The road detouring from the Tbilisi main road at Zestaponi towards Chiatura passes along a ridge of hills that rise up between the Buja and Kvirila rivers. Gentle slopes on both sides, the yellow-green and rust-brown stripes of the wet meadows and fields steam in the sun after two days of rain.
After the junction to Dilikauri, the deep gorge of Kvirila unexpectedly appears on the right side. Beyond it, steep hills, with small villages and churches on their peaks, like in Umbria. And as the road rises, the panorama of the valley also becomes more and more dramatic.
Before Katskhi, the road goes around a broad bend of the Katskhura creek, which flows into the Kvirila. As if passing along the edge of a crater with a diameter of several kilometers, one can see the whole from every point on it. At the beginning of the bend, a monument, the grave of a hero fallen in the South Ossetian war of 2008, watches over the valley. Drinking glasses, upended in a neat row, stand on the stone, and the inevitable makeshift table, made of welded scrap metal, invites you to stop, to drink to his memory, and to try to make out in the distance, somewhere around the middle of the crater, the Katskhi Pillar standing alone in front of the limestone walls of the canyon.
The forty-meter-high limestone monolith has intrigued the religious imagination since the beginning of Christianity in Georgia. A particularly revered object of Georgian Christians is the Holy Column of the cathedral of Mtskheta, carved from the miraculous tree which had grown above the mantle of Christ, and the Katskhi Pillar was considered as its God-created stone counterpart. In the 10th century, a hermitage was built on its top, which was restored in the 1990s. It was then that Father Maxim from Chiatura moved here, and has since then lived here as a modern-day stylite. A small monastery was established at the foot of the pillar, where now ten to fifteen young monks live.
The pillar first appears when we reach the bridge of Katskhura. Underneath, along the river, there are the remains of a former transformer, with sheep grazing around it. A few bends of the road take us higher, from where a difficult dirt road leads towards the monastery. A spacious field opens between the cliffs, with otherworldly views of the pillar and the countryside, already at the height of the golden hour.
We come to the monastery shortly before closing time, the last visitors, Russians, are photographing each other in front of the pillar. We are the only ones who still linger on in the yard. Farther back, in front of the living quarters, a small group of young monks are sitting round, together with Father Maxim. In the middle, a ten-year old boy, Rezo, is playing on panduri, the Georgian three-string lute, and the older priest sitting next to him brings in a second musical voice. We are offered a chair and a glass of wine. It is the village priest’s birthday, and he has come up to celebrate together with the monks. He also brought five catechists, young people with clean, nice-looking faces. The youngest one, the already mentioned Rezo, plays quite well on the panduri, Georgian folk songs, old chansons, contemporary pop music. Somebody raises his glass, quietly toasts, then the priest returns it. Though it is not clear what he says, from the sparkling eyes and the laughter we understand that they are engaged in witty repartee. The reply is followed by a song, while the glasses are refilled.
Toast and song. Recording by Lloyd Dunn
In the light of the setting sun, the wind whips the clouds into fantastic imaginings above the pillar. Father Maxim softly touches Lloyd’s wrist and points up to the sky, as if asking him to admire its beauty.
Toast and song. Recording by Lloyd Dunn
The sun has already set behind the mountains when the celebration ends. We say thank you for the hospitality, and following the custom of Georgian men, we embrace and kiss each other on the cheek. The monks accompany us to the gate. We see their gaunt, black figures stading in front of the monastery until it disappears from our view at the next turn.