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Georgian Monk Renews Tradition, Lives Atop Pillar

In an isolated part of the Caucasus, a monk is spending his days in prayer and silence atop a 40-meter pillar of limestone in western Georgia (near the town of Chiatura). The Katskhi Pillar was used by stylites -- Christian ascetics who lived atop pillars and eschewed worldly temptations -- until the 15th century when the practice was stopped following the Ottoman Empire's invasion of Georgia. For centuries the pillar was abandoned and locals could only look up at the mysterious ruins on its summit. Finally, in 1944, a mountain climber ascended the pillar, discovering the skeleton of a stylite and the remains of a chapel. Shortly after the collapse of communism and the resurgence of religion in Georgia, former "bad boy" Maxime Qavtaradze (now 59) decided to live atop the pillar in the way of the old stylites. “When I was young I drank, sold drugs, everything. When I ended up in prison.... It was time for a change. I used to drink with friends in the hills around here and look up at this place, where land met sky. We knew the monks had lived up there before and I felt great respect for them." In 1993 Maxime took monastic vows and climbed the pillar to begin his new life. "For the first two years there was nothing up here so I slept in an old refrigerator to protect me from the weather." Since then Maxime and the nearby Christian community have constructed a ladder to the top, rebuilt the chapel, and built a cottage where Maxime spends his days praying, reading, and "preparing to meet God." As a result of the interest in the site there is now a religious community at the base of the pillar. Men with troubled lives come to stay and ask for guidance from Maxime and the young priests who live at the site. The men are fed and housed on the condition they join the priests in praying for around seven hours per day (including from 2 a.m. until sunrise) and help with chores. (19 PHOTOS) Photos by Amos Chapple.