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Kumurdo Church

Leaving Akhaltsikhe on the A306, go southeast 71 km to Akhalkalaki. Akhalkalaki is itself a town from the Middle Ages, but it was completely destroyed when Alp Arslan led the Seljuk Turks in an invasion of the province in 1066. The present city is the capital of Javakheti. The medieval church of Kumurdo stands on a cliff plateau 12 km southwest of the capital.

Erected by the master builder Sakotzari on the orders of Bishop Ioane in 964, the church is a high point of Georgian medieval architecture. Unusual in the specificity of its inscriptions, we know that the foundation stone was laid in 964 in the time of King Leon and the eristavi Zviad. The inscription giving the date and the builder's name is above the southern entrance in the ancient Georgian writing, Asomtavruli.

The interesting ground plan of the church is masked by an exterior that suggests the standard cruciform domed church. Opening, however, onto the hexagonal space beneath the cupola are live deep apses. The two on the south and north sides are parallel to each other whereas the deepest apse, the altar of the east side is flanked by the sacristy and deacon's chamber. In the second quarter of the 11th century, during the time of Bagrat IV, an ambulatory was built in the west side, which continued in a wraparound in the south and north, changing the original appearance. The arches leading into this area were later walled in. The east-west axis of the church is divided into three aisles by two rows of pillars. The cupola was supported by squinches rising from six slender polygonal pillars protruding from the walls at the points of the hexagon. The cupola collapsed, however, sometime after a major renovation of the church in the 16th century. The collapse, caused perhaps by an earthquake, destroyed the western section.

The tenth century is notable for the fact that sculpture began to be incorporated into the interior design. On the eastern squinches of Kumurdo, relief portraits can  be seen. One is of Queen Gurandukht, the mother of King Bagrat III, and the other is of a man thought to be either King Gurgen of Kartli-Iberia, Bagrat's father, or King Leon, Gurandukht's brother. Fine relief work is also found on the exterior: the angel, bull, eagle, and lion, symbols of the four Evangelists, are found in the frame in the eastern main window.

Kumurdo is distinguished by a very high level of workmanship, particularly visible in the precision of the masonry, where rows of dressed stone have been meticulously chosen and wine-colored blocks strategically placed. Together with the tall, lightly ornamented niches of the exterior, the masonry adds to the sublime harmony and noble simplicity of the structure.