Rising above the low-lying skyline of Tbilisi is Sameba (Trinity) Cathedral. This massive structure sits in the heart of the city’s Avlabari neighborhood on Makhata Hill. Aside from its enormous size, the cathedral’s architectural style has ushered in a new era of Georgian architecture, becoming a symbol of the Georgian Orthodox Church and Georgian society.
The history of the cathedral began in 1989, when Georgian Patriarch-Catholicos Ilia II decided that a new head church for the Georgian Orthodox Church was needed to replace Sioni Cathedral, located in Old Tbilisi. Construction of Sameba began in 1995. Placed in the foundation of the cathedral were holy artifacts from sacred Christian places, such as earth from Golgotha and Tabari Mountains. Construction of the building and its surrounding grounds was finished in 2004 and the cathedral was consecrated on გიორგობა Giorgoba St. George’s Day (23 November) of 2004.
Tbilisi Sameba Cathedral is a celebration of the Georgian Orthodox Church, which held its 1500th anniversary upon the cathedral’s consecration, the commemoration of the 2000th anniversary of Christianity, and the new age which Georgia entered following Georgia’s independence from the USSR. As such, everything about Sameba needed to manifest these milestones.
A Break From The Past
The most obvious new element of Sameba is its size. Prior to the completion of Sameba, the tallest church in Georgia was Alaverdi Monastery, near Telavi, Kakheti, which stands at a height of 50 meters (164 feet), whereas Sameba rises 87 meters (285 feet) from the base of the main building to the top of the cross, and 101 meters including its foundation (the foundation is built into a hillside, so the back is underground while the front is ground-level). Sameba is also the third tallest orthodox church in the world and one of the largest Christian churches by volume.
The building breaks from tradition in numerous ways; unlike many traditional Georgian churches, which tend to be rather humble in their stature. Tbilisi Sameba Cathedral borrows heavily from other architectural elements, notably Gothic architecture, particularly by its large emphasis on vertical features. The cathedral employs elements such as ornate stone carvings which stretch from the ground up to the top of the building on both the exterior and interior of the building. Much like the great medieval Gothic cathedrals of France, Sameba also uses large sets of tall narrow windows not only bring in light to the vast interior, but also bring your eyes up to the heavens above. This is a big difference from traditional Georgian orthodox churches, such as Svetitskhoveli in Mtskheta, which only have small windows on a single level of each side of the building. Finally, Sameba has rounded transepts (the “horizontal” sections of the cross-formed church) as opposed to the traditional squared transepts, taking the cathedral out of the traditional boxy look and into a more sophisticated floor plan and design.
The cathedral is composed of two parts. The lower sanctuary that is made of nine chapels dedicated to St. Nino, St. Andrew, St George, St Nicolas, St. John the Baptist, the Archangels, and the Apostolic Saints. The upper sanctuary takes the form of a traditional Georgian church with a cruciform style and has 12-sided cylindrical dome topping the central crossing.
A Symbol Of Georgia
Like any major change, Sameba isn't without controversy. Firstly was the decision to build the head church of the Georgian Orthodox Church on Georgia's most important, oldest, and largest Armenian cemetery--Khojivank Cemetery. Although most of the cemetery was destroyed during the Soviet era, the local Armenian population was nonetheless angry at this act. In the years following Georgia's independence from the USSR, nationalism was widespread in Georgia, and Sameba's construction squarely falls in with the theme of rebuilding the Georgian nation, starting with Georgia's church.
Additionally, the cathedral’s size is seen as ostentatious by many Tbilisi residents. Similar to the Eiffel Tower, many saw the cathedral’s effects on the skyline to outweigh its architectural and cultural significance. To further this point, the cathedral was built during during one of the darkest periods of Georgian history, at a time when most residents of Tbilisi lacked 24-hour access to electricity and running water and inflation was so bad that a temporary currency was created, making it the construction of such a large cathedral seem unnecessary given the larger social and economic problems in Georgia. Nevertheless, the Georgian Orthodox Church had its cathedral built.
Tbilisi Sameba Cathedral symbolizes a new era of Georgia--a synthesis of its past and future. The cathedral attempts to bring in elements of traditional Georgian architecture while borrowing from Western architectural elements to create a fusion--a fusion that is very much symbolic of Georgia itself.