For hours the aging marshrutka (minibus) had pitiless jolted me over a decaying high-way, pressed me between its passengers and the constant gaze of an unblinking summer sun staring at me through the window, then abruptly deposited me at my destination. Covered as I was in a lavish lather of sweat and suffering a mild case of dehydration, I immediately accepted a cab driver's offer to take me to the first home-stay, whose name, amid a swirl of an alien language, was intelligible to me. Where, almost immediately upon arrival, I accepted the offer of the first room shown to me, the worn salon of a once grand 19th
century mansion. This faded beauty had suffered not only the ravages of time but the indignity of having tawdry bits of modernity – neon beer signs and cheaply constructed appendages - hung on her like costume jewelry on a grand dame.
Fatigued, I searched for a place to rest among the curls and cues of the 19th century wooden furniture scattered across an ornate wood-mosaic floor and a thread bare Persian-style rug; I quickly eschewed the fainting couch, sitting in the middle of the room, in favor of a sagging bed onto which to drop my weary body; and thus, I spent my first night, sleeping beneath billowing sheer-white curtains in the Kingdom of Colchis.
This ancient kingdom on the eastern edge of the Black Sea was also the destination of Jason and the Argonauts on their far more arduous journey in search of the Golden Fleece. As are the ways of myths and often the tales of our own lives, Jason's path to his goal, the throne of his homeland, was beset with trials. Set as a test of his worthiness to rule, Jason's task was to reclaim the Golden Fleece taken from his native Greece and hidden in a mysterious land. As I first listened to Jason's story my mind drifted to my own plight and I immediately began to feel empathy for the struggling mythical figure. With the unsettled feeling of a dog circling before it lies down, I too am adrift from my homeland and former goals searching in unfamiliar and distance lands.
But even for a wanderer Colchis felt a bit like the ends of the earth, unlike countries of which I was familiar from countless imagines, this is a land somewhat ignored by western travelers, leaving it to carry on with its unique language, and distinct customs - such as ritual feasts, Supras, where drinking wine is sacred and philosophical toasting, led by a Tamada or head of the feast, goes on through out the meal. Still, it was probably not as exotic to me as it was to an 8th BCE Greek. Upon hearing of Jason's destination, a pre-classical Greek would have called it "the farthest voyage"; Colchis was a legendary land of great wealth - the place from which the sun rose – sitting at the eastern edge of the then-known world; beyond which was nothing but the river that circled the earth, perhaps to them it sounded like a trip to the moon does to a Kansas farmer.
Some tales say Jason didn't know Colchis' location when he set sail; and it was only revealed to him, during his journey, by a sage, named Phineus, in exchange for Jason ridding the beleaguered sage of vicious Harpies, birds with women's heads, who devoured any food in excess of the bare essential, condemning him to live a minimalist or ascetic life, apparently for pre-classical Greek religion a sparse life was a punishment from the gods, not, as ascetics of various religions see it, a path to God. Once Jason arrived in Colchis, the tales say it was the King of Colchis' daughter, Medea, who solved the riddles of the seemingly impossible tasks set as barriers to regaining the fleece: first she advised Jason how to yoke a fire-breathing oxen and sow a field with dragon's teeth, then to survive the attack of the army of soldiers who sprung from the dragon's teeth, and finally to defeat the sleepless dragon who guarded the fleece.
As I left for Colchis, or as it is now called the Republic of Georgia, like Jason I went in search of the gold behind the myth. As might be suspected scholars disagree on the significance of the Golden Fleece or what Jason was really searching for. Was Jason purely a symbol, the mythical 'spring hero', who comes from the east, renewing life in the west at the end of winter? Or did he represent real events?
Schliemann's discovery of the ruins of an ancient city that could be the real Troy behind the story of the Iliad has helped give credence to the idea that Greek myths are stories growing from factual seeds. Indeed there is evidence that the Golden Fleece too is based in fact - villagers in a remote region of what was Colchis have been observed in the past century extracting gold by stretching a ram's fleece out in a river then drying the skins and beating out the gold. Is Jason's story then a legendary version of the Greeks search for Colchian gold, or for the vast wealth of the eastern empires, or a display to the eastern empires of emerging western power, or simply a search for a breed of sheep? What was Jason really searching for? And where exactly was he searching? Some think that the Georgian village of Vani is the site of an ancient temple-city to which Jason might have journeyed. As a wanderer on the trail of myths, when I found an entry in my guidebook on Vani, I immediately set off to follow in Jason's footsteps.
Early in the morning, I began my search for transport from the town of Kutaisi, where the marshrutka had deposited me, to the village of Vani. Like a detective looking for clues, I walked along the line of marshutkas, peering myopically at the signs on the windshields in an attempt to decipher the swirling Georgian script. This endeavor having proved fruitless, I approached a driver and posed the word Vani as a question - from inside the bus a wall of heads instantly formed to gaze at the foreigner - the driver indicated that these buses don't go there; I must go to the main bus station. With the heat of the day already bearing down on my fatigued body, finding the main station immediately seemed more difficult than my endurance for uncertainty and comfort with the unknown would allow. Discouragement tugging on my sleeve, I turned away; but I quickly brushed it aside with the recollection that Jason needed Phineus's knowledge to slip through the Clashing Rocks and to locate Colchis; and it was Medea's knowledge that allowed him to claim the Golden Fleece, perhaps all I needed was assistance.
While walking along the tree-lined street, I noticed a line of cabs and a sudden impulse to be carried off to Vani in a private hire vehicle overcame me. Stopping at the first cab in line, I again posed the word, Vani, as a question and mumbled a few Georgian words. We managed to communicate a price for driving to and from the village; but the in-between was unclear. With excitement building to take off on an adventure that seemed within my grasp; I walked away to rationally consider this latest irrational impulse. Then, the moment came, when without my knowing it, I simply turned around, as unknown to my conscious mind - I had decided to go. As Bagrat, the cabbie, and I were working on the final details, with several other cabbies clustered around, paper and pen flying back and forth with illustrations and numbers - a woman suddenly appeared at my side. Marina spoke excellent English and within seconds everything was clear. Fortune shone further on my adventure as Bagrat asked Marina, to go with us - and she agreed. It seemed both a Phineus and a Medea had appeared.
As we set off, I sank into the back seat of the cab with my new friend, Marina, at my side. We drove through a farming village, on a road that had more holes than paved surface, until finally emerging onto a more fully paved road lined with poplars. The road led us through the rich, fertile ancient Phasis river valley, now called the Rioni, brimming with both wild and cultivated plants: corn fields, grapevines, flowering as well as fruit laden trees. In the fields and on the roads, chickens, cows, turkeys and goats roamed wherever they pleased. As this idyllic world spooled by the window, Marina identified some decaying buildings as recent ruins left by the Soviets' passing across the Georgian stage, and a defunct winery whose demise came as the deteriorating relationship between Georgia and Russia led to closing the border and thus closing the Russian market for Georgian wine; a financial hardship also suffered by winemakers in southeastern Georgia. As a wind gently cooled the cab, blowing away a thin layer of sweat and soothing my sun-weary skin; the darkly tinted windows relaxed my eyes; I surrendered to the innate Georgian hospitality giving up my struggle to find my way and allowed myself simply to be led.
On our arrival in the village of Vani, there was no sign pointing to the ancient site - or not one that I could understand. On my own, without the sage Bagrat, I might not have found my way; even he had to ask twice for directions. We eventually found our way up the hill and discovered a view of both the Rioni and the Suloris river valleys and the lush Meshketian Mountains. The ancients had chosen a site both protected and gushingly beautiful. But, as we pulled up in front of an artless Soviet era building my heart sank a bit. Although lacking in outward appeal this was indeed the museum that housed the Colchian treasure trove of gold and bronze objects - and was my goal.
As Colchis was in the crossroads between the great powers of the day, Greece and Persia, it benefited from the trade passing through its borders, and amassed a collection of the finest objects, including luxury pieces from Persia, Phoenicia, Greece, the nomadic Scythians, and Colchis itself. Its role as a crossroads continues today as Georgia is in the route of a crude oil pipeline bringing Caspian Sea oil to the Mediterranean in Europe's attempt to bypass dependence on Russia. As Colchis was also a land rich in natural resources such as metal ores, they became master metal craftsman, especially in gold, producing the finest of worked gold objects far surpassing all other contemporary cultures with their mastery of sophisticated techniques such as hammering, punching, granulation and filigree. Many of these objects have been uncovered in Vani's burial sites and are now stored in this plain Soviet produced jewelry box, which the three of us now entered and immediately scattered among the glass display cases each in search of our own treasures.
Attracted by a seemingly primitive bronze statue of a woman, with a superficial resemblance to a Hittite statuette that I'd seen in central Anatolia; I wondered at the purpose of this dull, naked figure, adorned in shiny gold jewelry: a bracelet that dwarfed her over sized hands, thick hoop earrings awkwardly projecting from the middle of her ears, and a tightly wrapped necklace pressing into her neck; all giving her the appearance of a display mannequin for the jewelry. Also on display were many examples of the more famous sophisticated Colchian metallurgy; I was especially attracted to a delicately worked bronze eagle and winged Nike whose extremely detailed work reminded me of the granulated golden lion in the National Museum in Tbilisi. Evidence of the Georgian love of wine - the earliest evidence of wine making in the world has been found here -appeared in three cone-shaped drinking cups, since it is necessary to drain the cup in order to set it down – certainly these cups do not encourage sipping. The importance of wine in everyday life was evident as even ordinary tools were decorated with images of wine vessels; a ritual bronze-axe topped with two horseback riders each carried a cuiver, an underground wine vessel, on his back.
Then, finally, I found a display case of objects dedicated to Jason's quests: rams. Here prominently displayed was evidence of the respect accorded the ram by these ancient people. Immediately my eye was drawn to two carefully worked gold ram's heads staring at each other from their perches on the ends of an unclasped gold bracelet, and another finely carved head gracing the length of a handle. A number of simply carved ram statuettes and several rams with heads at both ends of its body, labeled cult objects, revealed a religious or mystical significance assigned to rams.
But most of the glittering gold jewelry - earrings, temple rings and pendent necklaces - decorated drinking vessels, ornate bronze caldrons for libations to the gods, and imported luxury goods were themselves journeying abroad. Even here, in this obscure village of this tiny country, the tentacles of globalization had plucked its jewels from the earth and whisked them away to distant shores, once more frustrating the traveler's thrill of finding in situ treasures of an ancient culture. I asked Marina to find out where the objects were; and the guards produced a copy of the Washington Post dated 7.Dec2007, which revealed that the objects were on tour in America, and that I had traveled almost half way around the world to see something that was in my backyard. As some consolation the guard placed a beautiful coffee-table book of the luxurious burial items found at the site in my hands for perusal. Marina was as keen as I to examine the book; and we sat on the expansive balcony overlooking the valley with a breeze blowing the pages as we poured over the beautiful luxury objects in the pictures.
We then piled back in the car to go to the remains of the city. After swaying across a suspension footbridge, we found a spot covered over with a corrugated roof, in the fashion of archaeologists, around which we could not peer; but not far away some smoothly rounded stone stairs led to a stylobate, possibly of a round temple mentioned in the museum, all amid verdant farmer's fields with cows, turkeys, and chickens wandering about. As we stepped over cow paddies, Bagrat searched for objects to show me; and he pulled, picked and pried his way through the field. His quick eye pointed out a snake slithering for cover a few feet from me; detected a pile of pottery shards with intact handles and a mirror; and then, honed in on a grape press and dislodged stones to reveal the nearby cuivers, amphora like storage vessels buried to their rims in the ground. A little further down the road we could see the remains of another ancient stairway tucked behind a flowering pomegranate tree in an area surrounded by a barbed wire fence. Undeterred, Bagrat helped me climb over some rocks and avoid the fence. Once on the other side we strode up the crumbling stairway then turned to see Marina standing behind us - she had found an open gate.
Having exhausted this area we moved down the hill, Bagrat navigated the corkscrew road until he found the ruins of a wall, which, according to museum information was the gate to the city. A small altar was set inside what might have been the guards' room next to the gate. According to the museum account of the history, in the 3rd and 4th century BC the city gate was part of a strong fortress of stone and adobe walls with towers, an adjoining sanctuary, and a cobblestone road passing through it into the city.
Our tour finished we headed back; along the way, Bagrat took a wrong turn and we wandered through a thick forest on a deeply rutted and barely passable dirt road but at last we emerged onto the plain of the ancient Phasis river and returned to the paved road running between the long line of poplar sentries. The word that flickered through my mind since arriving in Georgia was 'paradise' and I had resisted its use; but found myself tempted, yet again, as we drove through this land so burdened with fruit and natural abundance. Finally, I told Marina how beautiful I thought Georgia was. She, of course, agreed but said "Georgians do not know how to take care of her."
"After we gained independence, people torn down the electrical lines" she said.
Unable to conceive of being so desperate, I naively asked: "Why"
"To sell the wire" She calmly stated, and then quickly added. "So, for many years we suffered the consequences of our own folly"
It wasn't until Saakashvili, the current president, took power that services were restored and the infrastructure improved. She said life was easier under the Soviets; but when I asked her if some people wished to return to communism, she said: 'some, but not many'.
Back in Kutaisi, I collected my luggage, and then Bagrat and Marina accompanied me to the marshrutka stop. While Marina consulted with the marshutka driver, obtaining for me the front seat between the driver and the porter; I paid Bagrat, with extra for his gracious help; then, walked away, thinking he would stay in his cab; but as I climbed into the front seat of the marshrutka both he and Marina stood at the door like parents sending their child off into the world. Of all the possible goals of Jason's journey the sight of these two faces was certainly not the Golden Fleece he searched for. But to my eyes they were draped in golden fleece. For as the Buddhist's saying goes: they gave their help the way a tree gives shade, freely to all passing by.