Monk Lives Life of Solitude on This 131-Foot-Tall Rock with a 2,000 Year History
The Katskhi Pillar is the name given to a natural limestone column located in Georgia. On the top of this monolith is a monastery, which was built during the 1990s. Today, a solitary monk by the name of Maxime Qavtaradze lives in this monastery atop the Katskhi Pillar. Nevertheless, it has been established that the pillar had been used by Christian ascetics as early as the 6th – 8th century A.D. In a way, Maxime may be said to be continuing this ancient ascetic tradition, and may even be the last one to do so on top of the Katskhi Pillar.
Location and First Function of the Katskhi Pillar
The Katskhi Pillar is situated in Imereti, which is a region in the western part of Georgia. This pillar rises to a height of about 40 meters (131.23 ft.), and overlooks the small river valley of Katskhura. As the Katskhi is such a prominent feature in the landscape, it is unsurprising that people attached special meaning to it. Prior to the coming of Christianity, for example, the Katskhi Pillar was believed to have been used as a sacred site by pagans, as early as 2,000 years ago. The monolith was thought to represent a local god of fertility, and hence fertility rites were carried out there.
With the advent of Christianity, however, the Katskhi Pillar acquired a new function. The limestone column was no longer associated with fertility. Instead, it became regarded as a way to detach oneself from the world. The ascetic practice of living on a pillar / monolith has its origins in the figure of St. Simeon the Stylite, a 4th / 5th century holy man who decided to live on top of a pillar. St. Simeon did this so that he could get away from society, and devote his time to prayer.
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The Katskhi Pillar and Christian Hermits
Between the 6th and 8th centuries AD, a small church, which was dedicated to St. Maximus the Confessor, was built on top of the Katskhi Pillar. Today, only the remains of this ancient church are left on the summit of the pillar. Whilst it was known that the Katskhi Pillar was used by Christian hermits over the ages, it was only during the 20th century that researchers explored the column. It was in 1944, that the Katskhi Pillar was first surveyed by scholars.
Constructions on top of the Katskhi Pillar. ( Giorgiantour)
A more systematic study was carried out after 1999, and more light was shed on the structures that once occupied the pillar. For example, it was discovered that apart from the church, the Katskhi Pillar also had several cells for hermits to live in, as well as a wine cellar. Additionally, in 2007, a small limestone plate was discovered. This plate had an inscription in Asomtavruli (one of the three writing systems used to write the Georgian language), which was dated paleographically to the 13th century. The inscription revealed that a man by the name of ‘Giorgi’ was in charge of the building of three hermit cells. In addition, the inscription makes a reference to the ‘Pillar of Life’, which is another name used by locals for the Katskhi Pillar. According to tradition, the column has been venerated as a symbol of the True Cross, hence this title.
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Katskhi Pillar cross. ( CC BY SA 4.0 )
The Solitary Hermit of Katskhi Pillar
Today, there is just one hermit living on the summit of the Katskhi Pillar. In 1993, a Georgian Orthodox monk by the name of Maxime Qavtaradze moved to the Katskhi Pillar after taking his monastic vows. At first, the monk slept in an old fridge, as there was nothing on top of the pillar to protect him from the elements. Later on, a derelict chapel was renovated by Christian supporters. In addition, a cottage was built for the monk.
Maxime has had a troubled past and felt that living on the Katskhi Pillar helped him move closer towards God and to let go of his past. Maxime spends most of his time on the top of the column. Daily provisions, for instance, are sent to him by supporters on the ground with a winch. Nevertheless, he does come down twice a week, via an iron ladder, to pray at a small monastery located at the base of the pillar. Whilst he is at the monastery, he also offers counsel to troubled young men who go there to seek his help.