A country that has witnessed its fair share of turmoil, Georgia lies at the crossroads between Europe and Asia. Georgia’s geographical location has meant that it has been under the control of the Greeks, Persians and Mongols. Up until the collapse of the USSR, Georgia was even known as the ‘Soviet Riviera’.
Despite the constant invasions and subsequent re-settling, Georgia has managed to retain a strong sense of national identity. At the heart of this is Christianity, which is so closely linked to Georgian identity.
Georgia is one of the oldest Christian countries in the world and its origins can be traced to the city Mtskheta, about 12 miles north of Tbilisi. Everything started when Christ’s apostles are said to have visited the city in the 1st century AD. Among them were St Andrew and St Simon and they helped establish Christian communities here and in the surrounding areas. The apostles lit the flame for Christianity but the fire was fanned by a young Cappadocian woman named Nino. The culmination of Nino’s preaching came when she baptised the king of Georgia in 337 AD. Georgia was now a Christian country and, following her death, Nino was canonized St Nino the Ilumanatrix of Georgia.
The continual invasions throughout its history has meant that Georgia has always had to defend its faith. Near Mtskheta is the Jvari Monastery, which is one of Georgia’s oldest religious buildings. Jvari was built on top of a hill overlooking the city and was fortified by stone walls during the Mongol invasion. Jvari means cross and it is thought that this site was where the first cross in Georgia was erected.
Also in Mtskheta is the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, which is one of the finest examples of a Georgian renaissance church. Surrounded by walls, this cathedral is one of the most sacred sites in Georgia and shows how closely knit Christianity is with the people here. Svetitskhoveli is where Georgia’s kings have been crowned, and for at least ten of them, where they have been laid to rest. The cathedral also displays the baptismal font that St Nino is thought to have used to baptise the royal family with. What perhaps draws people most here is the legend relating to Christ. According to written sources, Christ’s robe was bought from a Roman soldier at Golgotha and then brought to Georgia. Once in Georgia, the robe became trapped in the hands of a Georgian woman, who died instantly from the emotion of touching such a sacred object. The robe could not be removed from the woman’s hands so was buried with it at Svetitskhoveli Cathedral.
Christian history is also written into the rock of Georgia, as seen with the impressive Vardzia cave complex. Used as a monastery, Vardzia is a complex that measures over half a kilometre in length and is thirteen stories high. Hand carved out of the rock face, Vardzia at one time had more than 3000 caves and could house as many as 20,000 people. Today, only a few priests live here; but Vardzia offers a very physical reminder of the presence that Christianity has played in Georgia’s history.