Tbilisi is the present-day capital of Georgia and has worn that crown since the fifth century. But a city twenty minutes north called Mtskheta plays perhaps an even more interesting role in the country’s heartbeat. It was once the capital itself, and today it is the religious and spiritual epicenter. This is important, because religion – Orthodox Christianity – is a major part of daily life here.
For a testament of its people’s faith, look no further than the country’s flag. On it are five crosses, one big one for Jesus and four smaller ones for the four apostles who wrote the gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
Visiting Mtskheta is interesting for a couple reasons. For one, it’s the old capital, so there are some history lessons to be learned. Its location is at the junction of two rivers at the base of the foothills, with two or three valleys converging toward it. It’s beautiful, yet the exposure is precisely why the capital was moved to Tbilisi by King Vakhtang Gorgasali more than 1,500 years ago – there were too many directions to defend.
Mtskheta is also a very famous religious site, both in the past and at present. It’s home of the most important church in Georgia, Svetitskhoveli Cathedral. The name translates to “life giving pillar.” The church grounds are huge, covering much of the city center, complete with a fortified stone wall (see photo below).
Back in the day, in addition to religious services, the Cathedral provided protection from invading empires, be it the Persians or the Ottomans or any other number of troublemakers Georgia has had to deal with over the course of its existence. Proof of this can be found inside. There are a number of secret rooms and passages in addition to a well. People used the latter to access water (and perhaps even fish) when they were confined in the Cathedral during an attack. Seeing that well – which is openly on display – was one of the best parts of the visit. For me, it provides a lot of perspective on my own life. Despite all the bad things I think I have experienced, maybe I have never experienced anything bad at all.
From the grounds of Svetitskhoveli, you can look up towards the foothills and see a smaller monastery built on top of a pointed ridge. It’s really an amazing sight, its silhouette hovering in the distance. I enjoyed sitting on one of the benches and looking at it. This monastery, called Jvari Monastery (Cross Monastery), is a tribute to St. Nino, the woman who brought Christianity to Georgia. When she arrived, she placed crosses in three locations, a la the moon landing, to announce the arrival of the country’s new religion. Jvari Monastery was built on the site of one of those crosses placed by St. Nino in the 4th Century. We later drove up to it, which is where I took the above aerial photo and some of the others in the gallery below.
Those were some of my superficial impressions. However, for most people, the appeal of Svetitskhoveli as a religious epicenter goes deeper. It revolves around the reverence for a holy artifact buried inside.
As the story goes, two Georgian men attended the crucifixion of Jesus, at which they were able to obtain the robe he had worn, woven by the Virgin Mary. When the men brought it back to Georgia, one of them showed it to his sister and explained what had happened. The woman hugged it so tightly and was so saddened and overcome with emotions that she fell to the ground, dead. Her brother buried her with the robe, and out of her grave came a tree. The tree grew for several centuries before it was cut in half in the 4th century and a small, wooden church was built over top of it (around the same time St. Nino arrived in Georgia, officially bringing Christianity to the country). The church was fortified over the years around the partially-cut tree and the woman’s grave, culminating in the 11th century with the construction of the Cathedral we see in Mtskheta at present.
Flash forward ten centuries, and visiting this grave is considered a pilgrimage. People come from all over the world to stand before the woman’s grave and pray in the presence of the buried robe. According to the Orthodox Church, if one makes three visits to the grave, it is equal to one visit to Jesus’ grave in Jerusalem – locals call it “second Jerusalem.” The builders of the church had this vision in mind when constructing Svetitskhoveli. Inside, you will find a replica of a small church. A church within a church, if you will. This is a homage to Jesus’ grave in Jerusalem, which also presents itself as a church within a church.
During my tour with Kartlos Chabashvili of Inter Georgia Travel, we crossed paths with one of the monks. He wore a black robe, had a long salt-and-pepper beard, and wore glasses. Kartlos greeted him with a kiss on the arm and the hand, a sign of great respect. Come to find out, the monk had known Kartlos since he was a little boy and had married he and his wife in this very cathedral five years ago. He invited us to have tea with him in the residential units of the Cathedral.
Though I was brought up in the church via baptism, confirmation, and Catholic schooling, I haven’t grown up to be religious. I have gone through stages in life where I was more opened-minded than others, but ultimately, I don’t identify as anything today, nor do I pray or attend any type of service. That doesn’t mean religion doesn’t interest me. Quite the opposite, in fact. I am intrigued by the possibility of an afterlife, and by some of the teachings behind the parables. I enjoy the peaceful atmosphere and mindfulness that overcomes me when I visit churches around the world. I am also intrigued by those that find meaning and purpose in its proceedings.
In this case, I was curious what I could learn from a conversation with the monk. He led us into his chamber, which was built into the fortress wall, and sat us down at a table. On the table were lunch dishes – bread, stewed chicken, mashed potatoes – and a pot of hot water for tea. As other monks came in and out to eat, the three of us sat at the end of the table. All around us on the walls were framed paintings of biblical scenes, as well as one that depicted the burial of the woman and Jesus’ robe. I asked the monk about his life and for his opinion on the afterlife. He assured me that, no matter who I was missing, I would see them again. Then I asked him what advice he would give to young people today who are trying to find happiness in an increasingly fast-paced, connected world filled with distractions.
He said, “Anything is possible, but not everything is useful.”
I am pretty sure it is mandatory for monks to speak in mic-dropping one-liners. That’s standard operating procedure, right? In all seriousness, though, I loved his answer. It’s something to chew on. Are there things I do in my daily life that are not useful? That do not contribute to my happiness?
It will be something to think about the next few days as we drive into the mountains to the remote Svaneti region.