As one of the first countries in the world to convert to Christianity, in just the 4th century AD, today Georgia is proud to provide for full religious freedom.
While the majority of the country is Christian, Georgia has always been a home for people who belong to different religions… It is one of the few countries where churches, mosques, synagogues and chapels co-exist peacefully side by side. Wandering through Tbilisi one can lose count of the religious buildings and memorials, but you never feel like it is too much.
The construction of Bagrati Cathedral, named after Bagrat III – the first king of united Georgia, started at the end of the 10th century and was completed in the early years of the 11th century. The Cathedral holds special importance in the history of Georgia as an architectural and cultural monument.
The cathedral is situated 11 km westwards from Kutaisi. The Gelati Monastery, with its main buildings erected between the 12th and 17th centuries, was an important religious, cultural and educational center of Georgia. The monastery complex is included in UNESCO’s World Cultural Heritage list and its architecture is well known for wonderful mosaics and frescos. King David the Builder, the most celebrated King of Georgia, is buried in the yard of the monastery.
Motsameta Monastery is located 6 kilometers from Kutaisi. The present day church dates back to the 11th century, however there are historic records stating that a church was constructed here as far back as the 8th century. Motsameta attracts crowds of tourists with an ancient superstition: if one crawls three times under the ark and makes a wish while touching the hallows, the wish will come true.
Art and Architecture
Georgia, at the crossroads of civilizations, has always been steeped in culture. With its distinctly national characteristics as well as an ability to borrow from cultures as diverse as Persian, Greek, Roman and Russian, Georgian art is a unique blend of different influences that still manages to be innately authentic. Georgia’s immensely rich architectural heritage is something no visitor of the country can ignore.
From Roman ruins to art nouveau mansions, Georgia has lots of interesting and diverse buildings. The country’s churches are perhaps its greatest architectural treasure. All over the country, from the biggest towns to the most remote mountain-tops, fabulous churches, complete with intricate details and amazing carving, have stood the test of time.
Georgian churches have developed from the simple basilica style seen in places like Bolnisi Sioni, through to the glorious tetra-conch designs of Jvari and Ateni Sioni right up to the amazing, serene cathedrals. It was the Golden Age, between the XI and early XIII century that many of Georgia’s best buildings have come down to us. These include Gelati, Svetishkhoveli and Alaverdi.
Towers and village strongholds on the slopes of Great Caucasus Range (Svaneti, Khevsureti and Tusheti) form in an inalienable part of Georgian architecture. Their majority were built in the Late Middle Ages, some being even older.
As the XIX century was fading away, Europe witnessed the rise of a new and very popular style: Art nouveau, referred to as Modernist style in Georgia. Modernistic forms in Tbilisi acquired an original shape and character and are now part of the world heritage. The neo-classical and art nouveau streets of Batumi and Tbilisi date from this period, while impressive buildings from the Soviet era have also made their impact.
Over the centuries, Georgia was in the sphere of influence of both Eastern and Western civilizations. By blending the two civilizations with its own centuries-old traditions, Georgia formed its original, national culture, where the fine arts played a decisive role, especially frescos, paintings and enamel.
Georgian fresco painting reached a zenith during the golden age of the XII – XIII centuries. Featuring both religious and secular themes, the coloring and iconography of Georgian frescoes display a reimagining of byzantine styles and motifs, and achieve something very refined and utterly distinct.
Udabno Monastery in Davit Gareji contains some amazing examples of a unique school of paintings developed here. Ateni’s Sioni near Tbilisi houses some of the frescoes in the country, as does Gelati, which also has outstanding mosaics. Bodbe near Sighnaghi has interesting 18th century frescoes, while Sioni Cathedral in Tbilisi has some very unusual modernist frescoes from the early XX century.
Many of these religious monuments are as well interesting for their exterior decorations. Georgian relief sculpture is a unique blend of local, Greco-Roman and Persian influences. Stylized, yet highly detailed scenes are common on many churches, notably Nikortsminda in Racha and Ananuri on the famous Georgian Military Highway. Icon painting, metal tracery and enamel work are other areas where Georgia developed its own unique and important style. Dazzling examples of icons, altarpieces and procession crosses are on display at the State Art Museum.
The national awakening of the late XIX and early XX century also provided incentives to Georgian art. Georgians returning from Paris, St. Petersburg and elsewhere brought new modern ideas to Georgian painting, which took an entirely new path. Artists such as Lado Gudiashvili, Davit Kakabadze and Elene Akhvlediani who was a friend of Picasso, were inspired by cubism and impressionism and applied them in a Georgian way.
Georgia’s favorite painter, however, is the early XX century primitivism follower Niko Pirosmani, whose depictions of feasts, exotic animals and ordinary life in Tbilisi can be seen at the State Art Museum or in Sighnaghi Museum.
Among the few notable cave towns in the world, the Georgian ones are of very special interest. Uplistsikhe, David Gareji monastery, and the world-famous cave town of Vardzia are nominated for the UNESCO World Heritage list.
Uplistsikhe, ‘the fortress of the Lord’, can be dated back to the early Iron Age, and is located on a high rocky escarpment overlooking the bank of the Mtkvari River. Cut from natural sandy stone, the 8 hectares of cave-town have survived millions of people, erosion, aging and even earthquakes, but it still remains a good example of the mixture of pagan & Christian architecture.
David Gareji monastery was founded in the 6th century on the slopes of the Gareji hills by one of the thirteen Syrian Fathers, Father David (Garejeli). Those fathers were missionaries from Mesopotamia promoting and spreading Christianity, the respected founders of many monasteries and holy places around Georgia. The frescoes here are superb. Some of them date as far back as the 9th and 10th centuries. The Golden Age of Georgia is directly reflected in the incredible 11th – 13th century frescoes.
The incredible cave town of Vardzia dates back to Queen Tamar’s reign, nearly a thousand years ago. Her father, King George III started the foundation of the complex, while Queen Tamar continued its construction. Many frescoes date back to the beginning of the XII century. The complex itself consists of small chapels, bell towers, secret tunnels, monks’ caves as well as a fully functioning monastery to this day. Set in the most serene and stunning countryside, its beautiful location captures your imagination and brings you back to the era of Queen Tamar’s reign.
Georgian dance, like the national polyphonic songs, remain a major cultural export. The Georgian State Dance Ensemble tours the world for most of the year. The vigorous, vibrant men leap high in the air; clash swords amidst flying sparks and razor sharp daggers are thrown into the floor in a frenetic, breathtaking choreography.
All this is contrasting with the women’s graceful, elegant and beautiful dances. Fabulous multi-colored costumes from the many mountain regions, wild drumming, accompanied by sound of pipes and accordions… The impression is mesmeric and truly unforgettable!
Georgian polyphonic music tradition is world-renowned and calls upon an enchanting combination of ancient and modern harmonies. In 2001 UNESCO acknowledged this music as “a masterpiece of the world’s intangible cultural heritage”.
Its unique, slightly dissonant style has not changed for centuries. The Greek historian Strabo recorded the multi-voiced chants of Georgians riding into battle as early as in the 1. century BC. The songs, made up of three-part harmonies, are still in the blood of modern society. They can be heard in churches and monasteries across the country; down Tbilisi’s back-streets of an early evening; or across the village fields in summer. They are also very much a part of the Georgian feast (supra).