In a remote part of western Georgia, towering above the forested skyline, shoots a monolith column of limestone. As if its sheer silhouette were not awe-inspiring enough, at the very top sits a church. This is Katskhi Pillar.
It is located in the Imereti region of Georgia, about 250 km (125 mi) west of Tbilisi. And everyday monks make the nerve-wracking climb up the hill’s 40 m (130 ft) iron ladder to pray. They say that doing this brings them closer to God.
History of Katskhi Pillar
The limestone column is a natural rock formation that has enchanted people since humans settled the area. Before Christianity arrived in Georgia, this pillar was used as a pagan holy place most likely for fertility rituals.
As Christianity began to spread in the 4th century, pagan places of worship were slowly dissolved. Around the 9th century, a small church was erected atop the column as an area of seclusion for the Stylites, a group of Christian ascetics who lived on pillars, preaching, fasting, and praying.
Stylites, or “pillar monks,” believed that sacrificing their bodies in this way and removing themselves from the noise of society, would ensure the salvation of their souls. This group gets their name from the highly-revered Saint Simeon Stylites, who famously spent 37 years perched on of a pillar until his death in 459AD. Not all Stylites were hermits necessarily. It is said that Saint Simeon enjoyed daily visits where he would converse and preach about compassion and altruism.
In the 10th – 11th centuries, the first monks began to live at Katskhi Pillar full-time. Not a whole lot is known about the church during this period, including how the building materials were brought in or how monks ascended the pillar.
When mountaineers made the first documented climb in 1944, they found the ruins of two churches. Archaeologists later concluded that the grounds also included a monastery and cells for hermits. Evidence of a wine cellar counters the initial idea that this was a place of strict asceticism.
The invasion of the Ottoman Empire brought an end to Katskhi Pillar and the churches were abandoned in the 15th century.
Katskhi Pillar Today
In 1995, there was revived religious activity headed by Father Maxime Qavtaradze who built a new church at Katshkhi Pillar. He lived there full-time for 20 years, coming down only twice a week for supplies.
Today, there are no monks living on top of Katskhi Pillar but they do make a daily trek up in order to pray.
Visiting Katskhi Pillar
Hours: the monastery at the base is open from 10:30am – 6pm
Since 2018, all visitors have been banned by the Georgian Orthodox Church from climbing the pillar. This is to preserve the sanctity of the grounds. Only monks from a certain religious order are able to climb, and women have never been allowed up.
If you wish to see Katskhi Pillar, you can still visit the monastery and a quaint church dedicated to Simeon Stylites at the base of the column. A visitor’s center is in the works. Today, troubled men come to stay at the monastery to seek guidance.
Getting to Katskhi Pillar from Tbilisi
There are no trains that run here so the only way to visit is by car or bus. You can catch a marshrutka from Didube bus station and take it to Chiatura. The ride is about 3 – 3.5 hrs. Once in Chiatura, grab a local taxi to Katskhi Pillar or get another marshrutka towards Kutaisi. They run often. Tell the driver where you are going and he will drop you off at the main road where you can follow the 1km marked trail to get to the base. The walk is steep so be prepared!
Getting to Katskhi Pillar from Batumi or Kutasai
Marshrutkas leave every 30 min between Batumi and Kutasai. It costs 10 GEL ($3.20) and takes just under 3 hrs.
From Kutasai, catch another bus towards Chiatura for the 1.5 hour ride. They leave often and cost 6 GEL ($1.92). Make sure you tell the driver where you are headed so he can drop you off at the foot of the trail.
Getting back from Katskhi Pillar
Walk back to the main road and hail down a marshrutka headed towards either Kutasai or Chiatura. You shouldn’t have to wait too long but they stop running around 5pm.