Georgian Monk Renews Tradition, Lives Atop Pillar

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O'Zebedee
Georgian Monk Renews Tradition, Lives Atop Pillar

Published 11 September 2013
In an isolated part of the Caucasus, a monk is spending his days in prayer and silence atop a 40-meter pillar of limestone in western Georgia (near the town of Chiatura). The Katskhi Pillar was used by stylites -- Christian ascetics who lived atop pillars and eschewed worldly temptations -- until the 15th century when the practice was stopped following the Ottoman Empire's invasion of Georgia. For centuries the pillar was abandoned and locals could only look up at the mysterious ruins on its summit. Finally, in 1944, a mountain climber ascended the pillar, discovering the skeleton of a stylite and the remains of a chapel. Shortly after the collapse of communism and the resurgence of religion in Georgia, former "bad boy" Maxime Qavtaradze (now 59) decided to live atop the pillar in the way of the old stylites. “When I was young I drank, sold drugs, everything. When I ended up in prison.... It was time for a change. I used to drink with friends in the hills around here and look up at this place, where land met sky. We knew the monks had lived up there before and I felt great respect for them." In 1993 Maxime took monastic vows and climbed the pillar to begin his new life. "For the first two years there was nothing up here so I slept in an old refrigerator to protect me from the weather." Since then Maxime and the nearby Christian community have constructed a ladder to the top, rebuilt the chapel, and built a cottage where Maxime spends his days praying, reading, and "preparing to meet God." As a result of the interest in the site there is now a religious community at the base of the pillar. Men with troubled lives come to stay and ask for guidance from Maxime and the young priests who live at the site. The men are fed and housed on the condition they join the priests in praying for around seven hours per day (including from 2 a.m. until sunrise) and help with chores. (19 PHOTOS) Photos by Amos Chapple.

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Maxime stands by the railing atop the Katskhi Pillar enjoying the beautiful view on June 18, 2013.

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The pillar at the end of a stormy day in the valley. For centuries the 40-meter high pillar was abandoned. In 1944 a group led by the mountaineer Alexander Japaridze made the first documented ascent of the pillar and discovered the remains of a chapel and the skeleton of a stylite.

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Maxime inside his cottage on the pillar.

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Maxime looks out from his favorite spot on the pillar. Troubled men come to stay and ask for guidance from Maxime and the young priests who live at the site. Maxime usually climbs down from the pillar once or twice a week for night prayers and to speak with the men.

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Sergo Mikhelidze and a friend deliver lunch to Maxime by using a winch. Everything atop the pillar was either carried or winched up by volunteers.