Sioni & Shavteli
In times past the Old Town’s main thoroughfares and merchants areas were Sionis and Shavtelis quchas, both now quiet pedestrian streets, pleasant for strolling.
Named after Mt. Zion in Jerusalem and called Sioni by the townspeople, this cathedral is dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin. The original church on the site was founded between 575 and 639 by Prince Guaram of Kartli. The cathedral has been destroyed, looted, and reconstructed many times. Sultan Djalal Eddin's invasion of Tbilisi in the 13th century was responsible for the destruction of the dome. The cathedral suffered further damage at the hands of Tamerlane in the 14th century, of various Persian shahs in the 16th and 17th centuries, and of the Turks in the 18th century who attempted to convert it into a mosque. The basic elements of the existing structure date to the 13th century. The addition of the southern chapel and significant restoration of the cupola took place in 1657 under the direction of Bishop Elisey Saginashvili. King Vakhtang VI carried out additional restorations of the cupola and cathedral walls in 1710. The interior frescoes are the work of the Russian artist Grigory Gagarin, who executed them between 1850 and 1860, cov-ering the older Georgian frescoes in the process. The stone iconostasis dates to this period as well. It replaced the wooden iconostasis burned by Agha Mohammed Khan in 1795. Of the sacred objects that have survived the numerous pillages, the most important and venerated is St. Nino's cross (which, according to legend, is made from vine branches bound with the saint’s own hair). A replica of this is displayed to the left of the altar, with the real thing kept safe inside. Tradition has it that Nino, the Apostle of Iberia who brought Christianity to Georgia in the fourth century, made this first cross from vine branches and her own hair on her way to Mtskheta. The reliquary itself was given by King Vakhtang III in the early 14th century.
Sioni is a typical example of a cross-cupola church with projecting polygonal apses in the east facade. The yellow tuff from which the cathedral was built comes from the area of Bolnisi, southwest of Tbilisi. The golden hues of the stone work to great effect in infusing the structure with warmth and welcome. Although architec-turally unremarkable, Sioni is distinguished by being the seat of the Catholicos of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Ilya II, whose residence is just north of the cathedral (left of the entrance), above the rose garden. Also north of the cathedral, within the courtyard, is a three-story belltower dating from 1425. All but the ground floor of this structure was destroyed by Agha Mohammed Khan in 1795. It was restored to its present condition in 1939. Of greater architectural interest is the three-story belltower across the street from the cathedral; built in 1812, it is the oldest example of Russian classical architecture in Tbilisi.
If you're interested in taking the spiritual pulse of the Georgian people, you cannot do better than to come to Sioni. Here His Holiness Ilia II celebrates Liturgy, and the largest number of Tbilisians come to pray; wimpled, black-habited Georgian nuns attend to the rose garden of the Catholicos, and visiting church dignitaries from other parts of Georgia come to discuss church business.
On the opposite side of the street is a tall bell tower built in 1812, the first example of Russian classicism in Tbilisi.
Nearby at 8 Sioni Street is the building that served as the best caravanserai in Tbilisi during the 19th century. It was restored in 1984 to house the city's ethnographic museum.
HEREKLE II SQUARE
North of the Sioni Cathedral, Sionis qucha becomes Erekle II qucha, which leads to Erekle II moedani, site of the walled residence of the Catholicos-Patriarch (head of the Georgian church) and of a leafy little park. The large Church of the Archangels here was destroyed by the Mongols in the 13th century. Later, three smaller churches were built from the ruins, one of which is the Karis Eklesia, at the north end of the park.
At 11 Herekle II Square is a small two-story building with balcony that was the residence of the last king of Georgia, Giorgi XII, after Agha Mohammed Khan destroyed the city. It is now The Museum of Drama, Music, and Cinema. In the west corner of the square is The House of Journalists. There is a very good restaurant in the basement of this building where you would be welcome. Both Russian and Georgian cuisine are served.
Between Herekle II Square and the Right (formerly Stalin) Embankment is an obelisk erected in 1959 to mark the site of the first Georgian printing press. Founded in 1709 by King Vakhtang VI, the press was located in a palace building that was destroyed in the last Persian invasion.
Off Herekle II Square, turn onto Shavteli Street to visit Anchiskhati Basilica, the oldest ecclesiastical building still standing in Tbilisi.
From here Shavteli, once the throbbing medieval hub of the Old Town, continues north. Here you’ll find the Anchiskhati Basilica, the oldest surviving church in Tbilisi, built by King Gorgasali’s son Dachi in the 6th century. The name comes from the icon of Anchi Cathedral in Klarjeti (now in Turkey), brought here in the 17th century and now in the Fine Arts Museum.
ANCHISKHATI BASILICA AND BELLTOWER
Anchiskhati Basilica, at 5-7 Shavteli Alley, dates from just after the founding of Tbilisi in the fifth century, when Vakhtang Gorgasali moved his capital here from Mtskheta. Vakhtang died in 502, and the order to build Anchiskhati is credited to his son and successor, Dachi Ujarmeli.
The church is dedicated to the Mother of God and in the sixth century was called "The Conversion of Georgi." In the 17th century it was renamed for the justly famous Anchiskhati icon, brought from the monastery of Anchi in southwestern Georgia, which was then in Turkish hands. The embossed gold setting of this icon is the work of the famous 12th-century goldsmith Века Opizari and is a magnificent example of his artistry. The icon is now in the Treasury of the Museum of Georgian Art.
Anchiskhati is a three-naved basilica whose ground plan conforms to sixth-century norms. The middle nave runs into a horseshoe-shaped altar apse while the side naves end in right-angled side chambers. The eastern facade does not reveal the internal shape. The basilica has been rebuilt and restored many times, most thoroughly in the 17th century when the upper portions of the building and its internal columns were redone in brick. In 1958, 19th- century frescoes were removed from the walls to reveal some 17th-century work. At that lime also the floor was lowered by 1.25 meters.
Set into the surrounding western wall, which serves also as entrance to the church precincts, is a very unusual belltower commissioned by Catholicos Domenti in 1675. A keeled-arch passageway breaches the ground floor of the belltower. The patterned brickwork of the arch reveals the strong Islamic influence of the time. Above the passage, at the second story is a residence, presumably for the bell ringer. The tower is crowned by a belfry made of gray-blue stone that is in marked contrast to the brick structure below.