The Cathedral is known as the burial site of Christ’s robe. It used to be the largest church in Georgia until the Tbilisi Holy Trinity Cathedral was recently consecrated. Today it is one of the most venerated places of worship and serves as the seat of the Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia. During my recent visit to Georgia I visited Svetitskhoveli twice: first time with my Georgian friend Vakhtang, and then on the next day with friends from Russia and Belarus who were in Georgia at that time.
Georgia adopted Christianity as its state religion in 337 AD (in fact, I came across different dates in various sources, but 337 was the most common one, and other sources note that the exact date is not known). Georgian hagiography goes that in the 1st century AD there was a Georgian Jew from Mtskheta named Elias, who was in Jerusalem at the times when Jesus Christ was crucified. Elias bought Christ’s’ robe from a Roman soldier at Golgotha and brought it to Georgia, where in Mtskheta he was met by his sister named Sidonia. Upon touching the robe she immediately died from the emotions and as the robe could not be removed from her grasp, she was buried with it (her grave is preserved in the Cathedral). The first Christian King Mirian was advised by St. Nino, who had brought Christianity to Georgia, to build a church over the grave of Sidonia, from where a cedar tree grew. The tree was cut down and seven columns were made from it for the construction. But while workers managed to erect six of them, the 7th pillar, which was also the biggest, rose by itself into the air, illuminating light and radiating a nice fragrance. Only after St. Nino prayed the whole night, the column return to earth. The legend goes that chrism flowed from the 7th pillar that people used to cure all kinds of diseases. This is why the pillar was called “Sveti Tskhoveli” – a life-giving pillar. Later, the name was also given to the Cathedral.
The initial church was wooden, but by the end of the 5th century King Vakhtang Gorgasali, founder of Georgia’s modern capital, built a large stone basilica on the same spot. Later, in 1010-1029 AD Melkisedek I, the first Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia, initiated the construction of a bigger church, which was built by the architect Arsukidze. According to a legend Arsukidze proved to be better than his teacher and he also fell in love with the woman, whom King Giorgi loved, and the architect was punished having his arm cut off.
The present building of Svetitskhoveli is designed as a cross with transversal wings and perpendicular sections. Its dome is supported by four lofty columns and contains 16 windows. The cross-dome style of church architecture emerged in Georgia in the early Middle Ages and after the political unification of Georgia by King Bagrat III it became the principle style.
Most of the old frescos have dissapeared. However, the remaining painting is rich and diverse. The decorated facade of the Cathedral is lined with trimmed stones. The current building still contains the initial “Sveti Tskhoveli” pillar, which is preserved inside a tower supported by columns near the dome inside the Cathedral.
In 1787, King Erekle II surrounded the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral by a defensive wall, which was built of stone and brick. The wall has eight towers, of which six are cylindrical and two are square. In the western part, near the 11th century gate the bell tower is located.
The Svetitskhoveli Cathedral suffered numerous invasions and destructions by Abul-Qasim, Alp Arslan, Timur (also known as Tamerlane), Shat Tamaz, Shah Abbas, and others. It has also been modified several times, and because of this, the Cathedral somewhat lost its original design. For many centuries the Cathedral has been burial site for Georgian kings. Vakhtang Gorgasali, Erekle II, Giorgi XII – the last king of Georgia and other nobles, including members of the Bagrationi royal family, are buried inside the church.