Nodar Bakhtadze, Vazha Mamiashvili, Bachana Gabekhadze, Jimsher Chkhvimiani. The Early Christian Churches of the Ancient City of Nekresi. Tbilisi: 2020, 216 pp. (in Georgian)
The remains of the ancient city of Nekresi, located in Kvareli municipality, are well known from ancient Georgian historical (“Conversion of Kartli”, “The Life of Kartli”, “The Life of Vakhtang Gorgasali”) and hagiographic sources (“The Martyrdom of Abibos of Nekresi”, “The Life of Shio and Evagre”), as well as from other historical documents.
According to Georgian sources, the city of Nekresi was built by King Pharnajom in the 2nd century BC. Its walls were restored at the end of the 3rd century AD by Mirvanoz, the foster father of the first Christian king, Mirian, and in the late 4th century, the first church was built there by King Trdat, Mirian’s grandson. In the 5th–6th centuries, the city was an arena of confrontation between Kartli and Persia and, consequently, Christianity and Mazdeanism. City life in Nekresi ceased during the era of Tamerlane, but the episcopal center and the monastery of Nekresi continued to function there.
In the 1980s, an expedition of the S. Janashia Georgian State Museum began conducting archeological excavations on the territory of the city, led by Academician L. Chilashvili. From 2004, the expedition was led by Prof. N. Bakhtadze. The authors of this monograph are also members of this same expedition.
The book consists of an introduction and four chapters. At the end there are attached tables and their descriptions, a bibliography, and a geographical and personal names’ index. The introduction reviews the historical sources related to Nekresi, and the history of the archeological research of the city, while the purpose of the monograph is also set out.
In Georgian art history, from the early 20th century, the notion was established that in the early Christian era, from the 4th century to the end of the 5th and begining of the 6th century AD, miniature churches resembling basilicas were built in Georgia, constructed by local masters based on oral descriptions. According to the author of this theory (G. Chubinashvili), throughout the first two centuries of Christianity, the population of the Kingdom of Kartli was so afraid and distrustful of the new religion that only clergy entered the church during the mass, while the parishioners stood outside the building and barely took practical part in the liturgy. Therefore, the need to build large and spacious churches did not exist within that period of time. According to the author of the theory and his followers, this view was corroborated by (along with several others) one of the small chapels standing in the Nekresi Monastery. This issue has been a subject of heated debates since the 1980s. A number of scholars (Z. Kiknadze, T. Mirzashvili, B. Mchedlishvili) did not share this view, and, based on Georgian historical sources and mainly on the general history of early Christian Church architecture, argued that it was impossible for the Christian architecture of Kartli not to be closely connected right from the start to the Roman Empire and their newly developed canons of church architecture. The main purpose of the book by N. Bakhtadze and his co-authors was to discuss the early Christian churches of the city of Nekresi, their architecture, and the materials obtained from archeological research, which practically confirms the general reasoning above.
The first chapter of the monograph is dedicated to the archeological-architectural study of a small memorial chapel of an unusual structure (which was recognized as a “ model” of G. Chubinashvili’s theory) located on the territory of Nekresi Monastery. In 2009, a fully fledged archaeological research led by N. Bakhtadze confirmed that the chapel was built ontop a crypt and was of a later period than the crypt itself. The inventory of persons buried in burial chambers (mainly ceramic materials and clothing accessories) dates back to the 6th–7th centuries. Accordingly, the chapel built on it is either of this time, or later. Therefore, it could not be considered as a church built by King Trdat in the 4th century, and this building was to be looked for directly in one of the districts of the city of Nekresi.
The second chapter discusses the Chabukauri church complex, which was unearthed by the Nekresi Archaeological Expedition in 1998–2006 and 2015–2019 in the central part of the city. The complex consists of a three-nave basilica-type church, an annexed church (N3) and a nearby chapel (N2). On the floor level a fragment of the capitals of a four-legged Holy Table was found, the like of which is well-known from the Byzantine churches of the 4th–5th centuries. Further, the tiled roof on the wooden structure of the naves of the basilica is nurtured by the tradition characteristic for the basilicas of the Roman-Byzantine world of the 4th–5th centuries. Until now, it was considered that wooden structures were not used at all for roofing the ancient basilicas built in Georgia, and they were covered with limestone vaults and tiles placed on them. The Chabukauri Basilica was the first church in Georgia to have a rectangular altar plan. This also indicates that it is an analogy of churches built in the 4th–5th century in northwest Syria and the Holy Land (more rarely in Mesopotamia and Egypt). Like the Chabukauri church, numerous churches with rectangular pastophoriums have been confirmed in 4th century Byzantium, as well as on the territory of Asia Minor and Africa. In the center of the naos, a large stone-box-type burial vault placed under the floor also brings this church closer to the architectural and liturgical tradition of northwestern Syria. As for the artefacts obtained in the basilica, the ridged and flat tiles with notched and white-painted antefixes, and pottery, are also dated to the 4th–5th centuries based on their general markings. Of particular note are the bronze chandeliers, glass altar lamps, as well as bronze lamps found during the excavation of the altar, the parallels of which can be found in different regions of the Roman-Byzantine world of the 4th–5th centuries. From all the information above, it was determined that the great basilica of Chabukauri as likely built in the late 4th century and soon after, in the 420s, it was destroyed by a very strong earthquake. Based on this, the authors consider this particular three-nave basilica of Chabukauri to be a church built by King Trdat.
The third chapter of the book is dedicated to the Dolochopi basilica complex. It was spotted in 2004 near Kvareli, on the right bank of the Duruji River, in an area covered with dense forest and undergrowth. Researchers consider this area to be the farthest western district of the city of Nekresi. Active archaeological work began on this location in 2012, and continued until 2019. The basilica alone is monumental in size. In this respect, it has no precedent not only in Georgia, but in the whole South Caucasus – the length and width of its central hall alone is 36 m. x 18.5 m., while the measurements of the complete outer perimeter of the basilica are 44 m. x 28 m. The hall was divided into three naves by two rows of five pairs of cross-plan columns. To the east of the central nave, the apse of the altar, with a sloping plan, was laid out. The altar is surrounded by a four-stepped synthronon made of stone, in the center of which is the high throne of the bishop. The ambo of the altar, which goes westward up to the first pair of columns of the central nave, is arranged in the form of a rectangular “proscenium”, which characterizes important basilicas of the central provinces of the late Antiquity – early Byzantine world. In the basement of the altar, a 15 sq/m crypt was found that was contemporary to the construction of the basilica. Similar altar crypts are common in late Antiquity and early Byzantine churches, but this is the first time such a structure has been uncovered in Georgia.
A number of planning and construction elements make up the Dolochopi Basilica: such multi-step synthronon, an ambo in the shape of a proscenium, a wooden roof structure, red-painted interior, color-painted notched antefixes, etc., cannot found in the 5th–6th centuries Georgian monuments that are known to us. On the other hand, it fits well with the type of basilica found in eastern Byzantium in the 4th–5th centuries. Hence, it can be presumed that the construction of the basilica of Dolochopi took place in this period of time. The inventory of tombs in the south gallery of the church also supports this dating. In particular, a silver earring with a gilded hanger, a silver bow type fibulae and other burial inventory dates back to the 5th and the beginning of 6th centuries AD. Radiocarbon analysis of a bone sample taken from the remains also indicates the same date. Hence, according to the authors, the large basilica of Dolochopi must have been built at the end of the 4th century, or in the first decades of the 5th century, and it functioned until the middle of the 6th century. Reconstruction work was carried out on the monastery complex after the devastating earthquake, but the restored church had fallen into disrepair by the 8th century, presumably as a result of Arab invasions.
The study of the Dolochopi Basilica does not end here. Excavations in 2015–2016 revealed that this grandiose church was erected on the ruins of an even earlier, 25 m. x 15 m Christian basilica. According to researchers, this is the earliest example of a so-called “three church basilica” in Georgia. The sanctuary of the central hall of the basilica has a rectangular plan and has square-shaped pastophoriums to its north and south. Fragments of pottery found on the floor were dated by researchers to the 3rd–4th and 4th–5th centuries. Taking everything into account, this church was likely destroyed by an earthquake at the end of the 4th century, and a new, more splendid, basilica was built at the end of the 4th-begining of the 5th centuries on the platform created by evening out the ruins.
The last, fourth, chapter of the monograph is dedicated to a discussion about the architectural style of early Georgian churches. In this chapter, the authors summarize, in a theoretical sense, the knowledge they have gained as a result of excavating churches in the city of Nekresi. They review the architecture of churches of the newly Christianized countries within the territory of the Roman Empire and beyond, examples of which clearly show that everywhere, including in neighboring Armenia and Sasanian Iran, Christian church architecture was already canonically established and settled: “Thus, it should be considered a proven fact that basilica-type churches, of an approximately analogical planning design, but more or less different in craftsmanship and creative variety, became widespread in virtually all countries, metropolises that were under the influence of late Roman/early Byzantine Christian culture, during the first two centuries after the recognition of these teachings as an official religion (1st half of the 4th century)”. – the authors conclude. Clearly, the Kingdom of Kartli would not be an exception here.
I believe the authors of the monograph did a great service to Georgian science by studying archaeologically and making a scrupulous interdisciplinary analysis of examples of Georgian early Christian period architecture in the city of Nekresi. A great step forward has been made in the study of the genesis of Georgian church architecture. This book finally sheds light on many issues that have been part of a heated debate at the theoretical level for the past four decades. This discussion might have gone on indefinitely, or ended with nothing, if not for this book. It is my hope that this will not prove to be a full stop, however, but instead the beginning of a new period of research.