Mtskheta has been Georgia’s spiritual heart since Christianity was established here in about 327, and holds a near-mystical significance in Georgian culture. It was capital of most of eastern Georgia from about the 3rd century BC to the 5th century AD, when King Vakhtang Gorgasali switched his base to Tbilisi.
This grand (and for its time, enormous) building dates from the 11th century, early in the golden age of Georgian church architecture. It has an elongated cross plan and is adorned with beautiful stone carving outside and in.
According to tradition, Christ’s robe lies buried beneath the cathedral. Apparently a Mtskheta Jew, Elioz, was in Jerusalem at the time of the Crucifixion and returned with the robe to Mtskheta. His sister Sidonia took it from him and immediately died in a pas- sion of faith. The robe was buried with her and as years passed, people forgot the exact site. When King Mirian decided to build the first church at Mtskheta in the 4th century, the wooden column designed to stand in its centre could not be raised from the ground. But after an all-night prayer vigil by St Nino, the column miraculously moved of its own accord to the burial site of Sidonia and the robe. The column subsequently worked many miracles and Svetitskhoveli means ‘Life-Giving Column’.
In the 5th century Vakhtang Gorgasali re- placed Mirian’s original church with a stone one, whose modest remains are visible to the left of the cathedral today. The present building was constructed between 1010 and 1029 under Patriarch Melqisedek, and is still one of the most beautiful churches in the country. The defensive wall around it was built in 1787.
Christ’s robe is believed to lie in the nave beneath a square, tower like pillar that is dec- orated with colorful if faded frescoes of the conversion of Kartli. The tomb of Erekle II, king of Kartli and Kakheti from 1762 to 1798, lies before the icon screen (marked with his birth and death dates, 1720 and 1798). Vakhtang Gorgasali’s tomb is behind this, with a raised flagstone and carved stone sword.
Visible for miles around on its hilltop overlooking Mtskheta from the east, the Jvari Church is, to many Georgians, the holiest of holies. Jvari stands where King Mirian erected a sacred wooden cross soon after his conversion by St Nino in the 4th century. Between 585 and 604 Stepanoz I, the eristavi (duke) of Kartli, constructed the church over the cross.
Jvari is a beautifully symmetrical little building and a classic of early Georgian tetraconch design. It has a cross-shaped plan with four equal arms, the angles between them being filled in with corner rooms, and the low dome sits on a squat, octagonal drum. The interior is rather bare, but the site provides spectacular views over Mtskheta and the convergence of the Aragvi and Mtkvari Rivers. The road up to the church from Mtskheta takes a highly circuitous route; a taxi costs 20 GEL to 25 GEL return trip, including waiting time. If you’re feeling energetic, you can walk from Mtskheta in about one hour by crossing the footbridge from Teatron Park, walking about 1km down the busy highway, then heading up the hill- side to the church.
This large church, now part of a nunnery, was built in the 1130s and was once the palace church of the lords of Mtskheta. King Mirian and Queen Nana are buried in its southwest corner, under a stone canopy. The little church in the grounds, Tsminda Nino, dates from the 4th century and stands on a spot where St Nino is said to have prayed.
The museum has an interesting collection of archaeological finds, labelled in English and Georgian, from the Mtskheta area, which has been inhabited for several millennia. Highlights include an elaborately worked Bronze Age ritual belt, and a miniature mother-of-pearl Iranian sun temple from the 3rd or 4th century AD, found in the Samtavro cemetery.
Several pre-Christian sites have been excavated in the area. Most interesting is the excavated residence of early Iverian kings at Armaztsikhe-Bagineti on the south side of the Mtkvari, which includes remains of baths, a temple and a wine cellar.