Mtskheta is a small town in Georgia about 15 miles north of Tbilisi, and it has played—and continues to play—an extremely important role in Georgian history.
Why is Mtskheta such a big deal? Let’s count the ways.
- It’s one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world. There have been people living there since before 1000 BC.
- It was the capital of the Georgian kingdom of Iberia from the 3rd century BC to the 5th century AD.
- It’s where Christianity was proclaimed as the official state religion of Kartli (another early Georgian kingdom) in 337 AD, making Georgia the second country to have done so.
- It’s where most of the kings of Georgia up through the 19th century are buried.
- It’s believed to be the place where Jesus’s robe was buried.
- It’s where the Georgian Orthodox church has its headquarters today.
- Its historical buildings have been proclaimed a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
So again, Mtskheta is a pretty big deal in Georgia.
There are two main things to see in Mtskheta, along with a couple smaller things. The first main thing to see is Svetitskhoveli Cathedral. It was founded in the year 1010 and completed in 1029. Think about that. The building is a thousand years old. It’s not a ruin and it hasn’t been rebuilt. It is a massive, somewhat austere building. I wouldn’t call the building itself beautiful, though it is definitely impressive. The inside, though, is another story. It’s spectacular. Unfortunately, you’re not allowed to take photos inside. I’ve been to dozens of orthodox churches and cathedrals in several countries, and the inside of this one is wholly unique. The distinguishing feature is the massive image of Christ that stares straight at you when you walk in through the doors. When you go into an orthodox church, you usually see a wide variety of paintings, frescos, and icons. These depict Mary, Jesus, the apostles, and other noteworthy individuals. The depictions are usually relatively small and… busy, for lack of a better word. There’s a lot going on in the depictions—lots of color and lots of detail. But in Svetitskhoveli, the main thing you see is that single massive painting of Jesus looking down on you. There’s no blue or red or gold background, no scene from the Bible—just an imposing Jesus staring at you. Even if you’re not a religious person, it’s an incredible and awe-inspiring sight.
Huge Jesus fresco aside, the entire rest of the inside of the church is covered in ancient and stunning frescos. This church is also where the Georgian kings and Christ’s mantle [supposedly] are buried. Around the church itself are an imposing, fortress-like wall and some nice gardens. Overall, this church is one of the top two or three things I’ve seen in Georgia so far. It’s also one of those amazing things that makes me sad that friends, family, and other people I know and love will probably never see.
Here are some photos of Svetitskhoveli Cathedral:
Down the street from Svetitskhoveli Cathedral is the small and relatively modest Antioch Church. It dates back to the 7th century, and there is a small nunnery located right next to the church these days.
A five-minute walk north from Svetitskhoveli Cathedral brings you to Samtavro Church, which is another example of a building that is in remarkably good shape for its age. It was built in the 12th century, and the small church also on the grounds there was built way back in the 4th century (I only realized that after I visited, and I unfortunately didn’t get a photo of it myself. Here’s someone else’s).
Samtavro isn’t as large as Svetitskhoveli and is a bit plain on the inside, but it was still beautiful, and it’s always really interesting to see something so old.
Here are some photos of Samtavro Church:
I mentioned earlier that there are two main things and a couple smaller things to see in Mtskheta. The first main thing to see was Svetitskhoveli Cathedral. The two smaller things worth seeing are the Antioch and Santavro Churches that I just covered. The second main thing to see near Mtskheta is Jvari Monastery.
Jvari Monastery is perched spectacularly on top of a mountain above the city of Mtskheta. It was built in the… wait for it… 6th century. Again, let that sink in for a minute. This isn’t one of those buildings that was first built forever ago and has build rebuilt several times over the centuries. No. This thing has stood and survived on top of this mountain since the 500s. It’s just incredible. How on earth anyone managed to build the thing in the first place is just beyond me.
Here’s a history lesson courtesy of Wikipedia:
According to traditional accounts, on this location in the early 4th century Saint Nino, a female evangelist credited with converting King Mirian III of Iberia to Christianity, erected a large wooden cross on the site of a pagan temple. The cross was reportedly able to work miracles and therefore drew pilgrims from all over the Caucasus.
Here are some photos of Jvari Monastery: