Today we had a lovely half-day trip to Mtskheta, which I’ve finally learned how to pronounce. Mtskheta was the old capital of Georgia when it was called the Kingdom of Iberia until about the 5th Century when it was moved to Tbilisi. Mtskheta is still the religious capital, though, and after visiting today I can definitely see why.
99% of Georgians are Christian, though it’s hard to say how many are practicing Christians, and the official church being the Georgian Orthodox Church, or Georgian Apostilic Church, depending who you ask. The church here is ancient, and feels very traditional with specific rules and traditions. For example, a woman can’t enter a church unless her head is covered and she is wearing a skirt. This rule feels super weird to me because people are allowed in with a tank top and mini skirt as long as their heads are covered, but I guess if you’re going to control women’s bodies you can do it however you want.
We did today’s trip through City Sightseeing again, and when we got to their office I was excited to see that Linda was working! Instead of doing another private tour, we decided to do this one with a small group. The majority of the group was Russian-speaking, so Linda came along to provide English explanation and translation for me and Dad, along with a couple from Paris. Linda said that almost everyone in Georgia speaks Russian – even after the collapse of the Soviet Union it continued to be taught in schools. Russians make up the biggest portion of tourists here as well, so communication with them is really easy. With her added English, she’s busy doing lots of tours.
Mtskheta is really nearby Tbilisi – it was about a 20 minute drive in a little white bus. We sat in the back with the Parisian couple, and essentially had our own mini tour lead by Linda.
Our first stop was Jvari, an ancient monastery dating back to the 6th Century, that sits on top of one of the many hills in the area. From the top, we got a great view into Mtskheta, which sits in a valley along the river. It was surprisingly cold up there, which was a nice change, and incredibly windy, making photos a bit of a challange. Jvari is a World Heritage Sight, and is said to be the spot where Saint Nino, who converted Georgia to Christianity, placed her first hand-made cross that helped heal the georgian king’s wife, who was sick and dying. At the time, this was the location of pagan temple, but after the country converted, they build a small church there. Shortly after, this one was built, and it’s hardly been touched or renovated since. Even during Soviet times when a lot of churches were painted over and repurposed, this one was preserved, although it remained heavily guarded so that no one could use it.
It’s always hard to wrap your head around something that dates back to the 6th Century. At a certain point, ancient is ancient, and I have trouble really making sense of how old this place is. From the outside is was quite simple looking, made of stone bricks, but the inside was really beautiful, and I was actually allowed to take pictures for a change! The inside was really dark, but thanks to hundreds of candles it was lit up so you could see paintings of the different saints. Off the back there was a little chapel for Saint Mary that was also lit by candlelight. It felt really special to walk around this ancient place and take it all in.
Next we drove down into the town of Mtskheta, which was really pretty laid out along the river. We stopped at a beautiful big cathedral called Svetitskhoveli, this one dating back to the 11th Century. This cathedral is said to house the clothes of christ – apparently a georgian guy was there when Jesus was being crucified and he took some of his clothes back with him to give to his wife as a gift. His wife died instantly when she touched them, and they couldn’t pry the clothes out of her hands so they buried her with the clothes, and built this church around it. Today, Svetitskhoveli is central church for Georgian Orthodox, and the leader of the religion lives here.
While we were waiting for everyone to get back on the bus, Dad grabbed some fresh bread for 1 lari from a nearby bakery for us to snack on. It was SO delicious. This traditional bread is baked in an outdoor brick oven, and somehow they make the outside perfectly crispy and keep the inside soft and chewy. I could eat that everyday.
Our last stop was another church, also from the 11th Century. I forget the name of this one, but it’s said to be where Saint Nino used to come and pray. It’s also where a famous 4th Century king and queen were buried – the church was built up around their graves. Georgians joke that 11th Century isn’t old, and it’s easy to get caught up in that way of thinking after visiting something from the 6th Century, but you need a reality check every once and a while, because that’s crazy old!! I liked taking pictures in this one because there were so many candles lit that they were falling all over one another – it was really fun to look at.
Today’s our last day before heading to Armenia, so we had plans to do a boat cruise tonight, but Dad and I both aren’t feeling 100%, so we took a rain check and might try to do it when we’re back in Tbilisi before flying out. Even without the boat cruise, today was really cool. Mtskheta was beautiful and amazing – coming from Canada, it’s impossible to wrap your head around how old some of this stuff is.