Regarded as the cradle of Georgian culture, Samtskhe-Javakheti is the oldest territory of Georgia. Javakheti’s misty mountains served as the entry point for Saint Nino, who converted Georgia to Christianity. Also, the birthplace of Georgia’s most famous poet – Shota Rustaveli, the region is where unique masterpieces of Georgian culture were born.
Thanks to its colorful history, Samtskhe-Javakheti has been shaped by different unique cultural influences evident in its architecture and monuments. These combined with the stunning nature make the region one of the most beautiful and interesting tourist destinations in Georgia.
THE HISTORY OF SAMTSKHE-JAVAKHETI
Samtskhe-Javakheti is a region in southern Georgia country formed from the 3 historical provinces of Meskheti (Samtskhe), Javakheti and Tori (Borjomi Gorge). The region comprises of 6 districts: Aspindza, Akhaltsikhe, Borjomi, Adigeni, Ninotsminda and Akhalkalaki, with Akhaltsikhe City as the regional capital.
The first known inhabitants of Meskheti were the ancient Georgian tribes of Meskhi and Mosiniks, the latter being credited with the invention of iron metallurgy.
Between the 2nd millennium and the 4th century BC, Meskheti was a part of the Diauehi Kingdom. From the 4th century BC to the 6th century AD, it was part of the Iberian Kingdom. Between the 10th and 15th centuries, it was part of the unified Kingdom of Georgia. During the 16th century Meskheti was incorporated into the Safavid Empire, and later the Ottoman Empire.
Following the end of the 1826-28 Russo-Persian War, Meskheti was part of the Tiflis Governorate from 1827 till 1829. Between 1918 and 1921, it was part of the Democratic Republic of Georgia.
Following the 1921 invasion of Georgia by the Red Army, Georgia came fully under Soviet control and the Georgian SSR. “Meskhetian Turks”, the remaining Muslim minority in Meskheti, were forcibly deported to Central Asia by order of Stalin, many of whom perished.
Following Georgia’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Meskheti was reinstated as a province of Georgia, and later incorporated into the newly formed region of Samtskhe–Javakheti.
Meskheti is today known for Tenili, a type of Georgian cheese made from threads of rich cow or sheep milk. The cheese is briefly brined before being pressed into a clay pot. Tenili has been included on the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Georgia list.
In 785 BC, King Argishti I of Urartu mentioned the region of Javakheti as Zabakha. And according to Cyril Toumanoff, Javakheti was a part of the Iberian Duchy of Tsunda from the 4th or 3rd century BC.
St. Nino entered Iberia through Javakheti, and, following the course of the Mtkvari River, she arrived in Mtskheta, the kingdom’s capital. Here she began to preach Christianity, which later culminated in the Christianization of Iberia.
In their struggle against Arab occupation, the Bagrationi dynasty came to rule over Tao-Klarjeti and set up the Kouropalatate of Iberia. From here, the rulers of Tao-Klarjeti fought the Arabs, gradually recovering the surrounding lands of Samtskhe and Javakheti, as well as other lesser lands, from Arab dominance. For a long time the region served as a cultural safe-house and one of Georgia’s most important religious centers.
In the mid-10th century, Javakheti was incorporated into the Abkhazian Kingdom. In 964 Leon III of Abkhazia expanded his influence over Javakheti. In the centuries that followed, Javakheti became an important part of the unified Georgian kingdom and enjoyed a period of significant development during which many royal residences, monasteries, churches and bridges were constructed.
From the 10th century, Tmogvi was the center of lowland Javakheti. In the 11th century, Akhalkalaki became the center of Upper Javakheti. From the 12th century, the area was ruled by representatives of the feudal Toreli family.
In the 15th century, Javakheti was absorbed into the Samtskhe-Saatabago Principality. During the 16th century, the region, as well as the neighboring territories of western Georgia, was occupied by the Ottomans. Javakheti’s Georgian population was displaced into the country’s inner regions including Kartli and Imereti. Those who remained were gradually converted to Islam.
Because of Imperial Russia’s struggles with the Ottomans, Russian authorities settled Caucasus Greeks and Christian Armenians in the area from 1828. Armenian refugees from the Armenian Genocide in the Ottoman Empire arrived at the start of the 20th century. Many Dukhobor sect members from Russia also settled in the region.
PLACES TO VISIT IN SAMTSKHE-JAVAKHETI
The drive through the wilderness of Samtskhe-Javakheti is one of the most dramatic in Georgia. The route trails the River Mtkvari, winding through narrow canyons before veering along a gorgeous valley that cuts like a green ribbon between arid, rocky hillsides. Along the way, visitors are dazzled by the array of amazing Georgia destinations the region has to offer.
Vardzia is an underground cave monastery and fortress carved out of the rocky slopes of the Erusheli Mountain on the left bank of River Mtkvari. The star of the show at Vardzia is the Church of the Dormition, with its double-arched entryway, row of bells hanging on the exterior and interior walls decorated with intricate murals.
Nestled high on a rocky hill, Khertvisi Castle looms over Khertvisi Village, at the confluence of the rivers Mtkvari and Paravani. A fine example of medieval Georgian fortress building, the castle once controlled an important route connecting the Byzantine Empire with the Caucasus. Khertvisi Castle is one of the largest and oldest fortresses in Georgia, having been used since the 2nd century BC.
Located 5km from Vardzia, Vanis Kvabebi is a cave monastery comprising of 6 churches. Vanis Kvabebi has several hundred rock caves on 16 floors, used as a shelter, vault, market and tomb. Its church dates back to the 8th century, while the caves were added between the 9th and 11th centuries.
Rabati Castle is an ancient fortress whose deep influences from diverse religions and cultures are well reflected in its beautifully restored architecture. In the upper section, visitors can explore an ancient castle, mosque, churches, a synagogue, bathhouse and the Samtskhe-Javakheti History Museum which showcases Georgian artifacts. The lower section of the castle complex has a hotel, cafes and restaurants.
Tmogvi is a fortress nestled high above a gorge on the banks of River Mtkvari. Majestic in appearance, the fortress consists of a central temple and several ruined towers. A narrow footpath winding up the gorge leads to the fortress. Once at the edge of the gorge, panoramic vistas of the mountain and river await.
Situated in a ravine surrounded by dense forest, Sapara is a Georgian Orthodox monastery complex. Construction of Sapara started with the Assumption Church during the 11th century. The 13th century Church of St. Saba is the biggest in the complex, with walls decorated with gorgeous carvings and frescoes. The lovely monastery is one of the last great examples of classic Georgian architecture.
Located in the picturesque Borjomi Gorge amid plunging cliffs and verdant forests, Borjomi is a spa-town famous for its mineral water springs. The resort attracts many people with health problems who believe that its mineral waters have healing properties. Adventurous travelers can enjoy rafting in Borjomi on the Mtkvari River – one of the best white-water rafting destinations in Georgia.
Going on a scenic ride on the Kukushka train is a fun activity to enjoy in Borjomi. Built in 1902, the Kukushka is a 37km long narrow-gauge railway line that connects the spa-town of Borjomi with Bakuriani Ski Resort. The famous Kukushka train navigates through the gorgeous forest before ascending the majestic Caucasus Mountains.
Bakuriani Ski Resort
Situated in the shadow of the stunning Caucasus Mountains, Bakuriani Ski Resort is one of Georgia’s most popular ski resorts, offering some fantastic skiing and snowboarding. Perfect for nature and sports enthusiasts, the internationally-acclaimed winter sports hub is perfect for enjoying the Georgian winter, as well as summer outdoor activities.
Mitarbi Ski Resort
Mitarbi Ski Resort is another popular mountain resort in Georgia that boasts a panoramic setting among unique forests and scenery. Nestled in the surroundings of stunning nature and landscapes, Mitarbi is one of the most beautiful ski resorts in Georgia. Each year, locals and tourists alike flock the resort to ski and snowboard or go hiking, biking and horse-riding, among many other fun activities.
Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park
One of Georgia’s most attractive and untouched forest landscapes, the Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park is a protected area comprising of indigenous forest, wetlands, plateaus and other natural resources. The park offers various activities such as wildlife and bird-watching opportunities, as well as hiking.
One of the most ecologically diverse in the country, the forests of Samtskhe-Javakheti hold a large number of plant species used in Georgian folk medicine, which has been included on the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Georgia list.
The Zarzma Monastery of Transfiguration is a medieval orthodox monastery, located in Zarzma Village, within the forested Kvabliani River valley. The monastic complex comprises several buildings dominated by a domed church and one of the largest bell-towers in Georgia. The facades of the church are richly decorated and the interiors are painted in frescoes.
Paravani Lake is situated on the Samtskhe-Javakheti Mountains, at a Georgian altitudinal zone of 2,073m above sea level. With a surface area of 37.5 square kilometers, Paravani is Georgia’s largest lake. Rich in a diversity of fish species including trout, the lake is one of the country’s most popular fishing destinations. It is also a favorite for eco-tourists who come for the panoramic Georgian nature.
Poka Nunnery of St. Nino
The establishment of Poka Nunnery is credited to St. Nino of Cappadocia, who introduced Christianity in Georgia. Entering Georgia through Javakheti, Saint Nino stopped near Paravani Lake where she had a vision of a saint who gave her a letter addressed to the pagan Iberian king. In the 11th century a cathedral was built on the same spot.
A fine example of Georgian religious architecture, Kumurdo Cathedral dates back to the 10th century. The church is a stone building with a dome and walls forming a cross. The church interiors feature some unique artworks, images and geometrical figures.
THE BEST TIME TO VISIT SAMTSKHE-JAVAKHETI
Samtskhe-Javakheti weather varies widely. The climate on the high-mountain plains is continental with dry summers and cold winters. But in Borjomi and Abastumani the climate is milder due to their location in the ravines and pine forests. People suffering from respiratory diseases come for the fresh air, as do vacationing Georgian families in need of some respite during the hottest time of the year.
The best time to visit Samtskhe-Javakheti is during the months of May-June and August-September. June is best for rafting on the River Mtkvari which is full-flowing at this time. August is a great time for stargazing in Georgia at the Abastumani Observatory.
HOW TO GET TO SAMTSKHE-JAVAKHETI
For Georgia flights landing in Tbilisi airport, you can rent a car and drive to Samtskhe-Javakheti. But driving in country Georgia can be daunting if you don’t understand the Georgian alphabet or speak the Georgian language. Your best bet is get to Samtskhe-Javakheti via private transfer.
FINAL WORDS AND TRAVEL SUGGESTIONS
An ancient land dotted with cave cities and hilltop monasteries, Samtskhe-Javakheti also boasts the extraordinary natural beauty of snowy mountain peaks, secluded lakes and enigmatic forests. Neither does it lack in modern attractions; from world-class ski resorts to 19th century spa-towns, Samtskhe-Javakheti is a region that never fails to impress.
It is recommended that you book Samtskhe-Javakheti hotels and vacation rentals ahead with our travel advisor. If you would rather drive, we have a modern fleet of Samtskhe-Javakheti rental cars available for hire. We also arrange Georgia holidays to Samtskhe-Javakheti with private transfers to and from Tbilisi airport.
Alternatively, create your very own custom vacation package that includes the specific places you’d like to visit and things you’d like to do in Samtskhe-Javakheti. Ever been to a place of myth and legend? Order your custom tour to Samtskhe-Javakheti today and enjoy a fantastic journey into the cradle of Georgian culture!