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Samtavro monastery complex

Located in the north-western corner of Mtskheta on Stalin Street, only a five-minute drive from Sveti-tskhoveli, the Samtavro complex comprises four edifices. The Samtavro nunnery stands on the site of Georgia's first church, which is now a royal residence and administrative centre, with a tiny 4th-century chapel (with poor frescoes) in the grounds marking the spot where Nino lived in a log hut.

The tiny but charming Antioki Church, in the grounds of a nunnery near the riverbank behind the cathedral, dates from St Nino's time. Renovated in 2000, it manages to retain its modest charm despite the recently painted frescoes. The large Samtavro Church (Davit Aghmashenebelis qucha; 9am-7pm) is also now part of a nunnery.

The first to the right as you enter the enclosure, is the tiny fourth-century Church of Samtavro. Erected on a site where St. Nino frequently prayed, this chapel has been restored many times, most recently in the 20th century. The frescoes, painted in the Russian style, are from the 19th century. The main building of the complex is the great Church of Samtavro, built in the 11th century. In the northwest is a handsome three-story belltower built not earlier than the 13th century. It is distinguished by a cylindrical open-arcaded belfry that sits elegantly on the two cubic stories below. In the south-western part of the complex are buildings that have functioned both as a nunnery and as the main theological seminary of the Georgian Orthodox Church.

The name Samtavro in Georgian means the place of the ruler "Mtavari" and refers to the belief that the original fourth-century church was erected by King Mirian in his garden to honour St. Nino of Cappadocia, who brought Christianity to Georgia. St. Nino was responsible for baptizing King Mirians wife Nana. The king himself was converted while hunting. When everything suddenly went dark, he called upon his pagan gods to help him, to no avail. But when he prayed to St. Nino's God, the light was restored. He subsequently baptized all the people of Mtskheta and declared Christianity the state religion.

THE MAIN CHURCH OF SAMTAVRO

This 11th-century church is dedicated to St. Nino and called The Redeemer. Built in the first half of the 11th century on the site of the fourth-century wooden church erected by King Mirian, Samtavro is a central domed building with its cupola resting on projections of the walls of the altar apse and two freestanding piers. Although built on a straightforward plan that does not evoke the triumphant quality of Sveti-tshkoveli, Samtavro is nonetheless an impressive example of the architectural progress made in the 11th century, particularly in the decorative treatment of the facades. The elaborate stone carving of the north and south facades is of an especially high degree of artistry and imagination. This is not the case with the decorative work on the cupola, which collapsed in an earthquake in the 13th century, and was reconstructed during the 13th to 15th centuries without the same skill. On top of the clean lines of the dressed stone of the walls, the drum looks a bit shabby, like a stove-pipe hat that has seen better days.

Projecting from the north and south sides are annexes that are contemporary with the rest of the building. The western portico is of a later date. The long chamber forming a part of the northern annex is from an earlier period, probably the eighth or ninth century.

The interior of the church was covered in frescoes, which were whitewashed during the 19th century by the Russians. Some fragments dating from the 15th to 17th centuries can still be seen in the apse and cupola drum. Thirteen windows in the cupola drum provide lovely illumination. Note the decorated star vaulting of the southern portion of the roof. In the west of the church (to the left as you enter) are the graves of King Mirian and Queen Nana. The sepulchers themselves are from the 19th century. The royal couple chose to be buried here rather than at Sveti-tshovcli because they desired their simple piety to be reflected by these humble surroundings. The nunnery was also founded here in their honour.

All in all, the most notable feature here is the tomb of King Mirian and Queen Nana, incongruously set under a 19th-century Italianate marble canopy in the church's southwest corner, just left of the entrance. Otherwise the church is big and spacious, with bare walls and some very battered frescoes in the dome and above the altar. Externally, there are good decorative carvings on the north and east walls and the dome; the bell-tower (obviously shaken by earthquakes) dates from the 13th century.

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