Sapara Monastery

Sapara Monastary.

Sapara Monastary.

On our way to Vardzia we took a detour to the Sapara monastery in the mountains south-east of Akhaltsikhe.  It’s tucked between beautifully wooded ridges of the mountain that descend around it, hiding it from view until a kilometer or so away.  Most of the road was rather rough, and our taxi driver, a tough-looking fellow of around 35, had to drive slowly most of the way as we lurched over the uneven stone and miniature valleys carved in the soil by the rain.  

Khatuna and our driver (on the right) entering the monastary.

Khatuna and our driver (on the right) entering the monastary.

There’s been a monastery here since around the 9th century, though most of the buildings date from the late 13th, early 14th centuries.  This church, St. Saba’s (the largest church of the site), was built around that time.  The story goes that the ruler of Samtskhe, Sargis I, abdicated in favour of his son Beka, cropped his hair, took vows as a monk, and changed his name to Saba late in the 13th century.  His son then built the church in honour of the saint whose name his father had taken.

Entrance to St. Saba's church.

Entrance to St. Saba's church.

At this time most of Georgia was under Mongol rule, but because of a knack the Jakeli family had of staying on good terms with the Mongol Khan, Samtskhe flourished as an independent duchy.  Their seat was a fortress just up the hill from the monastery, ruins of which are visible from below.

The main church in this picture is St. Saba’s; the structure to the right is a smaller, older church dedicated to Mary’s Assumption. Rosen’s Georgia has the following anecdote: “Note the head of a bull on the top left side of the entrance from the porch.  Legend has it that at the time of the building of the church a bull helped to haul stones from the mountain to the site.  Just as the work was finished the bull was killed and eaten by a bear.  The builder commemorated the helpful bull by placing its effigy as the last stone set in the completed church.”(286)  I didn’t see any effigies of bulls on this older structure, about which Rosen appears to be writing; but I did see a little relief  of a bull-like creature on the rear wall of St. Saba’s, visible from a little terrace jutting out on a narrow promontory behind the church overlooking the

Fresco on the exterior wall.

Fresco on the exterior wall.

valley.  It’s recognizably bull-like, if fanciful, like a creature from Where the Wild Things Are.  It’s high up just under the eaves on the left side.

This is the entrance from the porticoed side of the church.  It’s covered in frescoes and reliefs, in remarkably good condition considering that they’re outside and that the varied depredations of Mongols, Turks, and Persians haven’t destroyed them.

One of the four seraphs in the vaults of the portico.

One of the four seraphs in the vaults of the portico.

This portico was quite beautiful; intricate reliefs decorate all the architectural surfaces, and frescoes adorn the walls.  Here again, on the left, one can see the sculpted patterns that to me resemble celtic art—the elaborate interweaving patterns of Irish illuminated manuscripts and celtic crosses.  It also frames the windows and covers other little decorative touches around the church.  The influence of Nino and her vines?

Decorations around the windows.

Decorations around the windows.

More decoration.

More decoration.

Fresco inside St. Saba.

Fresco inside St. Saba.

Fresco above the altar.

Fresco above the altar.

St. Saba.

St. Saba.

The buildings flanking St. Saba’s here are, I think, the bell-tower to the right, and the 10th-century Dormition Church on the left, which used to house a famous 11th-century stone iconostasis.  The reliefs have been removed from the church, however; three are in the Fine Arts Museum in Tbilisi and two are in the museum in Akhaltsikhe.

The view from Sapara.

The view from Sapara.

Sapara from the road.

Sapara from the road.

After walking around for a while, we got back in the taxi and headed back to Akhaltsikhe to take the road to Vardzia.

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