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The most sacred pilgrimage city and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Mtskheta is one of Georgia’s top destinations. Home to some of the country’s most significant religious architectural monuments, Mtskheta makes for a stunning retreat away from hectic city life.
Mtskheta is a city within and the provincial capital of the Mtskheta-Mtianeti region of north-east Georgia. Set on a lowland surrounded by mountains, at the meeting of the Mtkvari and Aragvi rivers, Mtskheta is one of the oldest cities in Georgia, as well as its former capital.
Archaeological evidence traces human settlement in the Mtskheta area from the 2nd millennium BC to the early 1st millennium AD. Numerous burials from the Bronze Age (early 1st millennium BC) provide evidence that Mtskheta was already a significant settlement during that period.
According to “The Georgian Chronicles”, the city was founded by Mskhetos, son of Kartlos, ancestor of the Georgians. Ardam, the ancestor of Nimrod, then built a wall around Mtskheta. Historians also accept another version that Mtskheta was founded in the 5th century BC by the ancient Meschian tribes.
From the 3rd century BC to the 5th century AD, Mtskheta was capital of the ancient Georgian kingdom of Iberia. According to The Georgian Chronicles, Alexander the Great conquered the Iberian kingdom and its capital in the 4th century BC. Later, the ruler appointed by Alexander destroyed the city walls, leaving only 4 fortresses, including the present-day Armazi.
According to various sources from the 4th and 3rd centuries BC, Mtskheta comprised of several neighborhoods including Jvari, Tsitsamuri and Armaztsikhe. It was divided into a citadel and the city proper just like other Georgian towns.
Further excavations, as well as The Georgian Chronicles, tell of considerable construction during the Hellenistic period that included palaces, fortifications and residential houses. At the start of the 3rd century BC, King Parnavaz, the first Georgian monarch built a new wall around Mtskheta. The wall was later reinforced by his son Saurmag during the late 3rd century to the beginning of the 2nd century BC.
At the end of the 2nd century to the beginning of the 1st century BC, King Parnajom strengthened his ties with the Persians, inviting Zoroastrian priests to settle in Mtskheta. This led to the building of Zoroastrian temples within the city.
Ancient Greek geographer and historian Strabo (64 BC – AD 24) described Mtskheta as a highly developed city with stone houses, markets and a water supply system. It was also the region’s religious center, with several major shrines dedicated to Georgia’s pagan gods that would later be replaced by churches when the country converted to Christianity.
Mtskheta’s walls were once again improved during the 1st century AD reign of Barom, and later by Aderki. The latter is linked to the appearance of the first Christian communities of Kartli, as well as the bringing of Christ’s Tunic to Mtskheta from Jerusalem.
During this period, the city was fortified strongly with walls on both sides of river Mtkvari and with 3 forts to protect it. Located on Mount Bagineti, the main citadel of Armazi controlled the entrance from the east and south, Tsitsamuri at the foot of Mount Jvari from the north, as well as Sarkine from the west.
Mtskheta was the site of early Christian activity which led to Iberia’s Christianization, with Christianity being declared the official Georgian religion in 337.
Around this period, Mtskheta was culturally developed. A gravestone dating back to between the late 4th century and the beginning of the 5th century located in the Samtavro necropolis features an epitaph written in Greek that mentions Aurelius Acholis, Mtskheta’s chief architect and artist.
During the initial years following Georgia’s conversion to Christianity, a little wooden church was constructed at the center of the city, which later became the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral.
By the 5th century, the little church could no longer satisfy the city’s growing population. Vakhtang Gorgasali then constructed the large Svetitskhoveli basilica that survived until the 11th century. It was Georgia’s greatest Assumption church and residence of the first head of the Georgian Orthodox Church.
In the early 6th century, King Dachi, son of Vakhtang I of Iberia (Gorgasali) moved his capital from Mtskheta to the more defensible Tbilisi in accordance with his late father’s wishes. After this, Mtskheta started to decline in importance, even as that of Tbilisi continued to grow.
However, Mtskheta did continue to retain its role as one of the country’s important cultural and spiritual centers. The city remained the coronation and burial site of most Georgian kings until the kingdom’s final disintegration during the 19th century.
By the 11th century, the Svetitskhoveli basilica had once again become too small, and Melchizedek I, head of the Georgian Orthodox Church constructed a new church on top of it.
In 2014, Mtskheta was declared Georgia’s “Holy City” in recognition for its role as the birthplace and one of the most vibrant centers of Christianity in the country. The city remains the headquarters of the Georgian Orthodox and Apostolic Church.
Today, the lovely old town of Mtskheta has a laid back, village feel, especially when compared to the more hectic pace of Tbilisi. And with several of its cultural monuments having achieved UNESCO World Heritage Site status, Mtskheta is a must-visit destination on any Georgia tourism itinerary.
Perfect natural conditions, a strategic location along ancient trade routes and close ties with powerful empires stimulated the growth of Mtskheta. This led to the blending of diverse cultural influences with local traditions evident in the fantastic array of places to visit Mtskheta has to offer.
Three of Mtskheta’s historic churches have been included on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list under the designation “Historical Monuments of Mtskheta.” The churches are: the Svetitstkhoveli Cathedral, the Samtavro Monastery and the Jvari Monastery.
Exceptional examples of medieval religious architecture in the Caucasus, the churches demonstrate the high level of art and culture attained by the ancient Georgian kingdom that played an outstanding role in the region’s medieval history. This is evident in their significant archaeological remains that testify to the high level of architecture, masonry, pottery and metal-working.
Key Georgian monuments of the medieval era, the Mtskheta’s historic churches represent different phases of the development of their unique architectural style all over the Caucasus, spanning from the 4th to the 18th centuries.
The present-day churches include the remains of earlier buildings on the same sites, along with the remains of ancient wall paintings. Of special significance are some early inscriptions that offer a valuable reference for studies into the origins of the early Georgian alphabet.
The historic churches are among the most significant monuments of Georgian religious architecture, and bear testimony to the introduction and spread of Christianity to the Caucasus mountain region. They also testify to the social, political, and economic evolution of this mountain kingdom over four millennia starting from the late 3rd millennium BC.
The historical monuments of Mtskheta also represent the kingdom’s association with religious figures, such as Saint Nino, whose deeds are documented by Greek, Roman, Armenian and Georgian historians.
Over the centuries, the churches have undergone several reconstructions and restorations. Many of the works were carried out in the 19th century using materials and techniques that enabled the architectural ensembles to retain a relatively high level of authenticity.
Situated at the center of town, the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral complex consists of the cathedral church, the palace and the gates of the Katolikos Melchizedek that date from the 11th century. The complex is built on the site of earlier churches that date back to the 5th century.
The cruciform cathedral is crowned with a high cupola over the crossing, and its interiors feature the remains of important wall paintings. The rich sculpted decoration of its elevations dates from different periods spanning the church’s long history.
The second largest church building in Georgia, Svetitskhoveli is believed to the burial site of Christ’s tunic. It also served as the coronation and burial place of Georgian monarchs. In Georgian language, sveti means “pillar” and tskhoveli means “life-giving”, hence the name of the cathedral.
Originally built in the 4th century, Samtavro is an Orthodox Christian monastery complex that consists of the Samtavro Transfiguration Church and the Nunnery of Saint Nino. In the Georgian language, the name Samtavro translates to the “ruler’s place”.
Samtavro Transfiguration Church is a small domed church that has been subjected to various restorations over time. The main church of the monastery was built in the early 11th century. It contains the grave of Mirian III, the Iberian king who established Christianity as the official religion of Georgia.
Situated north of the monastery is Samtavro necropolis, a cemetery that dates from between the middle of the 3rd millennium BC and the 10th century AD. Archaeological excavations at the burial grounds have uncovered archaic pottery, stone tools and gold jewelry among other Georgian artifacts.
Dating back to the 6th century, the Holy Cross Monastery of Jvari remains the most sacred place in the Georgian country. Jvari is a rare example of an Early Medieval Georgian church that has managed to survive to the present-day almost unchanged.
The monastery became a pioneer of the Jvari church architectural style common in Georgia and Armenia. Constructed on a mountaintop, it offers great panoramas and serves as a fine example of the harmonious connection with the natural environment that Georgian architecture is known for.
Besides its stunning religious sights, Mtskheta is famous for its beautiful Georgian nature, nestled in a beautiful river valley surrounded by picturesque mountains. And there’s no better place to admire Mtskheta’s natural treasures than from the observation deck located near Jvari Monastery.
Known locally as Bagineti, Armaztsikhe is an ancient fortress that dates back to the 3rd century BC. The fortress features the residence of Iberian rulers, bathhouses, a wine cellar, temple, tower and several tombs. Although the buildings are mostly in ruins, the tower is well-preserved.
Set high on a hill within the historic Armazi area, the fortress offers a challenging hike but with the reward of magnificent views from the top. The picturesque landscape surrounding the fortress with its high hills, mountains and waterfall make the hike worthwhile.
Shio Mgvime is a beautiful medieval monastery complex built within a limestone canyon. The complex includes five churches, a bell tower, refectory and rock-cut caves, reservoirs and clergy houses. During the 6th century, the monastery had a vibrant religious community of around 2,000 monks.
The most intriguing part of the complex is the handful of caves that surround the mountain. It is within one of these caves that Shio, the founder of the monastery, lived. Shio was a missionary and one of the 13 Assyrian Fathers who came to Georgia to spread Christianity.
The founding father of modern Georgia, Ilia Chavchavadze (1837-1907) was a Georgian writer and public figure who initiated the restoration of the Georgian national movement in the 19th-century when the country was under Russian rule.
Nestled among the stunning Saguramo nature, this museum complex consists of Chavchavadze’s residence, auxiliary buildings and family vineyards. Visitors can see his memorabilia, manuscripts of Georgian literature and photos of famous 19th century Georgian public figures.
Zedazeni is a Georgian Orthodox monastery complex, located on the deeply forested mountains of Saguramo. The complex consists of the Church of St. John the Baptist, a fortress and monastic cave cells. The surrounding beech forest offers great picnic grounds for day visitors coming from Tbilisi.
The monastery was founded by Saint John in the 6th century, one of the Thirteen Assyrian Fathers of Georgia whose mission was to strengthen Christianity in the region. Saint John founded the monastery on Zedazeni Mountain which, prior to Christianity, hosted a pagan cult.
The State Archaeological Museum-Reserve of Great Mtskheta contains archaeological artifacts of both national and international significance. The relics serve as evidence of Mtskheta’s status as a major trading post in ancient times.
On display is a broad spectrum of exhibits from the Bronze Age, the late Middle Ages, as well as various ethnographic pieces. These include pottery, jewelry, metalwork, glass perfume bottles, and Greek and Aramaic writings. The museum is situated within the old Mtskheta cinema building.
Mtskheta is also home to Gvinis Palata, the Chamber of Wine. Covering 4 floors, the Gvinis Palata building is dedicated to wine and Georgian cuisine. With a wide variety of activities, the wine chamber offers the perfect retreat for wine lovers in Mtskheta.
Visitors to Gvinis Palata can listen to stories about rare Georgian grapes and wine, taste a variety of wines and learn how to bake traditional Georgian bread in a clay oven, all while enjoying Georgian music and Georgian dance shows. On the third floor you can sip on fine Georgian wine while enjoying breathtaking views of Mtskheta and the Jvari Monastery.
A wine tour of Chateau Mukhrani offers another great way for wine enthusiasts to spend a pleasant evening in Mtskheta. Chateau Mukhrani is an estate built in the 19th century by Ivan Mukhranbatoni, an heir of the Georgian royal family.
Surrounded by breathtaking gardens, the chateau is filled with a series of unique wine cellars. Visitors can learn about Georgian wine-making, as well as the history of the Georgian royal family. You can also taste and purchase Georgian wines from the winery. There is also an onsite restaurant where you can enjoy mouth-watering Georgian dishes accompanied by fine Georgian wine.
Dating back to the 14th century, Bebristsikhe is a medieval castle fortress located in the nearby Dusheti district. The fortress comprises of two levels: a citadel and lower courtyard, which are surrounded by towers. Although most of the castle is in ruins, it still makes for a pleasant sightseeing excursion.
Built to imitate a continuation of the mountain, the fortress fits naturally into the landscape, while its location on a hilltop offers breathtaking views of the surroundings. The fortress was built to protect Mtskheta and Tbilisi from the north, from the side of the Greater Caucasus Range.
Mtskheta weather is characterized by clear, warm summers and long, cold winters, with the city experiencing both oceanic and continental climates. The best time to visit Mtskheta is between the months of May through September when the weather is pleasantly warm and rainfall is limited.
Mtskheta weather in March and April is slightly more humid, which makes for cooler afternoons. May is the wettest month therefore, if traveling to Mtskheta at this time of year, be sure to pack an umbrella or light raincoat.
Summer is perfect for sightseeing in Mtskheta. Although the months of July through August are the peak season for Georgia tourism, they are also the best time to visit the city. Visitors can explore different points of interest in Mtskheta while enjoying the warm weather.
October witnesses relatively high humidity which makes for chilly afternoons, although you can still enjoy some sightseeing. Evenings can get a little cold with temperatures dropping even further during the night, so be sure to pack some layers.
Held on October 14th each year in Mtskheta, Mtskhetoba-Svetitskhovloba is one of Georgia’s most important public holidays. The festival traces its origins back to the miraculous acquisition of Jesus Christ’s tunic – Georgia’s most significant relic. In addition to religious services held in Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, the city marks the day with a variety of festive events.
If visiting Mtskheta in December, be sure to pack some woolens to protect you from the cold winter temperatures. January is the coolest month and the air is a little damp so visitors should expect chilly weather.
Although Mtskheta is an easy day trip from Tbilisi, it makes for a pleasant retreat away from the hustle and bustle of the Georgian capital. The city has decent accommodation options with an array of Mtskheta hotels and guesthouses that offer clean, comfortable rooms.
In terms of traditional Georgian cuisine, Mtskheta is famous for lobio (black bean stew with herbs and spices), which is served in a traditional clay pot and eaten with mchadi (corn bread). Salobie, whose name translates to “a place to eat beans” is one of the best Mtskheta restaurants to try lobio.
If flying into Tbilisi, you can get to Mtskheta via marshrutka (shared minibus). Buses leave once every hour from Didube Station. That said, you will be confined in a cramped bus on a 3 hour journey, which is hardly the most comfortable way to travel.
A better option would be to order a private taxi, although this will cost you significantly more. Alternatively, you could hire a car and drive to Mtskheta. But because driving in Georgia can be challenging if you don’t speak the Georgian language, the best option is to travel via private transfer.
One of Georgia’s oldest cities, Mtskheta is your ticket to 5th century BC Georgia, taking you on a journey straight into mid-antiquity. It’s the perfect destination for those seeking to travel back in time and marvel at the architecture of the Middle Ages. Mtskheta lets you live the lives of the ancient Georgians on a vacation of a lifetime.
Accommodation at Mtskheta hotels fills up fast, so be sure to book in advance with our travel service. If you would rather drive to Mtskheta, we have a modern fleet of rental cars available for hire. We also offer Georgia tour packages from Mtskheta that include private transfers.
You can even create your own custom vacation package that includes the specific places you want to visit and plenty of things to do in Mtskheta. Fancy a journey back in time? Order your custom tour to Mtskheta today and enjoy a holiday to remember!
Gergeti Trinity Church, Kazbegi, Oni, Georgia