If you’re looking for a tour filled with faith, authentic religious sites, ringing bells and sacred songs, Georgia is the place for you. The country remains a popular destination for religious tourists, where deep-seated beliefs have been preserved through numerous invasions and hardships. While some come seeking information about the country’s Jewish heritage and others wish to visit the temples of various confessions, most religious tourists desire to learn about Georgian Orthodox Christianity, the prevailing local religion, as they tour the country’s unique cathedrals, monasteries and churches.
In 337 AD, Georgia became one of the first countries to adopt Christianity as an official religion. Since then, Christianity has played a central role in the formation of Georgian character, traditions, history, politics, education and lifestyle. Today, you can find unique, sacred places in every region of Georgia. Nekresi Monastery in Kakheti Region is the oldest church in Georgia, built in the 4th century. In Bodbe Monastery the grave of Saint Nino, credited with bringing Christianity to Georgia, is one of the most important stops for religious pilgrims. In Mtskheta, the religious centre of the country, part of the sacred robe of Christ is believed to be preserved at Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Another UNESCO World Heritage Site, Gelati Monastery in western Georgia, displays unique mosaic frescos. In the mountainous regions, small churches are colourfully painted both inside and outside. Georgian church architecture is famous for its beautiful vine branch ornamentation, numerous symbols and religious statues.
Georgia remains a religious country, and Christianity is a part of the identity of nearly every Georgian national.
Almost every village and city has a chapel, people cross themselves and say a prayer when passing a church and priests bless you with warmth and kindness if you approach them. The first toast at the table is always for religion and the most beloved holidays are religious in nature. Christmastime, during which every church service is packed with believers and every window displays a symbolic burning candle, can be a particularly special time to visit.
Religion in Georgia is not limited to the Orthodox faith, however. Over the centuries Georgia has been home to many different nationalities, and Georgians are known to be very tolerant and welcoming people, with every religion counted equal according to the constitution of Georgia. Tbilisi has Orthodox Christian chapels, Armenian Apostolic churches, a synagogue, mosque, Catholic church and ruins of an ancient Zoroastrian temple, all within a five-minute walk from each other.
During enemy invasions, Georgia’s most valuable treasures were often hidden in churches. Religious leaders would accompany the army, bearing the symbol of the cross, and Georgians believe that in the country’s greatest historical victory at the Battle of Didgori, St. George himself was leading the soldiers. According to one version, the country’s name is derived from Saint George, one of the nation’s most venerated saints. For centuries, monasteries also served as educational centers and libraries for the preservation of unique manuscripts and books. At the academies of Ikalto and Gelati, famous scholars from all over the world would be invited.
One thing is for sure: Religion is closely intertwined with Georgia past and present, and religious tourism can be a great way to fully appreciate this aspect of Georgian culture.