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Samtskhe Javakheti Region


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The Multi-Ethnic Land

Published by Manoj Pradeep

Hello, friends! As you travel through different regions in Georgia you get yourself exposed to different cultures and traditions of the Georgian people. The region I'm about to describe here today is quite different as this region will expose you to the culture and traditions of entirely different ethnic group, I'm here to describe you about another interesting region in Georgia called as the Samtskhe Javakheti region. This region is located on the southern side of Georgia. This region includes some of the important cities like Akhaltsikhe, Arisani, and Aspindza. On its west, a mountain range makes its border with Adjara. The regions found in the north are Imereti and Guria. The northern boundary of this region is made by the Persati mountain range. On its south, the region makes an international border with Turkey and Armenia. Samtskhe and Javakheti are two distinct areas separated by a river called Jobiskhevi. Some of the historical Georgian territories such as Erusheti and Shavesheti are currently a part of Turkey. Samtskhe Javakheti region is traditionally called Meskheti which is a name given to a specific group of Georgian tribes. In the Javakheti region, there is a little political problem as most of the people in this region are Armenians they demand the government for an autonomic state for them. This doesn't cause any direct threat to visitors. Most of the people speak Armenian than Georgian in this region but in other parts, Georgian speakers are found in high numbers. Russian is also spoken by some people mostly by old people.

Reaching this region from the country's capital is not hard as frequent Mashruthka or minivan services are available. There are also minivans from other important cities like Batumi, Kutaisi, etc. The minivans and the buses depart from different bus stations which are Orthachala Bus Station, Didube Bus Station, Vukzali Bus station. There are also train services available to certain important cities located within this region. The trains usually depart from the Tbilisi Central Railways Station located at Vukzali. After getting down at your destination city you may choose either minivans for traveling within the cities rather than Taxis. The minivans or marshrutkas are best for traveling within the region as the roads are bumpy and tougher. There are also taxis available to travel within the cities. The taxis are mainly old soviet vehicles such as Lada but also have an extreme capability to travel in such rugged topography.

Samtskhe Javakheti is a dry mountainous region that is cleaved by ravines, springs, lakes, and fast-flowing rivers. In Samtskhe there are only a very few flatlands. The landscape in this region is very complex which is made up of flat terraces, hills and volcanic mountains. The main water resources of the Smatskhe Javakheti region are two rivers called as Chorokhi and Mtkvari river. In the Javakheti region, you may find numerous hills, knolls and river canyons where the landscape mainly contains corrugated plains. There are also a lot of rivers, springs, small and big rivers, and freshwater lakes. The important river in the Javakheti region is called the Bharani river and its tributaries called Javakheti and Mtkvari. The important large lakes in this region are Pharavani, Kanchali, Sagamo, Madatapha, Bugadasheni, and Tsunda. Apart from these large lakes, there are also some small freshwater lakes and swamps in Baraleti plains.

There is a rare natural landmark located in the region of Samtskhe Javakheti region which is nothing but the petrified forests. It was in the very past during the Tertiary era when the surrounding places were surrounded by hot lava and a heavy rainfall mixed the volcanic ashes with the different areas. The lava solidified into a thick layer of volcanic rock which covered the forested hills. Even today one can see petrified branches of tree branches and wooden logs. These plants include several tropical and subtropical species. It is said the age of if Goderdzi Reserve is approximately 12 to 15 million years old. The researchers recently discovered a vine tree in this region which has a diameter of about 30cm which made them assume that this region of Georgia had both small and giant vine varieties approximately 15million years ago.

The region of Samtskhe-Javakheti has a strong history as it was one of the oldest inhabited in Georgia. The region has numerous archeological sites although most of the historical data is unknown. Some of the artifacts that were unearthed during archeological experiments carried on this region tell us that the region was settled from the Bronze Age. As I said before the region of Samtskhe Javakheti region was a historical part of the Meskheti region and its strategic location was favorable for its cultural and economic development in this region. The strategic location of Meskheti is considered to be an important factor for the development of cultural and economic relationships between Armenia, Georgia, and Turkey. In historical times, the Samtskhe Javakheti region shared a border with Greece. The region had its importance during the Iran-Byzantine war in which Iran was victorious. The Byzantines overtook the Iraninan's again in 626AD. From the beginning of the 9th century, the Byzantine empire and the Turks made numerous attempts to gain control over the Samtskhe Javakheti region some of which were successful. It was during the 12th century King David The Builder liberated this region and during the reign of Queen Tamar, this was the region of several military action however the cultural life continued to flourish. At the end of the 13th century Mongolians invaded Georgia and captured Samtskhe Javakheti region along with other parts of Georgia. At the end of the 16th century, the Samtskhe Javakheti region was once again captured by the Turks. It remained under Turkish control till the end of the Russo-Turkish War when it was returned to Georgia during the 18th century. Javakheti was recorded as a region under the rule of Argishti of Uratu in the name of Zabakha which he conquered from the Georgian kingdom. During the first century King of the Georgian kingdom Parsman managed to capture the Javakheti region back under Georgian rule. From that time onwards the Armenian kingdom was under the rule of Georgian rulers for a long period of time. It was an ordinary province under the rule of King Vakhtang in the 5th century. After his death, his second wife who was a Byzantian or Greek princess settled in the Javakheti region. A number of churches, bridges, monasteries and royal residences were constructed in the Javakheti region under the Georgian rule. In the 13th century, Javakheti included some provinces which are currently a part of modern Turkey. During the 16th century, the region came under the control of Ottomans who displaced Georgian people from this region to other parts of Georgia such as Imereti. Those people who remained there in this region converted themselves into Muslims.

The climate

The climate in the Samtskhe Javakheti region varies widely. Winters are cold with very little snow, while springs are long and warm. The climate in the Javakheti region ranges from moderately humid to a highland dry climate and winters are usually cold.

Vanis Caverns is a monastery complex that is located in the Khervisi - Vardzia road. It is an important architectural monument in Georgia as it includes about 200 caves lined in 16 levels in a hill. There are inscriptions found in the walls of a small church found there which is dated back to the 15th century.

Atskuri is a feudal fortress of the past which is located on the bank of the river Mtkvari. The fortress has its records starting from the 10th century. The fortress is built on a cliff and has a complex architecture and design. The only way to enter the fortress in a narrow tunnel which is cut through the cliff. Today there is no proper structure for the fortress all you could see are the remains of this historical monument. There are some fragments of decorative ornaments and adornments found in the interior of the fortress.

Akhaltsikhe is an ancient town that is known to be existing from the 12th century BC. The ancient part of the town is called Rabat and it is present even today on the left bank of the river Potskhovi. The buildings found in this region include altered fortress, a former palace belonging to the ruler of Akhaltsikhe, a mosque built by the ottomans, a palace-like structure and more. The citadel here is surrounded by old residential buildings, hall-like chambers, and bathhouse. The ethnographic museum in this place is a highly visited tourist spot as it has a rich collection of historical treasures and it is said to be one among the interesting museums in Georgia.

Sapara is a monastery complex and one of the most interesting historical monuments in Georgia that symbolizes Georgian architecture. The monastery includes the Saint Saba cathedral which was built from 12th to 14th century, the Church of Assumption Of Virgin Mary built from the 9th to 10th century, the Saint George Church built during the 14th century, a bell tower and several small chappels. The monastery has a wall, an observation tower and a fortress where people from the neighboring villages used to hide at the time of war. The iconostasis which is said to be made during the 11th century is a masterpiece of Georgian sculpture. The paintings in Sapara are some best examples of wall paintings of that time. During the Russian rule in Georgia, the walls of the churches were whitewashed and most of the valuable frescoes are lost. During that period the monastery also served as a youth camp. In the late 19th century the church resumed its normal function.

Okros Tsikhe which in English means The Golden Fortress is an old fortress built during 13 and 14th centuries and is now located in the Akhaltsikhe - Adigen road in the edge of Shoka village. It is one among the largest fortresses in Georgia and from the top of the fortress, you can get a picturesque view of the place below.

Zarzma is a monastery complex located on top of a hill which includes a church, bell tower, a chapel, ruins of two churches and a spring. A book written during the 9th century describes a monastery in the same place. A church that belongs to that period doesn't exist now. In the 14th century, Duke of Samtskhe built a new church. There is a large cross on the eastern facade of the cathedral making it an exceptional one in Georgia. Even today the monastery is active and functional.

Khertvisi is a fortress built in the junction of three rivers on a rocky mountain. The rivers are Artaani, Mtkvari, Javakheti Mtkvari. There is a famous legend in Georgia that says that the fortress of Khertvisi is the one which Alexander the Great came across in Georgia. There is an inscription on one of the stones dated back to 985 which reads "The King of the Kings". There is a small church in the center of the fortress which was ruined in the past and reconstructed in 2000. The Khertvisi fortress was built by the Georgian rulers to protect Georgia from invaders but in the latter half of 16th century Osmans who are a group of Turkish tribes fortified it which helped them to capture Georgia very easily. There is a part of the fortress that was not damaged and even today there is a long tunnel that leads to the river. A twenty-meter high tower with an unusual architectural style for Georgia is present in the fortress and it's still in good condition. The fortress has also served as a base for Georgian and Russian military troops during the war.

Tmogvi Fortress was one of the prominent fortress cities in Georgia. This fortress is located on a rocky hill in the bank of a river called Mtkvari, Tmogvi fortress is the first mentioned fortress in historic Georgian chronicles from the 10th century. Secret tunnels are connecting the upper and lower sides of the fortress. In the western ravine, the Ephrem Church was built in the mountains. In the ruins of the second church have been discovered frescoes dating back to the 13th century. Even today there are visible remains of ancient villages located on both banks of the river.

Vardzia is a cave monastery complex that was found on the slopes of the Erusheti mountains on the bank of the river Mtkvari. It is said to be constructed during the 12th century. There are like 19 levels of caves extending for 500 meters. The church of Dormition which was built during the 11th century under the rule of Queen Tamar and King Rustaveli has some important wall paintings. When the Ottomans invaded this region of Georgia they abandoned this area completely and today it is one of the preserved sites in Georgia. Excavations made in this area under the Soviet rule have revealed that the caves of Vardzia were inhabited from the bronze age. Different historical monuments in Georgia are carved out of stones. For example, The Uplistsikhe cave city which I mentioned in my previous article that was built during the 5th century and others. Even the Uplistsikhe was built along the bank of river Mtkvari. Such monuments served as an example of the construction of Vardzia. There are four different phases of buildings identified in the caves of Vardzia. The first phase was built during the rule of King Giorgi III. It was during his period the site was laid and the first cave dweller. The second phase started after his death and during the rule of his successor Queen Tamar. It was under her rule the Church of Dormition was carved. The third phase was until the Battle of Basins during the 12th century. It was during this time many more dwellings, water supply, and irrigation networks were constructed. The fourth phase was in the late 18th century when most of the cave complex was ruined due to a severe earthquake and restoration work took place. The area of greater Vardzia includes the church at Zeda that was built during the 11th century, rock-cut villages and cave churches located in Ananauri. The lowermost site of the cave was carved at a height of 1300 meters above sea level which is divided into east and the west part by the church of Dormition. On the eastern side of the cave, there are about 79 separate cave dwellings consisting of 242 rooms. There are some special rooms such as Tamar's room, meeting room, reception chamber, pharmacy, six chapels, and 25 wine cellars/ There were 165 wine jars buried into the floor which symbolizes the wine culture to be an important economic source. In the west part of the cave, there are 165 rooms with 6 chapels, bakery, oven-like structures for baking bread and a forge/ If you walk further away from the bell tower complex there are steps that lead to a cemetery. There are also access tunnels, water supply, and equipment for defense. As I said before the Church of Dormition was the one separating the caves in Vardzia into east and west it is the important spiritual site. The church wall is not only carved out of rock but the inner surface is laid with stones to increase the strength of the wall. The church is 19 meters in height and the paintings that are found in the walls of the church served as the footsteps for the development of Georgian Mural Painting in the later years. In the walls of the church are found several paintings depicting the life history of the holy Christ. There are also several inscriptions found on the walls of the church. To conclude all these facts in a single line, Vardzia is a historical cave monument located on the slopes of a mountain having up to 13 stories, 3000 caves and can accommodate up to 50, 000 people in a single time.

The Phoka Monastery is devoted to Saint Nino who introduced Georgia the religion of Christianity. It is said that Saint Nino entered Georgia through the Javakheti region where she stopped near the Pharavani lake where she met a Saint who gave her a letter addressing the Pagan King. At this exact place, a cathedral was built in the 11th century. When Javakheti was invaded by foreign rulers in the 17th century the cathedral was destroyed. There are some remains of this original church along with some frescoes fragments. In the 19th century when Georgia gained control over this region again two other churches were constructed which is located about one and a half kilometers away from the village. Both of the churches are still open and functional.

Kumurdo cathedral is the best example of Georgian architecture. The village of Kumurdo and the bishop of Kumurdo are first mentioned in historical documents dating back to the 6th century. A cathedral dating back to the 10th century still exists in the village. The church is a stone building with a dome and the walls forming a cross. The church has some unique artworks, images, geometrical figures, and many different plants. Over the centuries the church has been renovated and reconstructed several times.

The other important place to visit in this region is the Borjomi Kahragauli National Park. I've already mentioned this in great detail in one of my previous articles. Here I would give only a small piece of information about this national park. The Borjomi Kharagauli National Park is one of the largest parks in Europe covering more than 76000 hectares of natural forest, subalpine and alpine meadows. This forest serves as a home to several rare species of flora and fauna. There is a diverse variety of fauna found in this national park. There is also a wonderful array of mammals in the forests of this park. Animals such as grey wolves, lynx, brown bears, roe deer, wild boar and so on can be seen here. Native birds such as golden eagle, griffon vultures, black vulture, and Caucasus brouse can be seen. The forests contain coniferous, deciduous and mixed forests. Visitors to the park can hike through this national park following different trials that are available. The duration of hiking varies from a day to three or four days. To know more about the different trials check my previous article about this national park.

Apart from all these historical monuments and national parks, there are also some famous resorts in the Samtskhe Javakheti Region. We'll discuss a few of them in detail here.

Borjomi is a famous mountainous area in this region known for its mineral water. It naturally has a high level of purity and healthy mineral components which makes it not only pleasant to drink but also helps in stabilizing our health preventing us from several diseases. The water obtained is rich in the most important and necessary microelements for a human. Each spring in this region has its specialty, therefore each has its medicinal effect. The curative effect of water in this region was well known to people of the ancient era. This is proven by an archeological excavation that discovered a stone bathtub that belongs to 1st century AD. As time passed the knowledge about this disappeared and regained its importance only in the 19th century. The mineral water park of Borjomi is an all-season tourist attraction center. Scientific data and history prove that mineral water obtained from Borjomi is of volcanic origin. It is said that the water is pushed out by the natural carbonic gas from a depth of 8 to 10 kilometers below the earth's surface. The mineral water from Borjomi comes from the underground at a warm temperature of approximately 40 degrees Celcius. While it moves out to the surface almost 60 different mineral elements found in the caucasian rocks are mixed with the water.

Another beautiful winter resort in this region is Bakuriani. In one of my previous articles, I've mentioned briefly about my experience that I had in Bakuriani. This place is a paradise for ski lovers. Many winter sportsmen come to bakuriani to practice. There are also ski tracks for children to begin their first lesson in skiing. It is an ideal winter sport for families and it's much popular among younger generations. One of the important places to visit in Bakuriani is the Botanical Garden functioning from 1910. There are 1500 species of plants found in this Botanical Garden showing its visitors a vivid example of alpine and subalpine vegetation. The entire area of the forest expands over 17 hectares.

Abastumani is a natural spa that you can reach by traveling 30 kilometers from Akhaltsikhe. Some impressive old buildings represent the glorious past of the 19th century. Many numbers of spas and health resorts have closed. Two sanatoria have reopened recently and they help in curing patients suffering from upper respiratory tract infections. Abastumani is also a starting point for hike routes into the Borjomi kharagauli National Park. The zekari pass found in this area can be climbed on foot or horseback or mountain bike. Here you can have a clear beautiful view of the alpine mountain from the top.

Sairme-Bagdati which lies in the area of Bagdati is an ideal tourist part in the southwest part of Borjomi Kharagauli National Park is famous for its winemaking. Sairme which is at a distance of 25kilometres from the city of Bagdati is known for its healing springs. These springs are being used for over a hundred years to treat kidney and urinary bladder problem. The sanatorium is only open during summer whereas the varying surrounding can be visited any time during the year.

Nunisi is an important health resort located between Khashuri and Kharagauli on the northern edge of Borjomi Kharagauli National park very deep inside the subtropical forest. The church of Saint Mary which is built during the end of the 6th century is a beautiful piece of Georgian architecture. The resort by itself is very famous for its mineral water springs.

Marelisi has a nice guest house at the Borjomi Kharagauli National Park which is a good place to start a hike into the park. You can also hike around the mountains of Marelisi exploring the Georgian antiquity on a horseback. You can also trek for five kilometers which will take you to the ruins of Vakhani fortifications.

Surami lies on the way from Khasuri to Kharagauli. In Georgia's golden age Surami used to be a city flourishing in trade and the seat of many ruling families. The fortress that was built during the 11th century is a majestic reminder of the time which is situated on the other side of the valley.

On the whole Samtskhe Javakheti region is a wonderful place to visit in Georgia. As it lies in a position intersecting with Armenian and Turkish culture this place can give you a new cultural experience as well. The only thing to note during your trip is to stay safe. Its because most of the natural monuments here in this region are devoid of guard rails and there are high risks of falling. However, the basic instincts of humans can keep you alarmed and safe. If you are bored with tasting Georgian food for a long time then in this region you can try some Armenian cuisine. Armenian foods can be bought from the city of Akhalkalaki where there are some cheaper Armenian cafes. A trip to this region will give you a pleasant view, adventure and thrill, exposure to three different cultures and so on. I wish you great fun as you visit this amazing region in Georgia. Till I write my next article here keep smiling and cheers. If you have any questions, suggestions or comments please post them below! Thank you for reading it patiently.

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