May 16th, 2010 – Southeast of Zaqatala in Northwest Azerbaijan is the city of Qax/Qakh (pronounced Gakh). Every year in the spring a ceremony is held at a small dilapidated Georgian Orthodox church/Albanian temple perched on a nearby hilltop overlooking the area. Although I never got specifics the idea is to remove a cross from a cistern of water symbolically ushering in dryer weather and bid farewell to the rainy season (It is returned in the fall to beckon the rains).
At least I think that is the purpose. To be frank I am not entirely certain. What else is new? Folks (as in ethnic Georgians) come from across the border in Georgia and surrounding villages in Azerbaijan to pay their respects. I was invited by my friend Amy to join her and some of her fellow Peace Corps volunteers for a visit to the church. I have always been a fan of exotic aquatic ceremonies so I happily agreed to tag along.
Unfortunately, we arrived too late to see the cross removal but it was still well worth the visit. This was another one of those times where I had no idea what the hell was going on but was happy to trudge ahead in a heightened state of blissful ignorance, a state that has become all too familiar on my voyage.
As we approached the church with the throngs of devotees I noticed that some folks carried chickens while others pulled along sheep. I believe the animals either served as a religious sacrifice or lunch. I also noticed that many of the women were barefoot and discovered later that folks believe if you make a wish and doff your footwear on the way to the church your wish will be granted. Candle offerings were common so we all purchased a few to place inside the church (when in Rome).
Before entering it is customary to circle the building three times before entering. I would love to tell you why. I would also like to explain the significance of kissing each corner of the building as you pass. Knowing the reason that a ledge on one side of the building was adorned with chicken heads would also be illuminating. Unfortunately, I have no answers. All I can say is I found the experience mystifying and exhilarating.
|In Azerbaijan's conservative culture this is borderline pornographic|
|Is it me or are these 'sleeping' torso-less chickens almost cute? Ahhhhh...|
I was a little surprised by the condition of the church. If not for the line of folks stuffing themselves in like the proverbial religious clown car I would have assumed the church abandoned. The graffiti adorning the walls did much to underscore this point. Inside the pilgrims busied themselves with lighting candles and making the sign of the cross.
The condition of the church, as far as I can tell, is a direct result of its location in Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan is predominately Muslim and it would appear that local Azeri Muslims do not have such high esteem for the Georgian Orthodox Church and its position as a branch of Christianity. This, I believe, explains the poor condition of the church. Can't we all just get along?
|Not far from the church lies a rock that also holds some sort of significance but I was unable to determine what it is.|
After exiting we ventured down the hill, sat under some trees and enjoyed a Georgian-style picnic. One of the Peace Corps volunteers knew the family and we were all invited to partake in the feast. Nearby we encountered a makeshift wrestling ring where young men were engaging in bout after bout for a group of spectators. Nothing goes with a religious ceremony like a little grappling. There was even a band.
The ethnic Georgians we picnicked with were a friendly and jovial bunch. I was honored to sit down with them for a while stuffing my face with ridiculously delicious pork and quaffing homemade wine like there was no tomorrow. Wine and pork in Azerbaijan? Not such a common occurrence which also might explain feelings of resentment between Azeris and ethnic Georgians. At one point I locked arms with one of the patriarchs and guzzled a cup of brew. It was magnificent, one of those days that justifies my itinerant existence…..sort of.
For our trip back to Zaqatala we hopped aboard a derelict bus that appeared to have just been resurrected from oblivion. The engine was at least 1 hp. Then again, it might have been powered by gerbils. Hard to tell. While awaiting departure a man entered toting his not-so-mini satellite dish. This made me giggle not because it was odd but, on the contrary, because it was so undeniably apropos. I do love this country.
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