Ancient Gremi was once capital of the now disappeared Kingdom of Kachetian. A lively and wealthy trading town that sat on a branch of the Silk Road, it inevitably attracted would-be conquerers. In the 16th century, it was put to the sword by Persian armies under the command of Shah Abbas I. This was during some bleak times for Georgia and the region of Kakheti in particular. Gremi was destroyed and hundreds of thousands of of the region’s inhabitants were deported to what is modern-day Iran.
The ruins of Gremi are an important archeological site, while the Church of Archangels Michael and Gabriel and the Royal Tower of the ancient city survived intact to the 21st century. Not that you would have guessed this history from the fleeting mention Gremi received in my guidebook. Only by chance did I pass by the Gremi Citadel on my way to the much more famous Nekresi Monastery. I drove around a bend in the road and was confronted by the dramatic sight of a fortified church on a small hill.
The church dates from 1565 and, uniquely in my experience, allowed visitors to take photographs of the interior. This at least allowed me to capture the dilapidated state of the frescoes. This is one of several ancient Georgian buildings that is on UNESCO’s Tentative List for World Heritage Status, I can only imagine they will need to do some decent restoration work first. The tower standing next to the church was constructed slightly earlier and was worth the 5GEL entry just for the views.
After briefly poking my nose into the wine cellar (no tastings due to driving), I set off for the even more dramatically situated Nekresi Monastery. One of Georgia’s earliest churches, dating from the 4th century, sits at the centre of the complex, and was built only shortly after Christianity was established in the country. Based on the fact that they built on top of a heavily wooded and remote hilltop, I’d say they weren’t sure how popular Christianity was going to be in those early days.
So steep is the hill, and so limited the space at the top, that you have to leave your car at the bottom and take a minibus up. This was a hair-raising experience. The minibus looked like it dated from the Soviet era and ground up and around hairpin bends in first gear, while inside we all sweated due to the oppressive heat and, at least in my case, fear of plunging to my death. I vowed to walk down. Glad to be off the bus, I followed a group of Georgian families towards the monastery.
Carrying the building materials to this spot must have been a huge task, but the views are definitely worth it. The complex has several ancient buildings in addition to the original 4th century church, including a 6th and 7th century basilica, an 8th century church, a 9th century bishop’s palace with attached wine cellar, and a 16th century tower. Oddly, there’s no information about the site, but it is a pleasant place to walk around.
The wine cellar is probably the most interesting part of the complex, and includes an ancient vessel carved from a whole tree trunk in which grapes were pressed by foot before being poured in kvevri, the large clay pots Georgian’s have been using to make wine for eight millennia. There are some frescoes, but they are badly discoloured by centuries of candle smoke. I drank in the views for a while before leaving for Kisiskhevi, where I’d booked a couple of nights in a vineyard.