TLG Excursion: Gori and Uplistsikhe

At this point, I feel safe in generalizing to say that TLG excursions are great.

I loved the Kakheti trip, to the agricultural school where we got to see wine, chacha, chorchkela, and khinkali made. That was back in late October, I guess.

Now that spring has come, TLG is taking every volunteer on a day trip to various locations of interest. I signed up for Uplistsikhe and Dmanisi, and ended up getting assigned the Uplistsikhe trip – my second choice of the ten or so options.

Uplistsikhe (from Uplis, or “god’s” and tsikhe, “castle”) is a cave city dating from the Early Iron Age – basically, over three thousand years ago. The city was basically dug out of rock formation on a hill on the banks of the river Mtkvari. The rock is soft enough to be easily worked with iron tools, and with the river on one side and the mountains on the other, the city was in a very defensible position. I was told it was an attraction not to be missed.

Gori is a town to the northwest of Tbilisi, near the border with South Ossetia. Its claim to fame is that it is the birthplace of Joseph Stalin. Gori locals are proud of having produced such a great and powerful leader.

The excursion also included two churches – Samtavisi and Atenis Sioni. They were both quite churchy. Georgian churches are notable for their lack of artificial lighting, and so it’s usually weirdly dark in a Georgian church (at least the ones I’ve been to). Georgian churches are also interesting because people actually go to them – I mean, even the ridiculously old and famous ones. You go to a church that’s been standing for fourteen centuries, and inside there are people just attending a mass like “yeah, whatever, doesn’t everybody hang out in thousand-plus year old structures every day?

But other than that, I’m not all that into churches as a whole and so while I don’t really mind a visit to a church or two, it’s not what gets me out of bed in the morning.

Because for me, churches mean civilization. Churches mean enough of a functioning society to be able to support a religious class on top of the people who do the actual production of necessary goods and services. Churches mean a stable location that you can build an actual building at and expect that you’ll still inhabit that land long enough for having built a church there to pay off.

But go to a place like Uplistsikhe – or the Caucasian valleys in general – and to me it just feels more primal. When I stand at Uplistsikhe I can imagine what life was like when the world was young, when civilizations had to be built, when you might find yourself wandering along a river looking for a place to take shelter from storms or foreign invaders. When I stood on the wall in Sighnaghi I first began to think about what it would have been like to be the first people in the Caucasus, to come across plains and mountains and find yourself in a warm valley full of grass and trees and grapes and all the natural resources you could ever need. That’s why some of the oldest ancient human ancestor fossils were found in Georgia – Georgia was inhabited by hominids as long as 1.7 to 1.8 million years ago, according to fossils found in Dmanisi (which is why I want to go there).

I like the idea of coming back to a place where my ancestors may have been thousands or millions of years ago.

The trip, as I said, was excellent. Upistsikhe is worth visiting as it’s incredibly cool to stand in a cave that kings might have stood in a thousand years ago. Gori’s Stalin museum was okay – I mean, I’m also not all that into Stalin, but he definitely had some cool stuff.

We also had a tour guide who was informative and entertaining and who spoke excellent English, as well as a TLG rep who made sure everything went okay for us. TLG seems to have contracted Cat Tours for these excursions and based on this one I’d recommend them for any group excursion (although of course I have no idea how much they cost).

Everything was well-organized, we got good lunches, and we ended up back in Tbilisi before dark.

Anyway, I took photos of the trip, so I’m going to keep this entry short and just point you at the album:

I thought he'd be taller...

Makes living in a cave seem almost glamorous

more caves

The full photoset.

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5 Responses to TLG Excursion: Gori and Uplistsikhe

  1. I’m going to have to fundamentally disagree with you on the premise that “churches mean civilization.” Or rather, completely agree with your statement there, but disagree with its context. I’d argue (as a seasoned Durkhemian-Eliade-ian) that there is nothing MORE primal than “church”. Not necessarily the building itself, but the idea of delineating sacred space/profane space (certainly, doesn’t Uplistsikhe have temples everywhere?), or the idea of “church” as Durkheim saw it: a self-perpetuating society constantly rearticulating its identity. Sure, a Christian church may seem “civilized” – but the arguments you give seem to imply that any permanent religious structure implies a later stage development in an area’s cultural history, whereas in fact I’d argue that they represent cognition of sacred/profane, us/them, and are thus (whether Christian church or pagan temple – or sacred camp-site) fundamental expressions of the most primal part of humanity. They mean “civilization” insofar as they mean “society” or “group of people” or “clan” or what have you, but I’d argue not necessarily capital-C Civilization.

    Sorry, off-topic rant from a theologian there. But the cave city sure looks lovely! I’ve never been….


    • panoptical says:

      That’s a very romantic view of religion but I disagree entirely with the idea that setting up a house where you go to be lectured about how a giant absentee father-figure in the sky wants you to live your life is anything other than a societal reenactment of the Oedipal complex. In psychoanalytic terms, Judeo-Christian religion is a manifestation of the super-ego, that which sets itself up over and against the primal Id and which makes civilization possible.

      But on a much more elementary, concrete, and non-philosophic level, even if I stipulate (without agreeing) to your premise that a Church is about us/them and sacred/profane recognition, those things are still in no way more primal than the quest for food and shelter, which is what I’m talking about when I talk about migrating to the fertile valleys of the Caucasus and seeking protection by literally carving out a niche on the side of a mountain somewhere. And Uplistsikhe predates Christianity in Georgia by fifteen centuries, which means that more than fifteen centuries after someone figured out that Uplistsikhe was a good place to live, some Christian came along and decided to put a church there.


  2. IrishAngel says:

    A church is simply a building. Nothing more, nothing less. It is what the individual persons attending that church make it.God is everywhere and a church is simply a formal place where we worship Him.
    I am much older than you tlg’ers so I can say that when I was in college, there was a small,quaint native church on a mountaintop within 20 miles of my school. My boyfriend was fighting in Vietnam and it simply made me feel better to drive up there in my 1967 Mustang every Wednesday afternoon, light a candle and pray for him. Somehow I felt closer to God up there. He did come back OK, physically, but was a mental wreck and we never did get back together.He continues to be in and out of VA hospitals with his emotional problems.
    That little church served its purpose for me then and, oddly, now when I go back there and look for it, I can’t find it.
    God doesn’t count the number of times you go into one of those designated church buildings to worship Him. He looks into your heart and discovers whether or not you recognize him as your personal Savior and if you led a good life by your good deeds toward his personal creations – both human and animal.


  3. pasumonok says:

    but there is a church in uplistsike! it is older than the caves of course, but still…i think it is 11 century church.
    i think once people get food and water, they start to ask questions and try to come up with a higher force who is in charge of stuff.


  4. Pingback: A New Round of Excursions! « Making a Difference

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