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Alaverdi Cathedral

At the beginning of the 11th century, when Georgia was entering its cultural and political golden age, King Kvirike of Kakheti had a majestic cathedral built - at 50m high it was the tallest church in Georgia until the recent construction of the Tsminda Sameba Cathedral in Tbilisi.

Alaverdi Cathedral (8am-7pm), 20km northwest of Telavi, is the main spiritual centre in Kakheti and a source of great pride and love for the local people. The exterior is classically proportioned with majestic rounded arches but minimal decoration, typical of Kakhetian churches.

Situated two km from the Alazani River, this has been a holy spot since pagan times. Joseph of Alaverdi, one of the 13 Syrian Fathers, is credited with establishing the first church on this site, which was covered in forests then.

Built during the period of Georgian unification and expansion when large-scale building programs not only fulfilled a heavenly directive but also served to enhance Georgian prestige, the Cathedral of Alaverdi is part of the architectural tradition exemplified by the Church at Oshki (now in Turkey), Bagrat's Mother of God Cathedral in Kutaisi, and Sveti-tskhoveli in Mtskheta. Of these, the Cathedral of Alaverdi bears the greatest artistic kinship with Bagrat's Cathedral in Kutaisi, in terms of its general ground plan formulation.

The Cathedral of Alaverdi is a triconch that differs in one distinctive element from the usual plan of these structures. Instead of the north and south apses projecting from the longitudinal axis, these apses are incorporated into the sides of the rectangle formed by the outer walls. This mitigates the pronounced effect of the cruciform in the exterior, although original ambulatories surrounding the north, south, and west sides would have produced the same result.

Today, only the western ambulatory remains. A central portico opens onto the long western arm of the church, which is flanked by lateral naves. Above, in the west, the chorus has a view of the central space through the arches of the gallery, though in a later restoration the north portion was completely sealed and in the south the openings were reduced. On each side of the altar apse are side conches that connect to the whole through narrow antechambers.

Although the configuration is complicated it does not detract from the simplicity, majesty, and monumentality of the interior because of the way in which it has been separated from the central scheme. This interior grandeur is achieved through the emphasis on verticality provided by the great height of the f6-window drum and cupola, and by the shallowness of the north and south apses that are obscured by the massive pillars that support the drum.

The Cathedral has undergone a number of restorations, most significantly between 1476 and 1495, during the reigns of King Nestan-Darejan, King Aleksandre, and Queen Anna, to repair damage caused by the Mongol invasion. At that time repairs to the walls, the drum, and the cupola were carried out with brick. The dimensions and proportion of the cupola remained the same as the original. An earthquake in 1742 necessitated additional restoration, which was begun in 1750 by Queen Tamara (not to be confused with the grand-daughter of David the Builder) and finished by her son Herekle II. Repair was primarily made to the vault, although numerous bays were also blocked up.

The frescoes date from the 11th to 13th centuries and the 15th century; they were whitewashed by the Russians in the 19th century, and gradually uncovered and restored from 1967. They include St George over the west door, the Virgin and Child over the altar, and others in the south transept. See also the single hand, carved in relief on a flagstone to the left inside the entrance; the story goes that a local prince was captured by the Turks, and before being killed cut off his hand, so that it could be taken home and buried in holy ground. This is also the burial place of Queen Ketevan the Martyr, who was tortured to death by Shah Abbas in 1624.

The cathedral is constructed of porous tuff or travertine, the ubiquitous Kakhetian building material. Inside, one is struck by the structure's beautiful spacious harmony and the light that streams in from the 16 windows in the cupola. The cathedral has been damaged several times by earthquakes, especially in the 15th and 18th centuries. Whitewashing in the 19th century was yet another form of damage and it was not until 1966 that this was partially rectified and some frescoes uncovered. Note the 16th century St George and dragon over the west door. The Virgin and Child above the altar is from the 11th century.

The walls were whitewashed in the 18th century as a method to cover the differing building materials of various restorations and to create a greater structural unity. Like almost all Kakhetian churches, exterior decoration is kept to a minimum. Blind arcading, niches, and ornamental arches are used to help accentuate the structural lines and relieve the potential for severity created by the uninterrupted north and south walls.

For a long time, the Alaverdi cathedral used to be the tallest religious building in Georgia, but it was overtaken by the recently consecrated Tsminda Sameba in Tbilisi. Nevertheless, the Alaverdi cathedral is much more beautiful and authentic.

The fortress walls and other buildings

The cathedral is surrounded by fortress walls built at the beginning of the 18th century. Certain sections were built in the 17th century, and others are of an even earlier date. Northwest of the cathedral, still within the fortress walls, are the ruins of the summer palace of the local governor of Shah Abbas I. Constructed in 1615 of brick, it comprised an octagonal room crowned with a cupola. Parallel to the north fa?ade of the cathedral are the ruins of a marani, the building used to store wine jars.

This building predates the fortress walls, as do the monastery lodgings, bishop's room, and refectory that run along the south wall of the fence. The refectory, west of the southern entrance, occupied the first floor of the two-story building. The vault of this room has some very interesting frescoes from the end of the 16th to the beginning of the 17th centuries. The belltower above the entrance is from the 19th century, and a passage in the fortress wall joins it to the refectory.

The view of white-walled, silver-domed Alaverdi towering out of the flat Alazani valley with the foothills of the Greater Caucasus mountains rising in the distance is one of the greatest visual moments Georgia affords. It stands as a powerful symbol of the technical and artistic achievements of die Georgian people. A major celebration takes place on September 14 in the cathedral precincts.