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The Fortress of Kvetara

Take the road from Akhmeta west toward Tianeti for nine km. Here the road branches. Go left on the upper road and climb for two km (1.2 miles), and left again for another one km. Although it is out of the way, your efforts are rewarded by one of the most extraordinary churches in Georgia: a jewel of a centralized dome church whose small dimensions do nothing to detract from the overriding impression of monumentality. This is a Napoleon of a church, and the surrounding forested hills outside the fortress complex make for a first-rate outing into the heart of the country.

Built by a local Kakhetian prince in the tenth to 11th centuries, the fortress of Kvetara existed to protect his territory from incursions by rival dukes in neighboring Kartli. Inside the area protected by extensive fortress walls was a palace that served as the prince's residence and ancillary buildings, as well as the exquisitely proportioned centralized dome church in the southeast corner of the complex. The ruined palace is an interesting and rare glimpse of secular architecture of the early feudal period. It predates the largest portion of the walls, going back to the eighth-ninth centuries. The ruins exhibit the typical two-story hall dwelling with service quarters on the ground floor and the residential area of the lord on the second, illuminated by arched windows. A vast quantity of blue enamel tile fragments scattered around the ruins suggests that the palace roof was covered in the same material as the church.

The palace church of Kvetara

Neither a description nor a photograph can quite capture the light and elegant refinement that emanates from this small church. Perhaps it is die blue-enamel tiles that grace the central dome and surrounding conches, or the white tuff or travertine that seems particularly malleable here, and vulnerable to the elements; perhaps it is its excellent state of preservation in a site whose walls and other dwellings have borne die brunt of the ravages of time. For whatever reason, no building in Georgia so completely reveals the perfect eye of the builder and allows us to enjoy what he saw without the additions and renovations of intervening generations.

The Church at Kvetara is a tetraconch with four narrow niches between the apses that almost bring their semicircle to closure with the grouping of three columns on each side. The altar apse has three windows, while each of the other apses has one. Entrance to the church is through the southern and western apses. The central space of the church is crowned by a cupola with six windows in its drum: one each in the east and west and two in the north and south. The interior of the church is preserved in pristine state, never having been restored.

From the exterior the arcading on the pentahedron apses is perfectly balanced with the decorative molding of the drum to render this the harmonious structure it is. The protrusions between the apses mask the basic tetraconch to intrigue the eye sufficiently and give the illusion of a much more complex structure.