The Land Between Snows And Orange Trees

excerptsKartvel architecture, in its plastic traditions associated with nature and derived from nature, covered much more than the mountains; the current material of the tops was also brought down into the valleys, for towns. This is how it happened with the immense Zion Church from Tbilisi, built in the 5th century, then often restored, which was originally built out of a yellow-brownish volcanic tuff, like the fine essence wood. When I entered there for the first time, I stopped to look at some ornaments finely cut by a forgotten sculptor, and I asked naively what kind of wood the sculpture was made of. My companion told me smiling that the wood was actually stone. The border around the door giving towards the nave, delicately carved with stylised flowers, has remained intact. Everything is pure and fresh, defying the passage of time. The rock is not afraid of time, but the wood wouldn't have resisted it. I look in amazement at the colour and the smoothness of the material with thin veins and at the delicacy of the sculpture. It is, of course, much more difficult to handle the knife through the stone than in the lime tree wood. But the Georgians, just as the whole East, knew that what they were doing they would hand down to the centuries to come. I watch the frame of the door from the nave, but I still can't feel the centuries.After the October Revolution, while examining this work, a geologist noticed that it was made of volcanic tuff. Tuff of this quality was found around 1935 and, after around a thousand years of pause, it started to ornament again the cities of Georgia. I was told that it was resistant, which I also found out for myself. That it was beautiful, I didn't need saying. But I also found out that it was cheap.I saw many castles in Georgia, fortified monasteries, and old churches. Describing them means taking advantage of the readers' patience. But seeing them on your own, you become anxious to see them again. However, my words will never be able to say what the stone told me. Only the song of the stone is sublime. And I don't know where to begin, there are so many. Maybe with the one that looks older?When you leave Tbilisi on the Georgian military way, to Darial, as soon as you leave the city, on the right there suddenly appears a mountain which looks almost like a cone, painted in green, its top powerfully lit by the sun: the grey stone starts looking white. The Djvari monastery-castle is there. Making for it on another road, you can see it appearing, then disappearing like in a mirage. The last time you don't even see it, and you think that the taxing, unpaved winding road made you lose your way. But when you start worrying, here comes the monastery in all its stature, only a few meters ahead. When I arrived at Djvari, I remembered in amazement that an unbearable heat reigned in Tbilisi. Here in the shadow of the castle, it was cold. One guard, living among relics and ghosts, a very old man, guides me and explains. Two churches, one against the other's wall, one very little, one very big, and all around ruins of walls and towers. The monk's small rooms and the surrounding fortifications didn't last. But the two churches seem intact, without ever being essentially repaired.Here, on top of the mountain, stood until the 4th century A.D. a pagan sacrificial altar. In 337, when Christianity was adopted as the state religion, the altar was torn down and a wooden cross (djvari in Georgian language) was built atop the ruins. Later, instead of the cross, probably eaten by the rains, a little church was built, and I can see it right now, on the edge of the precipice, to the left of the big church. Under the little church, there are a few artificial grottoes, for shelter. I am now at the foot of another abrupt mountain, and up the mountain, black holes, like caves, inform me that I arrived in the city carved in stone, Vardzia, which, had they seen it, the Greeks would have considered a wonder of the world, adding it to the other seven.Vardzia is situated in the east, in Meshetia, the province in which Rustaveli was supposedly born. There once came a few monks, stonemasons, sculptors, masons, brave and strong men; they looked at the high mountain made of solid rock and they liked the place. They carved it with the pickaxe and with the chisel, with the shovel and with the hammer, they cut it, they levelled it. These enterprising Georgians made out of shapeless rock, as it was even from the age of the formation of geological layers, when neither man nor any other being even breathed the hot air of the mineral empires, tens of spacious rooms, secret passages, floors and streets, yes, streets in front of the numerous rooms, streets which went down in a spiral, or oblique, towards the stairs, and they started again horizontally, on another floor. They made cellars for the wine and grain, and defensive forts, and keeps, and a belfry in which the bronze sounded for the mountains and valleys to gather in the immense cathedral, carved in the same rock, by the same hands. I stand in the church, under the fresco representing Queen Tamar, a beautiful and wise woman whom Shota Rustaveli loved, and not only in secret. Hers is called the Golden Age. The rock on which her charming face was painted in the church is not made of gold, but the hands that modelled the rock were more valuable than gold. I lean against the stalagmite of a column, I raise my eyes towards the elegant capital, in a moment of relief, and then I look at the ceiling. I go out on the platform of one of the streets: the carefree mountain dominates eternity, and I can't believe that I'm out of it, where man cut as he wished what the earthquakes and the wind of the eras wasn't able to crush and cut. Everything here is hand made, without pneumatic hammers, without electric cranes or dynamite.The cathedral of Vardzia is imposing and vast, the rooms – a labyrinth. They are all situated so as to be sunny and warm during the day. In one of the rooms situated deep in the mountain, dark and cold, there runs a spring with tasty water and with a debit that may meet the requirements of the inhabitants of the city during a siege.And when you go down, you only see the rocky mountain, with black holes, which are the caves where one can suppose that lonely bears dwell. But up the mountain, beyond the misfortunes that gathered in ages upon this wonder of human hands, one can see the subtle and elegant style of classical Georgian architecture and ornamentation.I walk piously through the rooms and the ruins of the suspended streets. The wood became rotten throughout the centuries, people have died: there are only the stone and the paint left.Almost all the buildings of Tbilisi are painted, with soft shades, southerner, thus solar. I haven't seen anywhere a strident colour. Many houses are made of a volcanic, yellow tuff, with veins vibrating of vitality, only a little darker, somewhere between bright orange and the orange of the sunset, and other buildings are made of the brown tuff, with the appearance of wood, that adorns the door of the nave in Zion Church. The mixture of cypresses and palm-trees is a frame for the colour of the buildings. And the sun knows how to gild all of them with platinum powder, rendering the city the colour that I tried to depict. Cartea rusa, 1958

by Victor Kernbach