On the roof of Europe

Spring has come early this year. The valley of Svaneti is dressed in exuberant green. I come here for the fifth time, but I have never seen it so strong, so full of life. I have come by marshrutka, jeep, by ox yoke and on foot, and next time I’ll come on horseback. I have seen it under meters of snow, awakening in early spring, under rain, in shoe-swallowing mud, and in the full bloom of summer. The Caucasian shepherd dog, against which I defended myself with a stake pulled out of a fence, now only slightly raises his muzzle, sniffing for my scent, and then lays its head back onto its paws and goes on sleeping. The little boy, who at our first meeting wanted to be a jazz musician, and a second time a tour guide, speaks more and more beautifully in English – in the school of Ushguli they pay great attention to this, as well as to Russian, for they are educating future emigrants who must stand on their own down there in the world –, and he knows less and less what he’s going to be. He’s maturing. The ever-joking old man in a Svan cap, who last year was shoeing an ox, now gives me his hand, laughing. This year, the school and museum director already admit us into the school, where twenty teachers educate forty-eight students from the three small village districts, but she still does not let us take pictures either here or in the museum. There will come a time for that as well. The brown mare belonging to the border guard officer now has a colt. They are building a new bridge next to the old one. Judging from the unorthodox methods of preparing concrete, they will go on building it for a good while. Under the bridge, the Inguri constantly rushes down from its source near the clouds.

Ushguli is the highest inhabited point of Europe, if you draw the borders of Europe on the basis of where the twelve-star flag is put on border stations and public buildings. On this basis, Georgia is Europe, and my native Hungary is not. In the narrow valley of Svaneti along the Inguri, it was possible to expand only upwards. For three thousand years, every inch of arable land found its owner. From Ushguli there is no more upwards, the ever-snowy border mountains rise here. On the other side lies Kabardino-Balkaria in Russia, and the Elbrus. The treasures, icons and codices saved from the enemy invading the plains also marched up the valley, and the ones that were not reclaimed by the owner after the invasion have remained here. The three village districts of Ushguli are dotted by seventh- and eight-century fortress towers. The most massive of which, in the middle village, houses such a rich museum that would be the pride of any great city. On the sides of the towers, satellite dishes, in the towers, LCD monitors, on which the little Svans study where they would have to go to win their victories, as their ancestors have done for thousands of years. Next to the towers, mud mingles with cow dung.

When you first come here, you feel the weight of time, the waning, the gravity that draws the Svan youth with the promise of an easier life down to the cities of the plains. Now I also see the vitality and the strong social network, which keeps and brings them back here, the promise and delight of a full life in the thousand-year-old valley. That the spring has come so early this year, and the valley of Svaneti has dressed in such exuberant green, helps a lot.

Mze Shina Ensemble: Djin’ Veloi Az Ushba albumról (2011)

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Pagans in Garni

The Hellenistic temple of Garni is an anomaly in Armenia. On the plateau above the deep gorge, where one would expect a squat Caucasian church with a conical roof, a perfect Greek temple with tympanum and columns rises atop a high row of stairs, as if space-time had been confused for a moment, and the road under the Ararat suddenly turned up between the mountains of the Peloponnese. Its contemporaries probably experienced a similar sense of being out of space-time when, in 66 AD, King Tiridates I broke the six-century-long Persian alliance, and traveled to Rome, where he received from Nero a royal crown, an ally’s handshake and fifty million drachmas to provide his mountain kingdom with fortresses against the Persians. The center of the fortification system was the royal capital of Artashat, near present-day Khor Virap Monastery, and its northern key point the fortress of Garni with the temple dedicated to the Sun God, to whom they continued to pray under its Persian name Mihr.

We do not know how the temple managed to survive after the conversion of Armenia to Christianity, but in 1679 it certainly stood still, because in that year it was ruined by an earthquake starting from the gorge as its epicenter. Its rebuilding was repeatedly suggested. Already in tsarist times they wanted to move it over to Tiflis, where it would have authenticated with the authority of the first Rome the Caucasian rule of the third Rome. Nevertheless, it was restored only in 1975 by the Yerevan academician Alexander Sahinian. The reconstruction is convincing, the many well-marked supplements among the preserved marble blocks are not disturbing. However, the most authentic elements are the graffiti, which testify that the temple has set a challenge to the sense of reality of the visitors over the centuries. The memento in seventh-century Kufi handwriting – “In the name of Allah, the compassionate and merciful, Ahmed was here” – was probably carved into the base by an Arab conqueror, while the 16th-century Persian merchant asked God’s blessing on his journey after having drunk and eaten here. We step in their footprints, even if we leave a mark about our visit not on the wall of the temple, but on that of Facebook.

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In the outskirts of the village, police cars are stationed, blocking the road, with a long row of cars behind them. Excited Armenian drivers argue with the policemen who stand with adamant posture. One of the policemen moves along the row of cars, he urges them to turn back. A driver jumps out, attacks him, they begin to fight. The others separate them. I go forward. “Can’t we go any further?” “No.” “Look, we are a Hungarian group, once in a life we get to Garni, and we should turn back now, in the finish?” The officer hesitates a little, and then he beckons. “Go.” We happily drive on, past the stunned Armenian drivers. After a few kilometers, a new police cordon. Here, even the reference to the Hungarian group is of no use, we can go on only on foot, but we are only one kilometer from the temple. “Why can’t we go on by bus?” I ask. “I do not know”, the officer says. “Well, then it is definitely politics, isn’t it?” I poke his chest. He grins. “You said it.”

Soon a third cordon appears, this time a civilian one. A sky blue minibus across the street, with Armenian slogans on its side. The difference of the length of the car and of the road are filled with rocks and brushwood. In front of it, excited groups are discussing, old men are sitting along the street, black crows on the bar of the road. “Zdravstvuyte”, I stop before them, like Ostap Bender from the Golden Calf. “What’s going on here?” From the crackling Armenian sounds I only understand “Rusuli”, they are looking for a “language”. One of the old men beckons me to himself. “We have a small river. Do you go to the temple? Well, then, if you look down in the valley, you will see it. The county council wants to lead away a large part of it by pipe, to the reservoir. Well, we live from it, we irrigate our lands from it. We do not give it away. The negotiations have been going on for a year, but we have not got anything. Now, two days ago, we blocked the road, we finally want a decision.” “Molodtsy, well done”, I praise him. “And does it have any result?” “Today at four in the afternoon the President of the Republic will come out, we want to have him promise that they don’t take away our river.” “And how’s that only you, men are here? Where are the women?” “Now at home, but don’t worry, by four they will also come out.” “Udachi, much success”, we bid farewell.

In front of the temple there are several stands, most of them closed because of the drop in tourist traffic, but some are holding out. An old woman is selling pomegranate wine, both by the liter and bottled. I recommend it to the others, in case they want to buy some local gift. “Can’t we get it in Yerevan?” Cesare asks. “It is not easy to carry it on the way back for a kilometer.” “Of course we can, but I always prefer to buy from local vendors, it supports them. Local business,” I say.

As we are heading back, cars arrive at the temple, tourists get out of them. Every Armenian was or will be a taxi driver, this is an innate job for them, not much is needed to activate it. The local car owners have recognized the unexpected business opportunity, and they are carrying the passengers of the tourist buses stopped at the police cordon. “Local business”, Cesare says.

By the time we reach the cordon, the TV is also there, they are just interviewing the parliamentary representative of Garni, a particularly bad-looking man, just like his companions, thick-necked, confident-looking mafiosi. I do not understand him, but I can more or less imagine what he is promising and how much of it is believed by the crowd standing around him. The children threateningly raise in the air the posters, so the rarely seen guest could easily see them. “Do such things also happen in your country?” the young cameraman asks me at the end of the interview. I would be pleased to tell him that no, never. “Our government is no better”, I console him. “Idiots there, as well?” he grins. “Let’s exchange them, we give you these, you give us your idiots.” he says. “You would not be better off”, I’m protecting Armenia.

At the cordon, a few tourist buses, marshrutkas, school buses are waiting for their passengers arriving back on foot. When passing by the policemen, I beckon them, say goodbye aloud to them. They all respectfully beckon and greet us, they are grateful for the human word after a day spent with exhaustive quarreling.

The light in Armenia

The old Armenian royal road leads through the canyon of Hrozdan river from Yerevan to Bjni. Large balls of purple flowers bloom next to us on the steep cliff walls, a thin carpet of fresh green grass covers the riverbank. The landscape has changed a lot since the winter, when we traveled here between walls of snow, on the single-lane road cut into the white blanket that evenly covered the region.

Arriving in the village, we stop on the bridge, below the castle, built by the Pahlavuni princes in the 11th century, just after the supervision of the military road from Sevan to Yerevan was entrusted to them by the Bagratuni kings. The handrail of the bridge is supported by the descendants of the ancient Armenian garrison soldiers, they shyly smile, and joke with each other, a bit confused when all the ladies in the bus direct their cameras at them. Old women are gathering something in the grass on the riverbanks. “What are they gathering?” asks Dorka of one of them, as she climbs up on the riverbank. “Herbs.” “And what are they good for?” “Everything, my sweetie, absolutely everything in the world!”

Among the khackars carved with birds, an old man is hoeing weeds in front of one khachkar, carved of white stone. “It belongs to my son. He fell in the war, so we were permitted by the Catholicos to bury him here, right into the church garden. The stone is a replica of a khachkar destroyed by the Azerbaijani army in the cemetery of Julfa. We carved it after a photo.”

The Sunday Mass must have recently ended, the priest is having a snack with some women in the church garden. The light breaks through the darkness inside the church, a beam like a blade, just as it did one year ago in the Armenian church of Lemberg. I tell the others how at that time the director of the church choir came to us and how he sang us their Easter hymn. At this point the priest enters the church. Where did we come from, how do we like Armenia? Then, to illustrate the acoustics of the church, he goes to the lectern in front of the altar, opens the missal printed in Venice in the 17th century printed in the typeface of the Hungarian Miklós Kis of Misztótfalu, and he sings from it the hymn of the Sunday after Easter to the enthralled company.

Bjni, Easter hymn

Holy Saturday in Lemberg

Святі воїни, holy warriors, proclaim the two icons of the two warrior saints, dressed in black and red, the colors of Bandera, on the facade of the Icon Museum in Lemberg/Lviv. The two icons are parts of the decoration of the exhibition St. George the Dragon-Slayer and the warrior saints on icons from the 14th to the 19th century, but in these colors, and without the poster of Saint George announcing the exhibition are rather symbols of the current public climate of Lemberg, and profess the immortal glory of the heroes fighting for the Ukraine героям слава –, like so many other things, from the fairy tale books through the pubs to the cemeteries. The permanent exhibition shows the most beautiful pieces of Ruthenian icon painting in Galicia, from the museum’s collection of seventeen thousand pieces. This is a strange and unknown world to the eyes accustomed to the Russian icons, just as intense and fascinating, but with less stiffness, much more popular features and playfulness, and a lot of Western influences. Icons of saints’ life stories with the scenes of everyday life, Passion cycles with rustic side episodes, Last Judgements with the encyclopedic representation of sins and punishments. In the Saturday of the Orthodox Easter they close two hours earlier, they are preparing themselves for the Resurrection Mass and dinner. Христос воскресе – Во истино воскресе, we say goodbye to the attendant nanny. I would like to take a picture of a Resurrection icon in memory of the feast, but I cannot find any at the exhibition. The resurrection did not figure among the themes of the painting of the future Ukraine.

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For Passover

The rooster is crowing on the roof of Europe, in Ushguli, Georgia. Recording by Csaba Labancz. More about the song here and here and here and here. And a more authentic recording with Márta Sebestyén and Bob Cohen.

The Armenian Middle Ages in one hour

Due to the Arabic and Turkish invasions, medieval Armenia fell apart into a dozen small kingdoms and principalities. They all maintained a court of their own, each of which followed an independent foreign policy, and where diverse cultural influences prevailed. Despite the fragmentation, the three hundred years between the millennium and the Mongol invasion were the second golden age of Armenian culture – the first one being between the conversion to Christianity and the Arab conquest, from the 5th to the 7th centuries –, when most of the yet standing monasteries, universities and princely palaces were built.

For a better overview, during our Armenian tours in May and June, of the maze of relationships during the period, and to see more clearly the importance of the individual monuments, next Wednesday, 27 April, I will give an one-hour lecture with maps and photos on the history of medieval Armenia, its regions and culture, with an emphasis on the regions that we will visit. The participants of our Georgian tour are also recommended to come, because, due to the intertwined history of the two countries, I will also speak about Georgia. Why did the Kurdish warlord found a Georgian church on Armenian land? Did any Hindu princes live in the village of the snakes, and do Frankish Crusaders still live in the valleys of the Caucasus? Which prince invited the Jews to the kingdom of Karabagh? How did the son of a Georgian rebel, converted to Muslim faith, become the father of an Armenian bishop? Why did the Prince of Syunik go on pilgrimage to the mother of the Mongolian Great Khan in Karakorum? Why did they keep the books in wine barrels at the theology of Haghpat? Where did the French ambassador first drink coffee, and how did he like it? These and other tantalizing questions will be answered by us on 27 April at 7 p.m. in our usual place, in the separate room of Selfie Restaurant (Budapest, Rákóczi Street 29, Google Map here). I will be there from 6 p.m. on, and will be happy to answer questions about the tours. It is also recommended that you arrive early, because serving such a large gathering goes slowly, and you are advised to secure your beer and salad in time.

Sayat Nova, the great 18th-century composer: Amen sazi mejn govats. Sayat-Nova Ensemble, Tovmas Poghosyan (2007)

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Eternal friendship

The Georgian military road, the most important northern road of Georgia, starts from Tbilisi, it runs up along the Aragvi river, then, crossing the Greater Caucasus at the Holy Cross Pass, and descending along the Terek river, it reaches Vladikavkaz, and then Moscow. But it would be more accurate to say that it starts from Moscow and reaches Tbilisi, because it was mainly built for use in this direction from the late 18th century, after Catherine II of Russia and Heraclius II, king of Eastern Georgia, signed the Treaty of Georgievsk in 1783. In this, the Georgian king professed allegiance to the Russian ruler, who, in turn, promised military support against the Turkish and Persian threat. The support never arrived. The Shah of Persia, made furious by the treaty, could devastate Georgia unhindered, and was already planning the relocation of the whole Christian population inside Persia, as his predecessor, Abbas the Great, did in the 17th century with the people of Southern Armenia and Eastern Georgia. The Russian army arrived only after the Persian threat, due to the dagger of an assassin, momentarily passed, and then also immediately annexed to Russia the bled-out Georgia. The splendor of the celebrations held in Tbilisi in 1983, on the two hundredth anniversary of the Treaty of Georgievsk, was further enhanced by a special issue of the samizdat magazine Sakartvelo, in which was described in detail how many times and in what way Russia knocked down the basic points of the agreement.

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Monuments along the Georgian military road. Map: Baedeker Russland 1914 (in large resolution here)

In the context of these celebrations there was inaugurated, a few hundred meters below the Holy Cross Pass, where one has the first beautiful sight over the southern slopes of the Caucasus when coming from Russia, or the last one when leaving Georgia, the Russian-Georgian Friendship Look-out, or as it is called in the Russian sites, Арка Дружбы, the Arch of Friendship, designed by Zurab Tsereteli. The look-out indeed offers a stunning panorama on the uppermost section of the Aragvi river in depth, called the Devil’s Valley in Russian, and of the huge clouds in the heights, drifting downward from the northern side of the Caucasus. No wonder then that everyone pulls off the military road to take a photo. Here I first heard some teenage girls use the Russian phrase давай поселфимся, “let’s make a selfie!”

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Reading of the mosaic decoration of the look-out starts from the center. A mother is sitting here with her child, surrounded by two groups of dragon-slaying knights, three Georgians and three Russians, as secular Holy Georges. This remote Madonna theme is likely the popular socialist allegory of “the next generation”. Next to her, the quote of Rustaveli in two languages asserts that a friend always helps his friend, and this is what we see unfolding in the panneau, basically from right to left, from the Russian side to the Georgian one. Already in the Middle Ages, Russians tolled church bells and rushed to the help the Georgians. (The artists here probably do not allude to the first chapter of Georgian-Russian relations, when Prince Yuri Bogolyubsky twice invaded Georgia in alliance with Muslims. Queen Tamar both times defeated him, and forgave him, and only after the third time was he sentenced to prison for life.) After the fairy tale figures come other heroes, the red sailor of the Revolution and the soldiers of the Civil War, the Soviet hero trampling on the swastika, and finally the image of the brave new world. On the Georgian side, the bucolic-ethnographic representation of Georgian folk life are likewise traced out, in a great leap, with revolutionary figures of the popular uprisings, and then the same brave new world. Life is day by day more joyful. As if even the shape of the building illustrated that verse of the national anthem: дружбы народов надежный оплот, “a strong bastion is the friendship of peoples!”

Союз нерушимый республик свободныхUnbreakable Union of Freeborn Republics

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In the occasion of the celebrations, a friendship monument was erected not only at the middle of the route, but also at its two ends. Both were entrusted to the same Zurab Tsereteli, who, with genial pliancy, has since served all systems with his over-dimensioned monuments. The statue Узы дружбы, “The bond of friendship” at the start of the military road in Tbilisi, where the text of the Treaty of Georgievsk was written in the inner side of two interlocking rings, was demolished in 1991, and I failed to find a photo of it. In Moscow, however, still stands the column called Дружбы навеки, “Eternal friendship”, crowned with Russian ears of corn, embraced by Georgian vine, and announcing in two languages the words “Friendship”, “Union”, “Work” and “Peace”. The column was erected in the center of the former Gruzinskaya sloboda, the former estate of the Georgian king Vakhtang VI. For a long time, this square hosted the Georgian market, whose removal provided the Moscow city government with the necessary space to raise the column of Russian-Georgian friendship.

Two years later, in 1985, another monument was inaugurated in Georgia, next to the dam of the Zhinvali hydroelectric plant established somewhat below on the Aragvi river, just as next to the Zages plant sixty years earlier. This one, however, does not portray Lenin. The structure, cast of concrete, has the shape of an ancient Georgian fortress tower, on which warriors stand outside, to protect the women and children clinging close to the wall inside.

The monument has no inscription, and on the internet there is almost no reference to what it depicts. The Russian sites call it “a war memorial”, and some even “the monument to the workers of the construction of the Zhinvali water reservoir”. Only Google Maps displays next to it the title, only in Georgian, “300 არაგველი”, “the three hundred Aragvians”.

The three hundred Aragvians were three hundred Georgian soldiers from here, the upper valley of the Aragvi river, who during the 1795 Persian invasion, when the promised Russian support was awaited in vain, fought to their deaths against the Persians, like the three hundred Spartans, thereby ensuring the king’s escape. This anonymous monument was erected in their memory here, on the northern military road, clearly indicating who you can rely on when the homeland must be defended, and from which direction you have to defend it. This monument is an unspoken response to the official platitudes of the Friendship Look-out, which, however, has been clearly understood by everyone. Inside, as the traces of soot show, they often light candles, just as in the churches. The reading of the inscription on the circular iron plate around the central iron column is not an easy task even for a Georgian:

სამშობლოს არვის წავართმევთ, ნურც ნურვინ შეგვეცილება, თორემ ისეთ დღეს დავაყრით მტერსაც კი გაეცინება

samshoblos arvis ts'avartmevt, nurtrs nurvin shegvetsileba, torem iset dghes davaq'rit met'ersats ki gaetsineba

“We do not want to rob anyone’s homeland, but nobody can rob our homeland either from us, because we fight so fiercely for it, that even the dead will laugh at it.”

The quote, says Jacopo, while polishing the translation, is taken from the poem of the great patriotic poet Vazha-Pshavela (1861-1915), which was set to melody and sung as an unofficial anthem already in Soviet times.

Mgzavrebi: Vutia vutisofeli (text by Vazha-Pshavela)

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A third monument also stands on the pass, right at the column marking its location, with the cross set on the hilltop, according to tradition, by Queen Tamar. On the map we see a small cemetery here, at the very top of the pass, many, many kilometers from any inhabited place. It arouses our curiosity, and so we stop. Crosses in groups of three. Under the central, solitary cross, an inscription: “Hier ruhen Kriegsgefangene, Opfer des zweiten Weltkrieges.” “Here lie prisoners of war, victims of the Second World War.” After coming back to Berlin, I find in the military cemetery register, that after 1943, German prisoners of war built the road here, across the Holy Cross Pass. Judging from the dimensions of the cemetery, the life of POWs was not everywhere as idyllic as that of Hubert Deneser in Uglich. To this monument of the recruits who senselessly perished after a senseless war, no triumphal or patriotic song belongs. Only the noise of the trucks as they speed along north to the Russian border, the dripping slush, the cawing of the crows that fly over the fields.

Holy Cross Pass, cemetery of German prisoners of war. Record by Lloyd Dunn

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