Kutaisi: The Fabled Medea’s Hometown

The recently renovated opera house in Kutaisi, Georgia.

Maia said ongoing public works in Kutaisi, an ancient place with a 3,500-year history, include new paving for streets, renovated public buildings (such as the opera house), the new fountain and the Parliament building, all in the last two to three years.

She said these kinds of improvements were under way in all Georgia’s regional centers, partly to support tourism. Besides, she said, given Parliament was moved to Kutaisi to bring more prosperity to western Georgia, “the government wants this city to be beautiful and nice.”

I got my first daylight viewing of Kutaisi the next morning on an independent walk with a colleague across part of the central city and to the hilltop Bagrati Cathedral, a medieval church and

The Bagrati Cathedral, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Kutaisi.

UNESCO World Heritage Site that was not on our planned itinerary.

The cathedral had been roofless from 1691 until the summer of 2012. We could see a modern glass extension at one side of the cathedral, reflecting the fact the building had been badly damaged and required serious repair. On the inside, we could see sleek, modern metal supports.

There were a few frescoes and icons in the fairly austere sanctuary, and there was a simple iconostasis with a clergyman in red walking in front of it.

A monk inside the Church of the Virgin at the Gelati Monastery in Kutaisi, Georgia.

We rejoined our group to visit Kutaisi’s larger UNESCO site, the Gelati Monastery complex, a walled facility, also on a hill (there were a lot of those around), built in the early 12th century and still active.

The main church, the Church of the Virgin, dates from the initial construction period, but the St. George and St. Nicholas churches date from the 13th century. This also was the site of

a respected medieval academy, which now stands empty.

Frescoes on the walls of the Church of the Virgin at the Gelati Monastery, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Kutaisi, Georgia.

A great collection of frescoes covered the walls inside the Church of the Virgin. Some were old and weathered, but there were also a number of relatively new frescoes (obvious from the style as well as their generally pristine

A monk chasing a cow off the grounds of the Gelati Monastery, a UNESCO World Heritage site in Kutaisi, Georgia.

appearance).

We saw monks in the church, but frankly we were more entertained watching another monk running back and forth on the monastery grounds in an effort, eventually successful, to chase free-roaming cows off the premises.

We seemed to be on a church-and-monastery circuit on this day.

We drove to another hilltop monastery, called Motsameta, where for the first time women in our group were required to wear skirts when entering a Georgian religious institution. We had had to cover our heads most of the time, but beyond that, covered legs and shoulders was sufficiently modest elsewhere.

A woman provided black wraps, but I wondered why a midcalf-length skirt made me more modest than the full-length slacks I wore underneath it.

Recently created frescoes inside the Motsameta Monastery near Kutaisi, Georgia.

Motsameta’s small church dates from the 10th/11th centuries, but the interior was an eye-popping surprise. Most of its frescoes were

A merchant offering fruit and vegetables at an open-air market in Kutaisi, Georgia.

painted since 2000.

Before leaving the Kutaisi area, we stopped briefly again in the center of town. There was time for photography at an open-air market. I have seen more photogenic markets, but uniquely one group of three women asked to be photographed, so I obliged.

Mythology

There is one other thing worth mentioning, for those interested in ancient mythology. Kutaisi is associated with the Greek epic describing the voyage of Jason and the Argonauts.

It is believed that, in the legendary journey to Colchis, Jason was traveling to Kutaisi (then called Aia, the Colchian capital) in search of the golden fleece — the magic gold-colored wool of a ram.

Further, Medea was the Colchian princess, and she — having fallen in love with Jason — helped him get what he wanted.

The idea of a golden fleece, Maia said, comes from a local practice of using sheep’s wool to collect gold from rivers and streams.

This article and its photos are by Nadine Godwin, the author of Travia: The Ultimate Book of Travel Trivia, which was published by The Intrepid Traveler.

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