Some mountains are so imposing, so mighty, that those who live in their shadow feel compelled to set their stories and legends on their unforgiving slopes. Mount Kazbek is Georgia’s most storied peak in a country packed with stories and peaks. As a result, Mount Kazbek, and the town of Kazbegi that huddles in the valley below it, is probably the premier outdoors destination for visitors to Georgia.
Like the journey to Tusheti, the trip from Georgia's capital city, Tbilisi, to Kazbegi is spectacular and adventurous the whole way through. However, while the road to Tusheti has been roughly gouged out of the mountainside and is more a trail than a road at times, the route from the vineyards and farms around Tbilisi to the alpine village of Kazbegi is a major part of the historic Georgian Military Highway. Used by traders and conquerors since ancient Greek and Roman times, the route was improved by the Russian Tsar two hundred years ago to enable his military to quickly cross the Caucasus mountains and enter Georgia, which was a subject of the Russian Empire before it was a part of the Soviet Union.
This link between Russia and Georgia remains a flash point even today, with Georgians fully aware that a paved highway through the mountains between them and Russia could be a serious liability in times of war. After breaking free from Soviet rule, Georgia has vigorously proclaimed its independence from Russia and the two nations have gone to war in the last three decades over competing claims. As a result, both nations often close the border out of spite, leading to massive backlogs of container trucks. When we were driving to Kazbegi, the line of trucks stalled at the border stretched for several kilometers.
Given the uneasy relationship between Georgia and Russia today, the Russia-Georgia Friendship Monument seems laughably naive. Built a few years before the collapse of the Soviet Union, and accompanied even then by protests from Georgians who saw nothing to celebrate in the relationship between tiny Georgia and powerful Moscow, the monument depicts scenes from Georgian and Russian history in vibrant murals. Facing a broad mountain valley, the setting of the monument is majestic and it's a very popular stopping point for people travelling the Georgian Military Highway up to Kazbegi.
Kazbegi, the village, is essentially the last real town before reaching the Russian border. Confusingly, the town was originally Stepantsminda before being named Kazbegi in the 1800s and then the name reverted back to Stepantsminda after Georgia’s independence; regardless, everyone seems to call it Kazbegi. It is a quaint town, with an interesting blend of visiting mountaineers, roaming cows, Russian tourist families and grizzled local shepherds walking its steep streets.
The green mountains press up against the town and the snowy slopes of Mount Kazbek are impossible to ignore. Apparently, Mount Kazbek is mostly reluctant to show it’s broad face, preferring instead to drape itself in swirling clouds. We were super fortunate to have blue skies during our stay, enabling us to see the 5000-meter mountain in its full glory.
Mountains are an important part of Georgian traditional culture and Mount Kazbek is likely the most important mountain. The ancient Greek myth of Prometheus has a parallel in Georgian mythology with “Amirani”, a tragic hero who challenged the power of the gods by introducing humans to a precious metal and was chained to Mount Kazbek as eternal punishment. To make things worse, Amirani was tortured by an eagle to tear out his liver every day, the wound healing overnight so Amirani could undergo the same torture the next day (and the day after that, and the day after that…).
The supposed site of Amirani’s punishment was a cave, 4,000 meters up the face of Mount Kazbek. Georgians long believed that this cave was guarded by an Orthodox monk and contained holy treasures such as the infant Jesus’s manger. Due to a belief that only the purest in spirit could ascend the mountain and survive, no Georgians attempted to climb Mount Kazbek and reach either the summit or the cave of treasures. When foreigners did begin to climb Mount Kazbek, they discovered that a cave did indeed exist at that spot, though without any holy relics or agonized Amirani inside; the cave is used today as a common staging point for mountaineers tackling the peak.
It’s probably obvious by now that I find this mountain super fascinating. However, the star attraction for most visitors to Kazbegi is not the mountain but the tiny church in front of it. Called Tsminda Sameba, this church is on postcards, the Lonely Planet guide to Georgia and countless tourist kitsch sold in the shops of the capital city for visiting tourists, mostly Russians. In a country known for its fierce religious devotion and thousands of historic churches, this particular church is a national symbol, simultaneously representing Georgians’ hold on their cultural values and their earnest desire to showcase their country to the world.
Built six hundred years ago, Tsminda Sameba is actually a newer church by Georgian standards as Georgia has some of the world’s oldest churches. Aware of Kazbegi’s vulnerable position right on the path of any invading army, the church’s builders used the area’s steep topography to their defensive advantage and perched their stone church on top of a huge hill at the base of Mount Kazbek. In times of danger, locals would hide their valuables and holy relics in the church to keep them safe from invading armies below. During Soviet times, the government decided to install a gondola that went from the town to the church. Local villagers saw the gondola as an insulting blemish on a sacred site and tore it apart themselves; it was never rebuilt and until recently the only way to visit the church was to hike from the town of Kazbegi or hire a 4x4 to slip and slide up a muddy track to the church.