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Church of Jvari

Jvari church in Mtskheta, GeorgiaEighteen km north of Tbilisi (seven km) off the M27, exit on the right for the Church of Jvari (586-604). Situated on a cliff above the point at which the Aragvi and Mtkvari (Kura) rivers meet and providing a magnificent vantage where you can see Mtskheta and the Cathedral of Sveti-tskhoveli, the Jvari Monastery is the culmination of a number of artistic and architectural aspirations in early Christian Georgian architecture. Distinguished by its harmonious proportions, clean lines, and superior masonry, Jvari seems to grow organically out of the landscape, providing a marvellous silhouette against the sky.

At that place, where
The streams, Aragvi and Kura,
Embracing as two sisters,
Flow together with a roar,
There was a monastery,

-Lermontov, Mtsyri

Visible for miles around on its hilltop overlooking Mtskheta from the east, Jvari Church (9am-10pm) is to many Georgians the holiest of holies, the country’s spiritual heart. Jvari, or the Holy Cross Church, stands where a sacred wooden cross was erected in the 4th century (either by St Nino before she converted Mtskheta, or by King Mirian soon afterwards).

It's one of the finest examples of old Georgian architecture, a marvellously simple but sophisticated edifice, in advance of most European ecclesiastical architecture of the period. Built between the AD580S and 604 by Staphanoz I, it was the first 'apse-buttressed' cruciform church, in which the gaps between the arms of the cross are filled by small chapels, producing a virtually perfect square ground plan; this allows a wonderfully lofty and spacious interior in which four pillars support an octagonal drum and a round dome covering the entire central space.

A ninth-century chronicle, The Conversion of Kartli, tells that St. Nino, who brought Christianity to eastern Georgia in the fourth century, had a cross built on this site. The Cross of Mtskheta was a symbol of the victory of Christianity over heathen gods and became a place of pilgrimage throughout Georgia and beyond. In the second hall of the sixth century, Prince Guaram, ruler of Kartli, built a small church north of the cross; the small Jvari (Cross) Church is now in ruins. A larger church was erected by Guaram's son, Stepanoz I, with his brother Demetre and Stepanoz's successor, Adarnese. This church included the cross. Its stone foundations can be seen today in the center of the existing structure.

The church suffered some damage during an Arab attack in the tenth century but is generally well preserved. Portraits of the founders in the form of figured-relief panels are found on the eastern facade: Christ with Stepanoz I in the middle panel. Demetre and Adarnese in the left and right panels, respectively. Above them are the archangels Michael and Gabriel. A relief on the south side, crowned by a gable, also shows Christ and Stepanoz. The transference to an external wall of the Byzantine mosaic apse depicting the founder of the church and Christ is a unique feature of Jvari. Also noteworthy is the relief in the tympanum above the south entry, the door through which you enter the church: a cross within a medallion is carried by two angels. This Exaltation of the Cross is a major theme of Georgian sculpture in the Middle Ages, and the quality of the carving represents a high point of the early feudal period.

The Jvari church is a tetra conch (four-apsed) with a slightly elongated east-west axis. The deep niches between the four semi-circular conches lead to corner rooms. The south-western conch, the only one with an external entrance, was, according to an inscription, designed to be used only by women. The broad and open octagon of the central room is crowned by a cupola that rises from the supporting walls by means of three tiers of squinches. The well-proportioned interior of this church evokes tranquillity, harmony, and a mysterious spiritual grandeur, no doubt reinforced by the absence of mosaic or other decoration, although the eastern apse was originally covered in mosaic. These same qualities inform the exterior. Its uniformly dressed stone blocks and the careful balance of the four facades forming the arms of the cross are an extraordinary achievement, especially in the face of the technical difficulties of the site's steep western slope. The architect's success make this a paragon that influenced subsequent ecclesiastical buildings throughout Georgia. The Russians closed Jvari as a church in 1811. It served as a historic monument until January 7, 1988, when amidst much jubilation it was once again consecrated.

Above the south door is an exceptionally fine bas-relief of a pair of winged angels bearing a cross. Inside it is big and bare, with a huge plinth in the centre bearing a cross, and a low wooden iconostasis. The interior is rather bare, but from the church site there are spectacular views over Mtskheta and the convergence of the Aragvi and Mtkvari Rivers. Jvari church is an absolute must-see because of its historical importance and the beauty of its location. This can be the first stop of your journey along the Military Highway or a day trip from Tbilisi, combining a visit to Mtskheta and Zedazeni fortress and monastery.

The road up to the church from Mtskheta takes a highly circuitous route; the easiest way to get there is by taxi. If you’re feeling fit, you can walk up there from Mtskheta in about one hour by crossing the footbridge from Teatron Park, then following a path from the far (east) side of the busy highway, which winds up to the road behind the church.