Day trip to the religious center of Georgia

Trip Start Sep 19, 2009
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Trip End Oct 10, 2009


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Tuesday, September 29, 2009

I should start by saying that the map where the cities should be pinned here is inadequate. There is no Mtskheta, which is one of the oldest cities in Georgia, it's ancient capital and it's religious center being the home to the country's most important church and the headquaters of the Gerogian Ortodox and Apostolic Church. It is located about 20 km north from Tbilisi. And YES, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site!

I took a morning bus to Mtskheta from the northern bus station of Tbilisi, which was easily reachable by the surprisingly good metro system. I had so much fun in the metro, becouse georgian language sounds very funny yet beautiful to my ear, and there were lots and lots of announcements during the trip. Anyway, the bus took about half an hour, and the sight was very beautiful when Mtshketa started to come to sight - it is ideally located at the confluence of Aragvi and Kura rivers, surrounded by green mountains and Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, the number one church in Georgia, dominated the skyline. Every passanger in the bus did a sign of cross when the church came to sight - that was a rather funny experience. Doesn't happen in Finland! 

The majestetic Svetitskhoveli is the main church in Georgia, but it is not actually the holiest place for georgians. The holiest place is the ancient Jvari monastery, built in 6th century standind on a mountaintop a few km accross the river from Mtshketa. Naturally, it was visible from everywhere in the area, the mountain was rather high. According to the legend, St Nino, the national saint of Georgia who converted to country to Christianity, erected a wooden cross on the site in early 4th century. This - of cource - became a holy place and later a small wooden church was built there. The present standing church was built in 6th and 7th centuries. Well, if a place is so important for some nation, I decided I had to go up there, after all this trip was much about visiting historic churches and monasteries for me. 

So I studied my tiny lonely planet map a bit a started to walk towards a small brigde that would take ma on the other side of the river, where the hill rose with the proud Jvari monastery on the top. I did find the bridge, but the whole area was really quiet and seemingly poor (with abandoned dopartment store, for example) with run-down residential houses scattered around forests and park roads. I remembered the "dangerous reputation" of Georgia and stared to feel quite unsafe, I was alone after all. Of course nothing happened and I made it to the other side of the river, crossed the highway and started to walk up towards Jvari monastery. And my luck ended there. I tried and tried and tried, but I just counld't find a path going up there, and the forest/bushes were so thick one just couldn't get through without a path - I tried that too. So after an hour of searching a path, I came back frustrated. And I could see the monastery up there all the time! No holiest place for me. I should have taken a taxi there, which is possible too, but I am simply too cheap for that.  

For a consolation, I visited Armaztsikhe fortress in the outskirts of Mtskheta, an ancient stone fortress built in 3rd century, located on top  of a small hill on the river bank. It was free and I was there alone. There wasn't that much to see but it was still very interesting, given the age of the structure and - of course - the views. At that moment I realized how great it was to travel in Armenia and Georgia where you can still actually get some attraction almost all for your self, no herds of tourists! I sat a while in the fortress, wondered what I might have been like 1700 years ago and enjoyed the absence of other tourists. 

After the fortress I went to the Mtshketa itself. It was a small, small town with a few attractions. Quite nice and idyllic, but definitely not more than a daytrip. I visited Mtskheta museum, which was a nice collection of old things found in the area, you know how those local museums are. I got a private english speaking guide, which made it all worth it. Next to the museum was Samtavro Church, built in 11th century, where I first got the opportunity to drink holy water in my trip. Surely I had to try! More interesting than the actual church was a small chapel in the garden, built in ealy 4th century and still much as it was before. 

Obviously, the main sight in Mtshketa is the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, which literally means "the living pillar cathedral". The legend says that in the 1st century, a Roman soldier brough Jesus's robe to this site and gave it to her sister, Sidonia. Sidonia took the robe and immediately died out passion of faith, and the robe could not be removed from here, so it was buried along with her. Later, from here grave grew an enormous tree and it was chopped down to seven huge pilars to build a church on the site. The seveth pilar had magical powers and rose to the air by itself. When it eventually came down, it was left there and it can still be seen in the middle of the church, although it does not look like a pilar and you have to know the story for it to be anything special. On the pilar there is an icon describing this whole story, and that icon is one of the most famous icons in Georgia. Anyway, thus the name "the living pillar cathedral". 

Svetitskhoveli Cathedral was originally built in 4th century but the present church dates back to 11th century. It is the main church in Georgia, the second largest one and seat to the Catholicos of Georgia. So, in a way, it is the georgian equivalent to St. Echmiadzin Cathedral in Armania (see previous entries). It is, however, much bigger, more majestetic and more impressive that the Armenian equivalent. It is surrounded by huge walls, and inside the atmosphere is more like in St.Peters Cathedral in Vatican - tour groups going around with guides in a big open church, seeing all the verious details the church have - it does have lots of details and lots of legends to be told. One could easily spend an hour or two there - I didn't spent more than 15 minutes. But it was definately one of my favourite churches I saw during my trip. 

After Svetitskhoveli I tried to find another famous church in Mtshketa but failed miserabely. I bought a cross ring from Svetitskhoveli to accompany my cross necklace I bought from Echmiadzin and went to have lunch to a dead restaurant. Nothing impressive. The town was actually pretty dead outside the main attractions, unlike Echmiadzin in Armenia. I don't recommend spending a nights in Mtskheta! I went back to Tbilisi and spent the rest of the day as usual - wondering around the city, having dinner, drinking a few beers and writing my journal. I went to Marjanishvili, "the backbagger area" and found a Russian church, which was nice but filled with old beggers - I felt really bad and left immediately. It was from another world. Then I walked to a trendy neighborhood called Vera, close to Republic Square, another end of Rustaveli Avenue than the old town. Vera is home to some of the most popular bars in the city, and the streets were quite cool, reminding me more of England than Georgia. The buildigs in Vera were old too, but more like 19th century Europe style, as opposed to the unique style of Old Tbilisi.   

I got pissed off when I tried to go to a restaurant praised in lonely planet - they wouldn't take me in because I was alone! The restaurant was Dzveli Sakhli on the riverside, near Old Tbilisi - do not go there, especially if you are travelling alone! Accross the street I found a much better place with excellent service, delicious food and cheap homemade wine. Go there instead!     
   
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