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Svetitskhoveli Cathedral

Dominating the low-rise town is the grand Svetitskhoveli Cathedral (Arsukidze; 8am-10pm). It’s a large (for its time, enormous) building from the 11th century, early in the golden age of Georgian church architecture, with an elongated cross plan, adorned with beautiful stone carving outside and in.

One of the most sacred places in all of Georgia, the Cathedral of Sveti-tskhoveli (1010-1029) is located in the center of Mtskheta and contains the grave of Sidonia, who was said to have been buried holding Christ's robe. Called the Church of the Life- Giving Pillar, the legend accounts for the cathedral's name: in the first century AD a Georgian Jew from Mtskheta named Elias converted to Christianity and was in Jerusalem when Jesus was crucified. Elias bought Jesus' robe from a Roman soldier at Golgotha and brought it back to Georgia. Returning to his native city, he was met by his sister Sidonia who upon touching the robe immediately died from the emotions engendered by such a sacred object. The robe could not be removed from her grasp, so she was buried with it. Later, from her grave grew an enormous Lebanese cedar.

In the fourth century, when King Mirian decided to build the first Christian church in Georgia, he chose Sidonia's grave as the site. Ordering the cedar chopped clown, he had seven columns made from it for the church's foundation. The seventh column, however, had magical properties and rose by itself into the air. It returned to earth only after St. Nino of Cappadocia, credited with bringing Christianity to the Georgians, prayed the whole night. It was further said that from the magical seventh column a sacred liquid flowed that cured people of all diseases. In Georgian sveti means "column" and tskhoveli means "lile-giving," hence the name of the cathedral. An icon portraying this event can be seen on the second column on the right-hand side as you enter. Reproduced widely throughout Georgia, it shows Sidonia with an angel lifting the column into heaven. St. Nino is in the foreground; King Mirian and his wife, Queen Nana, are to the right and left.

The present cathedral, with certain features from later periods, dates from the 11th century and is the third building on the site. The first, of which only traces remain, was a wooden structure built by King Mirian in the 330s. That is the church of the legend. A second church was built by Vakhtang Gorgasali in the fifth century.

This was a three-aisled basilica, similar to the Sioni Church in Bolnisi, with a polygonal apse and three aisles of roughly the same width. Excavations conducted between 1968 and 1972 revealed portions of the original stone foundations of the walls and some fifth-century piers within the 11th-century columns. Built just a few decades before the great Norman cathedrals of England, you may find some similarities in style.

Perfectly proportioned, with its great pepper-pot dome of greenish stone rising high above the village and the river, it sits in a large square of walls added by Irakli II in the 18th century, with the main entrance to the west. As you approach you'll see two carved bulls' heads, which are pagan fertility symbols. Externally, the stonework is well decorated but not excessively so; note particularly the beautifully carved trees on the western facade, and a hand holding a bevel-square over the central arch of the northern facade. This illustrates the story of the builder Arsukisdze's hand being chopped off by his jealous teacher (though there are various versions of this story).

Legend has it that the success of Sveti-tskhoveli brought Arsukidze a bitter reward: a minister of the king who had also been Arsukidze's patron and teacher was so outraged by how far his pupil had surpassed him that he had the architects right hand cut off. As mentioned above a relief high up on the northern facade of a right hand holding a bevel-symbol of the stonemason-attests to this story. An inscription reads: "The Hand of Arsukidze, slave of God, may forgiveness be his." An inscription on the east facade further attests to the fact that Arsukidze did not live to see his masterpiece finished (in 1029): "This holy church was built by the hand of Thy wretched servant, Arsukidze. May your soul rest in peace, О Master."

Other aspects of the facade are of great interest. Two bulls' heads are incorpo-rated into the east facade from the fifth-century church, testimony to the wonderful mix of pagan and Christian iconography in that early period. (The two bulls' heads on the front gate as you enter the cathedral complex are reproductions.) The beautiful carved blind arcading on all sides is unaltered from the 11th century. The subtle use of different colored stones is highly successful. The basic stone is a sandy yellow with trimmings, while around the apse window a red stone is used. The green stone used in the drum of the cupola is from the f 7th century.

The cathedral suffered serious damage from an earthquake in 1283 and from a Mongol invasion under Tamerlane at the beginning of the 15th century. The last king able to reign over both east and west Georgia, Alexandre 1 (1412-1443), was responsible for restoring the cathedral, imposing special taxes that replenished a treasury depleted by years of war. He repaired the cupola drum, the columns that had been dismantled, and the galleries of the western interior. In 1656 the cupola and roof were again restored. New frescoes in the interior were also painted in the 17th century, but the 19th-century Russian policy of whitewashing the interior of Georgian churches was enforced here as well. The defensive walls surrounding the cathedral complex date for the most part from the 18th century and were built by Herekle II. Archaeological excavations around the west gate, however, have revealed an original structure. Because of the creativity of design, it is thought to have been built by Arsukidze. In front a founder's inscription on the second story names Catholicos Melkhisedek.

As you enter the cathedral, on your right is a stone baptismal font dating from the fourth century. It is thought to have been the font used for the baptism of King Mirian and Queen Nana. It was once covered in gold, but this was taken by Tamerlane when he sacked the cathedral. Immediately behind the font is a repro-duction of the relief of Arsukidze's right hand and bevel found on the north facade. Proceeding toward the altar clown the south (right hand) aisle, you'll see a small stone church. This is a symbolic copy of the Chapel of Christ's Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Built between the end of the 13th and the beginning of the 14th centuries, it was erected here to mark Sveti-tskhoveli as the second most sacred place in the world (after the church in Jerusalem), thanks to Christ's robe.

In front of the stone chapel, the most westerly structure aligned with the columns between the aisle and the nave marks Sidonias grave. Remains of the magical life-giving pillar are also here. It was built in the 17th century. Scenes of the lives of King Mirian and Queen Nana, and portraits of the first Christian Emperor, ( onstantine, and his mother Helene, were painted by G. Guldzhavarschvili at that lime. Traces of the foundations of the fourth-century church have been found here.

The second structure aligned with the columns of the southern aisle was also built in the 17th century as the throne for the Catholicos Diasamidze. It no longer serves this function, as current tradition requires a throne for the Georgian patriarch to be in the center of the church. Next to this structure are remains of the foundation of the fifth-century church built by Vakhtang Gorgasali. The large Jesus figure in the altar was painted by Russian artists in the 19th century. The majority of the icons here date to the 20th century. Some are copies of older icons and frescoes from other churches throughout Georgia.

Sveti-tskhoveli was not only the site of the coronation of the Georgian kings but also served as their burial place. Ten are known to have been buried here, although only three tombs have been found, all before the altar. The tomb of King Vakhtang Gorgasali can be identified by the small candle fortress standing before it. He was called Gorgasali by his Persian enemies because he wore a wolf's head on his helmet when going into battle. A man of large stature and enormous physical strength, he founded the city of Tbilisi.

King Herekle II's tomb is identifiable by the sword and shield upon it. He ruled in the 18th century and is responsible for placing eastern Georgia under Russian protection in 1783. His son, Giorgi XII, was Georgia's last king. Reigning only two years, he died in 1800, after which Georgia was annexed to Russia. His gray marble tomb is next to his father's. Also in front of the altar are tombs of various members of the Bagrationi royal family.

On the wall of the southern transept of the cathedral is a large fresco depicting an old Eastern calendar with signs of the zodiac. The date of this fresco is not clear, and art historians are currently trying to determine both the period and the full meaning. The most notable frescoes are in the centre of the south wall of the south transept, although much is missing; what's left of this 17th-century Apocalypse is a wheel of the zodiac radiating out of a central Christ figure, with the Apostles to the right and a sea with monsters to the left. Intriguingly, the writer Daniel Farson states that there were undeniably two flying-saucers painted at eye level on the altar fresco of the crucifixion, and another over the arch; others felt they were just floating faces shining down. In any case they had been whitewashed over by 1991.

A visit to Sveti-tskhoveli should not be rushed. As much can be appreciated from strolling around the grounds of the complex, looking at Jvari-standing like a dedicated sentinel on its hill-and discovering new forms and images within the carvings of the facade as from a tour of the interior. You will probably find yourself wanting to return for another visit. Marriages take place in the cathedral on Saturdays. The services on Saturgay & Sunday mornings are accompanied by a superb choir; knees, shoulders and women's hair should be covered at all times.