Discovering Jerusalem's Glorious Georgian Past

You may know Jerusalem, but do you know about its Georgian past? A tour through some of the city's lesser-known historical sites.

Lasha Zhvania loves hugging. He’s a warmhearted, friendly man who knows lots of people in the Christian quarter of Jerusalem's Old City. Bumping into people all the time may make his way through the alleyways of the Old City slower, but these chance encounters are an inseparable part of the tour he’s agreed to give me of what he calls “Jerusalem’s Georgian past.” When we met at the Valley of the Cross in the beginning of the day, he made it clear that this wasn’t going to be a typical tour of the Old City's Christian sites. But as we searched for the remnants of the city's Georgian past, Zhvania admitted sadly that they weren't easy to find. Four hundred years have passed since the glory days of the Georgian Church in the city, its luster had since faded, and the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate and the Armenian Patriarchate inherited its properties. But the passing of time has done nothing to diminish the connection Georgians such as Zhvania feel towards Jerusalem and towards the places that were “theirs” during the golden age of the church between the 11th and 17th centuries. As the day progressed, it dawned on me that it would be hard to verify some of the claims Zhvania made about various sites' Georgian past. He showed me Tbilisi’s version of Jerusalem, and while it doesn’t always match with other accounts, it is still fascinating and intriguing.

Zhvania was the Georgian ambassador to Israel for four years. He finished his term in 2009, but still visits Israel from time to time thanks to his work with the Georgian Patriarchate. When we bump into his friends from the past he smiles, explains that he's only visiting and politely introduces me to a whole host of merchants, monks, Jews, Christians, and Muslims, as well as the TV crew that came from Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, and were interviewing him – and for some reason, me too – along the way. During the morning he speaks pretty good Hebrew, but in the afternoon he tires of it and switches to English. By the end of the day he tries to converse with me in Georgian and complains that I still haven't got round to learning such an important language.

The Monastery of the Cross

The most famous Georgian site in Jerusalem is the large, fortified monastery at the Valley of the Cross, at the foot of the Knesset. It only opened its doors to visitors a few years ago, which may explain why it's not that well known. It's an impressive, complex and a fascinating site, which you enter through a narrow gate. Zhvania tells me about two historical legends: the first being the Christian tradition that says it marks the spot where Lot planted the seeds he received from Abraham. The seeds bloomed into a beautiful tree, and so Lot knew that God had forgiven him for the sin of fornicating with his daughters. Another legend says that the wood from this tree was used to make the cross Christ was crucified upon (on a visit to Georgia, I was once shown a tiny piece of wood that was said to have been taken from that very cross). A chapel marks the exact spot the tree grew, behind the eastern wall of the monastery church. These legends give the monastery its name and its significance for Christian believers. During the short time we were there, we saw several large groups of pilgrims from Russia visiting.

A monastery was first established on the site in the 6th Century. The present structure was built in the 11th century by King Bagrat IV of Georgia. Dozens of Georgian monks lived there, translating scriptures and decorating the monastery and the church. Hundreds of other Georgians lived in a nearby village that was located on what is now Jerusalem's Malha neighborhood, and provided services to the big monastery. During the 12th Century the Georgian national poet Shota Rustaveli lived in the monastery where he wrote the national epic poem "The Knight in the Panther's Skin." According to one legend, Rustaveli served as finance minister for Queen Tamar in Tbilisi, had a love affair with her, and was exiled from the kingdom. Before she died, Queen Tamar asked that ten coffins be prepared for her so no one would know exactly where she was interred. These coffins were sent to different locations. Legend has it that one of them was sent to the Monastery of the Cross. In all probability Rustaveli died and was buried in Jerusalem, in an unknown location.

Zhvania points to one of the church frescos, said to be the only portrait ever made of the Georgian poet. This historic fresco was vandalized in 2004 and has since been restored. Since then there have been ceaseless negotiations between the Georgian Embassy in Israel and the Georgian Patriarchate's representatives, and the only Greek Orthodox monk who lives in the Monastery of the Cross. Recently, unsubstantiated reports circulated that the Israeli government supports the Georgian demands to return the monastery to their hands.

The Monastery of the Cross was under Georgian ownership until the end of the 16th Century, when it was forced to sell it to the Greek Orthodox Church. Georgian monks continued living in the area until the middle of the 19th century. Zhvania draws my attention to several ancient Georgian inscriptions on the walls of the monastery, and we then climb up to the roof and are greeted with a wonderful view of Givat Ram, the Israel Museum and the Knesset. Zhvania reminds me that all these lie on former Georgian land and are now owned by the Greek Orthodox Church, which leases them to the Israeli government. He then exchanges a few polite words with the local monk and uses his phone to take a photo of some Greek inscriptions that he says have been etched on the walls since he last visited. The monastery is open Monday-Saturday from 10:00-16:00. Entry costs NIS 15. There is a small pleasant café.

The St. Simeon Monastery

The St. Simeon Monastery in Katamon was established in the 19th Century, but according to Lasha Zhvania's version of events a Georgian monastery operated on this spot until the 17th Century. The existing Greek Orthodox structure was only established after it was abandoned. The St. Simeon Monastery marks the burial spot of Saint Simeon, one of the first believers in Jesus, and is located in a picturesque spot, in the center of a green garden, surrounded by a wall. Next door is the home of the Greek Patriarchate in Jerusalem, which also served the pilgrims who came to live in the city. During the British Mandate Jewish tenants lived there, including the poet Shaul Tchernichovsky, who died here in 1943. Although there isn't substantial evidence to prove what Zhvania tells me, he does not doubt that it is part of the Georgian heritage in Jerusalem.

The New Gate

Immediately after passing through the New Gate and entering the north-western corner of the Christian Quarter of the Old City, we find ourselves in the middle of a plethora of monasteries. We start off by walking down New Gate St., turning left onto Casa Nova St. and then into St. Francis St.. We turn right into a shared courtyard next to the Casa Nova Monastery, and climb an external staircase up to the roof. This beautiful view takes in a large part of the Christian Quarter. According to Zhvania, nine small Georgian monasteries operated in a small area here during the 17th Century.

We then walk east up Casa Nova St. before turning left into Greek Patriarchate St., which takes up several large buildings on each side of the road. The most interesting visit is to the Greek Orthodox Monastery, also known as the Saints Constantine and Helen Church. This is a large and imposing complex with a very impressive church.

In the courtyard Zhvania points out some Georgian inscriptions that remind us of the place's ancient past. Some are engraved in rocks that have since been moved, so the carvings are upside down or at an angle. In the past the Byzantine Church used this site, and the Georgian Church was active here from the end of the Byzantine period until the 17th Century. Most of the buildings here were built from the 17th Century onwards.

Six churches are currently operating in the huge complex, and there is also the Patriarchate Museum, where a piece of Christ's cross is said to be held – although I did not see it myself. This interesting museum displays a large variety of monks' robes from the different Christian denominations, and has other exhibits too. The museum is open on Monday-Saturday between 08:00 and 16:00, but the custodians aren't always happy to host visitors.

The Church of John the Baptist

We start at Hanotzrim St., turning left into St. Helena St. to pay a quick visit to the Square of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The queues are long, so we content ourselves with examining some ancient Georgian inscriptions pilgrims have carved onto the pillars that lead into the church. We then continue south on Hanotzrim St., and opposite number 94, on the corner of David St., we take a left through a small gate that leads us to the Church of John the Baptist. This small church is a peaceful, serene place that is also one of the oldest churches in Jerusalem. It was operating in Byzantine times, and was home to Georgian monks before it was destroyed in the 13th Century. Several Georgian inscriptions document this historic connection.

We continue our route by taking a right down David St. in the direction of Jaffa Gate, before turning left (south) into Greek Patriarchate St.. We exit the Christian Quarter and stroll through the Armenian Quarter straight into the local patriarchate. For the first time during the tour I see Zhvania, who is usually calm and relaxed, look displeased. "The Armenians erased every trace of the Georgian past from the walls of these buildings," he says. "We can only guess at their past from their age."

This was my first visit at the Armenian Patriarchate complex, and I was amazed by its size. Later, when I looked at the map, I understood that the patriarchate controls a third of the Armenian Quarter. This huge area is divided into several smaller sections, some of which are public, though the majority is residential. Many Armenian refuges arrived in Jerusalem after the Armenian Genocide during World War I, and found a safe haven here. Since then the monastery has also served as a residential quarter.

During the afternoon the place feels calm and quiet. A few monks are surprised to see us, maybe because the place doesn't have many visitors. The Armenian monastery and the church were built during the Crusades, in the days of Melisende, Queen of Jerusalem, the daughter of the Crusader King Baldwin II and the Armenian princess Morphia of Melitene. The church is dedicated to St. James, and two holy men are believed to be buried there: James the brother of Jesus, who was the first bishop of Jerusalem, and the head of St. James the Great, who was one of Jesus' Twelve Apostles. His body is interred in the city of Santiago de Compostela, a destination of pilgrimage in northern Spain. To finish the tour one can return to Jaffa Gate or New Gate.

Moshe Gilad