Back in the USSR: Georgia's Stuck in the Past " That's Its Beauty ; A Thousand Years of Religious Conflict Have Shaped This Country's Intriguing Landscape. Michael Church Uncovers Its Rich History

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Driving west out of Tbilisi, we meet a village coming the other way. Led by priests, nuns and a phalanx of young men waving lances bearing the flag of St George, hundreds of people are walking through the rain in their Sunday best. At the heart of the procession is an ox cart carrying a pair of giant wooden crucifixes: every able-bodied inhabitant of Tskhrukveti is on a 200-kilometre march to deliver the village's freshly carved Christs to a church in Tbilisi. Thus is President Mikhail Saakashvili's hometown honouring its famous son, and encouraging him to walk in the ways of righteousness.

It's a jaw-dropping sight, but nothing unusual in Georgia, where history is writ large in public life. These Christs have just been blessed at the place where Mr Saakashvili was sworn in: Gelati monastery, founded 900 years ago by King David the Builder out of gratitude to God for his victory over the Turks. When we get there, the rain has stopped and the sun beams down on this imposing complex of sandstone churches with conical towers. Gelati was laid waste by the Mongol warlord Tamerlane, who led his armies through Georgia time and again. Georgia has spent a thousand years at the sharp end of the Christian-Muslim conflict, and though it's not under military threat these days, you sense that collision in everything from architecture to food.

King David wanted to make Gelati 'a second Athens and a second Jerusalem', and the academy where his poets, astronomers and artists worked still stands. Though the dramatic frescos are 17th century, David's original mosaics still glow; his vast tombstone is placed, according to his last command, where everyone entering the cathedral has to step on it. Graves haunt our journey today. At the stone church in Ubisa, our driver stops by two tombs, lights a cigarette, and gazes at them reverently while pigs and geese roam round. 'Here his grandparents are buried,' explains my guide. 'They will never die so long as their descendants visit them. These people are lucky.'

Our next stop takes us deeper into history. Parking the car in a valley, we walk along a lane lined with trees covered in prayer- ribbons until we reach a pretty basilica on a crag " Motsameta. Presiding among the icons is Father Sulkhan Gudushauri, an ample, bearded gent with a passionate desire to enthuse us. Casting aside a red velvet curtain, he reveals two blackened skulls in a casket. These are David and Constantine, brothers who ruled this province until defeated by the Arabs. Refusing to convert to Islam, they were thrown into the river with stones tied round their necks. 'But then a beam of light shone down from heaven, showing where they should be buried,' says Father Sulkhan.

Along the road to Kutaisi are examples galore of Georgian resilience in the face of economic adversity. Everyone puts what they have for sale on view by the roadside: apples, cabbages, eggs, geese, and even the occasional puppy. One village specialises in wooden beds, which line the road for a mile; another does nothing but hammocks.

We stop by a stall offering what look like pieces of thick brown rubber sheeting, which turn out to be a local sweet made from mulberry juice: the berries are mashed, the paste is left to dry in the sun, and then cut up into squares which taste like old English toffee. The air is thick with burnt cinnamon in another village, where little wooden bakeries stretch as far as the eye can see; each has a custodian who stokes her oven and pulls out the sweet steaming loaves. It's wonderful bread, stuffed full of sultanas, but how everyone makes a living is a mystery.

Kutaisi may be Georgia's second city, but it's shockingly run- down, and though the river runs red from manganese ore in the mountains, the factories are derelict " one still plastered with bright posters depicting the glorious life of the Soviet manganese worker. The black-clad women Kutaisi look superb as they totter on stiletto heels down muddy streets, but their men look hunched and shamefaced, because there's no work to be had. …