In the year 337 Christianity was proclaimed the state religion in the early Georgian Kingdom of Iberia (Kartli). 1679 years later Jesper and I visited the very place where it happened – the magnificent town of Mtskheta. Located some 20 kilometers from capital Tbilisi at the confluence of rivers Mtkvari and Aragvi, the city is one of the oldest in Georgia. Mtshketa is a convenient and enjoyable day trip from Tbilisi, and it’s a must-see for anyone who is interested in history.
Before continuing with the story of Mtskheta, let’s have some fun with words. This is how you write it in Georgian მცხეთა. Does it help you? No? Well, this is how you pronounce it [mtsʰxɛtʰɑ]. Good luck with that! (yes, that was sarcasm.)
A Magnificent History
Kartli, also known as the Kingdom of Iberia, is a historical region in central-to-eastern Georgia. We do not have the time nor the space to explore the colorful twists and turns of Georgia here. However, for our purposes it’s useful to note that Mtskheta, founded in the 5th century BC, was the capital of this kingdom for quite a few centuries, from the 3rd century BC to the 5th century AD when the capital was moved to Tbilisi. Located on a busy trade route, the town prospered early on. According to the ancient geographer Strabo Mtskheta as a highly developed city with a water supply system, markets and stone houses.
The role of religion is visible everywhere in the town. It is the birthplace of Christianity in Georgia and as such it is still a vibrant center for religious activities. The ancient churches are outstanding examples of medieval religious architecture in the Caucasus.
So how did it all happen? The story goes that Saint Nino, a lady from Cappadocia, came to the area from Constantinople. In the lands of Kartli she performed miraculous healings and converted the Georgian queen Nana. The pagan king, Mirian III of Iberia, was not so convinced. Not until he was blinded during a hunting trip and got lost in darkness. However, he found his way after praying to “Nino’s God” after which he declared Christianity the official religion.
On a hill overlooking Mtskheta one finds Jvari – it was here that Nino erected a large wooden cross on the site of a pagan temple. According to the tale the cross attracted pilgrims from all around the Caucasus as it worked miracles. These days there is a huge monastery (from the 6th century) on the hill, and it still watches over Mtskheta and reminds its citizens of religion in the lands.
Our Day In Mtskheta
We decided to visit the old capital of Georgian on our last day in the country. We had heard much about it; driven past it; and we also wanted to go there. Getting there turned out to be slightly more difficult than we first had thought. We couldn’t find the right marshrutka, so we opted for a taxi. But more about that later.
One does not need much time in Mtshketa. A few hours are plenty. There are three things one can do in the town; eat (food is cheaper here than in Tbilisi), walk, and take photographs. The city is actually quite small (the population is less than 20,000) and compact. We began our journey in the old town and from there we started walking around the city, exploring and photographing its main attractions.
Main Attractions in Mtshketa
The Holy Cross Monastery of Jvari, Svetitskhoveli Cathedral and Samtavro Monastery are all key monuments of medieval Georgia and they have been an inspiration to architecture in all of the Caucasus region.
- Svetitskhoveli Cathedral: The impressive cathedral complex is located in the center of the town and it includes the cathedral church, the palace and the gates of the Katolikos Melchizedek (from the 11th century). These were built on the site of earlier churches dating back to the 5th century. Inside the cathedral complex one finds all sorts of interesting objects, ranging from he mantles of Christ and of the Prophet Elijah tot he tombs of Tbilisi’s founder, King Vakhtang Gorgasali. Entry to the cathedral is free.
- Samtavro (Place of the Ruler): Not far from the cathedral lies the Samtavro Church. There are two churches here, one from the 4th century and the other one from the 11th century. The legend says that St. Nino lived and worked here. King Mirian III and his wife, Nana, are both buried here.
- Bebris Tsikhe (The Elder’s Fortress): Walk for a while up the main road from Samtavro and you will find the ruins of an old fortress on a hill. There’s actually just one main road so it’s hard to miss. The walk is nicer than the ruins. The fortress dates back to the 14th century.
- The Holy Cross Monastery of Jvari: due to lack of time (and will to try) we did actually not visit Jvari, even though the view from the hill would have been absolutely splendid. The monastery is, together with the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The monastery overlooks Mskheta and it is very well visible from the former capital. The legend has it that St. Nino erected a wooden cross on the hill in the 4th century. A small church was later built on the site. The present monastery dates back to late 6th century. We thought about walking to Jvari but as we had no intentions of crossing highways in foreign lands, we did not give it a try.
How to Get There From Tbilisi
In Tbilisi you will easily find a tour operator that will take you to Jvari and Mtskheta. Usually the tours combine these two destinations.
If you want to try public transport, you can go to the town by minbus. This option should not cost you more than a few GEL/person. If you’re familiar with Russia, the word “marshrutka” should ring a bell. The minibuses leave from Tbilisi’s Didube market. The market is a mess and there’s no information anywhere. We tried this and gave up. Our tip: write down the name of your destination in Georgian and hopefully someone will help you.
We took a taxi from the Didube. It was more expensive (around 20-30 GEL/ one way) but it was quick and comfortable. The drive to Mtskheta took no longer than 30 minutes. The driver tried to make us book him for the whole day. He also suggested that he’d take us to Jvari for a discounted price. As we didn’t want to have anyone waiting for us, we decided to let him go. Finding a taxi in the city is more difficult but not impossible. Apparently there are also trains.
Do You Want to Know More?
When doing research for this blog post, we found these articles particularly useful: