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Mtskheta mapTo a non-Georgian, Mtskheta’s nearmystical importance in Georgian culture is hard to describe. Containing some of the oldest and most important churches in the country, Mtskheta has been Georgia’s spiritual heart since Christianity was established here in about AD 327.

This ancient and important town is 20 km north of Tbilisi (five km off the main road) at the confluence of the Mtkvari and Aragvi rivers. It was the capital of the eastern Georgian kingdom of Iberia from the third century ВС through the fifth century AD when King Vakhtang Gorgasali moved his court to Tbilisi. During that time Mtskheta was an important trading center. Because of its location, goods moved along the roads that ran parallel to its two rivers: east and west beside the Mtkvari (Kura) and north and south beside the Aragvi.

The site was also an important cultural and religious center. The popular belief is that the town is named after Mtskhetos, son of Kartlos, the eponymous ancestor of the Georgian people who is said to be buried on a slope of Mt. Kartli on the right bank of the Mtkvari overlooking the town. More probable is that the town's name derived from one of the proto-Georgian tribes that settled in the region: the Meskhi.

Inhabited for over 3,000 years, the site at the confluence of the Mtkvari and Aragvi rivers was the centre of the pagan cult of Armazi (the Georgian version of the Zoroastrian fire god Ormazd of Persia), adopted in the 4th century вс by King Parnavaz I of Kartli, who established his capital 2km southwest of present- day Mtskheta. It was known to the ancient Greeks as Armosica and to Pliny (who calls it the "Fortress of Armasicum") as Armasicum, and is now Armazistsikhe (Armazi Castle). Pliny described it as the center of a powerful Iberian civilization where the god Armaz, along with a pantheon of other idols imported from the Hittites, was worshiped. Close contact was maintained with the Hellenistic and Roman worlds. There are traces of older Hittite and even Sumerian cults; the surrounding hilltops all housed pagan shrines which have now been replaced by churches.

Georgia's conversion to Christianity occurred at Mtskheta with King Mirian's in 337 AD. He ordered the pagan temples destroyed and churches built, specifically the precursors to the Sveti-tskhoveli cathedral and Samtavro monastery. Even with Vakhtang Gorgasali's move to Tbilisi, Mtskheta remained the residence of the Georgian Catholicos, head of the Georgian Orthodox Church, until the 12th century. The cathedrals built during that lime are judged among the finest in Georgia. In recognition of the importance of Mtskheta as a historical treasure, the entire city has been made a state historical site. The town's churches are included on UNESCO's World Heritage List.

The main cathedral, though no longer seat of the Catholicos, is far more impressive than Tbilisi's Sioni cathedral, and effortlessly dominates the town (now little more than a village), especially as seen from the main highway across the river. There's another fine ancient church in Mtskheta, and the Jvari church, high on a crag across the Aragvi, is one of the most architecturally important in Georgia, setting the pattern for virtually all those built in the following centuries.

With an alluring setting where the Mtkvari and Aragvi Rivers meet, less than 25km from the centre of Tbilisi, Mtskheta makes a very easy and enjoyable day trip from the capital.

Orientation & Information

The main Gori highway from Tbilisi bypasses Mtskheta to the east. Coming from Tbilisi to Mtskheta, you’ll turn off the highway well before it passes the town, then drive along the right bank of the Mtkvari River, before crossing a bridge into Mtskheta. If you are in a marshrutka or bus, get off once you draw level with the large Svetitskhoveli Cathedral to your right.

The Tourism Information Centre (322128; Arsukidze 3; 8am-8pm), with helpful, English-speaking staff, stands opposite the main gate of Svetitskhoveli. Staff can provide guides in several languages for Mtskheta’s sights at 25 GEL per hour – best to contact them in advance for this.

Mtskheta Museum (899223181; Davit Aghmashenebelis qucha 54; 10am-5pm Tue-Sat) has an interesting collection of finds from archaeological excavations in the Mtskheta area, labelled in both English and Georgian. Highlights include jewellery and an elaborately worked bronze ritual belt from the Bronze Age, perfume vials from the 2nd to 5th centuries AD, and a miniature mother-of-pearl Iranian sun temple from the 3rd or 4th century AD, found in the Samtavro cemetery.

Bebris Tsikhe, Mtskheta’s castle, was built in the early feudal period to protect the town’s northern approaches. It’s a romantic
ruin situated at the north end of Davit Aghmashenebeli, about 1.2km past Samtavro Church.

Getting there

Marshrutkas to Mtskheta (30 minutes) leave Tbilisi’s Didube bus station every 15 to 20 minutes from about 8am to 8pm. The last marshrutka to Tbilisi leaves Mtskheta at about 9pm. There are 15 elektrichka trains a day each way between Tbilisi and Gori, and all except the Batumi day trains halt at Mtskheta too; although the station is about a 20-minute walk from the town, this is a far easier way to get here from the west than bus or marshrutka.

Mtskheta is an easy day trip from Tbilisi, but there are several accommodation options. You can camp for free (without any facilities or supervision) in Teatron Park, off Davit Aghmashenebeli towards Bebris Tsikhe. The tourist office offers details of about 15 homestays, for which it can arrange bookings.