Jvari Monastery

Copyright Keith Kenney, 2011

If you drive about 12 miles north of Tbilisi, you’ll reach Mtskheta—one of the oldest cities in Georgia. If you then drive to the top of a nearby hill, you’ll arrive at one of the “Historical Monuments of Mtskheta.” Jvari Monastery (along with Svetitskhoveli Cathedral) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Jvari means Monastery of the Cross. It was here that Saint Nino converted King Mirian III of Iberia to Christianity in the early 4th century. According to traditional accounts, Saint Nino was born in Cappadocia (Turkey); she was a relative of Saint George; and she came to Georgia from Constantinople (Istanbul). After his conversion to Christianity, King Mirian erected a large wooden cross on the site of a pagan temple. This cross was reportedly able to work miracles and therefore drew pilgrims from all over the Caucasus area. People built a small church over the remnants of the wooden cross sometime around 545 and they named it the “Small Church of Jvari”. The church became too small to hold all of its visitors, so about 50 years later, people built the present building, called the “Great Church of Jvari.”

Copyright Keith Kenney, 2011

Copyright Keith Kenney, 2011

Press release for Mestia’s website

Copyright Keith Kenney, 2011

Will the low volume/low-budget seasonal tourism (mostly hikers) hurt Adishi, Georgia, economically and force its residents to leave for a more prosperous lifestyle elsewhere? Or will full-scale tourism reach Adishi as it has in nearby Mestia?  If so, will the authentic experience and hospitality received by tourists today in Adishi be replaced by standard hotels/services and commercial interactions?

I hope that my documentary film will answer such questions. My name is Dr. Keith Kenney and I’m a visual communications professor at the University of South Carolina. I’m working in Tbilisi for 11 months and my job is to improve the Caucasus School of Journalism and Media Management (CSJMM). In my free time, I want to create a documentary film about Adishi.

I agree with UNESCO. The Upper Svaneti region of the Caucasus deserves to be a World Heritage site because of its exceptional mountain scenery and its medieval-type villages and tower-houses. Adishi is in a gorgeous location with some of the most hospitable people on Earth.

I believe, however, that Adishi will experience strong forces for change in the next couple of years.  Georgia’s president, Mikheil Saakashvili, has promised to develop the Svaneti region; the government has already built a good road to Mestia and the entire town of Mestia seems under construction or re-construction. This development could extend to Adishi. The government could build new roads, replace electrical poles, perhaps even re-start Adishi’s school and add a library. If a ski resort were built nearby, which is in the planning stage, entrepreneurs then could open new hotels and restaurants, maybe even a gift shop. If such development does not reach Adishi, the farming village might continue to simply provide homestay experiences to hikers for a night. But it is doubtful that maintaining the status will be possible, in part because the current tourism model may not allow Adishi residents to earn a sustainable living.

I don’t know what will happen. But when mountain or seaside people experience hardships, they tend to sell their highly desirable land for a quick profit, and then all kinds of businesses arrive to cater to wealthy vacationers. Prices rise, and the local people either end up serving tourists or moving away.

Moreover, I am concerned because many of Adishi’s buildings and defense towers have become piles of rubble.  If such deterioration continues, then Adishi’s potential to attract tourists could also deteriorate. My film will show how Adishi residents will respond to challenges they encounter as time goes by.

Two recent graduates from the master’s program in Journalism and Media Management at the CSJMM are assisting in shooting and editing the film. Nana Mghebrishvili and Mari Papidze have already shot several hours of video and they will return to Adishi with me at the end of January, in the middle of May, and at the beginning of August to tell the story. My wife, Susanna Melo, and Ramaz Gerleiani are also invaluable team members. Susanna is the film’s photographer; in addition, she suggests shooting opportunities and helps interview Adishi residents. Ramaz, our official driver, translates from Svan to Georgian.

Adishi: holy city

Copyright Keith Kenney, 2011

Adishi is a small village, 6,000 feet above sea level, in the Svaneti region of Georgia. Nine families live in this village in the Greater Caucasus Mountains throughout the year, and another six families live in the village during the summer. http://www.maplandia.com/georgia/georgia-territories/adishi/#map. Other families have moved away. In 1987, avalanches destroyed several homes in the area and killed seventy people, mostly school children. In the aftermath, the Soviet Union resettled some 2,500 families, including almost all the families in Adishi, to valleys of eastern Georgia.

People in Adishi milk their cows and make cheese daily. They trade their cheese for grain, which they use to bake bread in wood-burning stoves. They also grow potatoes, the only crop suitable for its terrain. Most cash comes from backpacking tourists. People in Adishi don’t have extravagant desires; they want a better road, which will enable them to have a supply of food during winters, and a more reliable supply of electricity.

Their best hope for economic growth may be to expand tourism, especially eco-tourism. Ecotourism is responsible travel that respects the environment and improves the conditions of local communities. It’s a broad term that comprises various activities – from sports (rafting) to culture (studying the traditions of Svaneti’s towers). According to the Deputy Chairman of the Department for Tourism and Resorts, ecotourism can make living in mountain areas sustainable. He said that house renting, guide services and horse riding are revitalizing local economies.

Copyright Susanna Melo, 2011

It helps that UNESCO designated the Upper Svaneti region of the Caucasus as a World Heritage site. UNESCO bestowed this honor because the area has exceptional mountain scenery and it has preserved to a remarkable degree its medieval-type villages and tower-houses. UNESCO World Heritage Centre http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/709

When tourists saw my video team at work, they asked, “Why Adishi?” I respond that it is a small village, with defense towers dating back to the 11th and 12th centuries, beautiful scenery, and that it maintains old Svaneti traditions. Then the tourists might say that Svaneti has several such towns, which is true. So I asked some residents what makes Adishi special.

Copyright Keith Kenney, 2011

They explained that Adishi is a holy place. It has seven churches, and in one church you can view an icon dating back to the 10th Century, but I need to check on this fact. No fact checking is required, however, when stating that the Adysh Bibles were preserved there for centuries. This important early medieval (897) book is the oldest dated extant manuscript of the Georgian version of the Gospels. It was created in a monastery in what is now northeastern Turkey and it was later brought to Adishi.