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The Metekhi Church of the Virgin

On the Isani promonotory at a bend in the Mtkvari (Kura) River, the Metekhi Church (1278-1289) is the focal point of Tbilisi.  The view of Metekhi church, with the equestrian statue of Vakhtang Gorgasali below it, is one of the most widespread images of Tbilisi. This rocky outcrop had strategic importance from the earliest days of the city's history; on this site in the fifth centunry Vakhtang Gorgasali, the city's founder, built one of the first five churches that Tbilisi possessed. Here, one of Georgia's most beloved saints, St. Shushanik, was buried after she had been tortured by her husband when she refused to convert with him to Zoroastrianism in 544.

When David the Builder drove the Arabs out of Tbilisi in 1122, he moved the royal residence from the area enclosed by the walls of the Narikala Fortress to this plateau on the left bank of the Mtkvari. In this palace Queen Tamara married her second husband, the Ossetian prince David Soslan. In 1235 the Mongols destroyed the Metekhi Palace complex and cathedral. The palace was re-erected after several decades and the palace church, the present Metekhi Church, was built from 1278 to 1289 by Demetre II the Self-Sacrificer (so called because he answered a summons by the Mongols to near- certain death rather than cause an invasion). The ground plan is actually quite complex, with a cross filled out to a square, and lateral apses projecting at the eastern end. Four free-standing pillars support a central dome (rebuilt in the mid 18th century). The external stonework is very worn, and the interior is bare.

Metekhi was captured and damaged during a Turkish invasion in the 17th century and reconquered and reconstructed by Herekle II in 1748. The present churchyard was long occupied by a castle which was ruined by Shah Aga Mohammed Khan in 1795 during persian invasion of Tbilisi and brought the final destruction of the palace. In 1819 the Tsarist regime used the site to build the infamous Metekhi jail, thathoused Beria's offices and less willing guests such as Kalinin, Maxim Gorki and Kamo, the last of whom escaped down the cliff on half a dozen sheets tied together. This was demolished in 1937 when the present bridge and the Mtkvari embankment road were built. The church was used as a youth theatre until it was finally restored for worship in recent years.

In 1958, to mark the 1,500th anniversary of the founding of Tbilisi, the equestrian statue of Vakhtang Gorgasali was unveiled next to the church. It is the work of the sculptor Elguja Amashukeli, who also created the huge statue of Mother Georgia (Kartlis Deda) on the Sololaki ridge. Below it, by the bridge, the tiny new chapel of St Abo Tbileli (a 7th-century Arab convert, killed here by Muslims) is being built by hand.

The Metekhi Church is a cross-cupola church. While this style was the most common throughout the Middle Ages, the Metekhi Church is somewhat anachronistic with its three projecting apses in the east facade and the four freestanding pillars supporting the cupola within. The church is made of brick and dressed stone. The restorations of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries mostly employed brick. A new dome was built entirely of brick at the time of Herekle's reconquest in 1748. The facade is for the most part smooth, with decorative elements concentrated around the windows of the eastern apses. Horizontal bands below the gables run around all four sides and serve as a unifying element. The north portico of the main entrance is not a later addition but was built at the same time as the rest of the church.

Having been turned into a state youth theater in the early 1970s, Metekhi is once again functioning as a church. From here there is a magnificent view of the Old Town, the Narikala Fortress, and the monumental Statue of Mother Georgia on the top of the Sololaki range. The wooden armature of this statue was completed in 1958 and the aluminium panels were affixed in 1963. She holds a sword in one hand and a goblet of wine in the other: the sword is for the enemies of Georgia and the wine for those who come as friends. It would be hard to find a more all-inclusive symbol of the national character.

Looking upstream, beyond the roundabout at the north end of the Metekhi Bridge and the mouth of the tunnel under the Avlabari cliffs, you'll see the new Peace Bridge across the river; Baratashvilis Hill descends to the bridge of the same name from Avlabari Square; to the north, looking down on the bridge, is new presidential palace with its striking egg-shaped glass cupola. Much speculation has been made as to how much this building cost to construct, although former president Saakashvili himself claims it was a mere GEL13 million.