Updated: Sep 24, 2020
For such a small country, Georgia has a lot of churches. This is due to both the country’s long relationship with Christianity (it converted to Christianity before any European power converted) along with the central role that the Georgian Orthodox Church has played in the country’s past, and present, culture. With so many historical churches, making a decision as to which of Georgia’s plethora of churches to visit can be difficult, so we’ve decided to help! Below is our list of what we think are Georgia’s top 10 most important churches along with why we think each location deserves this.
Svetitskholvei is undoubtely the holiest of all of Georgia’s churches. It was the site of King Miran’s conversion to Christianity, it holds numerous holy relics, and was considered to be the center of what Byzantine Emperor Constantine IV described as “the second Jerusalem.” Additionally, the cathedral is notable for its influence on Georgian architecture. Svetitskhoveli is the first of Georgia’s churches to adapt the domed-cross design which is now the archetypal form of Georgian Orthodox churches. For all of these reasons, Svetitskhoveli and the surrounding city of Mtskheta were made UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1994. For more information on Svetitskhoveli, check out our article on the importance of this magnificent structure.
2: Bolnisi Sioni
This small, unassuming structure may not look like much, but it is one of Georgia’s most important places. Bolnisi Sioni Cathedral is the first and oldest Christian structure in Georgia, and one of the oldest Christian structures in the world! The cathedral was built in the 5th Century CE. Carved into an exterior wall is the Bolnisi cross, which is one of the Georgian Orthodox Church’s two native crosses and, through time, would become a symbol of Georgia. Today, Georgia’s flag has four of these crosses in each corner.
3: Gelati Monastery
Gelati Monastery was built by Davit Aghmashenebeli in 1106 CE at the height of Georgia’s medieval “Golden Age.” The monastery and academy played a crucial role in Georgia’s medieval history as it brought Byzantine and Western intellectuals to Georgia, beginning Georgia’s long process of Western orientation. Gelati is also important for its architectural heritage. The monastery is home to the largest collection of Byzantine mosaics and decorations in the Caucasus and the Middle East with over 40 portraits of various Georgian nobility and biblical figures located throughout the monastery. Thanks to the monastery's masterpieces of Byzantine artwork and outstanding architecture, it was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994.
4: Tbilisi Sioni Cathedral
Sioni Cathedral is home to one of the holiest artifacts of the Georgian Orthodox Church--the Cross of St. Nino. This cross was used to convert the Georgian people to Christianity in the 3rd Century CE. Additionally, the cathedral is home to the grave of Ioane Mkhrgrdzeli, who was the chamberlain to Tamar Mepe.
5: Alaverdi Monastery
Alaverdi has what is probably the most stereotypical Georgian views--mountains, vinyards, and a majestic medieval church. Alaverdi Monastery is located in north-central Kakheti near Telavi. The existing building was finished in 1030 CE and, with a height of 51.5 meters/170 feet, it was the tallest religious structure in Georgia until the completion of Tbilisi Sameba Cathedral in 2004 Furthermore, Alaverdi is one of the best examples of medieval Georgian architecture, with all but the interior decorations still perfectly intact.
6: Tbilisi Sameba Cathedral
Tbilisi Sameba Cathedral is huge. Like the Eiffel Tower, it dominates the Tbilisi skyline with its pyramidal shape. Also like to Eiffel Tower, it is a skyscraper, reaching a height of 87 meters/285 feet. Tbilisi Sameba is the third largest orthodox church in the world and one of the largest Christian structures by interior volume. Unlike traditional Georgian churches, Tbilisi Sameba has an emphasis on verticality and light, with much of its stone masonry taking note from French Gothic architecture. As such, Tbilisi Sameba Cathedral breaks from tradition by merging Georgia’s past architecture with a new form.
7: Zarzma Monastery
The interior of most of Georgia’s churches and cathedrals are fairly monotone. Most. Zarzma is the biggest exception. The walls, columns, and ceiling of Zarzma are brightly colored with paintings and iconography, making this remote monastery the best place in Georgia to see medieval Georgian artwork.
8: Pitareti Monastery
Pitareti is Kvemo Kartli’s version of Alaverdi Monastery--the church is surrounded by a medieval wall with a complete gatehouse, is an excellent example of Georgian architecture, is in nearly perfect condition, and has commanding views of mountains. What makes Pitareti particularly noteworthy is what’s on the exterior walls of the church. Most Georgian churches are plainly and simply decorated on the outside, however, Pitareti has extremely ornate and intricate stone carvings on its exterior walls, especially around its windows, bringing it more in line with medieval English and French cathedrals.
Perhaps no other small, rural church is as well-preserved as that of Nikortsminda Cathedral. What’s particularly important about this church isn’t its historical importance. With Nikortsminda, it’s all about the details. Unlike most Georgian churches, which have a central dome held up by four columns, Nikortsminda has six main supporting columns. Additionally, the interior frescoes and paintings at Nikortsminda have escaped centuries of whitewashing.
10: Batumi Cathedral
Batumi's main cathedral looks as if it were taken out of the French countryside rather than being located on the Black Sea. The cathedral was initially built as a Roman Catholic cathedral in the early 1900s, as such, it was not constructed in the standard form of an orthodox church, but rather in French neo-Gothic architecture. This makes the cathedral one of the only neo-Gothic structures in the Caucasus, and the is best example of this style of architecture in Georgia.