Take any taxi in Tbilisi, Georgia. Inevitably, while you’re speeding Mad-Max-style toward what seems like certain death, you’ll spy one of the city’s many churches. That’s when the driver takes his hands off the wheel. He’ll cross himself. Believer or not, you might, too.
“Ten years ago,” says my friend Tamar, “Nobody did that.” Under the secular Soviet Union, religion – particularly when it came to national churches – was discouraged, if not repressed.
But Georgian independence brought with it a resurgence in Georgian piety: a piety as rooted in cultural identity as in dogma. Regular fasting, the kissing of icons, crossing oneself at the sight of a church – all these are necessary components of public life.
Today, Orthodox Patriarch Ilia II is the most popular man in Georgia; his views – on Westernization, gay rights, and Russia – are hugely influential. When he visits the province of Svaneti during my visit in 2013, thousands of Georgians – mounted on horses, clad in national dress, waving flags – take to the streets for a glimpse of his car going past.
“Fascists,” my friend Gio, a Tbilisi bohemian and a passionate leftist, rolls his eyes. But when we stop at Kutaisi’s Gelati Monastery later that day, I see Gio kneel.
He, too, kisses the icon.
Real friendship – share your travel tips and your commission!