The ancient capital of Georgia is a place connected with the birth of the Georgian statehood. The history of Christianity in Georgia begins in Mtskheta. For Georgians, the greatest Christian holy relic – the Lord’s Robe – is buried at Mtskheta. The town of Mtskheta has been the administrative center (since 1956) of the Mtskheta-Mtianeti Province and of the Mtskheta District (since 1930). Mtskheta has been declared a city-museum, being inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. The territory of Mtskheta and “Great Mtskheta” was populated in the Early and Middle Bronze Ages (3,000-2,000 B.C.). It had been densely populated (necropolis and settlement-sites at Samtavro, Zemo Avchala, Tsitsamuri, Narekvavi, Tserovani, Nabaghrevi) during the Late Bronze and Early Iron Ages (2,000-1,000 B.C.). Great changes characteristic of the life of the most ancient political entities in the Near East have been reflected in the history of Mtskheta beginning from early first millennium B.C. – A strong cultural stream had infiltrated into ancient Mtskheta, significantly conditioning city life until the 3rd-4th centuries. Its social and professional differentiation is the development of the ancient population centers and their unification into one, large city, Great Mtskheta, with the population’s ethnographical variety being one of its unique characteristics. According to legend, the city had been founded by the ethnarch Mtskhetos. It is supposed that the name “Mtskheta” originates from the name of the Meskhi (Moskhi-Mushki) tribe. The residential area for this tribe must have emerged after the 8th century B.C. on the territory of Mtskheta. Mtskheta was the newly formed political center of the Kingdom of Kartli (Iberia) since the end of the 4th century B.C. and the capital remained here until the end of the 5th century A.D.
The Patriarchal Cathedral of the Twelve Apostles at Mtskheta, “Svetitskhoveli”, the most important monument of Georgian culture, art, and architecture, is distinguished not only through its artistic value, magnificence, and harmoniousness, but also by the special role it fulfilled in the history of the Georgian people.
The first wooden church was built here by St. King Mirian and St. Nino in the 4th century in the spot, where according to Church tradition, the Robe of Jesus Christ had been buried, having been brought to Mtskheta in the 1st century by a local Jew, Eliozi (the mantle of St. Elijah the Prophet had also been brought to the same spot by exiled Jews centuries earlier). A myrrh-streaming tree grew above it, from which one of the church’s miracle-working pillars – “Sveti Tskhoveli – The Life-giving Pillar” was wrought. St. King Vakhtang Gorgasali had a basilica of considerable size built here in the 5th century, whereas Catholicos-Patriarch Melchisedek and the architect Arsukisdze erected the domed church seen today during the years 1010-1029. Being the largest ancient Georgian church constructed with hewn stone and adorned with stone carved ornamentation and reliefs, it has been destroyed and restored many times (the work carried out by King Alexander I in 1418-1440 and the restoration of the dome in the second half of the 17th century are of particular importance), although it retains its original glory even today. Fragments of the 17th-century murals are preserved in the church (it is possible that the painting in the chancel is original, having been restored in the 19th century), whereas Gregory Guljavarashvili painted the canopy erected over the “Life-giving Pillar” during the years 1678-1688. Svetitskhoveli was the site of royal coronations and burials as well. The holy martyrs Eustathius of Mtskheta (6th cent.) and Demetre II The Self-Sacrificer (13th cent.) have also been laid to rest here.
The monastery is situated at a slightly elevated location on the northern outskirts of Mtskheta. It was built where St. Nino had lived for three years – a tiny, domed church from the early Medieval period now stands on the spot where blackberry bushes provided her with shelter. The cathedral of archbishop of Kartli had been here since the 5th century and the nuns’ convent since 1820. The main church took the place of a yet earlier church erected in the 4th century, the so-called “Upper Church”. The current church primarily dates to the 11th century, but it contains remnants of the 5th-century basilica and large segments of a construction from a subsequent period. It is considered to be a construction marking a new stage, for it became a model for the domed Georgian churches of the following centuries, with its stone carvings being one of the masterpieces of Medieval art. The dome is from the 14th century, inside however, a 15th-century chancel-barrier and fragments of 17th-century murals have been preserved. A bell-tower with the gate on the ground floor from the 15th-16th centuries and an 18th-century tower are in the churchyard, as well as modern monastery buildings. The first Christian king and queen of Georgia, Sts. Mirian and Nana, and a 6th-century hieromartyr, St. Abibos of Nekresi, have found their final resting place within the church. 20th century Saint – Father Gabriel is buried in the monastery. The church houses 18th c. icon of St. Nino, numerous holy relics, and miracle-working icon of the Virgin Portaitissa.
The Church of Antioch
Standing at the confluence of the Mtkvari and Aragvi Rivers and faced with hewn stone, the 4th-century, single-nave church, with a western porch, contains important parts of early Medieval construction – quite possibly the remains of the Church of St. Stephen, built in Mtskheta in 420-430.
The Church of the Holy Cross at Mtskheta
The Church of the Holy Cross at Mtskheta is located east of Mtskheta, at the confluence of the Mtkvari and Aragvi Rivers, on top of a rocky mountain. It has been inscribed on the World Heritage List. King Mirian III and St. Nino had a wooden cross erected here at this spot, when accepting Christianity in the 330’s, which was venerated by Christians all throughout the Caucasus. The Kartlian ruler Gvaram built a small hewn stone church beside the cross in the third quarter of the 6th century, while his sons Stephanos, Adarnase, and Demetre building a domed church over it in 589-607. The latter represents a type of central-domed composition well-known only in the South Caucasus and a logical culmination of the preceding artistic strivings of Georgian master craftsmen. Built of hewn stone and adorned with stone carved ornamentation and figure reliefs, it is one of the rare examples of a perfect synthesis of architecture with the environment. A relic of the Mtskheta Holy Cross is kept today at Svetitskhoveli Cathedral.