Communism and religion have often been seen as conflicting movements yet the religious history of the land that is now independent Georgia, free from the Soviet Union, is such that its churches are able to help tell the story of our Country. The Region was one of the first to embrace Christianity, aided by disciples keen to spread the word of Jesus Christ.
Since independence, religion has become more important again as evidenced by the building of Sameba (Tbilisi Holy Trinity Cathedral). Sameba is now the most important of Georgia churches in the modern-day, the third most important of all Eastern Orthodox Churches worldwide. It was started in 1995 and finished 10 years later. Its architecture takes a range of styles including Byzantine.
Visitors to Georgia have much to see and do and orthodox Georgia churches should certainly get the attention of travelers who want to know more about Georgian history. The 6th Century Cathedral in the small town of Ninotsminda, 40 km (25 miles) east of Tbilisi is now largely ruins but here are other treasures that deserve some of your time. Several of them are fairly close to Tbilisi though traveling to see the others will be a rewarding experience.
Svetitskhoveli Cathedral was built in the 11th Century and is the second biggest religious structure in Georgia. Situated in Mtskheta, 20 km (12 miles) north of Tbilisi, UNESCO recognized the importance of Mtskheta, awarding it World Heritage Site status in 1994.
It is claimed that the mantle of Jesus Christ is buried here and not surprisingly it has become one of the most important Georgia churches as a result. However, there have been a number of unfortunate events in its history including the whitewashing of a number of priceless frescoes by Russian Imperial authorities.
It has been possible to restore some including the “Beast of the Apocalypse” which dates back to the 13th Century and figures of the Zodiac.
The walls of the Cathedral are adorned with Christian icons although they are reproductions of the originals that are now safely on display in museums.
Georgia’s tradition as an ancient wine making region is in evidence in the grapes carved in the stonework.
A beautiful monastery on the mountain overlooking Mtskheti at the confluence of two rivers, the Mtkyari and the Aragyi, the structure seems as though it naturally grows out of the cliffs. The combination of design and nature is seen at its best.
Jvari’s importance is recognized by UNESCO in the award of World Heritage Site status to the region.
Jvari Monastery was built in the 6th Century on the very place where St. Nino constructed a large wooden cross on the site of a pagan temple. St. Nino was a woman credited with converting the Iberian King Mirian III to Christianity aa well as bringing Christianity to the region as a whole. Incidentally, ‘’Jvari’’ means ‘’cross’’ in the Georgian language.
The Church which visitors see today was constructed at the end of the 6th Century and the names of those responsible for the building appear on the façade. Jvari is a similar style to Ateni Sioni, a style that was copied in subsequent Georgia churches.
Erosion from wind and acid rain is the biggest threat to this wonderful site.
The oldest church still standing in our capital of Tbilisi is Anchiskhati Basilica which dates right back to the 6th Century. It was built by King of Iberia, Dachi Ujarmeli, in what was then his capital city. At the time, it was dedicated to the Virgin Mary. However, the threat of the Ottoman invasion many centuries later saw the valuable 12th Century gold icon of the Saviour of Ancha Monastery moved from Klarjeti to Tbilisi for safety reasons. That happened in 1675 with the church being renamed Anchiskhati (Icon of Ancha).
Struggles against the Persians and the Turks throughout the 15th, 16th and 17th Centuries resulted in the need to regularly damage to restore the Church. In the 19th Century, a dome was added to the Basilica. The Icon of Ancha was moved once again and is now on display in the Art Museum of Georgia.
During the Soviet period, with religious ceremonies ceasing, it became a museum for handicrafts and then an art studio. Even then, the further restoration took place in the middle of the last century even though it was not a place for worship.
Independence in 1991 resulted in the Basilica once again becoming a church.
Tbilisi Sioni Cathedral
One of the most significant landmarks in the Tbilisi Old Town is this Cathedral which was initially planned in the 5th Century and was finally completed in the first half of the 7th. It is home today of the Patriarch of the Christian Church in Georgia.
It is also home to the St. Nino Cross which is the Church’s most valuable relic. Intertwined grapevines created the Cross which also contains hair from the head of the Saint. It has been destroyed a number of times over history but always rebuilt. Although fairly plain in design and construction and lacking any elaborate décor, this Cathedral is nevertheless an important landmark for visitors to our Capital to visit.
The 7th Century Church in Ateni, a village about 10 km (6 miles) from Gori, 80 km (50 miles) northwest of Tbilisi, is an excellent example of a ‘four apse church with four niches.’ The region of the Tana River Valley and the Ateni Gorge is one of extreme beauty as well as home to other historical monuments with the result that its popularity with tourists has continued to grow.
Wonder at the stunning decoration with figurative reliefs and ornaments. You will see some of the earliest known inscriptions in Nuskha-Khutsuri, a version of the early Georgian alphabet, dating back to the 9th Century, on its walls.
In addition, look for early examples of Mkhedruli, a current Georgian script, dating back to the late 10th Century when a famous Armenian architect, Todosak, is thought to have overseen restoration work. That script can be seen on a southern façade. A further inscription from a century earlier mentions Adarnase I of Tao-Klarjeti, an early Georgian Bagratid nobleman, the father of Ashot I who founded a new royal line of Georgia.
While this Cathedral may not be as old as many in this list, it is nevertheless worthy of inclusion. Nikorstminda is in the Rachan Highlands a four-hour drive from Tbilisi. It was built in the early 11th Century in the time of Bagrat III.
Externally, it looks like a typical cross dome church but inside reveals a hexagonal design with columns supporting the circular dome. The wonderful frescoes inside date to the 17th Century yet the external stonework is what has made this Cathedral famous. Visitors can enjoy several scenes from the Bible in the carvings including Judgement Day and the Raising of the Cross.
Manglisi Holy Dormition Cathedral
Manglisi is home to a cathedral which is thought to have been built at some time in the 6th or 7th Century. Manglisi is just over 50 km (33 miles) west of Tbilisi close to the Algeti National Park.
Documents have been found that mention that King Mirian had actually built a church as early as the 4th Century but its demolition meant that the oldest part of the church seen today is dated as the 7th Century. In those days, Manglisi was regarded as an important religious center with two monasteries predating the Cathedral also found locally.
The location was once a popular trading route between Byzantium and the East. Contact with the Byzantines resulted in a gift of a nail from the crucifixion of Jesus Christ being presented to local Christians by Constantine I.
At the start of the 11th Century, the cathedral was extensively restored and extended. This is what visitors can expect to see today.
The Orthodox monastery complex carved out of the rocks on the slopes of Mount Gareji. in Kakheti includes many chapels and churches, living quarters and storage areas. It is located on the border with Azerbaijan and arguments have taken place as a result. Azerbaijan is Muslim but to date has not accepted one proposal of a land exchange whereby the whole site would then be in Christian Georgia with our neighbors receiving other lands as compensation.
St. David Garejeli who was an Assyrian visiting the region to spread the word of Christianity, founded the Complex in the 6th Century. It would have been quite a task because the region is semi-desert, a harsh environment in which to undertake such work. The Complex was expanded in the 9th Century by Ilarion, a Georgian Saint.
Its importance as a religious and cultural center lasted for many centuries and visitors today can still see the skills of those who created the frescoes that decorate the walls.
The ideal time to visit avoids the hottest weeks of high summer. A word of advice to tourists; carry your passport because there are occasional checks by border officers because it is possible to stray into Azerbaijan without realizing it.
Vardzia is best described as a cave-town, yet it is home to the Church of the Dormition that today is regarded as one of our most important religious sites. Vardzia is almost 200 km (121 miles) west of Tbilisi and is located on the left bank of the Kura River on the slopes of Erusheti Mountain.
The Church was built during the Golden Age of Queen Tamar towards the end of the 12th Century. The town was thought to have been created in four phases with the Church being in the second phase. It was abandoned during Ottoman occupation in the 16th Century.
The highlight of any visit is the art; the wall paintings are indeed precious, and they include a portrait of the Queen. She was famed for her victories over both Mongol and Muslim invaders during her reign.
The town itself is carved out of the rock as is the church that stands 9.2 meters (30 feet) high. Other paintings that visitors are certain to enjoy on the vaults and upper walls include some on the life of Jesus Christ, the Annunciation being a fine example.
This Monastery in Kakheti, 108 km (65 miles) west of Tbilisi and just south of Mtskheta was first established in the 6th Century. What you will see today is almost all from the 11th Century, built by Kvirike III to replace the smaller church. Its original founder was an Assyrian Christian from Antioch, Joseph Alaverdeli, there to spread Christianity to an area that was currently pagan. A pagan center dedicated to the Moon was located near to the site that Joseph Alaverdeli chose for the Monastery.
Alaverdi is 55 meters (180 feet) high and for many centuries it was the highest religious building in our country until the recent construction of the Holy Trinity Church in the Capital. In overall size, it is much smaller than the impressive Svetitskhoveli.
While some parts have been destroyed over the years and modifications have taken place, it has retained its overall integrity and authenticity.
Gergeti Trinity Church
Gergeti Holy Trinity Church is found in one of the most beautiful places in our country. It sits in a prominent position at the base of one of Georgia’s highest mountains, Mount Kazbegi. The location is 150 km (94 miles) due north of Georgia on the route up towards the Russian border. You will reach a height of 2170 meters (7120 feet) above sea level when you visit this Church and have the opportunity of enjoying the wonderful natural environment in which it is located.
The Church dates back to the 14th Century and is the only local example of a cross-cupola church. However, little else is known about its history until it was mentioned in a guidebook early in the 20th Century. It is thought that it was built on a place where pagan worship was taking place.
The closest town is Stepantsminda whose visitors come primarily to see the Church which only reopened as a church after independence. You have a choice; take a jeep taxi to get there, enjoying the beautiful Caucasus Mountains as you travel or climb to the Church. It is a climb of around an hour but worth the effort if you are fit.
Constructed in pink stone, the Church of the Dormition is the most impressive of the structures domed, cross-in-square shaped with interior frescoes dated before the 1220s. It was built by Queen Tamar who ruled between 1184 and 1213 and commemorates Shalva of Akhaltsikhe, a Georgian nobleman. Initially, the dome rested on two pillars and wall projections with two portals added later.
The twelve prophets, martyrs and the twelve saints are depicted on the dome. The murals are unusual, brightly colored, lively and sometimes complex and include several biblical scenes. They have undergone restoration in recent years
The living quarters are now largely ruined, but that does not detract from the quality of the remainder of the site.