Town of Mtskheta and its surrounding area have been one of the most ancient settlements on the territory of Georgia. Two kingdoms were formed on the territory of where our country is situated now in the 1st millennium B.C.: Iberia (Kartli) in the East and Colchis – in the Western part. Mtskheta used to be a political, economic and religious center of Iberia Kingdom for over 800 years. It has been a kind of a spiritual center of our country before Christ and after the Christianity having been declared a state religion. Therefore, it is obvious that Mtskheta and its neighboring area are rich in architectural monuments and archaeological artifacts. There are some over 200 cultural monuments on this territory. Burial grounds and former settlements, defensive and civil buildings: palaces, bathhouses and other remains (Armazi, Bagineti, Dzalisi etc.) dated back to the earlier Bronze Age were found here.
From the beginning of the 3rd century B.C. Mtskheta had become a political center of a newly formed Kartli (Iberia) Kingdom; its advantageous geographical location contributed to this fact. International trade routes – the Silk Road, the Sheep Road etc. had been passing through the town, along the River Mtkvari and River Aragvi.
Mtskheta, specifically- Svetitskhoveli Church is a holy site for the entire Christian world due to the shroud of Christ being buried here, according to chroniclers.
Early in the 4th century AD, a female missioner Nino from Kabadokia preached Christianity in Mtskheta. In 337 King Mirian the 3rd and his family adopted the new faith and declared Christianity as a state religion. The following sites: Samtavro Church, Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, St.Nino’s Church and other places are associated with the activities of Saint Nino.
In the early feudal age the following religious buildings were being intensively built in Mtskheta: Svetitskhoveli (a 4th century wooden church, a 5th century stone basilica), St.Nino Church of Samtavro (4th century, restored in the 19th century), minor Jvari Church (2nd half of the 6th century) and a big cathedral (585/586- 604 years), Antioch (7th-8th cc.) etc.
In the period of advanced feudalism big temples- Svetitskhoveli (1010-1029 years), Samtavro (30s of the 11th century), Barbareti (10th-11th centuries), Holy Mother’ Church (11th-12th centuries), St.George’ Church of Kaloubani (12th century) etc. had been constructed.
Archaeological excavations on the territory of Mtskheta launched in the early 20th century. From 1930s the Samtavro Valley was declared an archaeological and architectural reserved area. The same status was obtained by the surrounding area of Armazi from 1940s, old Mtskheta territory between the River Mtkvari and River Aragvi up to Bebristsikhe in 1957. In 1966 the entire territory of Mtskheta and in 1968- Mtskheta were declared as a Town-Museum.
In 1994 UNESCO entered the town of Mtskheta and Svetitskhoveli Cathedral in its list of world’s cultural heritage.
Mtskheta - the Second Jerusalem
Christ’s Shroud is not just a relic but it also holds the concept of preserving the faith. Perhaps it is for this idea that the reverence for God is as profound as for the Shroud buried in this country for centuries. The miracle-working burial cloth of Jesus is a complex intellectual-artistic phenomenon as well, being the deep ethno-psychological layer in Georgian culture. This is the Shroud, which the Son of God was wearing during the Crucifixion… but then `They part my garments among them, and cast lots upon my vesture~ (Psalms, 21, 18).
Georgians, like other Christian nations have a messianic-missionary conception that was being built and strengthened for centuries. The sense of being distinctive and blessed by the God is supported by several significant religious and historical arguments. One of the strongest bases of Georgian messianic idea is strongly supported by the assertion that Georgia falls under the patronage of the blessed Virgin and that St. Mary started to speak Georgian language upon the descent of the Holy Spirit. That is why the missionary of its vital and martial, sometimes selfless spirit. Perhaps one of the main reasons for acquiring this function is the fact of burial of the Shroud in Mtskheta, as according to the prophets, Jesus Christ will be clad in this shroud upon his return from heaven to earth… When children in Georgia are told about the history of Christianity, the first thing they hear is the story of the life-giving pillar and St. Nino, who destroyed the pagan idols in the IV century in Kartli and worked miracles. Then follows the story of the cathedral church – Svetitskhoveli which was built in the place of the burial place of the Christ’s Shroud and of a miracle-working life-giving pillar that came to life on God’s will… In the 1st century a strong and numerous community of refugee Jews from Israel settled down in the old capital Mtskheta. It was one of four main communities living in old Georgia. The Jews were said to have arrived in several groups one after another. This fact is proved by old burials and archeological evidence. They are said to have arrived first in the 580-s BC, when king Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon captured their homeland. As they had to constantly flee from the enemy, they settled far from the holy land, although they never lost touch with their homeland.
While diligently preserving their faith they kept hallows brought from their homeland away from pagan eyes. `Conversion of Kartli to Faith~ tells us how the Georgian Jewish woman, Sidonia disclosed the mystery in the IV century that had been kept by the community of Jews about the prophet Elias’s mantle buried in Mtskheta…
Also, according to the same source, Christ’s Shroud was buried nearby in the 1st century. The mystic story of the arrival of the Shroud in Georgia is evidenced by many Georgian and non Georgian historical sources… The main heroes of this story are exactly those Jews from Mtskheta who seem to have frequently been travelling to their historical native land which they had left centuries ago. They were the true citizens of the kingdom of Kartli and were highly respectes there. The people of an alien origin were the first to preach and spread Christian faith. Mtskheta was one of the first cities where the new religion found ardent supporters from the beginning soon after Crucifixion – after the Savior’s Shroud was brought and buried there. This happened when the word of the Son of God hadn’t existed as Gospel yet. The Jews recognized the prophecy of the Old Testament and the part of pagan Georgians took the idea of the unknown God crucified for human sins very much to their hearts.
In the 21st century, on King Herod’s appeal, many representatives of Jewish people scattered all over the world set off to Jerusalem to see the „pseudo prophet“ who called himself the Savior and the Son of God. Before that the Georgian Jews had already heard about a man who appeared and was baptized by John the Baptist in the river Jordan. The man was said to be working miracles – the rivers would start to flow upwards, the sea tide would stop, the mountains would start to move, and many others. The miracle-working man was said to have had alarmingly big number of followers. Herod wanted this man to be execrated not only by the Jews, but by the descendents of other tribes of Israel as well. Because of this appeal, the Jews who had been taking the refuge in other countries set out to Israel. According to „Shatberd Codex“, Georgian Jews also headed for Israel and witnessed Christ’s Crucifixion.
Among them was Elias Mtskheteli and Longinoz Karsneli, These two persons later became the heroes of Georgian historical literature, hagiographic works or mural paintings. Their images are represented in one of the paintings on the wall of Svetitskhoveli church.
Elias from Mtskheta was said to be deeply pious and distinguished man of those times from the tribe of Elia. His old mother already knew before his departure that the Biblical prophecy had come true and the God had become human... She implored her son who was leaving for Jerusalem not to take part in Jesus Christ’s Crucifixion at any price and that it would be equal to a deadly sin, since he was the Savior of the world, the Son of God. According to historical sources, Elias did not take part in Crucifixion. According t Shatberd Codex, Elias from Mtskheta and Longinoz Kasneli were accompanied by two others – Misaeli and Talenavi. The Jews sent from Kartli come across as passive observers of the event that has changed the world...
Elias Mtskheteli, together with other warriors was also involved in the casting of a lot during Crucifixion and the miracle-working Shroud that was not-mad-by-hands fell to his lot.
Georgian Jews left for their second homeland and brought the main relic of the world’s Christians to Mtskheta. Elais’s mother, who had been so insightful, had passed away by that time. His pious sister Sidonia was awaiting him and Elias gave her the shroud. She embosomed it and soaked it with her tears and died so. She had such a strong grasp of the Shroud that nobody could take it away from her. The King of Kartli (as known from „The Life of Kartli“, Aderk, same as Mihradt was fascinated by the Shroud but it was impossible to take it away from Sidonia’s tight grasp. So her brother buried Sidonia together with the Shroud.
Later, a wonderfully beautiful tree grew on her grave. In „The Life of Kartli“ this tree is referred to as Libyan Fir Tree. This miraculous tree exhaled rare fragrance. In the place where there was a Jewish cemetery, three centuries later a royal garden („The Eden“) was made with a place in it. And this was exactly the place which the first Christian king Mirian of Kartli selected for building a church. Before that, the enlightener of Georgia, St. Nino often visited this place as she knew that the Christ’s Shroud was buried nearby the Libyan Fir Tree.
During the construction of the church, one of the pillars made from the tree came to life; it acquired the divine power from the heaven. That is why the church was called Svetitskhoveli which means a life-giving pillar (the miraculous pillar had curative power as the myrrh was dripping from it until the late Middle Ages but then, Shah Tamaz ruthlessly desecrated this sanctuary and turned the church building into the barn.)
The main Cathedral church Svetitskhoveli built in the place of the burial of Christ’s Shroud has become one of the symbols of the Savior’s church built on his grave. And another symbol was the capital of Kartli – Mtskheta. Christ’s Shroud occupied an important place in Georgian Christian art – hagiography and liturgics, literature, historic writings, heraldry, icon painting and mural painting...
Christ’s Shroud has become one of the religious conceptions, under the influence of which Georgian Christianity has been established as a phenomenon with a distinctive mission among eastern Christian cultures.
By Marina Kipshidze