During my last days in Georgia just before the flight back home to Lithuania, I rented a small room in a hotel near the Freedom Square, Tbilisi. The room was very modest and hardly decorated, there was only one painting hanging on the wall, but the contents of it touched me deeply. After all of the adventures, I had here in Georgia, here I am standing in this small room with a painting of Mount Kazbek and a few adventurers traveling throughout the landscape overshadowed by this picturesque Mountain. Mount Kazbek is one of the most famous mountains in the region, for many different people it means different things. In this short special, I’ll try to share some basic facts and the stories I heard about this magical mountain.
The Mountain is located in the middle of the Greater Caucasus on the border between Georgia and Russia. Risen 5.047 m. above the sea level, Mount Kazbek is the sixth tallest mountain in the whole Great Caucasus and third highest in Georgia. The mountain is the second tallest volcanic-type peak in the Caucasus, outmatched only by the King of Caucasus – Mount Elbrus. Mount Kazbek is the fifth highest ultra-prominent peak (1.500 m. above its surroundings) in whole Europe and is taller than any other peak in the continent, except the Great Caucasus mountains.
Mount Kazbek is located to the west of Stepantsminda town (formerly known as Kazbegi) and together with a nearby Gergeti Trinity Church dominates the beautiful landscape. The Georgian name for the mountain is Mkinvartsveri means something like the Glacier Peak and in a language of local Nakh people – Molten Mount.
Mount Kazbek is a stratovolcano, meaning it is built up by many layers (strata) of lava and other material coming out of a volcano during, usually, an explosive eruption. The lava flowing out of stratovolcanoes usually cools and hardens before spreading too far from its source forming a steep profile.
Like Mount Elbrus, Mount Kazbek still shows some underground volcanic activity. The last confirmed eruption happened somewhere 600 years ago and there is some evidence on an eruption which occurred somewhere 750 before the Christ era, add or take 50 years. Interesting thing is that it appears that the central peak is not active and haven’t erupted probably for more than 100,000 years. All of the later eruptions happened from satellite peaks to the south.
Mount Kazbek meant many different things to many different cultures throughout the ages. Here are some of the examples of it:
According to an ancient Greek legend, Zeus, the King of Gods, after defeating his father Cronus, the King of Titans, banished him together with all of the Titans to the Tartarus. Tartarus is an interesting thing, it is one of the primordial deities preceded only by Chaos and Gaia (Mother Earth), but it is also a place, the hell, worse than Hades itself. In the words of Zeus himself:
Tartarus is as far beneath Hades as Heaven is above the Earth.
A Titan, Prometheus, did not involve in the war against Zeus as much and he was released from Tartarus with a mission to create a man from earth and water. Prometheus fulfilled his task, but while working on his creation, he grew fond of men. Prometheus didn‘t care much about Gods and Zeus‘s idea to keep the men from any unusual power, so he stole the fire from Gods and gave it to men.
Prometheus was an intelligent one, he tricked the Gods by throwing a pear into the courtyard with a message: „For the most beautiful Goddess of all“. While Godessess fought upon the fruit and Gods were enjoying the scene, Prometheus sneaked to the God of fire, Hephaestus‘s workshop and stole it.
After giving the fire to mankind, Zeus decided that he is done with Prometheus. He ordered Hephaestus himself to chain Prometheus to Mount Caucasus where a raven was sent to peck at his liver. It is not sure whether Prometheus was chained to the Mount Kazbek as authors refer to a peak in the Caucasus without naming the exact place. Still, there is an interesting parallel to Georgian legend, where another god-like character Amirani challenged God directly and after losing the battle he was chained to what Georgians call Mkinvartsveri – modern Mount Kazbek.
For those who don’t know why we no longer can see immortal Prometheus chained to Mount Caucasus, the story is very simple. Even though Zeus offered Prometheus the freedom in exchange of the prophecy of dethronation of Zeus by his own children, Zeus’s son, Hercules while passing by Mount Caucasus decided to kill the Raven and free Prometheus as one of his 12 labors.
Zeus was angry, but he agreed with the freedom of Prometheus with one condition, Zeus wanted the Titan to remember his punishment forever, so he told Prometheus to make a ring out of the same chains he was attached to Mount Caucasus and wear it as a reminder. From that day on, the mankind started creating rings to commemorate Prometheus and his sacrifice.
Probably the most mysterious place in Georgia is Betlemi cave, located high on Mount Kazbek. There is a legend between the folk that when Mongols invaded Georgia, young warrior-men rushed with horses to the cave to hide the most important treasures of the country. Willing to keep the secret at all costs, men have killed each other.
The cave, closed by an iron gate, could be accessed only by the one of pure heart, when a chain tied to the mountain revealed itself, which granted the access to the cave. It is not known to this day, who first and when founded this cave, but it is located in the same place where Prometheus supposedly was chained to the mountain.
The cave is even related to Abraham’s tent, the manger of an infant Jesus and the Golden fleece which according to the legend was hidden in Colchis (modern day Georgia). This is where to, Jason and the Argonauts set out to look for it.
For the longest time it was thought Betlemi cave to be nothing more, but a legend. But during the Soviet era, the mysterious chain was found, and the Soviet mountaineers set out to find the mystical cave in which they were successful. They couldn’t open the gate but found another entrance. The cave was filled with many ancient treasures, sadly, neither of them seemed to possess any supernatural power.
To my surprise, there is even a tale written by the 19th-century Lithuanian writer – Antanas Vienuolis. It is inspired of course by Georgian legends, but a short version of it is as follows:
It was the toughest times of Georgia, but it didn’t fall then, so it probably never will, it must be the will of the God. Persians were pushing the Georgians from the East, with Turks and Highlanders stealing and burning the country from the South and North.
Georgians couldn’t ask for any help from anyone, they were surrounded only by Muslims – the main enemy of Christians. Those days all the men of Georgia did was fighting the enemy or dying on the battlefield.
The day came and Persians started to surround both Mccheta and Tbilisi, the first lines of defense fell like flies, but Georgians kept fighting, and after a day of fighting, they couldn’t hold and retreated to Mccheta and Narikala Fortress. By the morning Mccheta fell and a half day after Narikala fell as well, but the last remaining warriors climbed to the tower of the fortress wherein the narrow corridor they kept fighting the horde. Hundred came and hundreds fell. Only the next morning the tower was taken and Georgia fell under a harsh Muslim rule. Persian Emperor told to what was left of Georgians, that if they won’t give him two bags of gold he will burn the country to the ground.
Up in the mountains, not too far from the peak, on the slope of Mount Kazbek, stood ancient monastery of St. Nino. These monks for ages helped Georgians when they needed the most. Even though the place is closed by the snow for 9 months in the year, few courageous people set out to reach the monastery to ask for help once again.
Only a part of brave men reached the gates of the monastery. Surprised monks listened to their story as men told it without being able to hold their tears. Monks quickly decided to give two bags of gold. When they went to the vault where the gold was hidden, the greed overtook monks and they decided to give nothing for the cause of Georgia. It is not the first time Muslims are burning the country and it always rose back to its greatness.
Monks shared the gold between them and set out to hide it in the snow. Just after they left the monastery, one of the men who was sent to ask for help noticed them sneaking out with the gold and asked what they were doing. One of the monks stabbed the poor guy with a dagger to the chest and he fell into the abyss. As he was falling down he cursed the monks and his voice echoed through the mountains to the Gods.
Monks got scared and started running, and so they did until they saw the golden aura of burning Georgia, Persian Emperor without his gold decided to destroy what’s left. The elder monk, after he saw his country falling down, turned into stone. Then Jesus from a cross told to the rest of the monks that their destiny shall be the same and during the day they will turn to stone, and during the night they will carry that gold to the peak of Mount Kazbek. Christ told that it will be even worse if anyone will notice them, carrying the gold, for which they sold their brothers and the country.
To this day during the day, climbers can see the stone structures, resembling human figures. It is not far from Betlemi hut, actually, some of them are just next to the Orthodox church, which makes all of the legends linked to the same place. It is not surprised, this part of the mountain can be even observed from Stepantsminda and must be spoken of for ages. And if you look to photos on internet made during a winter, you can clearly see Mount Kazbek look like a stone face rising from the Great Caucasus mountains.