A Glimpse Inside the Secluded World of a Georgian Nunnery

With travel restrictions in place worldwide, we’ve launched a new series — The World Through a Lens — in which photojournalists transport you, virtually, to some of our planet’s most beautiful and intriguing places. This week, Robert Presutti shares a collection of photographs from a nunnery in the Samtskhe-Javakheti region of Georgia.

A decade ago, I accompanied a friend to a nunnery in rural Georgia: the Phoka Nunnery of St. Nino. A nun and two novices had moved to the area years earlier, in 1992, and had begun resurrecting an 11th-century church from its ruins. Initially they lived in a nearby house owned by Patriarch Ilia II, the leader of the Georgian Orthodox Church.

Led by the abbess, Elizabeth, the group of three slowly grew, so that by the time I visited, the convent comprised six nuns and one novice. By then, the church had been completely restored.

The nuns are an enterprising lot: Each has mastered a trade. Some make enamel and mosaic artwork. Some make cheese. Some textiles. Some candles. Others make chocolate, honey and jams from local fruits, or raise cows, or grow gourds and potatoes, or bake bread. All of these products they sell at the convent, and at a store in Tbilisi, the capital of the former Soviet republic.

During the two weeks I spent there, I formed incredibly strong friendships with the nuns — so strong, in fact, that I was invited to return twice: in 2011 and 2012.

I admire the nuns’ strength and fortitude. They are very well educated, with degrees among them in history, philology, mathematics and biophysics. They work hard and are multiskilled; one moment they’re making ornaments, and the next they’re feeding cows. Collectively, they are a model of self sufficiency.

They are also incredibly disciplined. They maintain a very regimented schedule, rising each day at 2 a.m. for morning prayer.

In addition to their daily labors, the nuns run a school where Armenian children can learn Georgian and English. They offer much to the rural communities — most are Armenian — that surround them.

The area around the nunnery is not an easy place to live. It sits around 6,500 feet above sea level and is cold, blustery and mostly treeless. If you visit in the winter, you can be stuck for months on end without any means of returning to a larger city.

Yet the nuns labor through it all.

The women here have studied cheese-making practices throughout Europe and have combined them with local Javakhetian customs to produce 18 distinct styles of cheese. They help sustain traditional enamel art-making techniques and use them to decorate local churches. The nunnery is also working to produce traditional Javakhetian textiles.

At a time when change is coming rapidly to everyone, these nuns are quietly offering the world their prayer — and finding ways to sustain age-old traditions. To me, that is their greatest legacy.

Robert Presutti is an Italian photographer who lives in New York.

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