The first thing I thought of when I looked at the name of this little town was “Yeah, Pat, I’d like to buy a vowel.” I still can’t pronounce it correctly. I got close once.
As small as Mtskheta may be, it’s very significant historically for the Georgian people and the Georgian Orthodox Church. It was the capital of the ancient Georgian kingdom of Iberia. It was also the place where Christianity was proclaimed the official religion of the region in 337 and it’s the spiritual headquarters of the Georgian Orthodox Church. As if that isn’t enough, it’s also one of the oldest continuously inhabited places on earth. I think those are good reasons to correctly qualify the historical monuments of the town as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
As I walked around town, the first thing that stuck out was how the entire old town seems to have been completely renovated. Nothing looked as old and rustic as I had expected. Everything was redone. It was very beautifully done, but it kind of took away just a small bit of the charm for me.
The next thing I noticed (which is actually the first thing I noticed because you can’t miss it) is the humongous cathedral that stands in the middle of the town. It looks big in pictures, but it’s even bigger in real life. It was stunning. The Svetitskhoveli Cathedral is the burial site of Christ’s robe, which kind of explains the grandness of it. The current cathedral was built in 1029, but there has been a church on this site since the 4th century. Unfortunately, there are structural problems threatening the stability of the church.
The interior is full of colorful icons. The burial sites of the kings of Georgia are inside, along with a scale copy of the entire structure of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem! Because photography is strictly prohibited inside, here’s a link to Baltvilks2’s Flickr gallery, with some photos of the interior of the church.
After visiting the cathedral, I took a walk to the Antioki Church, which was built in the 4th century and is part of a nunnery. It was closed, so I snapped a few photos of Jvari Monastery way up on the opposite hill across the river.
My next stop was the Samtavro Church. Sort of. I walked to the church and a taxi driver came out of his car to ask if I wanted to visit Jvari Monastery for 15 lari. I told him I wanted to visit the Samtavro Church first and then I could go to Jvari with him. He gave an emphatic “no”, grabbed my arm, and pulled me to his taxi. So in reality, my next stop was Jvari Monastery.
Jvari Monastery, as I mentioned, sits high on top of a steep hill across the river from Mtskheta. It was a good 15 minute ride from town. We parked in an empty parking lot. I got out and a monk led me to the church, opened it, and let me in. The church, built in 586, was simple and primitive, yet awe inspiring.
I then took a few minutes to admire the views of Mtskheta and the river valley below. It was stunning from up there. I recommend any visitor, whether they’re interested in Jvari or not, to visit for the views alone.
On the way back, I noticed a small ruined castle on a hill just outside of town. I had the driver drop me off there. It is called Bebris Tsikhe and it’s a 14th century Medieval fortress. There were some men working on it. I’m not sure what they were doing, but I think it’s a lost cause. Anybody visiting the castle should be careful. Apparently, it’s pretty dangerous if you don’t watch your step.
Finally, I walked back into town to the Samtavro Church. It was built in the 4th century and reconstructed in the 11th century. Ancient Georgian monarchs, King Mirian and Queen Nana, are buried in an ornate tomb inside the church. My favorite part of the church was actually the beautiful door. Outside in the yard, a small chapel stands on the spot where St. Nino used to pray.
Once I finished with the Samtavro Church, I waited outside at the bus stop for the next marshrutka back to Tbilisi. It was a very enjoyable day trip, and a must-see for anyone staying in Tbilisi.