Fearing that an avalanche of mud would hit his mountain village in western Georgia, in 2008 Malkhaz Mgeladze packed up his life and relocated to gentler hills in the eastern Kvemo Kartli region. The threat of a landslide was looming – in fact, the danger had been growing for a long time and he did not want to be caught in the village when it happened. The journey for a new home took the then-24-year-old to Trialeti, a village of roughly 500 people - a tiny melting pot of ethnicities and faiths where Orthodox Georgians have long been a minority.
Like many eco-migrants from the region of Adjara, Mgeladze is Muslim. Malkhaz Mgeladze is a descendant of Georgians who likely adopted Islam during Ottoman Turkey’s control of the region from 1614 to 1878. Under the state-imposed atheism of the USSR, being Muslim or Christian mattered little, but, as the Soviet Union melted, religion and national identity merged and Orthodox Christianity become a paradigm for being a true Georgian. So when the first Muslims arrived in Trialeti in 2004 from environmentally unstable Adjara, they struggled to fit in. The suspicion dissolved soon and the Muslims became integral part of a diverse community of ethnic Armenians adhering to the Apostolic Church and ethnic Greeks, followers of the Greek Orthodoxy.
In fact, the village’s whole history is rooted in religious freedom.
Trialeti was founded in 1857 by German settlers who had started settling in Georgia in the early 1800s. In 1815, during a journey in southern Germany, Tsar Alexander I of Russia was struck by the persecution that peasants of non-Lutheran Protestant faiths suffered. He offered those communities the chance to relocate in the Caucasus, including Georgia’s capital and the Kvemo Kartli region. The first settlers arrived in Tbilisi the fall of 1818 and later migrant groups founded Katharinenfeld (modern-day Bolnisi), Elisabethtal (current Asureti) and then Alexandershilf - today’s Trialeti.
The Germans left their imprint in the architecture and in 1866, free to practise their faith, they built an Evangelical-Lutheran church - to date, it remains the only one in the village. It functioned until the Soviets prohibited religious services, in the 1930s. Under the communists, it served as a warehouse, a club, a cinema theatre before being abandoned and left to decay. In 2017 it was finally restored – to the delight of its Armenian and Greek Orthodox residents who have been using it to pray, albeit informally, and hang their icons. They call it the “kirkhe”, from “kirche”, the German word for church.
Today Mgeladze and the 180 Muslim families in Trialeti pray at the local mosque, a former Greek house that they turned into a place of worship in 2010. On Fridays and religious holidays the building is full, notes Shalva Vanadze, the 76-year-old local imam, but during the week, daily life takes over religious practises.
The village that once attracted so many is struggling today – houses lack access to drinking water, gas or electricity and the harsh winters, isolation and lack of opportunities push residents to seek a better life either in larger cities or abroad.
Now there is a risk that this kaleidoscope of ethnicities and faiths could fade and disappear - like its Protestant founders.
This story has been corrected to show that Orthodox Georgians were the minority in the village.
September, 2018 Religious Beliefs