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Svetitskhoveli: The Soul of the Georgian Nation

Updated: Sep 24, 2020

Svetitskhoveli Cathedral is the holiest site for Orthodox Georgians and carries the soul of the nation. The existing building is over 1000 years old and was built to house one of the robes of Jesus Christ. The church’s name translates to “The Living Pillar” (სვეტი Sve'ti means “pillar” and ცხოველი tskhoveli means “living”). The legend goes that the church’s foundation was built from 7 cedar trees, but the 7th tree kept growing back—a sign from God that the robes were, indeed, truly worn by Jesus Christ.

Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, Mtskheta, Georgia
Svetitskhoveli sits in the center of Mtskheta. Photo from Visiting-Georgia

The importance of Svetitskhoveli is inseparable from Georgian history, particularly Georgia's ancient history. The first church here was built by King Mirian during the 430s C.E. The initial structure was a wooden church and was the site of his--and therefore Georgia's--conversion to Christianity. During the 5th Century, King Vakhtang Grogasali had given the church independence in Georgia (he separated the leadership of the Georgian Orthodox Church from the monarchy). By this time, Mtskheta had become the primary Christian center for the entire Caucasus, and therefore, the small wooden church would no longer suffice. A second church, this time made of stone, was constructed in a typical basilica form, similar to the churches of Bolnisi, Khashmi, and Tsilkani.

Construction of the present cathedral began in the 11th Century. During this period, Georgia had finished its battles for national unity and the country began to enter a period of architectural, philosophical, political, and economic prosperity. Svetitskhoveli is just one of many medieval Georgian cathedrals, with others being Alaverdi, Bagrati, Samtavro, and Nikortsminda Cathedrals, which all have a similar architectural form. 

During the 11th Century, Georgian architect Uta Arsukisdze had made major modifications to the architectural form of the Georgian church, introducing barrel-vaulting, a central dome, and a cruciform floor plan. These three changes drastically changed the look of Georgian churches, bringing them more in line with the churches that were being constructed across Europe and during this time.

The construction of the current cathedral began under King Bagrat III, who ruled Georgia between 1001-1014 C.E.  Most of the building, however, was finished during Kings Giorgi I and Bagrat IV’s periods. The church was completed in 1029 C.E. Svetitskhoveli Cathedral became the central component and location of Mtskheta’s architectural ensemble (Samtavro Monastery, Jvari Monastery and the fortress complex that surrounds the cathedral).

The central dome of Svetitskhoveli Cathedral was destroyed by an earthquake in 1283 C.E. and was again destroyed during the invasion of Tamerlane during the 14th Century. Reconstruction of the cathedral began in the 15th Century including the addition of the two lower levels on the west facade of the cathedral.

Svetitskhoveli, Mtskheta, Georgia
Svetitskhoveli is notable in Georgian architecture for being the first structure to have a dome and stepped front facade. Like many other Georgian churches, it has small slit windows. The two lower levels on the main facade were rebuilt during the 15th Century. Photo by Visiting-Georgia

Located inside the cathedral are numerous items of historical and cultural importance. Upon entering the cathedral from the main doorway is a small stone baptismal font which was the first such font in Georgia and is the place where King Mirian, the Georgian king who converted Georgia to Christianity, was baptized. Along the southern wall is a small minarature church, which was built between the 14-15th Centuries. This small church is a replica of the basilica located on Golgotha Hill in Jerusalem--the place where Jesus Christ was crucified--by the order of Byzantine Emperor Constantine IV to assist pilgrims who couldn’t reach Jerusalem, calling Mtskheta “the second Jerusalem.” The most notable relic of Svetitskhoveli Cathedral is the mantle of Christ, which is located along a column in the center of the church. Interred in Svetitskhoveli Cathedral are numerous members of Georgian kings, such as  Vakhtang Gorgasali, King Erekle II,and King Giorgi XII of Kartli-Kakheti. 

Svetitskhoveli interior
The interior of Svetitskhoveli Cathedral. On the right is the shrine where the mantle of Christ is located. Photos by Visiting-Georgia

Though humble in size, Svetitskhoveli has played an essential role in the formation of the Georgian nation, housing not only important religious relics, but also the very essence of the Georgian people themselves. Despite over a millennia of invasions, earthquakes, and reconstruction, Svetitskhoveli has endured and still stands strong.

Travel Tips:

Getting to Svetitskhoveli from Tbilisi is extremely easy. There are frequent marshrutkas from m/s Didube that cost 1 GEL each direction. It takes around 20 minutes.

Shorts should not be worn inside the cathedral and shirts that have exposed shoulders should be avoided as well. It is not necessary for women to cover their head, although some priests may request it.

Taking photos inside Svetitskhoveli is generally frowned upon, but is generally up to the discretion of the clergy who are in Svetitskhoveli during your visit.

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