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The Sioni church at Bolnisi

On the left bank of the Poladauri River, the Sioni Church is an outstanding example of one of the earliest stages of Georgian ecclesiastical architecture. The basilica form is a legacy from the classical world that flourished in Georgia. The Sioni Church is a three-aisled basilica that dates from the late fifth century. An inscription over the north portal gives us the exact period: 478-493. The inscription, the Georgian form of writing known as Asomtavruli, which developed contemporaneously, reads, "With the help of the Holy Trinity, the building of this Church was begun in the 20th year of King Peroz and completed 15 years later. Whosoever bows down here, God will pardon, and whosoever prays here for David, Bishop of the Church, him also will God pardon. Amen."

This is the earliest example of writing in Georgian ever found in Georgia. (Earlier inscriptions dating to the early fifth century have been found in the Georgian Monastery in Palestine.) The inscription at Bolnisi is a copy. The original is in the Janashia Museum of Georgia in Tbilisi.

The church conforms to the classic floor plan of a three-aisled basilica with the exception of the chapel in the northeast corner, which was added in the eighth century. North and south galleries are on both sides of the basilica. The north gallery probably served as a side altar, and the southern apse was most likely used as a baptistry. The primary entrances to the church are from the north and south; this greatly diminishes the effect that would have been created by the longitudinal orientation typical of basilicas. The western entrance dates only from the 17th century. The power of an east-west axis is also mitigated by the fact that the five interior pillars serve most fully as supports for the roof, creating an emphasis on the vertical, and not to delineate the side aisles, which barely exist.

Of greatest interest is the mixture of pagan and Christian symbols and motifs found in the sculptural ornamentation on imposts, capitals, and the bases of pillars. Lions, bulls, plants, and geometric patterns are often next to or incorporated into images of the cross and Christ. You can find a particularly wonderful example of this in the baptistry to the right of the altar. On the front of the capital a pagan bull's head has been transformed into a Christian symbol by the presence of a cross. The baptistry is open only on Saturdays and Sundays.

The varied colors add tremendously to the venerability of the facade: green and golden tuff of evenly hewn stones intermingle in a patchwork of a hundred shades. The brick work of the upper portion of the east facade dates to a 17th-century restoration.

The belltower was built in 1678-1688 by the Bishop of Bolnisi.

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