Music and Ancient History in the Caucasus

On our first evening in Batumi, we were joined by three professional singers from the Adjarian State Song and Dance Ensemble who sat down at our table and burst into song, working their way through a powerful repertory of sacred, folk and “urban” chants. The men sang without accompaniment, without notes, their eyes focused on a space above a feast of Georgian dishes.

As John explained, the typical Georgian men’s choir sings in three-part harmony, with a tenor who leads the song, and two other voices improvising backup. Mixed-gender choirs are rare, mainly because of the close harmonies required by the music.

During the trip, John put his skills as a choirmaster to the test and managed to corral two of our members — Alex, a college classmate of Liza’s and a jazz pianist who was also traveling with his mother, and Tom, a British arts administrator — to join him in liturgical chants in the ruined Orthodox churches on our itinerary.

Inside Georgia, all the churches we visited had been restored and returned to the Georgian Orthodox church since 1991, when the country won independence from the Soviet Union.

In Turkey, most of the Christian churches were in ruins, their vaulted ceilings now rubble, with battered carvings and faint traces of once-colorful frescoes left on the walls. During Ottoman rule, many had been converted into mosques, then abandoned.

We stopped in one former church in Khakhuli, now a mosque guarded by a sleepy imam who nodded his permission for our group to sing under an apse that still bore traces of frescoes. At Ishkhani, a 45-minute drive from Yusufeli in Turkey, an ancient cathedral, rebuilt in the ninth century by Sabas, a disciple of St. Gregory of Khandztha, is being restored in a desultory, and not entirely convincing way.


A view of Sapara monastery in Georgia.

Danielle Villasana for The New York…

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