This monastery, beautifully situated in a grove of cypresses 8km northwest of Telavi, was one of two famous medieval Georgian academies, the other being Gelati. Shota Rustaveli, the national poet, is thought to have studied here.
The monastery was founded in the second half of the sixth century by Zenon, one of the 13 Syrian Fathers. The importance of Ikalto as anything more than a local center of learning did not occur until the first quarter of the 12th century, when David the Builder founded a second academy here to give to east Georgia what Gelati accomplishing in west Georgia. To this end, King David sent Arsen Ikaltoeli from Gelati to assume the leadership. Among his students is supposed to have been Shota Rustaveli, the national poet of Georgia and author of The Knight in the Panther's Skin.
Although the academy is in ruins and the interior of the main Church of the Transfiguration was completely whitewashed in the 19th century, the church's exterior and the cypress grove in the cloister grounds make this a particularly charming spot, redolent with history.
The cloister complex consists of three churches, the ruins of the academy, and the refectory. The main church is dedicated to Ghvtaeba or the Transfiguration of Christ.
THE CHURCH OF THE TRANSFIGURATION OF CHRIST
Built in the eighth to ninth centuries on the site of an earlier church in which the founder of the monastery, Zenon, is buried, the Church of the Transfiguration has undergone many renovations since its construction. The cupola, in fact, was restored as recently as the 19th century, although it saw change in the tenth to 12th centuries. Due to the number of renovations and their extent, it is difficult to place this church within one clearly defined architectural style.
The cupola rises above the central hall on four freestanding pillars, the oldest example of this technique in Kakheti. The cupola has 12 facets with a window in each. The architectonic decorative devices above these windows and the colored stones around them bespeak the aesthetic of a much later era than that of the unadorned fieldstone and tuff of the walls.
The little belfry above the western entrance is a 19th-century contemporary of the cupola. Between the belfry and the western portico is a small second-floor living quarter for the Father Superior. The room has a window, which is in the center of the western vestibule. The altar apse in the east has a horseshoe shape, and beneath the altar window a seat is carved out for the Father Superior.
South of the Church of the Transfiguration are the small church of Kvelatsminda and the ruins of the refectory that was part of the academy complex built during the time of David the Builder (1089-1125). West along the southern wall of the complex in the two remaining buildings of the academy, destroyed in 1616 by the Persians under Shah Abbas. A plaque pays homage to Shota Rustaveli's study here.
East of the Church of the Transfiguration is a small church dating to the third quarter of the sixth century, dedicated to the Trinity (Sameba). Restorations have changed its original appearance so that now it is a basic rectangle with a gable roof; in exterior staircase in the west leads to a two-room cell.