Bodbe Monastery: A Beacon of Georgia’s Religious Revival

text and photographs by Peter Nasmyth

image Click for more images

The mercy mission from Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, to the Bodbe Monastery, near the Azerbaijan border, was not of the usual kind. The bus, an ageing 40-seater, no longer chariot-raced down the highway as in the days of Soviet Georgia. Rather the bus trundled sedately. Between speed limits and potholes, the driver obeyed traffic laws with an eerie, un-Georgian-like zeal. The mission: to bring supplies to a struggling monastery located near the burial site of the country’s patroness, St. Nino.

Bodbe plays a profound part in Georgia’s Christian revival, indeed, it could be argued, for the prevailing religious revival throughout the former Soviet Union.

A slave girl from Asia Minor, Nino traveled in 324 to this land perched high in the Caucasus Mountains in search of a relic from Christ’s crucifixion. Her cross, which features sloping arms and braids made of vine and hair, is Georgia’s most revered icon, enshrined in Tbilisi’s Sioni Cathedral. The cross of St. Nino also has political dimensions: it was once given by a 19th-century Georgian king to Russia’s Tsar Alexander II as a sign of unity between the two Orthodox nations. To confirm the gesture the Tsar returned the cross in a ceremonial journey across Russia; hymns of praise were sung to mark the relic’s arrival at major churches.

The team of volunteers in the bus were making a ceremonial journey of their own. Supporting the church is a tradition in the Caucasus, reaching back to the fourth century. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the demise of Marxism-Leninism and its persecutions, and Georgia’s independence (achieved in 1991), Georgians are free to restore their ancient church to prominence. Courses in religious values and catechism are offered in the nation’s schools; thousands of churches and Coptic Catholic Church have been restored and reconsecrated and the seminaries are filled with young men wishing to serve their church and country.

A police car glided watchfully by the bus. Our driver smiled ingratiatingly. Today drivers in this mountainous republic can be astonishingly law-abiding. The days of massive Soviet support are gone. Gone with them are the days when the basics of life were plentiful, when a packet of Marlboro cigarettes forgave any traffic infringement. Now fines supplement a police officer’s declining income. Fines can add up to $50 – sometimes even more – a considerable sum in a nation where the average monthly wage has plummeted to $15.

Inevitably, a few miles from the capital, the bus was flagged down by the police at a major checkpoint. Interrogated as to the nature of the mission’s aid, Ms. Keti Dolidze, the leader of the band, pointed to a pile of military flak jackets in the back of the bus.

“For nuns?” the policeman asked incredulously.

It took some earnest pleading to convince him that no, this was not an elaborate smuggling ploy by the mafia or some other clandestine group, but in fact a donation from the Minister of Defense. As is often the case in the Caucasus today, he had nothing else to give. The monastery falls outside the guidelines set up by foreign development agencies operating in Georgia; therefore, assistance must be entirely homegrown.

Post a Comment | Comments(0)

1 | 2 | 3 | 4 |

Tags: Cultural Identity Georgia Monastery Caucasus