors. They know the cycle of life and death, day and night, and the turning of the seasons. Human societies have long attempted to reduce their dependence on these things through the complex artificial structures which are the pride of civilization, and modern Georgia is no exception. But autonomy, whether it is or is not a desirable goal, can never be fully realized. These last few pictures, arranged by season, visually ponder the question of what it means to live in time, on the particular land that grants you life and mediates the cosmos to you.
I will be closing with a quote from one of the twentieth century’s greatest and least-known polymaths. Pavel Florensky was born in 1882 not far from Kakheti, over today’s Azerbaijani border in what was then regarded as part of the Karabakh region. His father was a Russian engineer, while his mother was half Tbilisi Armenian and half Kakhetian. He grew up in Tbilisi. Though he became an Orthodox priest and is best remembered for his theological and philosophical writings, he was also in his time a renowned mathematician and scientist, and wrote papers in fields as diverse as art theory, special relativity, and electrical engineering. He spent his last nine years in and out of the Soviet gulag system, not because he was a political agitator, though that was the charge, but because Soviet ideology could not countenance the contradiction of a scientist priest. He was executed by firing squad in 1937.
This quote, from his theological magnum opus, is a fervent expression of how the geography of a place became the geography of a great mind, as the timeless manifested itself to him through the particular landscape of his childhood. He declared that the Caucasus mountains were “like diamonds, their sparkling sharpness quite beyond the imagination of those who have no experience of mountains, the ultimate perfection of their distant outlines thrusting up into the eternal, unquestionable, incorruptible, eternal in a way those who have no experience of mountains simply cannot conceive, into the depths and velvety infinity of the azure sky. And amidst these mountains lie the torrid open spaces, all woven from the metallic, resonant trills of cycadas and grasshoppers, from an abundance of growing things, fish, game, beasts of the hoof, predators, poisonous insects, snakes and sweet scents, famous for their karabach [sic] horses, the best in the Caucasus, and their dashing brigands, the most desperate in all Transcaucasia. In the free space of my soul there are no laws. I do not want law and order and set no value on it, for I know myself to be a brigand to the core of my being, who should not be sitting in a study but galloping through the stormy night, galloping with the whirlwind, without purpose… I want to take possession of the Azure, to embody it in myself. Yet never to forget that the Azure is ABOVE me, the Kingdom of Eternal Peace, a calm, serene Kingdom that pours itself into my soul. And, submissive only to the Azure, I still need symbols of my limits. It is the snow-peaks that frame the steppe which make me aware of my freedom and of my limits. The snowy peaks thrusting up into the Azure situate it closer to me–and further away… I will not come to terms, cannot come to terms with anyone who shuts off my view of the peaks with wooden fences or obscures them with smoke.”