The church of Ateni Sioni is beautifully situated on the plateau of a cliff above the Tana River and the village of Didi Ateni. Ateni Sioni is one of the loveliest churches in Georgia, due above all to its setting at a bend of the narrow Tana Gorge, which is especially stunning in winter. Terraced fields by the river give a central Asian feel, while just to the south there's a great view down the valley to Mount Kazbeg. The writer Fitzroy Maclean said of it that it made:
as great an impression on me as any [church] in Georgia; ... architecturally Ateni Sioni impresses by its simplicity, but what struck me most of all was its magnificent position and the feeling it gave me of age, serenity and strength.
Your approach from the road on foot is under a wonderful pergola of grape vines.
Architecturally, Ateni Sioni is modelled on the Jvari Church at Mtskheta and was built in the 7th century. Appealing reliefs of stags, a hunting scene and a knight were carved into the exterior walls later. The degree of emulation can be seen in the absence of niches beside the polygonal conch on the western facade. This feature is also missing at Jvari, but whereas in Jvari the western facade is not the most easily seen, at Ateni it's the principal one. Through an inscription, we know the name of the architect: Thodosa.
Built of the local sandstone, the church colors vary from gray, white, light green, to pink to deep red. This stone tends to darken with age, and it is interesting to compare the red lower tiers of the western facade with the lighter hues of the 16th- century renovation of the cupola and other portions of the walls. The facades on all sides contain an assortment of reliefs. Given what appears to be their random arrangement, they are believed to date from a period later than the construction of the church, or to have been moved from their original position on the facade during the 16th-century restoration. Although many of these reliefs are somewhat crudely rendered, others reflect a lovely fusion of early Georgian folk art and Sassanid Iranian influence.
Church's decoration is finer than at Jvari, and it's in a better state of preservation. The lower parts are in red sandstone, with yellow-green tuff above. The ground plan is a tetraconch cross, its arms ending internally in four half-circles, with corner rooms rather than aisles and transepts. The spacious interior effectively has eight columns, supporting four squinches and a relatively low dome. There's just a low minimalist iconostasis. The frescoes are famous, with the image of Gabriel, painted in 1080, a highpoint in Georgian art. Externally, the facade is a copy of Jvari in local stone, restored in the 16th century; note also the two stags (pagan symbols) in the tympanum of the north door.
On the west facade is a well-carved portrait of a hunter wearing the headdress of a Sassanid Iranian who has just shot an arrow at a herd of stags. The slags themselves are not nearly as well carved as the horseman. Wrought in low relief in the tympanum above the northern entrance is a beautifully carved portrayal of two stags drinking from a stream. Scholars disagree about the iconographic significance, but it probably has to do with the theme of redemption through baptism.
On the front of the polygonal apse of the eastern facade is a relief of Christ. To the right is a patron holding a model of the church.
The interior of the church reveals a harmony of design that is lacking in the facade because of the random placement of the reliefs. The unity of the interior is achieved by the strict proportions of the alternating conches and niches as well as the overall plan in the cycle of wall paintings.
Inside, the 11th-century frescoes, depicting biblical scenes and Georgian rulers, are among the finest medieval art in the country. Although some have been defaced or destroyed, one can still gain an overall impression of this school of painting from what remains. They have been painstakingly preserved to prevent further fading, although there are no plans to restore them to their full former glory, as it is precisely their ancient nature that makes them interesting.
In the apse vault is a portrayal of the Virgin and Child flanked by the archangels Michael and Gabriel. Above, across the arch of the bema, are Christ Pantocrator in the medallion along with John the Baptist, the prophet Zacharias, and David and Aaron.
In the northern apse are scenes of the Baptism, the Crucifixion, the Transfiguration, the Raising of Lazarus, and the Resurrection. The southern apse shows the Prophecy to Joachim and Anna, the Birth of Mary, the Visit to the Temple, The Prophecy to Mary, the Visitation, the Dream of Joseph, the Birth of Christ, and the Death of Mary. Note particularly the delicate rendering of Joseph's repose and the free flight of the angel above him. The Georgian Asomtavruli characters between them relate what is happening. In the uppermost register of the west conch shows the Last Judgment. Below are shown prophets and martyrs, including the prophets Habakkuk and Ezekiel, and St. Nino. On the north side of the west conch, in the lower register, are portraits of patrons and kings, including King Giorgi II and Bagrat IV.
A taxi from Gori to the church and back should cost about 30 GEL, including waiting time or 50 GEL if combined with Uplistsikhe. It's well worth taking a bus all the way to the end of the road, in the heart of the rugged Trialeti range, and then back to Ateni Sioni; then you can walk down to Sioni church and the village to catch a bus back down the valley. Bus from Gori bus station leaves hourly from 7am to 6pm, ride will be around 30 minutes.