The Cathedral of Ninotsminda
Though the cathedral itself (AD 575) is largely in ruins, this is a profoundly impressive site, with extremely well preserved defensive walls surrounding the complexand a belltower that reveals a decidedly Safavid-Persian influence.
The walls themselves were built in the 16th—17th centuries to protect the villagers from the continual Persian incursions. The masonry is superb, and the beehive machicolations arc most distinctive. The protruding towers that flank the southern entrance add to the site’s powerful effect on the imagination.
The importance of this structure cannot be overestimated, given that it predates Jvari in Mtskheta. The first major church with a centralized plan, it served as a model for the transition to the mature Jvari-style tetraconch. What remains today is the eastern apse and a small portion of the western wall, in the conch over the altar can be seen 16th-century fresco fragments of the Virgin with Child surrounded by angels. The upper arches, squinches, and a portion ol the drum restored in the tenth century can be seen in the east.
Ninotsminda has the outline of a tetraconch, with corner niches surrounding the octagonal central room that was originally covered with vaulting. In the tenth to 11th centuries the structure of the vaulting was altered. Pilasters were adjoined to the ends of the conch walls, and a drummed cupola was raised with the help of squinches. Additional restoration occurred in 1671 with construction of the brick portico in front of the entrance in the west. Further restoration was done on the cupola drum by Archbishop Savva Tusishvili in 1774. At that time he also enlarged the archbishop’s residence connected to the belltower in the northeast section of the complex.
Thu cathedral was destroyed by earthquakes in 1824 and in 1848. The sophistication of the design and construction of Ninotsminda in conjunction with its great age cannot fail to move any admirer of Georgian architecture, especially in light of its function as precursor to so many other glorious structures.
The Belltower of Ninotsminda
Built during the reign of King Levan I (1520-1574) and with his direct patronage, this belltower also had a residential function served by the three stories below the polygonal belfry. Each floor is distinct as to floor plan and vaulting. All have fireplaces. Floors two and three also have alcoves. The use of brick, particularly in the decoration of the facade by staggered placement and differentiation of surface, bespeaks the Persian influence on the belltower’s conception. The aura of the Orient is heightened by the pointed arch over the entrance and repeated on the entablatures beneath the cross reliefs and throughout the belfry. Few monuments in Kakheti better encapsulate in their architectonic elements the complicated political situation in the region during this period.
It is possible to climb to the top of the belfry, and the view will justify your exertions. The colored scraps of cloth on the window bars arc tied there as votive offerings.
The villagers use the complex as a place for holidays, festivals, and weddings. You stand the best chance of coming upon an event on Sunday. January 27 is a religious festival honoring St. Nino, for whom the church is named.
Getting to a higher point above the cathedral complex is also worth the effort and can be achieved by either driving or walking on the only road that leads up the hill behind the north wall. The view of the cathedral, the tower, and the Iori tableland stretching south to Azerbaijan is both beautiful and instructive in comprehending the geopolitical realities that have beset this sorely tried region for so many years.