I recall when travelling last through Europe (22 years ago!), that we constantly used the acronym ABC, meaning Another Bloody Church and Another Bloody Castle. As I’ve got older, I’ve found my capacity for churches, cathedrals and castles to be infinitely higher. Which is just as well, as there are plenty in Georgia, with a high proportion being absolutely stunning. Kutaisi is no exception to the rest of Georgia and we managed to visit three of historical significance while staying there.
Motsameta Monastery, whose name is derived from the Georgian word for martyrdom, is a little visited site despite being only 6km from Kutaisi and just round the corner from the UNESCO Heritage listed Gelati Monastery. It is a pretty monastery, situated on a cliff-top promontory above a bend of the Tskhaltsitela River (meaning Red Water) providing great views of the river and countryside below. The river which the monastery sits above is named after an 8th-centry Arab massacre which included the brothers Davit and Konstantin Mkheidze, dukes of Argveti, who refused to convert to Islam. Sainted for their martyrdom, legend has it that after their bodies were thrown in the river, lions brought them up to the church where their bones were subsequently kept.
The monastery was built by King Bagrat III In the 11th century on the foundations of the destroyed eighth-century church in honor of the two brothers. Their tomb rests on two carved lions at the top of a side altar in the church and the lovely bell tower which sits just off to the side was built at the same time.
Like all monasteries, it was free to enter and including the short walk down the hill and back again, for most people will probably take up about an hour of your time.
The Gelati Monastery is a medieval monastic complex founded in 1106 by Kind David the Builder. It is situated 5 kilometres or so from Motsameta Monastery above the same river (Tskhaltsitela). In addition to being a monastery, Gelati also had an Academy for science and education, which was one of the most important centres of culture in ancient Georgia.
The monasteries of Gelati and Bagrati (which is in Kutaisi city proper), were jointly inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1994 before being placed on the “List in Danger” in 2010. After numerous warnings, in 2017 UNESCO reduced the boundaries of the site so that Bagrati Cathedral was excluded (effectively delisted) due to major reconstruction being detrimental to its integrity and authenticity. De-listing is so rare and considered such a major step that this was only the third case of a UNESCO World Site being “delisted”. Thankfully, UNESCO retained the Monastery of Gelati’s World Heritage standing as a site of outstanding universal value, describing it as a masterpiece of the architecture of the “Golden Age” of Georgia and the best representative of its architectural style, characterized by the full facing of smoothly hewn large blocks, perfectly balanced proportions, and the exterior decoration of blind arches.
To become a World Heritage Site the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) must have deemed the site as being unique in some respect as a geographically and historically identifiable place having special cultural or physical significance and being judged important to the collective interests of humanity. Today there are close to 1,100 UNESCO World Heritage Sites around the world, of which Georgia has three on the list or two and a half if you’re picky, like me.
Gelati Monastery is recognised as the only medieval monument in Eastern Asia Minor and the Caucasus that still has well-preserved mosaic decorations and paintings comparable with those from other places from the Byzantine periods. The 12th century mosaic in the apse of the main church, depicting the Virgin with Child flanked by archangels is a superb mind blowing example of this.
The entire complex consists of three churches in total; the main Church of the Virgin and the smaller Churches of St George and Nicholas. Taking in all three plus the surrounding cathedral grounds, will easily soak up to an hour to an hour and a half.
At present, there is a fair amount of scaffolding around the complex, in particular the Church of the Virgin. Given what occurred to Bagrati Cathedral, a more prudent approach to restoration seems to being taken, hopefully so that it doesn’t suffer the same fate.
As mentioned, Bagrati Cathedral (also known as the Cathedral of the Dormition or the Kutaisi Cathedral) was previously included as a UNESCO World Heritage site, but due to overzealous restoration efforts was delisted. The cathedral is a prominent landmark in Kutaisi standing proudly up on Ukimerioni Hill. Also built in in the early years of the 11th century AD, it owes its name to King Bagrat III, due to it being built during his reign.
In 2010, Georgian commenced major reconstruction works under the leadership of an Italian architect Andrea Bruno. A year later, UNESCO were urging the Georgian government authorities to develop a rehabilitation strategy that would reverse some of the changes being made to the site but undeterred the restoration continued and in 2013 Bruno was bizarrely awarded a Georgian state gold medal for his role in the reconstruction. Four years later the cathedral’s UNESCO listing was stripped.
Scratched from the UNESCO list it might be, but there’s no denying the overall beauty of the cathedral. It is an easily accessible place to visit being in the middle of Kutaisi and a great place to look at the city down below as the sun goes down.
I still wasn’t churched out, but we’d come to the end of our time in the Georgian interior, and looking for a change of scenery we’re now heading west in search of the Black Sea Coast resort town/city of Batumi.