Georgia was beat by Armenia by only a mere 36 years, when Christianity was declared the state religion of Kartli – an early Georgian kingdom – in 337. As the second country in the world to adopt Christianity, Georgia is not only immensely proud, but also has a long tradition of Orthodox Christianity.
The Georgian Orthodox Church is an autocephalous church of the Byzantine rite Eastern Churches, meaning that it is self-governing and in full communion with the rest of Eastern Orthodoxy. But the church has also suffered from the often tension filled relationship to Russia. When Russia in 1811 occupied Georgia, the church was forced into the Russian Orthodox Church.
With the Georgian regaining of independence in 1918, the church once again proclaimed itself an autocephalous – meaning that it broke free of Russia – something the Russian Orthodox Church only recognised in 1943 after orders by none other than Josef Stalin.
However with the 1921 Red Army invasion in Georgia, the church suffered decades of pressure from the Communist government and Soviet policy. It wasn’t until the break-up of the Soviet Union that the Georgian Orthodox Church truly regained its position as the leading national church of Georgia. This post-Soviet period has however seen a strong revival of the church which seems intricately entwined with the Georgian national identity.
As the birthplace of Georgian Christianity Mtskheta is revered amongst Georgians and definitely worth a visit.
Thus, together with Eva and her boyfriend who planned to stop over in Mtskheta on their way to the Georgian coast, I went on a day trip to explore some of the central churches of Georgian Orthodoxy.
We began the day at the stunning Samtavro Church, which is the burial place of King Mirian III of Kartli and Queen Nana. The reason that this is a noteworthy piece of information is because they introduced Christianity to the later Georgia in 337.
It is a gorgeous building with lots of old women milling around. As we wanted to enter the church Eva and I were requested to wear something to cover our hair making us look like cleaning ladies. In Eastern Orthodoxy it is a rule for women to cover their head when praying be it in church or at home. Fortunately, Georgian churches keep a basket of head coverings for forgetful women or Western tourists to borrow while entering. The fact that neither Eva nor I intended to pray in this house of God was not relevant.
After relieving ourselves of the head coverings we had a driver take us up the hills to the magnificent Jvari Monastery which lies on the top of a hill overlooking where the rivers Mtkvari and Aragvi meet. The dramatic position of the monastery overlooking the river junction was even on this cloudy day breathtakingly beautiful.
Our driver was kind enough to first stop a little distance from the monastery for us to see just how well it looked from the distance. I can easily imagine how pilgrims must have felt nearing to this place of worship.
Before the christening of Kartli, the place was a pagan temple and legend tells that it was St. Nino who in the 4th century erected a wooden cross at the temple. The cross created miracles, curing disease and soon the place became a spot for pilgrimage. Around 545 a small church was built on the spot, but not a sixty years later, a larger church was built. It is this church which stands today looking over Mtskheta.
I can’t really comprehend that it is so old. That is almost three hundred years before the Danes carved some runes in a rock declaring Denmark Christian.
While the monastery alongside other iconic religious buildings in Mtskheta came on the UNESCO World Heritage List and was renovated after the end of the Soviet regime, it looks in disarray. It doesn’t help that while walking through the buildings you’ll find a sheep taking a nap in one of the niches.
We ended at the largest and most famous church in Mtskheta. The beautiful Svetitskhoveli Cathedral. One of the main reasons for the importance and fame of the cathedral is that it is the burial site Christ’s mantle at least according to the tradition of the Georgian Orthodox Church. It is told that a Georgian Jew named Elioz was present at the crucifixion of Christ, and bought the the mantle from a Roman soldier.
In my opinion this is probably, if one is to choose between the countless legends of the mantle, the most likely. Unlike other versions this connects all the way back to the crucifixion. However, the story gets a bit unbelievable after Elioz return to Mtskheta. Here it seems his sister Sidonia died from the overwhelming emotions caused by this sacred mantle. Furthermore, they could not retrieve it from her cold dead hands and she had to be buried with the mantle. From the spot she was buried grew a cedar tree.
It was on this spot that St. Nino chose to built the first church in the 4th century and the original Svetitskhoveli Cathedral with the sacred mantle of Christ is also the place from where Christianity began in Georgia.
Svetitskhoveli Cathedral as it stands today was built in 1029, which in itself is impressive. It is by all means the perfect ending to this day of church hopping.