On our first evening in Batumi, we were joined by three professional singers from the Adjarian State Song and Dance Ensemble who sat down at our table and burst into song, working their way through a powerful repertory of sacred, folk and “urban” chants. The men sang without accompaniment, without notes, their eyes focused on a space above a feast of Georgian dishes.
As John explained, the typical Georgian men’s choir sings in three-part harmony, with a tenor who leads the song, and two other voices improvising backup. Mixed-gender choirs are rare, mainly because of the close harmonies required by the music.
During the trip, John put his skills as a choirmaster to the test and managed to corral two of our members — Alex, a college classmate of Liza’s and a jazz pianist who was also traveling with his mother, and Tom, a British arts administrator — to join him in liturgical chants in the ruined Orthodox churches on our itinerary.
Inside Georgia, all the churches we visited had been restored and returned to the Georgian Orthodox church since 1991, when the country won independence from the Soviet Union.
In Turkey, most of the Christian churches were in ruins, their vaulted ceilings now rubble, with battered carvings and faint traces of once-colorful frescoes left on the walls. During Ottoman rule, many had been converted into mosques, then abandoned.
We stopped in one former church in Khakhuli, now a mosque guarded by a sleepy imam who nodded his permission for our group to sing under an apse that still bore traces of frescoes. At Ishkhani, a 45-minute drive from Yusufeli in Turkey, an ancient cathedral, rebuilt in the ninth century by Sabas, a disciple of St. Gregory of Khandztha, is being restored in a desultory, and not entirely convincing way.
Ruined or restored, these churches have maintained a haunting serenity through centuries of neglect and destruction. Our trio’s solemn, melodic chants — wedding songs, Easter and other liturgical hymns — conjured up their original purpose as places of worship, learning and reflection, monuments to the glory of God and the Georgian kings and monks who built them.
“The development of multivoice chanting in Georgia in the Middle Ages was unique in the region; almost all of the surrounding countries were then singing in monophonic music styles,” John explained. In Georgia, he said, the process seems to have been homegrown. The Georgians learned to sing three-voiced chants from existing polyphonic folk music traditions. In other Orthodox churches, like the Russian and Greek, monophonic chant remained the dominant style until at least the 16th century.
Some of the monasteries that we visited in Tao were the very sites where medieval chantbooks called iadgari (heirmologions) were collated by 10th-century scribal monks. But for many centuries, it was mostly an oral tradition; it wasn’t until the late 19th century that this polyphonic music was transcribed into Western notation. This required adapting the dissonances and harmonies peculiar to Georgian music to five-line notation, and deciphering the cryptic shorthand used by medieval monks to guide contemporary singers through melodies they already knew.
At almost every stop, John had a story about the monks and church leaders who had left their mark on these mountainsides. Manuscripts from the monastery at Otkhta in Dortkilise, a village near Yusufeli, eventually made their way to the St. Catherine monastery on the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt. St. George the Athonite, revered father of the Georgian Orthodox church who wrote some of the texts we heard, had been educated at the monastery at Khakhuli, now a mosque buried in brambles also outside Yusufeli.
St. Gregory of Khandztha, a leading church figure in the eighth century, began his ecclesiastical life founding the Khandzta monastery in Klarjeti (now in Turkey), and helped his disciples establish other ones such as the monastery of Ubisa in central Georgia. “They were crawling all over these hills building churches,” John said.
Our trip wasn’t just about churches. A determined hiker, John led us up scraggly paths to explore mountain fortresses: one built in the fifth century above the Turkish city of Artanuc, another above Borjomi, an old Soviet spa town in Georgia. We scrambled through Hell’s Canyon, outside Artanuc, whose soaring cliffs provided good acoustics for our singers to exercise their vocal cords and visited two cave complexes, one at Uplistsikhe, built in 1500 BC, and the other at Vardzia, about 35 miles from the Georgian border city of Akhaltsikhe.
Built in the 12th century as a haven during a time of Persian invasions, the honeycomb cave complex at Vardzia is associated with Georgia’s famed Queen Tamara, a charismatic ruler who can be seen in a fresco in the Church of the Dormition, itself carved out of soft rock. Legend has it that when an earthquake struck in 1283, crumbling the rock face that hid the caves, the population and resident monks were safe inside the church, celebrating Easter; it was deemed a miracle.
Looking out over the valley below from a newly installed safety barrier, Liza compared the view to a scene from “The Lord of the Rings.” Another group member, Michael, an intrepid Australian, said, as he crouched through a low tunnel, that it reminded him of the mountains of Ethiopia.
Farther south, after turning off a new highway (declared a dramatic improvement by our driver), our bus climbed up a steep, dirt road to the monastery of Sapara, nestled in the woods below a ruined fortress. Used as a summer music camp during the Soviet era, the church of St. Saba, added to the monastery in the 14th century, is largely intact, with vivid wall paintings of apostles and the local noble families. A young monk was so moved by our trio’s chants that he gave us souvenir icons in gratitude.
We were often alone on our visits, particularly in Turkey, a predominantly Muslim country with an ambiguous attitude toward monuments of other cultures. At some stops, villagers came out to chat, curious about how our crew had managed to make our way up to their isolated mountaintop.
We even had all of the empty vastness of Ani, a former Armenian capital poised on a high riverbank on the now-closed Turkish-Armenian border, about 24 miles from Kars, to ourselves. Once said to rival Constantinople with a population of 100,000, Ani’s glory years were brief, destroyed by invaders and earthquakes; by the 15th century, its dozens of churches, including one built by Georgians during a brief occupation by Queen Tamara, were abandoned “to the owl and the jackal,” as one guidebook put it.
When we did see crowds in Turkey, they were typically Georgians, making the cross-border pilgrimages to their now-abandoned holy places. At Bana, near the Turkish village of Benek, priests led their flock through high grasses to the giant ruins of a cathedral, site of a Georgian king’s wedding to a Byzantine princess, later used as an Ottoman arms depot until it was blown up by the Russians in the 19th century.
At the 10th-century Tbeti church in the Turkish province of Artvin, we ran into a festive group of Georgian schoolteachers from Batumi, who were surprised and thrilled by our trio’s chants. They soon joined in, adding their voices to music that filled the ruined cathedral.
After reciting the Lord’s prayer, the teachers invited us to share their ample picnic, complete with homemade wine and khachapuri, the delicious Georgian cheese bread. Asked why they had made the arduous day trip, one teacher began a history lesson.
“This was all ours before the Turks stole it from us,” declared Nona Akhaladze, waving her arms, before she was corrected by a fellow teacher who reminded us that, in fact, it was Lenin who ceded the Tao-Klarjeti region, then part of the Russian empire, to the Turks as part of the Brest Litovsk peace treaty signed before the end of World War I.
The music John had promised us kept popping up, sometime planned, sometime spontaneous. After our picnic at Tbeti, the teachers began a medley of folk songs, punctuated with solos by a part-time opera singer.
A couple of days before, when we were staying in Kars, a city made famous by the Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk’s evocative novel “Snow,” but also known for czarist-era Russian buildings and its version of Gruyère cheese, we stopped by a local tearoom, known as a gathering place for bards from all over Turkey. During Ramadan, the Muslim fasting period, the room stayed open past midnight, as people sauntered in to take their places on benches along the walls, listening to what we were told was an impressive lineup of performers whose long narrative songs (their lyrics sadly lost on us) were accompanied by strumming on long-necked lutes, or “saz.”
On our last day, we arrived in Tbilisi on a steamy summer evening in time for a lively concert in a city park where Alex had been invited to jam with a jazz quintet headed by the director of the Tbilisi music conservatory. It was a fitting musical finale to our trip — a modern take on the improvisation we had heard in the lonely churches of what was once the Tao kingdom.
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