Mtskheta: Svetitskhovloba Celebration
October 14, 2012
A little history:
Saint Nino converted the Iverian Kingdom to Christianity in the 4th Century. Since that time, Mtskheta, a small town just outside Tbilisi, has been the spiritual heart of Georgia.
According to tradition, in Mtskheta, Christ’s robe lies buried beneath the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, a grand church that dates from the Eleventh Century. Apparently, a Mtskheta Jew, Elioz, was in Jerusalem at the time of the Crucifixion and returned with the robe to Mtskheta. The robe was buried with Elioz’ sister in the church that originally stood on this location.
The religious festival of Svetitskhovloba was in progress the day I visited Mtskheta. Bells rang out for several minutes when Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia, Ilia II, arrived. Later, the incoming Prime Minister, Bidzina Ivanishvili, made an appearance to the delight of the crowd.
The Cathedral was filled to overflowing so I was unable to see the interior.* But this holiday was not just a solemn occasion. The celebrants were enjoying the day with family and friends.
Visible for miles around, high on a hilltop sits the Jveri Church. This little church is the most holy place for Georgians since King Mirian erected a large wooden cross here after his conversion by Saint Nino. The symmetrical church is filled with beautiful religious paintings.
The site is even more beautiful. The grounds of the Jveri Church provide spectacular views of Mtskheta, the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, and the Aragvi Mtkvari Rivers.
Inside the church I noticed something unusual. In an image of Mary holding the Christ Child, Mary appears to be bleeding from two points on her chin. I asked about that but no one could explain the image.
Everywhere in Georgia, both in paintings and as a cross worn on the neck, I noticed an unusual Crucifix. The horizontal arm is slightly bent, or bowed. The explanation I received is that this is the Cross of Saint Nino, the original Christian woman in Georgia. The arm of the cross bends slightly because it was made of grape vines. In fact, on some depictions of Saint Nino’s cross, grape leaves are visible.
It is clear that Georgians are devoted to their Christian Orthodox faith. Yet it appears that they are also quite tolerant of other traditions. For centuries here, Christians and Jews have been friends and neighbors.
In Kutaisi, where at one time there was a large Jewish community (three synagogues), my host Georgi mentioned that he had several Jewish classmates and teachers.
In my travels in Georgia I have encountered many Israelis. Some are Georgian-Israelis returning to visit their homeland. Young Israelis come here because they sense a common ground with Georgia. Apparently the two small countries share successful business, economic and cultural ties. It is common to hear Georgians proclaim Israelis as their “brothers.”
After suffering centuries of invasions and imperialism, Georgia is still struggling to overcome recent battles and political unrest. And yet despite their difficulties, Georgians are among the most friendly, helpful and hospitable people I have met.
It would be beneficial to all to reach out to Georgia in brotherhood.