One thing you will notice about Georgia as soon as you arrive is that it is a deeply religious country. It is the second-oldest Christian nation in the world, having been converted by St. Nino in 337, and they take their Christianity seriously, creating their own unique brand of Christianity with a distinctly Eastern feel. You will notice in the street or on buses, people crossing themselves three times every time they pass a church, and upon entering any church in Georgia, it is hard not to be moved by the pure spirituality that prevails. Women cover their heads in scarves, light candles, and kiss pictures of Jesus, Mary, and various saints, all while the sweet smell of incense hangs in the air. Georgians are the most deeply Christian people I have ever experienced, but they have always been a place of tolerance, where mosques and synagogues coexist with churches, adding to the thick religious air. The cold secular fist of Communism did its best to stamp out religion (as it did in Azerbaijan), but it obviously failed, because Georgians show an extreme dedication to their church today. This is what you must keep in mind when you travel 30 minutes to the north of Tbilisi to visit Mtskheta, the ancient capital of Georgia and the former seat of the Georgian church.
Hoping on a minibus at Tbilisi’s station to head to Mtskheta, you will be joined most likely by numerous Georgians all heading to the town for a dose of spirituality and prayer. For them, this is the equivalent of a Catholic heading to St. Peter’s or a Muslim to Mecca. In the bus, there may be a priest or two, and you can watch with quiet awe as everyone on the bus crosses themselves in unison as it passes any church along the way. The bus ride will undoubtedly be a somber one full of reflection.
The town of Mtskheta itself is a UNESCO World Heritage site located in a valley at the intersection of the Mtkvari and Aragvi rivers, and even if it weren’t the center of Georgian spirituality, its fabulous location would be enough reason to visit. The center of the town, where you will find the largest concentration of churches, is located right at the intersection of the rivers, and is a small area filled with cobblestone streets, slightly crumbling houses, and magnificent churches, the most important of them being the 11th-century Sveti-Tskhoveli Cathedral, the largest cathedral in Georgia. This is the spiritual heart of Mtskheta, the supposed burial place of Jesus’ robe and the sight of one of St. Nino’s miracles (restoring a tree that had been cut in two). Outside the entrance to the compound, you will find various vendors selling trinkets, bracelets, and beautifully carved icons, but when you enter the grounds of the church, you will come through a large gate in the defensive wall surrounding the compound (Mtskheta was military capital, as well as religious one).
Upon entry, the tone becomes immediately somber and spiritual. The church itself is really an impressive building from the outside, but the inside is downright amazing. When I entered, a man’s choir was standing near the alter chanting, and their deep voices echoing off the cold stone walls of the cathedral literally sent shivers down my spine it was so beautiful. It turned out there was a communion going on. A priest stood at the front of the church holding a challis of wine, and a long line of Georgians stretched out in front of him down the center aisle of the church. One by one, the worshippers would approach the priest, kiss one of the icons, take a wafer, put it in their mouths, drink from the challis, and then kiss the elbow of the priest. I stood on the side and watched for a while, taking in the aural delights of the chanting, and then examined the rest of the icons in the church. About a half an hour later, the service ended and a bride in a flowing white dress and a groom wandered in - it was time for a wedding. This cathedral, like all churches in Georgia, had no pews, so everyone stood in a semicircle behind the bride and groom, listening intently. The service itself only took a few minutes, and then the bride and groom stood at the front of the church while each visitor approached to give them blessings. Talk about a fantastic place to get married.
Sveti-Tskhoveli is the highlight of Mtskheta, but there are still plenty of other sights to see. There is a fortress, the Mtskheta Museum, but one of my favorites may be the tiny little church of Antioki set on the banks of the river. The church itself is ridiculously small, fitting no more than three people, but the inside is lovely. From Antioki Church, you will be able to see a large church on a hill across the river; this is Jvari Church, perhaps the most spectacular Georgian church and one of the most religiously important. If you haven’t already had your fill of Georgian spirituality, you should head up to this church, built on the sight where St. Nino first laid her cross. It will not disappoint.
Many people may not agree, but in my mind, Mtskheta is one of Georgia’s must-sees. While there are more historically interesting places and places with better scenery in Georgia, I love Mtskheta because it gives you an invaluable insight into the deep veins of spirituality that run through Georgian culture. Georgians are forever connected with their church, and in order to get a full picture of Georgia, seeing Mtskheta is a must. Plus, it’s hard not have a bit of a spiritual experience yourself, no matter what religion you are, seeing the absolute love and devotion of the worshippers at Mtskheta.