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Georgian church architecture is one of the most distinctive features of the landscape and a highlight of the country - not least because of Georgians' talent for placing their sacred buildings in the most scenically sublime locations.

Georgian architecture must be regarded as the supreme expression of the nation's artistic vision and heritage. It is a direct result of the Georgians' affinity for and skill with stone. Certain edicts of Eastern Orthodoxy inhibited sculptural representation; but this did not restrict architectural expression. The process further evolved from the people's need to build and rebuild monuments to their nation and their faith, following ceaseless incursions by conquerors. Whatever the underlying reason for such a magnificent 1,300-year tradition, the degree of artistry and creativity that gave birth to these treasures is awe-inspiring. The vagaries of fate, or perhaps the conscious will of some divine power, have left us many times more ecclesiastical buildings than secular ones by which to trace the flourishing of Georgian architectural genius. Every indication suggests, however, that secular and ecclesiastical buildings sprang (rem the same native roots and share many features.

Well into this century, Georgian art and architecture were often classified as Byzantine or derivative of the Armenian tradition. Although such classifications are now generally held to be erroneous, debate continues. Most Georgian scholars now claim that the bias toward Byzantium stems from a lack of sophistication on the part of Western travelers and scholars in the 19th century, who were unaware of the significance of certain key Georgian prototypical structures.

Early churches took two main forms: the basilica and the central-domed church. Roman-influenced basilicas were rectangular in plan and divided into three parallel sections. In three- aisled basilicas (such as the 6th-century Anchiskhati in Tbilisi) the three parts were separated by arcades. In triplechurch basilicas, such as the two at Nekresi, the three parts were divided by solid walls and each had its own barrel vault. Most central-domed churches had an equal-armed, cross-shaped ground plan, with the dome sitting on a cylindrical stone drum rising above the central space. In the 'tetraconch' variety, each arm of the cross has an apse (semicircular end), and the cross may have its angles filled with corner rooms to result in a square building.

Scholars generally agree that the famous cupola structures that dominate Georgian ecclesiastical architecture can be traced to domestic dwellings with circular floor plans that date back to the fourth millennium ВС. These dwellings ultimately evolved into the darbazi structures that have survived into modern times. Their significance lay in the transition of the square substructure into a beehive dome. Ultimately, two major forms of ecclesiastical building developed in Georgia: the central domed structure and the basilica.

The basilica form came to Georgia primarily through the influence of the Roman and Hellenistic worlds. Its reformulation in Georgia blended Syrian influences with local traditions of construction found in pre-feudal secular structures: markets, courtly halls, and audience chambers. The basilica itself has two forms in Georgia. The three-aisled basilica has no transept and is shaped like a hall, with middle and side naves of the same height covered by a common gabled ceiling. The only surviving example is the Sioni Basilica at Bolnisi. Variations on this style that are contemporary with Bolnisi or from a later date do exist but in a less pure form. A second form of basilica, which evolved in the late sixth century and exists only in Georgia, is the triple- church basilica. It, too, has no transept, but-unlike the three-aisled basilica in which side naves are linked to the central nave by arcades-the side naves are shut off from the central aisle by walls, with access only through doors. Although all three aisles are barrel-vaulted, they are cut off from one another, creating three "separate" churches. In addition, the middle room is two or three times higher and wider than the side rooms. Kvemo Bolnisi is an excellent sixth-century example; and a more sophisticated version can be seen at Nekresi which dates to the seventh century.

Central domed churches appeared in Georgia in the early feudal period and evolved into many complex variations. By the fifth century they had already achieved a clearly individualized profile. Devoid of a dominant main axis, the central section is either square or hexagonal (later types such as the cross-cupola churches developed from these). The substructure acted as the base upon which the drum and ultimately the cupola rested. The transition from the room shape to the circular drum was achieved through the use of squinches, small arches that grow wider as they project in concentric arches across the interior corners of a square or polygonal room. In Georgia this technology reached a high degree of sophistication early on. The pendentive, which came to certain parts of Asia through the Greeks, was not used in Georgia until the ninth century. A pendentive is a kind of spandrel or triangular area at the corners of a square or polygonal room used to achieve the same effect as the squinch.

Variations on the central domed church appeared in the sixth and seventh centuries. "Free-cross" churches are cruciform in plan. At Idled and Samtsevrisi the north, south, and west sections of the cruciform end in a quadrate with the eastern apse ending in a horseshoe. Another variation, also developed in the sixth century and extended in subsequent centuries into highly diverse formulations, was the tetraconch configuration (imagine a square surrounded by a clover leaf). The sixth-century Church of Dzveli-Gavazi is an early example. The Cathedral of Ninotsminda (sixth century) is the earliest surviving large centralized ecclesiastical building.

The turn of the seventh century ushered in an epoch of extraordinary architectural achievement as the early tentative forms with which Georgian architects struggled to achieve their vision found harmonious completion. The tetraconch Church of Jvari is perhaps the shining example of this artistic triumph. Original in design and conception, it soon became a model for many other architects. Ateni Sioni, Dzveli Shuamta, Marlvili, and Dranda are all churches based on the Jvari type.

Although the second half of the seventh century saw the Arab invasion of Georgia, the foundation had already been laid for further expression of a decidedly Georgian aesthetic tradition. The Arab incursion affected the economic life of the population far more than the arts. Georgian architects moved away from city centers to work for individual rulers in the countryside. They thus felt free of the constraints of the classical rules that had governed previous building. As such, the eighth and ninth centuries were an interesting transitional period, a time of experimentation in which certain hybrid forms were achieved, such as the fusion of the central domed church and the triple-church basilica. The most notable surviving monuments of this kind are the Church of Vachnadziani and the double-domed Church of Kvelatsminda at Gurjaani. These buildings served as important stepping-stones to the triumphs in grand-scale building that were to come in architecture's greatest period between the tenth and the 13th centuries.

A fusion of the basilical and central-domed forms yielded the elongated-cross church of Georgia's golden age from the 11th to 13th centuries, with a drum and pointed dome rising above the meeting of the cross's arms. Such are the beautiful tall Alaverdi, Svetitskhoveli (Mtskheta) and Bagrati (Kutaisi) cathedrals.

In this epoch no single structural element came to dominate in a way that deflected an appreciation of the whole by absorption with details. The pendentive replaced the squinch as the means of choice for making the transition from the square substructure to the drum. The consequent increase in fluidity largely eliminated any vestiges of ponderousness that might have been felt in the interior. Exterior ornamentation reached a supreme level of artistic confidence. Fanciful use of a wide variety of decorative motifs-animal, vegetal, and geometric-worked in conjunction with architectonic devices to render a harmonious and powerful organic totality.

The Golden Age of Georgian culture came to an abrupt end in the 1240s with the Mongol invasion. The most important buildings erected under Mongol domination occurred in the province of Samtskhe under the rule of the Jakeli family. Through clever political strategems, the clan leader, Sargis Jakeli, managed to stay on the right side of the Mongol khan, thereby managing to found the large domed Church of Zarzma in the early 1300s. This structure and a very similar church at Sapara are throwbacks to models from 100 years earlier, as was the case with structures going up in other provinces throughout Georgia at this time. As a rule, the particular brand of Georgian creativity that had flourished from the tenth to the early 13th centuries was in decline.

Invasions put a stop to much monumental building from the 13th to 18th centuries, although the frequent danger of attack did inspire the picturesque, tall defensive towers that characterise Svaneti and other high Caucasus valleys. Some Persian style is evident in the many balconies and galleries that still adorn houses in the Old Town of Tbilisi and elsewhere.

Despite many attempts by Georgia to throw off foreign dominance, Iranian influence was the strongest new element in Georgian architecture from the end of the 15th through the 17th centuries. Brick became the building material of choice, rather than stone, and the arrangement of bricks into patterns is distinctly Islamic, although the Georgians adapted the technique to serve their own Christian iconography The province of Kakheti possesses the greatest number of excellent examples of Islam- influenced architecture. The Citadel of Gremi and the belltower of Ninotsminda show how Georgians interpreted the Persian style.

When Georgia was incorporated into the Russian Empire in the 19th century, Russian neoclassicism came to Tbilisi with a missionary fury. (The three-story belltower across from Sioni Cathedral, erected in 1812, is the oldest example.) Georgian culture was too strong, however, not to influence the Russian strict notions of classical order. Seduced by the charms of the Caucasus, the Russians' desire to impose a foreign aesthetic faltered: the resulting hybrids found in Tbilisi are one of the principal architectural joys of that city.

During the 20th century, Georgia did not escape the self-aggrandizing stone piles that marked the Stalinist era. Many municipal and state buildings were constructed in the 1950s to cow an already sorely tried populace into fearing the power of gov-ernment. Although a tour of Georgia's outstanding contemporary buildings would not take up much time, one building, the Ministry for Highways in Tbilisi demonstrates that architectural creativity is alive and well in the land.

Contemporary architecture since the fall of Soviet power has focused partly on the building of new churches - in modern materials but traditional forms, most notably Tbilisi's mammoth Tsminda Sameba Cathedral - but also on Western-influenced prestige projects like new luxury hotels and shopping centres, and Tbilisi's eye-catching new presidential palace.