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Sapara Monastery

Rivalling Vardzia as one of the most beautiful places to visit in the region (and receiving just a fraction of its visitors), Sapara Monastery has a dramatic position clinging to the edge of a cliff. It has existed from at least the 9th century, and has numbered among its monks many important figures in Georgian ecclesiastical history.

The monastery complex consists of numerous buildings. The most striking is the domed Church of St. Saba, built in the late 13th and early 14th centuries. The belltower and the ruins of the palace also dale from that period. The oldest structure is the aisleless church attached to the main Church of Si. Saba in the southwest. This hall church is dedicated to the Assumption of the Mother of God. The facade is decorated with finely carved rebels. Note the head of a bull on the top left side of the entrance from the porch. Legend has it that at the time of the building of the church a bull helped to haul stones from the mountain to the site. Just as the work was finished the bull was killed and eaten by a bear. The builder commemorated the helpful bull by placing its effigy as the last stone set in the completed church.

The interior of the church was completely frescoed, but these were plastered over in the 19th century. All that remain are fragments in the altar and in the western portion of the church that date from the first half of the 14th century. In the west is also a second tier that was designed for use by the chorus, an architectural feature very rare in hall-type churches. Fragments of an altar screen (first half of the 11th century) from this church are on view at the Museum of Georgian Art in Tbilisi. The subjects on the screen, treated in a most expressive and delicate sculptural relief, are the Annunciation, the Meeting of Mary and Elizabeth, and the Presentation at the Temple.

The main church in the monastery complex is dedicated to St. Saba. Its history is inextricably tied to the Jakeli family and the special fate of Samtskhe Province at the end of the 13th century. This was the period during which Georgia was under the Mongol yoke; however, Samtskhe flourished as an independent duchy precisely because of the good relations with the Mongol Khan of its ruler, Sargis I. The Jakelis were responsible for the growth of monastery construction throughout province.

The story behind the Church of St. Saba is a delicious example of the incongruities between la vita passiva and la vita attiva, at least when one tries to exchange one for the other. In his old age, at the end of the 13th century, Sargis I relinquished power to his son Века, cropped his hair, took vows as a monk, and changed his name to Saba. His son Века decided to build a church in Sapara in honor of St. Saba whose name his father had adopted, and did so while his father was still alive. This was one of the most architecturally important churches of its time.

The Church of St. Saba, from the turn of the 14th century, along with the church at the monastery of Zarzrna, is among Georgia's best ecclesiastical structures built in this time period. An inscription over the western portico tells us that the architect was Parezasdze. While he chose the central-cupola style church, popular since the first half of the 11th century, he eschewed the excessive decoration of the facade that earmarked the end of the 12th and beginning of the 13th centuries, as well as many of the decorative motifs from the tenth and 11th centuries. The result gives flatness and austerity to the facades. Ornamentation is largely reserved for window and door frames (the western portico in spite of its nearness to the mountain is treated more elaborately). Certainly the level of craftsmanship is high, as seen in the cleanly hewn blocks of reddish stone.

The proportions of the church, however, are markedly different from the projectile sense of ascension we find in the churches of Pilareti and Betania of the early 13th century. The drum of St. Saba is lower and wider, creating a greater sense of mass and height in the structural body. A unique feature of this 16-sided drum is that eight real windows alternate on the facets with eight false ones. This technique, which is of dubious merit when one tries to view the marvellous interior frescoes, originated in Sapara and later became popular in churches throughout Georgia. The architect also made an interesting choice in the site of the church. It stands above a precipice, making it impossible to view the eastern facade from anywhere except farther down the slope or from the other side of the gorge. The position of the eastern side necessitated supporting walls to strengthen it. Originally Parezasdze seems to have wanted entrances on the remaining three sides, but at some point the southern entrance was sealed, leaving access today only through the western and northern sides.

The frescoes of the interior of the church are among the best preserved in Georgia. The eight windows of the drum and a single window in each arm of the cross create a kind of light preferred more by the mystic than the art historian, but viewing is possible. A central chandelier is lit for services-the best time to be there. These frescoes, primarily from the first half of the 14th century, show stylistic qualities assimilated from the "Palaeologus" Byzantine school. An Ascension is in the cupola. The drum features eight prophets with unrolled scrolls. Especially powerful are the frescoes in the southern arm of the church: the Bereavement (Mourning) for Christ, in which Mary's extended arms and the bowed bodies of the apostles have a dynamism and expressivity that surpass in quality some of the more static renderings. Of greatest historic value, and indeed exhibiting a distinctive individuality in each lace, are the portraits of the Jakeli family in the lower register of the southern wall. Bowing before an image of the patron saint of the church, St. Saba, are (in order from the viewers left to right) Sargis I, his son Века I (1308), and Bekas sons Sargis II (1308-1334) and Kvarkvare (1334-1345).

To see other monuments on the monastery grounds, climb the slope up to the bellower in the west. The two-storied belltower dates from the same period as the Church of St. Saba. The first story served as a tomb for the Lasuridze family and portraits of family members are painted on the walls inside. The second story is an arched belfry.

Sapara was the residence of the Jakelis, as well as a monastery founded by them. Of the many buildings that once stood here as part of the secular complex, only the first floor of the stone palace has survived. Not much is known about the other buildings, now in ruins.

Sapara was captured by the Turks in the 16th century, and ultimately the monastery fell into disuse. The Church of St. Saba was reconsecrated only at the end of 1989, and the monastery is once more nourishing. Three of the very fine reliefs from this are now in the Fine Arts Museum in Tbilisi, and two are in the museum in Akhaltsikhe.

Sadly, the monastery was used for a summer piano camp during the Soviet era. Though many of the interiors and frescoes are worse for wear, a few remain and others are being uncovered or restored to their original beauty. Today, about ten monks (or novices) live at the complex in Sapara. Although difficult to get to, Sapara monastery is beautiful, peaceful, and worth the effort.

Sapara is about 12 km southeast of Akhaltsikhe, off the Vardzia road. The drive is beautiful, and you will have great views of the monastery 2 km before you reach it. Leave Aklialtsikhe by the road that runs south to Akhalkalaki. Approximately one km from the center of town, take the second right after Ketshoveli Street onto a dirt road, where you will see the sign for the monastery. Continuing on this dirt road, bear left past the military base, then climb for three km through wonderful wild poppy fields. Bear left at the fork. The drive to the monastery is along a twisting, steep dirt road, but an ordinary vehicle will make it. At the 10-km point from town is a wonderful view of the monastery nestled in the forested mountains high above the gorge. It is clear that defence was much of the founders' minds: the complex is accessible only by one road and can be seen from only a few select perspectives. Another two-km drive brings you to the monastery.

Taxis charge around 15 GEL for the return trip from Alkhaltsikhe.