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Zarzma Monastery

From Akhaltsikhe, take the A306 west in the direction of Batumi. Zarzma is just beyond the town of Adigeni, approximately 30 km from Akhaltsikhe. The road follows the Potshovi River. After two km it splits. The left-hand branch goes off to Vale, the last village before the Turkish border, and the right-hand branch continues toward Batumi. Take the right-hand branch. Eleven km from Akhaltsikhe, the Potshovi River forks; one branch flows into Turkey and the Kvabliani River runs through Georgia. The crops on either side of the road are mostly potatoes. Apple groves are also plentiful. In the village of Adigeni, keep to the north side of the river, but at the 29-km point, where the road breaks, go left across the river and continue to Zarzma, which is visible on the slopes of the forested mountain.

The origin of the Zarzma Monastery is attributed to a famous monk of the sixth and seventh centuries, Serapion Zarzmeli. In an important biography of Georgian literature 'The Life of Serapion Zarzmeli', dating to early feudal times, it is written that the ruler of this region, Georgi Chorchaneli, helped Serapion establish the monastery. The text adds that the church was the center-piece of the monastery complex and the architect was Garbaneli. Today buildings from Serapion's time do not remain, although a tenth-century inscription from a building of that period has been incorporated into the arch stone above the northern entrance of a chapel connected to the existing belltower. The main church was ordered built by Века I in the early 14th century.


A classic central-cupola structure; access is from the south or west. The placement of a portico along the entire length of the south facade is unusual for medieval cupola churches and may be a survivor from an earlier structure.

At the end of construction in the 16th century, the interior of the church had been completely covered in frescoes. These suffered badly during the Turkish occu-pation; with few exceptions the work seen today is the result of heavy restoration by the Russians at the end of the 19th century. A Russian inscription on the western facade attests to this. Significant repainting has changed the basic character of the work despite the professionalism that aspired to achieve conformity with certain aspects of the "Palaeologus" Byzantine style. In accordance with monumental painting of the period, the portraits of many historical personages are depicted throughout. Here they occupy the entire lower register of the murals. The southern wall features portraits of the Jakeli family, the Dukes of Samtskhe: Sargis I, his son Века, and Beka's sons Sargis II and Kvarkvare. You will recall the same family in a mural scene at Sapara. On the opposite (northern) wall is a scene of King Bagrat III (1510-1565), once ruler of Samtskhe, standing before Father Serapion. Behind King Bagrat is Georgi Chorchaneli, the ruler of this region, associated with helping Serapion establish the monastery in the sixth to seventh centuries. To the right of this group is a portrait of the Catholicos Evfimy before Christ. The other three full- length figures are an Arab and a Kurd (about whom nothing is known), and the Gurian Prince, Simon Gurieli.

The facade, as in Sapara, is flat, devoid of elaborate decoration. What ornamentation exists, primarily geometrical and floral, is concentrated around window frames and doors. The cupola has 12 sides with false windows alternating on each facet with real ones. The belltower, at the southwest of the church, is of approximately the same period. Originally built into the wall of the complex, the first floor served as an arched gate until it was walled up in 1577 by the order of the ruler Parsman Khurtsisdze, and became the chapel of St. John the Evangelist. The second-story belfry is topped by a pyramid-shaped cupola that rests on an octago-nal tower. The tower itself is most unusual in that each facet contains an arch.

Four other churches are part of the monastery complex. One is connected to the Church of the Transfiguration from the east; another is to the north. These two hall churches were restored in the early 20th century. To the south are the ruins of two small churches, possibly built by the same architect who built the main church.

The Museum of Georgian Art in Tbilisi is home to the great icon of the Transfiguration (886), which comes from Zarzma.