Ananuri is a superb fortress complex dating from the 16th and 17th centuries and located along the Georgian Military Highway in the Arkalas Canyon of the Aragvi River valley, just beyond the Zhinvali reservoir (69 km). It is a spectacular example of the architecture of the period. With its crenellated walls, drum and cone cupolas, and defensive towers seen against the surrounding forested mountains, it is among the most memorable monuments along the entire stretch of your journey. It certainly stands as testimony to the life of the warring dukes (eristavis) of that feudal period, conjuring up deeds of chivalry and treachery.
The fortress belonged to the eristavis (dukes) of Aragvi, who ruled the land as far as the Tergi Valley from the 13th century onwards, and was the scene of several battles. In 1739 a rival eristavi, Shamshe of Ksani, set fire to Ananuri and murdered the Aragvi eristavi's family. Four years later, the peasants of Aragvi killed their lords and invited King Teimuraz II of Kartli to rule directly over them. Then the peasants themselves rose up in 1746, leading Teimuraz and Erekle II of Kakheti to join forces to subjugate them.
The dukes of the Aragvi were, in fact, very violent, having committed many bloody deeds. They built this complex to control the main road and as a sanctuary during their frequent fights with rival dukes. Ananuri was their residence at the end of the 17th century. The fortress was restored in the 18th century and was in use until the beginning of the 19th century.
The complex consists of two fortresses, an upper and a lower. The lower citadel is not well-preserved. Portions of an east-west fortress wall and a small one-naved church on the east side called Mkurnali (Doctor) remain. The Mkurnali church dates from the middle of the 16th century.
Within the fortress walls of the upper citadel are a small cupola church from the first half of the 17th century, a large cupola church built in 1689, a tower in the north Caucasian style, towers belonging to the encircling ramparts, water cisterns, and a small 17th-cenlury belltower.
The Khevsureti and Tusheti-style tower is the oldest building in the ensemble but still has not been positively dated. It has four floors, small embrasures on each wall, and a distinctive pyramidical roof that is an important feature in the overall impression the ensemble conveys.
Within the fortress are two 17th-century churches, the larger of which, the Assumption Church, is covered with wonderful stone carving, including a large cross on every wall. Inside are some vivid 17th- and 18-th century frescoes including a Last Judgement on the south wall. You can climb the tallest of the fortress towers, at the top end of the complex, for fine views: it was here that the last defenders were killed in the fight with the Ksani eristavi.
On the way to Anauri note on the right a white obelisk in the village of Tsitsamouri. This marks the spot where the great Georgian writer and patriot Ilya Chavchavadze (1837-1907) was assassinated by Georgian radicals who feared that his social reforms would inline class tensions and delay the revolution. A little farther on is a right-hand turn-off for the village of Saguramo (seven km from the highway). The village boasts Chavchavadze's home, which has been converted into a museum and is wonderfully evocative of Georgian literary life at the end of the 19th century. Saguramo can serve as a jumping-off place for Zedazeni Monastery, but since it is southeast of the village, better to visit it on a day-trip out of Tbilisi or Mtskheta.
LARGE CUPOLA CHURCH GHVTISMSHOBELI ( MOTHER OF GOD)
Built by the architect Kaikhossro Bakhsarashvili for the son of the Aragvi Duke Kardzem, this 17th-century church is an example of the centralized dome style developed during the tenth and 11th centuries.
Dedicated to the Assumption of the Mother of God, it was built in 1689 and is big and bare inside, with two pillars supporting the barrel dome, and frescoes of saints and the Last Judgement on the south wall. The interior was damaged by fire in the 18th century, and many fine frescoes were lost. The exterior carving decorating the facade is among the best from this period and is certainly the most distinctive feature of the church. Most notable is the large cross on the south facade, entwined with grape vines. Charming reliefs of various animals-tigers and sheep-add to the composition, conveying the image of the tree of life. Archangels support the grape vines from below while the cross itself sits atop a serpent, symbolizing the triumph of Christianity over evil; there's another angel up at the top left corner. The pagan elements in the design clearly show Persian influence. There are also stones with carved rams' heads, an older pagan motif, now piled up inside the gateway.
The iconography is another wonderful example of the Georgians' sacred relationship with the grape. Remember that when St. Nino entered Georgia, she made a cross from grape vines and tied it with her hair. Certainly the stone carvers at Ananuri had not forgotten.
THE SMALLER CHURCH
Immediately above Ghvtismshobeli church is a 12th-century watchtower; the wall of the church pressed up against this carries wonderful carvings, presumably for the eye of God alone. Above that is the smaller Hvtaeba church, built in the early 17th century. Although externally of stone, the interior is of brick and it too is bare, with the remaining frescoes largely ruined by graffiti, mainly Russian. It is entered through a portico in the south. Of greatest interest is the stone baldaquin erected by the widow of the Duke Edishera, who died prematurely in 1674 without giving her a child. It has a two- bay nave and aisles, with a barrel dome above the crossing, lit by deep-set lancet windows. At the top of the slope, set into the ring wall, is a solid tower known as 'The Intrepid'; this has five chambers, one above the other, all made safe with concrete and connected by wooden ladders. It's well worth climbing to the top for views of the church domes and the surrounding hills, and you can also walk most of the way around the battlements. At the lower end of the complex is a small 17th-century bell-turret, nowadays looking out over the lake as well as a ruined Armenian church. Down some steps by the bell-turret is a hiding place where soldiers could lurk before rushing out to attack intruders.
Ananauri was in the wars many times, most famously in 1717 when Prince Bardsig, the Eristav of Aragvi, seized the wife of Prince Chanche, Eristav of Ksani; Chanche allied himself with the Lesghians of the northern Caucasus, and captured Ananauri; he reclaimed his wife successfully, but the Muslim Lesghians burnt the churches and destroyed many of the frescoes.