Akhali Shuamta & Dzveli Shuamta
The distance from Gombori to Telavi is 33 km, and the route allows you to stop at the three churches of Dzveli (Old) Shuamta (from the fifth through seventh centuries) and the 16th-century monastery complex of Akhali (New) Shuamta. The turnoff to this site is 57 km from Gombori and 11 km from Telavi. The turnoff is clearly marked. Another two-km drive brings you to Akhali Shuamta. Three km farther is Dzveli Shuamta. Shuamta in Georgian means "between the mountains," and the isolated position of these two monasteries, nestled in the densely forested hills of the Gombori range, explains the name.
Dzveli Shuamta, dating back to the 5th century, had fallen into disuse when Akhali Shuamta was founded in the 16th century by the Kakhetian Queen Tinatin. The churches at the two sites are fine works of Georgian ecclesiastical architecture.
A 'Monastery 2km' sign, 11km from Telavi, points the way to Akhali Shuamta, now a convent again after serving as an orphanage in Soviet times. Wait at the inner gate for one of the nuns to greet you and show you the church (some of them speak English). The brick church has a cruciform design with an unusually high cupola and large crosses inscribed on its extremities. The fine 16th century frescoes inside portray Queen Tinatin, her husband, King Levan II, and their son Alexander, as well as biblical scenes.
Tinatin later became a nun and is buried here. The poet Alexander Chavchavadze is also buried here. Three kilometres further up the road are the three stone churches of Dzveli Shuamta. Nearest to the road is a three-naved 5th- to 6th century basilica, in a style typical of the earliest period of Georgian Christianity. The next is a 7th-century tetraconch church with a plan derived from the Jvari Church near Mtskheta.
Third is another tetraconch church from the same period, but lacking the corner rooms of the otherwise similar middle church. No public transport comes to Shuamta; a taxi round trip from Telavi is 5 GEL.
Three churches stand on the grounds of Dzveli Shuamta, situated in a tight group at the northern end of a clearing in the woods, high above the Alazani River valley. Telavi can be seen in the distance. Dzveli Shuamta was a favorite place of pilgrimage throughout the Middle Ages until the founding of Akhali Shuamta in the 16th century.
The southernmost structure (the nearest one as you come through the gates) is the oldest church in the complex. Probably founded by one of the 13 Syrian Fathers in the sixth century, it is an excellent example of a triple-church basilica, a style that marks one of the earliest stages in the development of religious architecture in Georgia.
In keeping with this style, the church has three parallel naves, the central one being both the largest and highest. An unusual feature is that the height of the southern and northern lateral naves is the same as the joining western nave, each nave is crowned with barrel vaulting. The altar, raised on two steps, is set deeply into the eastern apse and separated from the central nave by an altar screen. This alabaster screen is a rare intact example. From fragments we know that these were usually richly carved with a high level of artistry. The large stone archbishop's throne in the eastern niche is also noteworthy.
The interior of the church was primarily illuminated by the three entrances into the lateral naves. Additionally, the southern and northern naves feature windows in the east wall and the central nave receives light from two high-set windows in its south wall. The end effect is a shimmering phantasmagorical half-light out of which one feels one of the Syrian founding fathers might well spring in full vestments, intoning prayers.
As was the usual practice in Kakheti, the unadorned exterior is made from even levels of fieldstone. The monks are believed to have been responsible for devising a powerful mortar that used egg yolks as the binding agent, which partially accounts for the durability of these walls. The roof is made from terracotta tiles which, with the white and yellow of the stone and the surrounding green forest, contribute to the subtle palette that infuses this quiet, dignified corner of the world.
Immediately to the north of the basilica is a tetraconch cupola church from the first quarter of the seventh century. Stylistically this belongs lo the tradition embodied by the Jvari Church of Mtskheta. The elongation in the east-west axis is a result of the bema of the eastern altar, which is absent from the transverse apses. The cupola rests on walls and is supported by squinches. The central space is lit by a window in the altar and four windows in the cupola drum, as well as the two entrances. The altar is raised on three steps and is distinguished by a stone throne in the middle of the space. The inner walls contain traces of frescoes that were probably executed in the 11th and 12th centuries. A cross can be discerned in the vault of the cupola.
The exterior configuration of the church is in keeping with this architectural style: each three-faceted apse is flanked by tall niches. The walls are made of large fieldstones and the corners are finished with interlocking hewn stones. Given the close proximity of this church to the basilica, one feels that it could have been literally spawned by its elder.
To the southeast, only a couple of steps away, is another tetraconch church, a simplified miniature of its neighbour, which was probably built at the same time, by the same architect, possibly the Father Superior of the monastery. His motivation might have been the need to create a place for solitary worship. A crypt was built in the north end.
The tetraconch plan of this church features five-faceted apses that are slightly elongated along the east-west axis. The scale does not allow for corner rooms, bin cylindrical niches serve to meet the artistic needs of the plan. The interior walls, illuminated by four cupola windows and an altar window, have been plastered over leaving no traces of frescoes.
The proximity of the churches and the quality of the sacred grove in which they stand suggest not only a close-knit architectural ensemble but a monastic commu-nity whose shared passion for this particular location must have helped in its path toward spiritual union.
Three km before Dzveli Shuamta is Akhali Shuamta. More than 1,000 years separate the two monasteries. Akhali Shuamta possesses a large central- cupola cathedral and belltower, both commissioned by King Levan (1520-1574) and his wife Tinatin in the second quarter of the 16th century. An interesting legend is attached to its founding. When Levan was King of Kakheti he married Tinatin, the daughter of Mamia Gurieli, the ruler of Guria. As a child Tinatin had a dream that she was traveling to her wedding. While resting, she saw a white dogwood tree. A clergyman told her to build the Church of the Birth of the Virgin there. Later, when she went to Kakheti as Levan's bride, she saw a white dogwood near Shuamta that resembled the one in her dream. Soon thereafter she began to build the Akhali Shuamta there. The monastery is once more functioning as a working monastic community.
The Church of Nativity of Theotokos
Built of brick and covered in the 19th century with stucco, this church, with its elongated east-west axis, conforms to the plan of the cruciform, central cupola-style cathedral. The cupola is tall and well-proportioned, and supported by two free-standing pillars in the west. The interior is well illuminated by eight long, narrow windows piercing the cupola's drum. Additional light enters through the three entrances, a high window on each wall, and two extra windows in the north and south. This is a boon to the traveler as some of the frescoes are well-preserved and of great artistic and historical merit. They were commissioned by Queen Tinatin, who allowed herself to be immortalized by a portrait of her with her husband Levan and her son Alexander on the southern portion of the west wall. Other frescoes that remain are the large Ascension on the west wall, and the Mourning at the Grave and Washing of the Feet on the north wall.
The height and elongated dimensions of this church are uncharacteristic of the period and the soaring movement more Gothic in style. This association is reinforced by the division of the interior space into narrow lengths that lead one toward the space to be found in the lofty caverns of the extremely tall cupola.
Tinatin and Levan had two sons: Alexander and Vakhtang. Apparently Levan was not the faithful husband we all might have wished, prompting Tinatin to move into the belltower to the southeast of the church and retire from the world. She asked her sons not to bury her with Levan but in the Church of the Nativity of Theotokos in Shuamta which is where she lies to this day in a tomb to the north of the altar.
Built at the same time as the church, the square belltower has four stories. The first sloor features a large reception hall with a decorated dome. The second floor is cosier with a narrower central section and wide niches in the wall. The third floor consists of small rooms that lead onto the balconies on three sides. An internal staircase goes from here to the six-faceted dome-covered belfry. Special permission, difficult to come by, is needed to go inside the tower.
Akhali Shuamta served an important political purpose. In 1604, it was chosen as the site where King Aleksandre II of Kakheli met with the delegation sent by Tsar Boris Godunov to discuss providing Russian aid to the fellow Christians struggling against the Moslem threat.
No public transport comes to Shuamta; a taxi round trip from Telavi is 5 GEL.