Mtskheta: Touring the Monasteries of Georgia’s Ancient Capital

Last Updated on: 25th February 2020, 06:12 pm

Despite being just 20 km outside of Georgia’s bustling capital of Tbilisi, Mtskheta feels like a world away. This charming little town, in fact, predates Tbilisi by nearly a thousand years. And it long served as the capital of the ancient kingdom of Iberia, the precursor to modern-day Georgia. Most day-trippers come to enjoy the excellent views from Jvari Monastery, or to relax in the town’s quiet cafes. But before your visit, it’s also worth digging a little deeper into Mtskheta’s history, as the town had a major cultural impact on the region as a whole.

Mtskheta has long been a major religious center in the Caucasus. Initially, the local deity Armazi was worshipped here alongside Mithra. And later, thanks to an important visitor from the west, Mtskheta transformed into one of Georgia’s major Christian centers. And the town still remains an important pilgrimage spot for many today.

There are three main monasteries to explore during your time in Mtskheta. And the story of Georgia’s major cultural transformation around the 4th century AD will unfold as we delve into the backstory of each.

Samtavro Monastery

In the northwest corner of town stands one of Georgia’s most significant churches. In fact, according to legend, this was the site of Georgia’s very first church in the 4th century. With that in mind, it makes for a good place to start the day.

The church was reconstructed in the 11th century, and Samtavro Monastery takes on the cross-in-square style so commonly found throughout the region. Partly in thanks to special protection from UNESCO, Samtavro looks to be in great shape considering it’s a millennium old.

Mtskheta Samtavro Monastery
Mtskheta Samtavro Monastery

The bell tower outside dates back to the 15th century. And you should also notice a small church outside which is said to be the site of the former residence of St. Nino, who we’ll talk about shortly.

Stepping inside, you’ll notice some faded frescoes which are a few centuries old, while those higher up in the domes are as old as the 16th century. But the real highlights of Samtavro Monastery are its tombs.

Just past the entrance, you’ll notice two intricately carved tombs which belong to some of Georgia’s most important historical monarchs: King Mirian III and his wife, Queen Nana. And it was Mirian, who ruled from 284–361 AD, who’s credited with making Georgia (then Kingdom of Iberia) the world’s second nation to adopt Christianity as its national religion.

The story of how it all came about is an interesting one. And Mirian’s conversion even ended up having a major effect on a larger geopolitical conflict between Persia and Rome.

Mtskheta Samtavro Monastery Mirian III

Mirian III's Conversion

For centuries, Georgia and Armenia found themselves in the center of the ongoing rivalry between the Persian and Roman Empires, with both sides vying for control and influence over the Caucasus. But interestingly, the two rival empires happened to worship the same deity: Mithra.

Mithraism, which originated in Iran, was prominent throughout many parts of Europe and Asia. For a long time, it was one of the world’s most widespread religions, often syncretizing with local traditions wherever it spread.

Many of Iberia’s kings, in fact, went by names such as ‘Mithridates,’ an homage to Mithra. And the kingdom’s early rulers allied themselves with Rome. But that changed when the Persian Sassanid Empire violently usurped the throne, installing the young Mirian III (whose name is also a reference to Mithra) to rule Iberia according to Persia’s whims. But despite Mirian III’s Persian origins, Iberia’s alliance with the Sassanids wouldn’t last for very long.

Over in Roman-occupied Cappadocia (present-day Turkey), a woman named Nino started her journey toward the Caucasus after seeing a mystical vision of Mary. In it, Mary encouraged Nino to set forth toward Mtskheta, the location of Christ’s Holy Tunic (more below). 

First, Nino stopped in Armenia, joining a group of other virgins who are now prominent saints of the Armenian Apostolic Church. Only Nino survived, and she eventually arrived in Mtskheta, where she met King Mirian III and Queen Nana.

Shortly after meeting, Nino cured Queen Nana’s debilitating illness. Nana quickly converted to Christianity, but without the blessing of her husband. Later on, however, while out hunting, Mirian III suddenly found himself blinded by darkness (likely a solar eclipse). He prayed to Nino’s god, promising that if he could make it out of the forest alive, he’d convert to Christianity.

Sure enough, light soon appeared and Mirian survived. Staying true to his word, he became a Christian. And he even declared Christianity the national religion of Iberia in 326 as Constantine the Great ruled over Rome. And shortly afterward, Iberia would ally themselves with the Roman Empire, who officially made Christianity their state religion in the year 380.

Some scholars even suggest that the rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire was thanks in part to the Romans no longer wanting to worship the god of their Persian rivals.

Bebris Tsikhe Fortress

Old fortresses can be spotted all over Georgia, and Mtskheta is no exception. Heading straight north from Samtavro Monastery, visitors can reach Bebrish Tsikhe fortress in about ten minutes on foot.

The fortress isn’t in the best of shape, but one can still get a sense of how large it originally was. Unfortunately, during my visit, some type of construction work was taking place inside, making the interior inaccessible. But the walk over was still well worth it, mainly for the views.

Bebris Tsikhe Fortress
Mtskheta Bebris Tsikhe Fortress

Not only could I see Samtavro Monastery over in the distance, but I also had a clear view of the mountaintop Jvari Monastery, which has towered over the rest of Mtskheta for many centuries (more below).

Also on the road between Samtavro and Bebris Tsikhe, I passed by the Samtavro Necropolis. The burial ground contains thousands of graves, some as old as the Bronze age. And it was used as a cemetery up until the 10th century AD.

Sadly, though, it seemed to be closed during my visit, despite the fact that I was there during the listed opening hours. Hopefully, you’ll have better luck during your time in Mtskheta.

Mtskheta Bebris Tsikhe Fortress
Mtskheta Bebris Tsikhe Fortress
Mtskheta Bebris Tsikhe Fortress

Svetitskhoveli Cathedral

Located right in the heart of town, Svetitskhoveli Cathedral stands of the site of the former royal palace of Mtskheta kings. What’s more is that according to legend, this is where the Holy Tunic of Jesus Christ himself is buried.

As the story goes, a Georgian Jew named Elias happened to be in Jerusalem at the time of the crucifixion. He paid a Roman soldier for the robe that Jesus had been wearing and brought it with him back to Georgia.

Elias’s sister, Sidonia, cherished the robe as soon as she laid eyes on it, becoming a woman of great faith. And she ultimately died while clutching it in her arms. As such, she’s said to be buried together with the Holy Tunic beneath Svetitskhoveli.

Mtskheta Svetitskhoveli Cathedral
Mtskheta Svetitskhoveli Cathedral
Mtskheta Svetitskhoveli Cathedral
Mtskheta Svetitskhoveli Cathedral

Before making your way inside, you’ll have to walk around the large imposing walls which surround the complex. Though the walls were added in the 18th century, the bull heads above the entrance have supposedly survived since the church’s foundation. They’re likely an homage to Mtskheta’s pre-Christian, Mithraic past.

Mtskheta Svetitskhoveli Cathedral
Mtskheta Svetitskhoveli Cathedral

Like the Samtavro Monastery, the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral was first constructed in the 300’s. But the structure we see today largely dates back to the 11th century. Following earthquake damage, however, numerous restorations took place over the following several centuries. 

The spacious courtyard offers clear views of the impressive structure, which is easily one of the larger churches you’ll encounter in Georgia. And around the area, you can find things like some ancient wine jugs and a replica of a grapevine cross, a symbol of St. Nino.

Mtskheta Svetitskhoveli Cathedral
Mtskheta Nino's Cross

Svetitskhoveli Cathedral is as impressive inside as it is out. Many of the walls and columns have been covered in intricately painted reliefs. And speaking of columns, the name Svetitskhoveli translates to ‘Life-Giving Column.’

A continuation of the legend above states that a cedar tree grew out from Sidonia’s grave. Later, Nino, following the conversion of Mirian III, ordered the tree to be cut down to provide wood for a new church.

Seven wooden columns were originally erected, though mysteriously, one magical column remained floating in the air. Only Nino’s prayers could cause it to come back down to earth, allowing the workers to finish the project.

Mtskheta Svetitskhoveli Cathedral

Today, the location of Sidonia’s grave (which, as mentioned, contains the Holy Tunic), is marked by a colorful ciborium placed here in the 17th century.

Aside from Sidonia, numerous Georgian kings have also been buried within the cathedral, including two monarchs from the 18th century. But the most prominent historical monarch here is King Vakhtang, the 5th-century king who founded Tbilisi (and whose successor would later move the capital there)

Mtskheta Svetitskhoveli Cathedral
Mtskheta Svetitskhoveli Cathedral
Mtskheta Svetitskhoveli Cathedral

Also around the cathedral, you can find things like a replica of part of the Church of the Holy Sepulcre, a painting of the zodiac, and a strange model of a foot. Placed on top of it is a small bone fragment which is believed to belong to St. Andrew. 

St. Andrew, an apostle of Jesus, is said to have come to Georgia in the first century to spread Jesus’s teachings. It’s now largely thought that Nino’s missionary work was a continuation of what St. Andrew first started.

Mtskheta Svetitskhoveli Cathedral

Around Town

During your time in Mtskheta, also take some time to explore the city center on foot. The brick streets and peaceful atmosphere make for a nice change of pace from Tbilisi, and the people are friendlier, too (which isn’t really saying much).

While central Mtskheta is fairly crowded and touristy, it’s not hard to find some peaceful backstreets to wander down. And if you’re hungry, there are also plenty of options with English menus around the area as well.

Mtskheta Georgia
Mtskheta Georgia

Though not so obvious from the street, many of the restaurants near Svetitskhoveli Cathedral feature outdoor seating areas in the back which overlook the Mtkvari River.

While, unfortunately, I can’t remember the name of the restaurant, I enjoyed a scenic outdoor meal of fish with pomegranate sauce. It was easily one of the best meals I’ve had in Georgia.

Mtskheta Georgia Dining

Jvari Monastery

Jvari Monastery can be seen from all over Mtskheta, and a visit up the hill is the main highlight for many (see how to get there below).

Like many mountaintop churches in the region, this site originally hosted a pagan temple. Nino first erected a wooden cross here before a church was built later on. 

The structure we see today was then added in the 6th century, making it one of the oldest surviving churches in the region. And Jvari’s architectural style (which itself was copied from St. Hripsime Church in Armenia) would go on to influence numerous other churches throughout Georgia.

Mtskheta Jvari Monastery
Mtskheta Jvari Monastery

Stepping inside, you’ll notice some replicas of Nino’s wooden cross. (The original, however, was supposedly erected at a spot now covered by a smaller church outside.) This was also one of the first churches in Georgia to place an emphasis on painted reliefs, though they’re not easy to make out today.

Mtskheta Jvari Monastery

But the real attraction of Jvari Monastery is what you can see outside. In addition to the ruins of an old church and watchtower beside he monastery itself, the mountaintop provides views of the Mtkvari and Aragvi rivers, not to mention central Mtskheta. 

Looking back across the river, I could clearly see Svetitskhoveli Cathedral and its spacious courtyard. And if I squinted a bit harder, I could make out some of the other landmarks I’d walked past around town.

Getting There

The most straightforward way to make it up to Jvari Monastery is to hire a private taxi. Before my visit, I’d read about a shuttle bus departing from outside the tourism office. The woman working there, however, seemed none too happy about my simple inquiry and told me to just hire a taxi.

You should be able to get a round trip taxi for as low as 10 GEL, but those who don’t speak Russian will have a harder time haggling. Also be sure to negotiate a longer amount of time at the top. Thirty minutes should be plenty, but my impatient driver first requested fifteen! 

If I had to do it over again, I’d try taking a Yandex or Bolt up the mountain and then walk back down. Supposedly there’s a walking trail somewhere that’s separate from the main road.

Mtskheta Jvari Monastery

Additional Info

Mtskheta is only 20 km from Tbilisi and is therefore one of the easiest day trips out of town. In fact, you can see all of the sites mentioned above at a slow, relaxed pace in just half a day, making it back to the city in time for dinner.

To get to Mtskheta via public transport, you can hop on a marshrutka (shared minivan) which leaves regularly from the Didube bus terminal. You can access Didube by getting off at the metro station of the same name and then following the crowds.

Didube, Tbilisi’s main ‘bus station,’ is not really a station it all. It’s basically a large parking area filled with minibuses and shared taxis that head to destinations all over the country. The whole thing has been combined with a large outdoor market. And as signage is sorely lacking, the city’s main transport hub is a lot more confusing and disorienting than it ought to be.

While many buses departing from here allow you to just pay on the bus, Mtskheta is an exception. You’ll need to find the correct ticket counter which is easier said than done. Walking out to the main parking lot area from the metro station, you should find it by turning left. 

But if you don’t, try asking someone “Mtskhetha, marshrutka?” and they’ll point you toward the counter or to the marshrutka itself, which should be parked in front. (Mtskheta, by the way, is pronounced like M’ts-khey-tah. The m is said like the m in ‘M’lady’ *tips fedora.*)

Fortunately, despite the hassle, the ride is incredibly cheap at just 1 GEL.

Don’t wait until the bus station to get off, but alight when you see the bus passing by one of the main cathedrals, like Samtavro or Svetitskhoveli.

At the end of the day, getting a ride back to Tbilisi is much easier, as you can just wait at a bus stop and pay the fare on the bus itself.

You can also hire a taxi or Bolt/Yandex car from Tbilisi fairly easily. You shouldn’t pay much more than around 20 GEL for a one-way ride. Both trains and guided tours also stop at Mtskheta, but there’s really no need to take those extra steps.

Tbilisi is a bigger city than most would expect, and visitors have a number of neighborhoods to choose from within the city center.

Many tourists choose to stay in the ‘Old Tbilisi’ area, and for good reason. This area is home to many prominent landmarks like the Turkish baths, Rezo Gabriadze Marionette Theater, Narikala Fortress and the Botanical Gardens. You can also walk across the river to access Sameba Cathedral (located in Avlabari, another interesting area), while Liberty Square is a short walk to the north. 

Many visitors also base themselves near Liberty Square and along Rustaveli Avenue. This area would also give you access to some of Tbilisi’s most notable architecture, such as the Parliament Building, along with numerous museums. Furthermore, the bus to David Gareja departs from Pushkin Square, just next to Liberty Square.

Further north, on the eastern side of the river, Marjanishvili is another popular area. From here you can easily walk to Agmashenebeli Avenue, known for its architecture and restaurants. Also nearby is Fabrika, a unique multipurpose space which features a hostel, art spaces, bars and restaurants.

An increasing number of visitors are also basing themselves in the city longer term. In that case you should also consider the Vera and Saburtalo neighborhoods.

For whatever reason, many Tbilisi residents recommend the Vake district, but I would advise against staying there. While it may have some trendy cafes and Vake Park, it’s the one neighborhood in central Tbilisi with no metro access. Furthermore, the neighborhood is very hilly with an atrocious traffic problem (even by Tbilisi standards!). Off the main streets, there are few traffic lights or underpasses, while entire sidewalks are often blocked by parked cars. With all that considered, it’s best to stick to one of the other neighborhoods mentioned above instead.

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