Alaverdi and Shuamta

1977 and 1980


Kakheti is a rich valley of vineyards nestled in the mountains east of Tbilisi. In fact, as improbable as it may sound, the Georgians claim that wine-making was invented in Kakheti. In any case, in-the-ground clay vessels for grape fermentation were found near Ikalto which held 30 000 liters. They were glazed in situ and carbon-dated - by the wood used for their firing and remnants of wine - to around 3000 BC....

Large tracts were owned by the Chavchavadze of Tsinandali. During Soviet times Georgian wines were quite poor, despite what every Georgian claims. Only very recently have modern methods been introduced, and now there are some estates that produce competitive wines for the European market.


June 1977 Alaverdi with Merab and his Students

The first time Merab took me there was in 1977 using the ruse of a picnic of his laboratory - the bearded foreigner was hidden in the institute's van among his students. The weather was glorious, and the party was merry to the point of silliness. We had a barbecue all fresco in Shuamta and on the way home the girls and Sophiko took turns to comfort the half-drunk foreigner....

The attraction of Kakheti is Alaverdi, a church of the 11th century surrounded by vineyards which rivals the Romanesque churches of Western Europe in its architectural dimensions.





Konrad would one day await Alexandra Dadiani before their wedding at this spot....





The designer jeans and platform shoes of Merab's female students at the spring near Ikalto.



View of the Kakheti valley and the mountains of Pshavi from Shuamta - where Alexandra's first shot-gun wedding would one day take place.



 November 1980 with Barbara and Cornelius

In November 1980 Merab took Cornelius, Barbara, and me to Kakheti. It was an overcast, very cold day, and the fanciful Finnish hotel in Telavi, where we spent the night, was unheated. Barbara claims that she has never been so cold - except maybe in Svaneti a couple of weeks later.

Shuamta in the Fog

The three old churches at Shuamta



Unexpected laughter and singing in the fog at Shuamta announced the arrival of cheerful group of students from a teachers college in Kutaisi. Look at the dramatic tableau they arranged themselves into when I asked to take their picture. Theater is the original Georgian talent, like soulful music is that of the Armenians. And their professor with his long hair and stunning outfit could be taken for any of the Romantic Georgian poets of the 19th century! - A priceless photo....



Alaverdoba the two-week-long celebration at Alaverdi in November

It was the week of Alaveroba, the saints-feast to which for hundreds of years the shepherds come down from Pshavi to dance with the peasants of the Kakheti valley. Alaverdi had been turned into a motley camp ground for the cars of the "rich" peasants and the horse-drawn wagons of the shepherds. Everywhere people were drinking and eating or dancing to impromptu fiddle-and-accordion music - much like in Greece in 1953

Dancing to musicians hiding from the cold in the shack.



Sheep and chicken are skinned and plucked for the feast


Later we discovered that the sheep and chicken were not just simply slaughtered as in Greece, but they were properly sacrificed in the ambulatory of the church by khevisberi, old "shamans" (my Georgian friends strenuously object to this title) who practice the magical animist rituals in the mountain villages. When an outsider watches the khevisberi burns a cross in the wool of the ram's forehead - it has to be a ram. My friends tell me that he burns some other sign into the wool if nobody is watching - which is the reason they don't like outsiders to stand around. The khevisberi muttering some incantation also breaks the large round bread loaves and wrenches the necks of the roosters - only slightly less bloody than the Nepalese Hindu priest who in Daksin Kali near Kathmandu., standing in a puddle of blood, slices the heads off chicken and goats by the dozen




In 1980 Alaverdi had no priests, the people celebrated the Saint's feast in their own manner. In the high-vaulted church lit candles had been stuck to the walls and people were praying silently or talking to their friends in low voices. A large crowd, and we were taken in as if we belonged to them. A most moving experience. - Today the black cloth has returned, the khevisberi have vanished, the sheep are no longer sacrificed on church grounds - and western un-believers are decidedly not welcome during church services....



Barbara, still cold, and Merab on the tower of the castle at Gremi next morning