The former Georgian capital

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Review type

Things to do


Date of travel

June, 2023

Product name

Sightseeing in Mtskheta

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The historic Georgian city of Mtskheta is sometimes called ‘Little Jerusalem’ due to its cultural and religious significance: it was the former capital, is the seat of Georgian Orthodox Christianity, and has several historic sites in and around it.

Our first stop was for photographs of Jvari Monastery in the distance. Located in an isolated spot, high on a hilltop, it was a circuitous 5km drive from the main road. Having parked, it was a relatively steep walk through the remains of a fortified stone wall, built in the late Middle Ages as protection. A Sunday service was taking place, with tourists mixing with candle-holding churchgoers: as there is no seating in Orthodox churches, worshippers either stand or stroll around and kneel on the bare concrete floor when praying.

Despite the ongoing service, Sergi, our guide, pointed out some of most important features including the wooden cross of St Nino, the first Christian missionary of Georgia: it was on this site, she converted King Mirian to Christianity. Although built in the late 6th century, and therefore the oldest church in Mtskheta, it was all original, apart from the tiled roof, so perhaps not surprisingly, the sandstone dome, was being renovated and the central area was full of wooden scaffolding.

When the priest disappeared behind the simple wooden iconostasis to prepare the communion, Sergi told us about the religion: babies receive wine from the teaspoon and Saturday confessions are required to allow the priest to judge if you are a fit communicant, with a confession of adultery, resulting in a one year communion ban.

Visit over, we took in the excellent views of Mtskheta from our vantage point. This included the city, strategically sited on the confluence of the Aragvi and Mtkvari rivers, and the Georgian Military Highway, linking Tbilisi with Russia, which we would be travelling on later. We could also see the two churches we visited next.

The first was Samtavro Monastery, comprising the Transfiguration Church and Nunnery of St Nino, where around 50 nuns live. People were praying at a small cross and chapel, and at the entrance to the church, were the richly coloured tombs of King Mirian and Queen Nana, converted to Christianity by St Nino. Once again, communion was taking place and it was very busy.

Svetitskhoveli Cathedral was the largest of the three churches, and to reach it we walked up a pedestrianised cobbled street past stalls selling carpets, handmade wood and felt objects, churchkhela or conical shaped sweets resembling candles, and enamel and silver items. The Cathedral was located in a huge courtyard surrounded by high walls and towers dating back to the 18th century. Unsurprisingly, a service was underway, but this time, we were not allowed inside and had to be content with viewing the exterior and its carvings which included two bulls’ heads, a pagan sign of fertility, and the ligature of the craftsman.

On the way back, we indulged in a little retail therapy, and I enjoyed my first wine flavoured ice-cream.

In all the churches, shorts were prohibited, and I had to cover my shoulders and head.

On leaving the city, Sergi pointed out the police station. A huge reform of the police had taken place in 2003 in an attempt to eliminate corruption and as a result, much-vaunted glass-walled police stations had been introduced signifying transparency. However, as the entire city of Mtskheta has UNESCO World Heritage Status, they had insisted the building be clad in wood. We also heard that due to its religious significance, the city virtually closes down at 10pm as clubs or casinos are not allowed.

Helen Jackson

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