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.
Maxime stands by the railing atop the Katskhi Pillar enjoying the beautiful view on June 18, 2013.
The pillar at the end of a stormy day in the valley. For centuries the 40-meter high pillar was abandoned. In 1944 a group led by the mountaineer Alexander Japaridze made the first documented ascent of the pillar and discovered the remains of a chapel and the skeleton of a stylite.
Maxime inside his cottage on the pillar.
Maxime looks out from his favorite spot on the pillar. Troubled men come to stay and ask for guidance from Maxime and the young priests who live at the site. Maxime usually climbs down from the pillar once or twice a week for night prayers and to speak with the men.
Sergo Mikhelidze and a friend deliver lunch to Maxime by using a winch. Everything atop the pillar was either carried or winched up by volunteers.
Maxime climbs the pillar after a night's prayers with the other residents of the monastery. It takes him about 20 minutes to ascend the pillar. Once he is too old to climb the ladder he will remain at the top until he dies.
Sergo Mikhelidze (left) and Irakli Kurashvili pray in their dormitory at the base of the pillar. Sergo worked in a factory until being laid off and is considering life as a priest or monk. He will stay at the monastery for three months to see if he is strong enough to commit to the life of a holy man. When asked what he has trouble avoiding in the outside world, he says: "I just can't seem to stay away from girls."
Interior of the chapel atop the pillar.
This monk worked as a crane operator in Soviet times.
Maxime's distinctive silhouette can be seen looking out from his favorite spot -- next to the church -- at the end of the day.
Living quarters (center) at the base of the pillar and the St. Simeon Chapel (right). Simeon, the first known stylite, forbade women from climbing atop the pillar and Maxime has continued this rule.
In a crypt under the chapel lie the remains of the stylite who is believed to have perished atop the pillar some 600 years ago. When asked if his bones will lie in the same crypt, Maxime answers, "of course!"
The bones of the unknown stylite who perished atop the pillar some 600 years ago.
At the base of the pillar is a chapel named after St. Simeon, the first stylite. The men who have come to find help for their problems are required to pray for around seven hours each day if they wish to stay at the religious community.
Irakli Kurashvili, 23, walks back towards the chapel at the base of the pillar (right) after ringing the bell which signals the start of the night prayers, which run from 2 a.m. until sunrise. Kurashvili was divorced at age 22 and came to the monastery to seek help from God and advice from Maxime. "Maxime has done so much for me. It is too late now for me to become a monk like Maxime, but I am considering becoming a priest," he says.
Overview of the pillar in its mountainous surroundings.
Maxime and his cottage atop the pillar. "For the first two years there was nothing up here so I slept in an old refrigerator to protect myself from the weather."
The telephone that connects Maxime with the priests living below.