Thursday, 4 June 2015

In Search of Jason and the Argonauts

During a quest to drive full circle around the Black Sea, Simon Raven and Chris Raven, travel deep into the heartland of Georgia’s ancient kingdom of Colchis, the final destination of Jason and the Argonauts in their search for the Golden Fleece.

A view of the picturesque Georgian countryside near ancient Vani. Photo by Simon Raven
Extract from the book: BLACK SEA CIRCUIT
By Simon Raven, Chris Raven

Approaching the ancient city of Vani in the spiritual heartland of the kingdom of Colchis, Chris drives in circles around the deserted main square. The modern day settlement of Vani only received town status in 1981 and today has a small population of around 4,600 people. Asking a young kid for directions, he swings open the rear passenger door and leaps inside. Perched on top of our rucksacks he directs us up a steep hill and seems excited to meet a couple of old dudes from the country of Premiership football and Manchester United. Parking the Volvo below a derelict museum building, he leads us to the start of a footpath before waving goodbye and sprinting hurriedly in the opposite direction. Unsure what it is we are here to see, we embrace the unknown and march along a trail into the open countryside.

This region of Georgia is shrouded in myth and legend, and it is thought to be the ultimate destination of Jason and the Argonauts in their quest to find the Golden Fleece. The mythological story of Jason first appeared in various literary works in the classical world of Greece and Rome. In the Greek epic poem ‘Argonautica’ written by Apollonius Rhodius, Jason, a prince of Thessaly, was set a challenge by his uncle Pelias to sail to the land of Colchis on the eastern shores of the Black Sea. His quest was to find the Golden Fleece. According to the story Jason had a special ship built called the Argo, and this ship would carry him and 49 Greek rowers, known as the Argonauts, to the kingdom of Colchis. After surviving multiple hazards and life threatening challenges, the boat powered by the young men reached Poti and sailed up the Phasis (Rioni) River. It was here where King Aeetes received them in his capital, which experts think could be either the ancient city of Kutaisi or Vani. Rather sportingly, Aeetes agreed to give up the fleece if Jason sowed the teeth of a dragon with two fire-breathing bulls, which would produce a useful crop of armed men. Having travelled an awfully long way Jason accepted the challenge, but in a twist he secretly promised to marry Aeetes’ daughter if she agreed to help him. This was advantageous to Jason as Medea was skilled with magic and potions, and she gave him a charm that enabled him to survive Aeetes' tests and to take the fleece from the dragon that guarded it.

A bronze BMW 4x4 draws up alongside us. Chris greets a friendly guy wearing a business suit who appears to be of Turkish origin. He is accompanied by an elderly gentleman dressed in a pale blue thobe and a white taqiyah (a short round prayer cap). They kindly offer us a ride to the top of the mountain, where the archaeological site of Vani is apparently located. Dropping us off at the foot of a steep path, we thank them and walk the last hundred metres to a gate. I suddenly see a guy walking hurriedly towards us. Out of breath, he asks where we are going. He smiles when Chris explains that we had hoped to visit the ruins at Vani. Introducing ourselves, we discover Zurab is a professor of Archaeology at Tbilisi University. He kindly offers to show us around and escorts us to a newly excavated site. Still slightly out of breath, he pushes his glasses up the bridge of his nose and explains the ruins of a Roman wall with a moat has recently been discovered. So far they have unearthed a number of objects, including terracotta pots and amphora. Fascinated to have the opportunity to be one of only a handful of people to see a wall that has been hidden beneath the ground for more than a thousand years, we stand and absorb the sight of the mud covered stone blocks.

Zurab invites us to meet the director of the archaeological site, and we wander back down the hill to an awaiting taxi. Chris sits in the front with the driver and during the short journey I ask Zurab about his profession. With a smile he reveals that for a number of years he worked for the British petroleum company, BP Pipelines, as an archaeological and environmental advisor, but he now works as a lecturer at Tbilisi University. He informs us that the first excavations took place here at Vani in 1890, after locals reported gold ornaments being washed down the hill following heavy rain. They had since uncovered a city that is one of the main centres of ancient Colchis, which flourished from the 8th century BC (an astonishing 2,700 years ago). He believes that this could have been the city of King Aeetes, the ultimate destination where Jason would have sailed to in search of the Golden Fleece.

by Simon Raven, Chris Raven

Order your copy online from Amazon and all major book retailers. ISBN 9780954884284.

We arrive at an old wooden house with a porch and a beautifully carved fascia. Chris asks how old the property is and Zurab replies that it was built sometime at the beginning of the last century. The university had purchased the house and much of the land many years ago, in a bid to preserve the precious history that had been uncovered in this region. Leading us inside, we are introduced to the Director of Archaeology. He is a charismatic Georgian man in his early sixties, and is wearing a checked shirt and a camouflage green body warmer. Smoking a large cigar he reminds me of a military commander. Speaking German, the director kindly invites us to look inside the workshop where they are piecing together fragments of pottery using miniature bulldog clips and ceramic glue. It’s truly fascinating to be given the opportunity to witness archaeology in progress.

Chris asks Zurab about gold panning with sheep’s wool, and its connection with the story of Jason and the Argonauts going in search of a fleece made of gold. He smiles and confirms that this is almost certainly where the inspiration for the myth came from. When Zurab was a student at university he was involved in a field expedition in the Svaneti region in the north of the country. During his time there he had met an old man with a gold tooth. When he asked the man where he came upon the gold, he revealed to Zurab that he had found a large gold nugget in the Inguri River. Geologists support the claim that villagers once used sheepskin to capture gold from mountain streams in the area. The fleece was used to line the bottom of the sandy streambeds, trapping any tiny grains of gold that built up there. This technique is a variation on panning used elsewhere in the world, and would have lead to sheepskins that were imprinted with flakes of gold and could have given rise to stories of a “Golden Fleece”. Historic artefacts, including a bronze sculpture of a bird with a ram's head, were found in the villages of Svaneti and this provided support to the theory that the kingdom was once the source of the myth.

Leaving the archaeologists to continue with their work, we are driven further down the hill to an open-air museum. A woman wearing a white cotton shirt greets us at the entrance. Marine is the wife of the director, and first worked on the excavations at Vani in 1968 as a young student volunteer. She is hugely knowledgeable about the ruined city, and explains to us in perfect English that the site here at Vani was first established in 1947 and that the University of Tbilisi started excavations in 1950. Escorting us across the grounds, Marine reveals that Vani means “the place of rest”. They had uncovered opulent burials from the 8th to the 1st centuries BC, and the archaeological research team believes Vani may have become a temple-city dedicated principally to the goddess Levcoteia. We stand around a strange stone altar from the 2nd to 1st century BC, and discover they had found many graves here and believe its existence may have been linked to the cult of death. Marine points out strong mud brick walls that were built towards the end of this period. The structure that existed here was destroyed in the 1st century BC, which they could conclude due to the fire damaged adobe bricks. According to historical records, Pompey the Great, the military and political leader of the late Roman Republic, had taken the city of Vani from Artoces - the king of Kartli. During this time, Pompieus was in pursuit of Mithridates the Great (the king of Pontus and Armenia Minor) who had fled to the kingdom of Colchis. Marine throws us both a sideways glance, and suggests that in pursuit of Artoces and Mithridates, Pompieus may have gone as far as the old capital of Mtskheta.

Continuing our walk around the site, Marine points out various walls and buildings and explains that a few years ago they had a fantastic new museum built. She had worked hard with her colleagues to make it the best museum imaginable. But in 2010 the local government had put into action dream-plans to construct a café inside the building, with a platform where tourists could drink coffee and look out across the beautiful countryside. They had been told to put all of the artefacts from the museum into storage and during the coming months they had set to work at completely destroying the museum building. Government funding was suddenly cut in the middle of the project, and the large museum has been left in a completely useless state ever since. Chris asks if many people come to visit the site.

She shakes her head. ‘Nobody!’ she cries. ‘We’ve been completely shut down. The area is large with many interesting archaeological sites strung across the hilltops, but without the museum what is there for people to see?’

A security guard stands watch as we are invited to take a peek inside a temporary storage facility, where most of the artefacts are kept under lock and key. This is a great opportunity for us to examine ancient Greek columns up close, and ceramics typical to the region that date to around 500 BC. Marine excitedly points out various objects; ceramics glazed blue and green from the 3rd century BC, various items of pottery work and an adobe brick from the altar that had been preserved by fire. She explains that the battle that had taken place at Vani in the 1st century BC had actually been beneficial to their knowledge of the site, because the act of burning preserves certain materials, such as wood, better than if it had decomposed naturally. Marine stands close to a large temple carving of a cow’s head. Sounding almost apologetic, she reveals that the truly valuable items are currently on display at the Museum of Archaeology in Tbilisi where her daughter works. On the upper floor of the museum they once had a fantastic bronze vessel depicting Greek gods, fine bronze casts and copies of gold adornments with animal designs. For a time they also had on display an original pair of pendants from an ornamental crown, with incredibly fine bird decorations. Chris asks Marine which items she had personally found, and she admits to having discovered many great pieces. She is reluctant to lay claim to having found specific items as she feels that as an archaeologist you work as a team.

From the storage room we pass more ancient mud and brick walls and remains of monumental architecture. We follow Marine across a suspended metal walkway and view the museum that has been vandalised by the local government and temporarily abandoned. Scaffolding surrounds the walls of the structure and I notice a sun-bleached billboard depicting the supposedly exciting plans for the new café that had never materialised. She explains that when they had first started work here at Vani in the 1960s and ‘70s, they had enjoyed a period of peace and a good standard of life in Georgia. The archaeological programs were well funded and education was valued. It was a golden age for archaeology in her country. She had worked on an archaeological dig with a female American student, who had visited Georgia many times since. This woman’s generosity had saved them during the difficult years, following the collapse of the Soviet Union and Georgia’s struggle for independence. By the 1980s, Mikhail Gorbachev had begun his policies of reform and the USSR disintegrated in just seven years. Chris mentions that we had seen the statue of Stalin in Gori, and Marine looks ashamed. Both her great aunt and uncle had been killed during the purges in Tbilisi after the Russian revolution, for no other reason than the fact that they were educated. Marine appears to be in a reflective mood. She shares with us how they had thought that after Georgia achieved independence from the USSR in 1991 their problems would be over. They had never imagined they would then suffer internal conflict, and that trouble would suddenly erupt in Abkhazia; people they had lived peacefully alongside for centuries. In the past, Georgians had married Abkhazians and vice versa. Russia’s support of the Abkhazian separatists had caused a sudden and irreversible divide. Marine and her husband now live in Tbilisi during the winter and Vani in the summer months, but before independence they regularly made trips to the Abkhazian coast. With excitement in her voice she reveals that this beautiful region of the Caucasus is also home to the deepest known caves in the world, with the Krubera Cave stretching 2km beneath the Earth’s surface. I ask her what would happen if she went to Abkhazia now, and she responds with surprise.

‘We cannot go there. We would be put in jail. It is dangerous for us.’

Marine pauses sharply in front of a cluster of stone ruins and her concerned face suddenly breaks into a smile. With great enthusiasm she explains that this was the main gateway into the city. Standing in the smooth stone doorway, she points out a ledge where a statue once stood. The inscription on the stone means goddess, and they believe the statue would have been female. Marine raises her eyebrows at the idea that this spiritual place has all of the hallmarks of the Dionysus cult. Dionysus was the god of the grape harvest, winemaking and wine and of ritual madness and ecstasy in Greek mythology. The polished stone step in the doorway is worn down in the middle by the many generations of Kartli who passed through these city gates. In front of this was a defence gate, which was made of wood and covered in iron. During the attack that had taken place here in the 1st century BC, the rope supports would have been cut and the defence gate slammed shut. She points out the vertical grooves in the pillars in which the gate would have slid down. Marine skilfully paints a mental picture of the events that may have occurred here in the seconds leading up to the end of this ancient city. In the moments of invasion, the people inside would have prayed for their lives at a shrine inside the gates. The grain found in these vessels was burnt, suggesting that eventually the gate had been destroyed by fire and the attackers had forced their way through.

Inspired by the absolute passion Marine feels for this magical site that looks out over the beautiful Georgian countryside, we thank her for taking the time to share it with us. Acknowledging our words of gratitude, we exchange contact details and make a promise to do all we can to share knowledge of the fascinating ongoing work here at Vani.

On our way out of town, we pause close to a road bridge that crosses the Sulori River, a tributary of the Rioni. We stand at the railings and look downstream in the direction of the ancient Georgian port of Poti. I smile at the thought that during our journey there have been no fire-breathing bulls for us to yoke, dragons to slay, or gold and princesses for us to claim. But returning to the Volvo, our Argo, we drive into the fading light and continue on our path of knowledge, the most valuable prize.

by Simon Raven, Chris Raven

Order your copy online from Amazon and all major book retailers. ISBN 9780954884284.

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