Mtskheta represents one of the most ancient and significant cities of Georgia. Mtskheta is regarded as the first capital of the kingdom of Kartli, traditionally the whole country. Mtskheta was declared the capital of Georgia in 280 B.C, during the reign of King Farnaoz of Kartli who later became the king of all Georgia. From the 3rd to the 5th century A.D. Mtskheta played a significant role as a political, religious, and cultural center both in Georgia and the Greater Caucasus. All vital issues were solved by Mtskheta Mamasakhlisi (town mayor) .Once the city of Mtskheta was the most glorified place of all, it was called “Deda-kalaki” (“mother city “ or “Capital” in translation) [Leonti Mroveli].
Mtskehta is also mentioned among the ancient cities of Georgia in connection with the campaign of Alexander the Great of Macedon. Alexander the Great found a number of strongholds in the middle of Kartli: "პოვნა ციხე-ქალაქნი ესე ძლიერნი შუა ქართლ: წუნდა, ხერთვისი მტკურისა, ოზრხე, მოკიდებული კლდესა ღადოსა, თუხარისი მდინარესა ზედა სპერისასა, რომელსა ჰქვიან ჭოროხი, ორბნისი, კასპი, და უფლისციხე, ქალაქი დიდი მცხეთა და უბანნი მისნი: სარკინე, ზანავი, უბანი ჰურიათა" [ლეონტი მროველი].
Starting from the ancient period, Mtskheta represented a fully developed city in many ways with its strong stone houses, ceramic tile roofs, baths, water system, market, public squares and religious facilities. The historical excavations conducted in various districts of Great Mtskheta revealed the manuscripts by Stravon, famous Greek Historian-geographer (65BC -23AD) referring to the high standards of the Georgian school of architecture. The following historic parts and monuments of the city are evidence of this:
Ghartiskari – the significant part of united defense system of Great Mtskheta defending the capital of the kingdom from the north ie. the hill at the Aragvi river right embankment, including the bottom of Zedazeni ridge at the Aragvi left embankment. Thus, it blocked the Aragvi valley and defended two significant districts of the capital; “Sevsamora” (Greek-Roman sources) and the city of Mtskheta itself… Stravon refers to Ghartiskari when he writes : “From the northern nomadic tribes it is an extremely difficult three day walk, at the end of it, along the river Aragi (Aragvi) starts a narrow lowland. It is about a four-day walk. The end of the road is secured with an inaccessible stronghold”
Gkartiskari unique defense complex was built in the 3rd and 2nd centuries B.C and was actively used until the 4th and 5th centuries A.D., (some 700 years).
Armaztsikhe – Bagineti Royal Residence from the 1st to 5th centuries A.D. consisted of a unique fortification/defense system, a palace type facility, a grand pre-Christian temple, and three Asian-Roman style baths. A stone grave containing the king’s daughter was also discovered here. Precious and exquisite artifacts as well as Greek writings provide very important information as to the background of the site.
The residence of Bitaxs (high-ranking official) was located in Armazi Valley (Kartli). It consisted of a complex of buildings and facilities to include wine cellars, water pipeline, and its own burial ground. Here the excavations revealed Bitaxs’ daughter, Serafita’s famous grave with beautiful and rare jewelry made of gold, silver, bronze, glass and other gems. During the excavation, some items were found that are regarded as not only local cultural heritage but also of worldwide significance.
The Royal tomb (in the vicinity of Mtskheta railway station) represents another clear example of high level Georgian architecture of the 1st century A.D…
When Mtskheta was the capital of Kartli (3rd century B.C. until the 5th Century A..D.), it was regarded as one of the most affluent cities in Georgia and the Caucasus, where even the common citizens of Mtskheta enjoyed a very high standard of living.
The burial grounds that were discovered and studied by archeologists in Samtavro field, Karsaniskhevi, (so called “Mogvtakari” burial grounds) and those near Svetitskhoveli Cathedral provided profound insight into the local social economic situation in and around Mtskheta. These cemeteries contained graves of hundreds of thousands of people yielding material artifacts to include luxurious domestic household articles, religious items, and jewelry of significant value. These discoveries proved clearly that Mtskheta was financially and economically a well developed city at that time.
From the second half of the 5th century A.D. Mtkheta began to gradually lose its position and reputation as the first city of the country. It was replaced by the newly emerging city of Tbilisi, the present day capital of Georgia. According to the chronicle’s artistic description: By the end of the 6th century A.D. “ Mtskheta was becoming sparsely populated while Tbilisi was flourishing; Armazi was getting small while Kala was getting dense.” "მცხეთა აღთხელდებოდა და ტფილისი აღშენდებოდა; არმაზი შემცირდებოდა და კალა გამდიდრდებოდა."
Despite the fact that Mtskheta declined from its position of the premier city of the state and was obliterated several times, official documents and legislative acts of the Georgian Kings and church clerics continued to refer to it as the “Big capital city of Mtskheta.”
Historically, in the people’s minds, and in the hands of writers, Mtskheta and its surrounding religious sites of the Samtavro Nunnery, the Jvari, Shio Mghvime, and Zedazeni Monasteries, and Svetitskhoveli Cathedral remained in the cradle of Georgian spirituality and education as the main religious symbols of Christian Georgia. Mtskheta was the city in Eastern Georgia where the first bishopric was established in 430s.
The establishment of the Mtskheta Bishopric was led to declaration of Christianity as the state religion in Kartli. St Nino, the Illuminator of the Georgian people came to settle in Mtskheta, on the location of the Samtavro Nunnery. She lived there for three years. The Mtskheta bishopric embraced the political-ethnic boundaries of the kingdom of Kartli until the 5th century. Initially, Bishops were sent from Constantinople with the title of Archbishop. All local churches were subject to Mtskheta Bishopric. From the 5th century, (the reign of Vakhtang Gorgasali), particularly, after the emergence of new bishoprics and the institution of Catholicos in Kartli, Mtskheta Bishopric remained subordinate to the Catholicos and its cathedral (in honor of Jesus Christ) was located in Mtskheta. From that period jurisdiction of Mtskheta Patriarchy became limited involving the area between the Rekhula and Didi Liakhvi rivers. At that moment the head of Mtskheta Bishopric accepted the name of a Bishop or an Archbishop of Kartli . According to the hierarchy the bishop of Kartli was subordinate to the Catholicos (later he was relegated to fourth) and played a significant part in the coronation of the kings. After the Kingdom of Kartli and Kakheti and the Georgian Church lost their sovereignty in 1811, Mtskheta Bishopric was abolished as well leading to the founding of Samtavro Nunnery.