Motsameta Monastery is smaller and quieter than the one in Gelati, although its cliff-edge setting is more spectacular by far. It is located 6km out of Kutaisi, off the Gelati road. Take the turning marked by a photo of the church and follow this track for a couple of kilometres. This little monastery has a spectacular setting on a cliff-top promontory above a bend of the Tskhaltsitela River. Situated dizzily high above the ravine of the Tskhaltsitela River, the monastery offers awe-inspiring views of the river and the surrounding countryside from any number of buildings and points on the grounds. Extremely isolated and seldom visited by tourists, this place will give you an unadulterated taste of the monastic life.
The Tskhaltsitela river's name, meaning 'Red Water', derives from an 8th-century Arab massacre. Among the victims were the brothers Davit and Konstantin Mkheidze, dukes of Argveti (read below). Their bodies were thrown in the river, but the story goes that lions brought them up to the church where their bones were subsequently kept. They are now saints, with their skulls in a casket behind the red velvet curtain, and your wish will be granted if you crawl three times under their tomb, set on two lions on the south side of the church, without touching it.
As you walk to the monastery, you'll see strips of colored cloth tied to the myrtle bushes and fig and pomegranate trees that flank the lane. These are votive offerings, placed there in hopes that a prayer might be granted.
The church itself is on a site on which there had been a church and village since the fourth century. The name Motsameta is derived from the Georgian word for martyrdom. Two brothers, David and Constantine Mkheidze, were lords of this region in the eighth century. Sometime between 720 and 730, succumbing to a superior Arab force, they were captured and tortured for refusing to convert to Islam. They were thrown into the Rioni River with stones tied around their necks and their bodies washed up on the riverbank below the monastery. They were buried as martyrs in the crypt of the church, which was also destroyed by the Arabs at the time of the brothers' death.
In the 11th century, King Bagrat III built a monastery on the foundations of the destroyed eighth-century church in honor of the two brothers, now national heroes and saints in the Georgian Orthodox Church. Their tomb rests on two carved lions at the top of a side altar in the church. The lions are connected with the legend of David and Constantine Mkheidze, for it is believed that they appeared to bring the bodies of the brothers up from the river to the church. Believers also hold that if you walk three times through the small passage beneath the saints' tomb without touching the walls, your prayers will be answered.
In 1923, the Cheka (the Soviet secret police) came into the church, seized the bones of the two saints and put them in the museum in Kutaisi. After protests by a local teacher, the relics were returned, but the once-perfect skeletons were hope-lessly jumbled. The Father Superior of the Monastery relates that the Cheka agents who took the bones all suffered terrible fates: one was killed by his son, one went insane, and the third died of tuberculosis. The church was once completely covered in frescoes, but a fire set in 1923 destroyed everything except some fragments in the cupola. The bell tower also dates from the 11th century.
To the left of the gatehouse is a steep path down to the river, which makes this a very popular excursion in summer, when Kutaisi swelters.
Walking between Gelati and Motsameta
This is a pleasant half-day hike that affords great views of both monasteries - it is best to start at Gelati. From the monastery gate take the signed path to the right past a cemetery. The rough stone path descends and soon divides; take the left fork, which winds down through a village to reach the main road near the Gelati turnoff. Walk along the road for 2-3km, eventually climbing to reach a police post where you turn left downhill for Motsameta. After another 2km or so you will cross railway tracks just before reaching a path and steps down to the monastery entrance.
A shorter variation would be to follow the railway tracks to the left (south) when you cross them on the main road between the Gelati turnoff and the police post. Either way, it is quite possible to do this walk and have time to catch the 14.30 marshrutka back to Kutaisi from the police post if you take the 11.00 service to Gelati and do not linger too long there.