Trying to be the best man in Georgia

I was checked in at the Old Metekhi Hotel over-looking the Mtkvari River in Tbilisi, Georgia , on 13th September 2022, after a booking that had been made in 2019, long before Covid changed everyone’s plans. I was here to be the best man at one of my oldest friend’s wedding, a wedding that had been postponed several times because of the pandemic. It was finally possible and, standing out here on the room’s balcony, I was doubly pleased that the hotel honoured our reservations for so long and so patiently. The wedding’s timing ending up working well after deciding that the journey could be tacked on to my holiday in Finland and Estonia. The postponement meant that the trip to the former Soviet Union country of Georgia extended this extraordinary trip along the borders of Russia and over Ukraine, six months after the Russian invasion and the beginning of war between the two nations. We live in extraordinary times.

The flight to Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, meant changing planes in Warsaw, another neighbour of belligerent Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

Looking at the maps, it seemed like this holiday was turning out to be a journey through the biggest story so far in the 21st century.

The republic of Georgia lies on the border, not just of Russia, but also between Europe and West Asia, in the Caucusus region, bounded by the Black Sea. The country’s long and proud history was interrupted, violently, in 1922 when it was annexed by the Soviet Union as a ‘constituent republic.’ This unhappy period drew to an end when Georgia left the Soviet Union in 1991 and, after its own war with Abkhazia and South Ossetia. I was impressed to see the red cross of Georgia’s flags along side the stars of the EU. Georgia hopes to become a member of the European community and of NATO. At the moment it feels like it has to keep its eyes on its big neighbour and, tragically, by now, historic enemy – Russia.

I can tell you straight away that the biggest difference between Finland and Georgia today was the temperature. We left Finland at the beginning of autumn and arrived in Tbilisi on a hot summer’s day. I thought for a moment that these dogs were dead, traffic accidents on the street outside the hotel. It is a common site around Tbilisi, stray dogs taking on-street siestas.

Statue of King Erekle II (1721 – 1798) King Heraclius II of Georgia.

My hotel was up on the hill next to a church and a fine equestrian statue to a man called King Erekle II – I felt ashamed that I knew so little about Georgian history, but Erekle was a totally new name to me. He looks fine up there next to the historic Georgian Orthodox church of Metekhi.

Metekhi Church of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary Tbilisi

I was staying a short distance away from the hill top and the space was ideal for my morning martial arts practice. In Tbilisi I was joined by this sweet-natured puppy who decided to follow me around and, less endearingly, lie down at my feet. One morning I tripped over him, but most days it was a one man and his dog bonding scene.

My preferred tai-chi practice space was here, under a tree, over-looking the Mtkvari River – the puppy liked it here too. King Erekle, though, looked unimpressed by my efforts.

Next to the hotel was this bar where because this is Georgia where complex a cappella singing is a matter of the national pride, these young men weren’t just your average lads strumming on guitars, they produced a magnificent sound with songs that went straight to the heart.

We were given another unexpected concert of Georgian a cappella singing when I got together for pre-matrimonial dinner in advance of my friend David’s wedding to his Georgian fiancée, Medea.

My best man duties were still ahead of me with a few days to go before the wedding, so I could explore Tbilisi and try to get myself into Georgian mode and, more scarily, try to get some familiarity with the Georgian language for my speech – not an inconsiderable challenge.

There was time too to visit some of Tbilisi’s art galleries – my favourite was the Georgian Museum of Fine Arts

Georgian Museum of Fine Arts

Sportsman (1962) Alexandre Bandzeladze (1927 – 1992) Georgian Museum of Fine Arts, Tbilisi

The Georgian artist Alexandre Bandzeladze is well-represented here, exhibits showing his progress from semi-figurative work to a full-developed style of abstract-expressionism. I hadn’t heard of him before coming here to Tbilisi, but I shall look out for his works now.

I also went to the impressive Georgian National Museum with its display of skulls leading back to the 1.8 million year-old humanin skull, (an Early Pleistocene hominin, to be more accurate), one of our earliest ancestors, discovered in Dmanisi in Southern Georgia around twenty years ago. The skulls are displayed on the ground floor, while, upstairs there is the brilliant, chilling and unmissable documentary exhibition of the Museum of Soviet Occupation. Apparently not a favourite with Vladimir Putin when he was told about it.

I couldn’t help making the inevitable mental leap from the sight of all these skulls to the history of Stalin’s Gulags.

Museum of Soviet Occupation Tbilisi

The Museum of Soviet Occupation displays photographic, documentary and other evidence of the horrible history of Soviet repression in Georgia after 1921 and until just before it gained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, which came about two years after a brutal military intervention ordered by Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, and who had died just a couple of weeks into my European holiday. In Western Europe his death was marked by some mourning and varied memories of glasnost and perestroika, but here in Tbilisi, no one I spoke to thought kindly about him. He is remembered as the man who ordered the violent crackdown by the Russian army to a large pro-independence rally on 16 April 1989.

Freedom Square during the Soviet ‘crackdown’ of 16 April 1989

I think it is fair to say that it wasn’t just the war in Ukraine that upsets Georgians about Russia. It didn’t take long before bitter conversations about Russia come up that’s why the citizens of Tbilisi were enthusiastic about visitors seeing for themselves, the history of their struggles as displayed in this museum.

Soviet era prison cell doors
Soviet era desk.

I was less impressed by the quality of the Shalva Amiranashvili Museum of Fine Arts – the art reflects the wealthy owners’ taste, or, possibly lack of taste, and, for me the best things, and the most terrifying, were the glass floors and glass lifts. It was a real personal triumph when I managed to stand on the glass and look down to the several floors below.

David and Medea’s wedding was held in the 10th century Georgian Orthodox church, the Anchiskhati Basilica, Tbilisi. I hadn’t realised, when I was asked to be best man, that I would be quite so involved in the Georgian Orthodox liturgy, but it was a moving experience – and I even survived the near embarrassment of my drooping and then melting candle.

The equally traditional wedding reception was a lavish affair – a celebration of Georgian wine and cuisine as well as a celebration of marriage and a lot of fun.

After a few last minute details discussed with my old university friend, David, I was as all-set as I ever would be for my speech. The first section was in Georgian and for it I was coached by Medea’s very patient son, Irakli, without whom, as they say, none of this would have been possible.

After the wedding, there was still time for some sight-seeing and I was keen to get out of the city and to see, at least a small part of the Caucasus Mountains. I visited the confluence of the Mtkvari and Aragvi rivers at a small town called. Mtskheta, less than an hour’s drive from Tbilisi. This confluence was seen as a significant place to build not just a town, but two hilltop churches, one a famous cathedral, Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, see below, and the other, a monastery, Jvari Monastery, with its 10th century church, built over-looking the rivers from Jvari Mount.

Jvari Monastery is a distinctive landmark in the Caucasus and it was as far into the Georgian countryside that I was able to visit on this trip.

Svetitskhoveli Cathedral (Cathedral of the Living Pillar) 11th century Georgian Orthodox is a half hour car ride to the Northwest of Tbilisi and it’s the second largest church building in Georgia – one of the four great Georgian Orthodox cathedrals – the traditional site of the coronations and burials of Georgian monarchs. It is also, reputedly, the burial site of Christ’s robe, taken from one of the Roman soldiers at Golgotha by a Georgian Jew and brought it home to Georgia after the Crucifixion. A cedar tree is said to have grown over the burial site and when it had to be chopped down to build the cathedral, seven pillars for the new cathedral were built, one of them is said to have had miraculous powers and the legend is that it raised itself off the ground and ascended by its own volition into heaven. I’m not quite sure why it needed to do that, but here is an illustration of the legendary celestial ascension.

The Glory of Iberia (c.1880) icon by Mikhail Sabinin – showing the legend of the Living Pillar.

The Cathedral is a popular pilgrimage site for people across Georgia and, regardless of that miraculous pillar, it is well worth the journey to see this majestic 11th century building.

Finally, after over three weeks of travelling around Europe, it was time to go home. It was also time to read those dreaded airport instructions which, at first sight, looked incomprehensible. I won’t leave you on a confusing note though, but on a whole set of wonderful notes sung by one of those unforgettable Georgian a cappella singing groups.

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