Mtskheta Samtavro Necropolis
Mtskheta was a former capital of Georgia. The first source that mentions Jews living in the city is the following which connects the arrival of Jews in Georgia to the destruction of the First Temple:
“Then Nebuchadnezzar the King captured Jerusalem, and the Jews who escaped came to Kartli and requested land from the Mamasakhlisi (prince, chief of a tribe or clan) of Mtskheta in return for the payment of a head tax. He gave them land near Aragvi, near a spring called Zanavi, and settled them there. The place they received in exchange for payment of the head tax is called today Kherek, because of the tax.”
Another reference to Jews in Mtskheta is in the Kartlis Tskhovreba (The Georgian Chronicles) which discusses Jewish refugees who came to Georgia after being exiled by Vespasian and settled in Mtskheta, near their brethren who had settled there long before. These Jews were called Uria or Huria, a common term in early Georgian sources and those of the late Middle Ages. In the 19th century, the term was replaced by Ebreili, after which Uria was used pejoratively for Jews. It should be noted that the Kartlis Tskhovreba was edited and compiled in the 11th century and, as such, one must read it with a grain of salt as some of the information and traditions may be of unverifiable origin. It is possible that these traditions originated as an attempt to link the arrival of Jews in Georgia to historical events. Nevertheless, it is certainly possibly that Jewish settlement in Mtskheta preceded the Christian era.
Georgia was at various points under the rule of the great eastern empires of the ancient world—such as Assyria, Babylonia, and Persia—and thus maintained commercial and cultural ties within those empires. Jews likely came to Georgia as traders, emigrants, or refugees from other diaspora lands, especially during the period of the Persian Empire. There was moreover a large Jewish settlement in Armenia (south of Georgia). A passage in the Kartlis Tskhovreba discusses the counting of Jews as residents of Georgia at that time. The entry states that Hebrew was among the languages spoken in Georgia: “And in Kartli they spoke six languages – Armenian, Georgian, Khazaric, Aramaic, Hebrew and Greek, and all the kings of Kartli, fathers and mothers, knew these languages.”
The earliest archeological evidence of a Jewish presence in Georgia consists of tombstones found near Mtskheta. The monuments, thought to be from the 3rd-5th centuries, bear engraved inscriptions in Aramaic and Hebrew. The influence of Georgian can also be discerned in the spelling. The Georgian name “Gork,” which is Persian in origin, appears on the stones, specifically that of “Yehuda who was named Gork.” On the tombstone of “Yosef bar Hazan,” a goblet and pitcher are engraved. Jews occupy a special place in Georgian traditions, especially concerning the spread of Christianity in the country. A legend which appears in several versions of Kartlis Tskhovreba links the Jews of Georgia with the crucifixion of Jesus. It tells of emissaries from Jerusalem who presented themselves before the Jews of Georgia and asked them to choose sages from among themselves who would travel to Jerusalem and take part in Jesus’ trial. Two distinguished Georgian Jews went to Jerusalem—Elioz of Mtskheta and Longinoz of Karasani. They were present at the crucifixion and took home with them Jesus’ robe. Upon their return to Georgia, Elioz’s sister went out to greet them and embraced the robe to her heart. She then became so grief-stricken over the death of Jesus that she fell and died. She was buried with the robe in her arms, and a cedar brought from Lebanon grew at the site of her grave in Mtskheta. Another folk legend relates that a tombstone in the centre of the Svetitskhoveli cathedral in Mtskheta marks her grave. From these two legends, it is possible to extrapolate that there were “Christian Jews” among the Jews of Georgia even before St. Nino began preaching Christianity.
Another source from the 6th century source indicates there was a stable Jewish community in Georgia just two hundred years later. This document relates the story of a Persian youth who fled his homeland and traveled to Mtskheta, to learn about the Christian and Jewish faiths in order to choose between the two religions. It is told that he entered a synagogue, the status of which is described as equal to that of prayer houses of other religions in Mtskheta.