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 for sure.

Mze Shina Ensemble: Djin’ Veloi From the CD Ushba (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.

garni garni garni garni garni garni garni garni garni garni garni garni garni garni garni garni garni

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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