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The extraordinary church where daring monks climb closer to God

Katskhi pillar is limestone monolith in Georgia

(CNN) - Driving through the beautiful, winding country lanes of Georgia's remote, western Imereti region is an immensely pleasurable travel experience -- but not one you'd immediately associate with religious experiences.

Until, that is, you pass a hidden lane signposted with a picture of a church.

This is the way to the Katskhi pillar -- a natural limestone monolith that towers more than 130 feet, or 40 meters, into the air and on top of which stands what is probably the world's most isolated, and most sacred, churches.

Situated approximately 200 kilometers (about 125 miles) west of Georgia's capital city Tbilisi, this remarkable landmark is notoriously difficult to reach. There are no trains in this part of the region, so the only way to get there is by car or bus, but it's worth the trek.

The final approach is done on foot, a 20-minute hike during which the monolith appears suddenly on the horizon of the vivid Georgian landscape. It's a magical experience that only intensifies as you draw closer to the pillar itself. A steep climb up some half-finished steps is a sign that visitors are almost there.

At the base of the pillar, a monastery and a small chapel come into view on the right-hand side. To the left stands the 130-foot tall limestone column in all its mesmerizing glory.

Wine cellar

The Katskhi complex is unique. Atop the column is a church built in the 6th to 8th centuries dedicated to Maximus the Confessor, a 7th century Georgian monk. There's also a burial chamber, a wine cellar, a curtain wall and three hermit cells.

Each day, monks living below make the nerve-jangling 20-minute ascent via a thin metal ladder bolted to the side of the rock. The daily pilgrimage to say prayers at the top is said to bring them closer to God.

Until 2015, they'd also encounter Father Maxime Qavtaradze, who spent most of his time there for 20 years and was the last monk to live on top. Qavtarade built a new church on the rock in 1995.

Beneath the column or rock stands the newly constructed church of Simeon Stylites, the monastery and the ruins of an old wall and belfry.

Today, the pillar is still celebrated for being one of the most sacred landmarks on Earth. Local monks are now the only people on the planet who are allowed to take the 20-minute climb up the steel ladder on the side of the column to the very top.

Climbing from the monastery positioned below to the church above is a daily pilgrimage they believe is the best way to offer themselves to God.

Strict rules

Only men from a religious order are now allowed to climb the stairway to the heavens. Women have not been allowed to scale the column at any point in history.

The head of the monastery, Leader Ilarion, tells CNN Travel that since 2018, the public have been banned from scaling the pillar to visit the church on top by an edict from Patriarch Ilia II, the spiritual leader of the Georgian Orthodox Church.

"The Patriarch passed an order stating that only the monks can enter the church at the top of the pillar. Until he overturns that order, we are not allowed to let any visitors up," Ilarion says.

Though they're now among those banned from the top, residents are proud of their local landmark, venerated the world over as a "pillar of life" and "a symbol of the true cross."

Local George Tsertsvadze says the restrictions will help preserve Katskhi's sanctity.

"Only religious people can go up and we respect that decision," he tells CNN Travel. "It's partly to protect the buildings, but also to ensure that the site remains holy."

The pillar itself remained unclimbed by anyone from outside Katskhi until 1944, when an expedition led by Georgian mountaineer Alexander Japaridze and writer Levan Gotua headed to the top for a more comprehensive study.

At that time the buildings on top of the pillar were thought to have been constructed in the 5th to 6th centuries, but that estimate was later revised to the 9th and 10th centuries by the Georgian National Museum.

Forbidden journey

"There are many wrong histories circulating about the pillar, so it's important that people hear the correct story," Ilarion says.

"The first monks began living in the church in the 10th and 11th centuries, and they lived up on top of the pillar. There are no monks living up there today, we only go up to pray then return to the monastery below," he adds.

Although climbing to the top of the pillar is now forbidden, there's still plenty to see within the Katskhi complex.

The monastery building and the surrounding complex was restored by a state-funded program in 2009 and works continue today to allow visitors an experience close to what existed more than 1,000 years ago. A new visitor center is also in the works, along with a small souvenir shop.

It's still possible to climb up to the pillar's first level, which holds a prayer area and a 6th century cross marked into the limestone -- one of the earliest examples of Christian symbolism in existence today. There's also space to light a candle and pray into an enclosure carved into the rocks.

"The site was first recognized as Christian in the 6th century when the base of the pillar was marked with a cross," Ilarion says. "The church was added later and, despite its age, the complex is fully operational today."

The church of Simeon Stylites, a small quaint chapel adorned with decorative art and religious artifacts, stands at ground level. The quiet and peaceful building is open for visitors to pray. Inside is a collection of stunning fresco paintings, with a tiny altar and prayer space with room to light a candle.

On leaving the chapel, visitors get an awe-inspiring vista of the gorgeous Georgian countryside with the pillar positioned to the right.

Also visible in the distance, through a gate to the right of the chapel, is the monastery itself. The building being off-limits to the public, but Ilarion and the other monks happily walk around the complex talking to visitors and imparting their wisdom to all who listen.

Getting there

There are two main travel routes to take to reach the Katskhi pillar.

From Tbilisi

Catching a bus from Tbilisi's Didube bus station to Chiatura takes between three and three-and-a-half hours. Although there are no official websites for the national buses and/or marshrutkas in Georgia, buses tend to run every hour between 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. each day. Once in Chiatura, a local taxis drive directly to the Katskhi pillar.

From Batumi

Buses run hourly from Batumi to Kutaisi from 7 a.m., and the journey takes just over two hours. Once in Kutaisi, passengers can take another bus for a one-hour ride to Chiatura. Drivers will stop directly outside the entrance to the pillar complex en route.


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