On Saturday I went with a collection of local teachers and friends to the Sameba Cathedral in Tbilisi. Like thousands of others, we were going to see the remains of Mama Gabrieli, a famous saint of the Georgian Orthodox Church. I had been hearing all about attempts to brave the crowds of people hoping to “touch the bones,” which naturally piqued my curiosity. I love weird religious stuff, especially when bones are involved.
However, I wasn’t really clear on the backstory. It’s still a bit hazy, as there’s little information available for those of us whose command of Georgian is less than fully functional. Essentially, a nun reportedly had a vision that those who visited the saint’s grave before Orthodox Christmas would be granted some wishes. Obviously there are some serious problems with this, but here is the closest thing I can find to a coherent explanation of how things happened.
We left early to beat the crowds, heading across the Alazani valley and through the Gombori pass, two of my favorite places on earth.
And of course, we had to drive on my favorite street in Tbilisi:
Arriving at Sameba was as surreal as usual; the cathedral is entirely out of proportion to the city, to the landscape, and even to the architectural tradition that precedes it. Built fairly recently, it’s a very interesting example of the evolution and importance of the Georgian Orthodox Church in post-Soviet times.
I’ve never seen so many Georgians not smoking. I was amazed by the organization; to get in, we waited behind barricades, and at intervals determined by the police crowded through lines leading into the twin entrances to the cathedral. The wind made it difficult to keep for women to our heads covered. Crying babies were allowed to skip the lines.
Photos are, unsurprisingly, forbidden. Each visitor was allotted about twenty seconds in front of the coffin. I looked in, most people kissed it and touched it with candles or crosses. But the remains were covered in vestments, so I found it a bit underwhelming. I had hoped for something a few steps more macabre. Nonetheless, the cathedral is stunning, and the spectacle of military men ordering the faithful around inside a church made the trip worthwhile.
Quickly ushered back out of the cathedral, I found myself a bit disappointed. After the crowds, I expected something much stranger than a shrouded corpse. At the same time I always relish the bizarre, in all the forms it takes. This certainly qualified.
After the visit, it was time for a photo op. In my church-going black skirt, I matched at least a quarter of the women present. Cultural exchange at it’s finest.
If you feel the need to buy icons or crucifixes any time soon, let me know and we’ll head up to Sameba. Outside the gates a few hundred people want you to buy something holy from them, or perhaps some cotton candy.