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The Orthodox Church of Georgia

High in the Caucasus Mountains, at the eastern end of the Black Sea, rests Georgia. Poised between the Arabic, Persian and Syriac cultures of Asia and the Greco-Roman world of Europe, Georgians have fashioned a unique civilization, integrating with their own many of the beliefs, customs, ideas and principles of these seemingly disparate societies.

Christianity — which became the state religion in the eastern Georgian kingdom of Kartli by the fourth century — is as much responsible for the creation and survival of this distinctive polity as language or tradition.

Strategically situated on the crossroads of East and West, North and South, tiny Georgia has repeatedly overcome far superior foes — Romans, Persians, Arabs, Mongols, Ottomans and Russians. Yet the Orthodox Church of Georgia, often described as the buttress of the nation, remains a formidable force in the lives of the country’s 4.7 million people, 80 percent of whom belong to the church.

Origins. Byzantine and Coptic histories note that St. Matthias the Apostle first brought the Gospel to Kartli and died a martyr there around the year A.D. 80. Other Christian sources credit the apostles Andrew, Bartholomew, Simon the Zealot and Thaddeus with forming Christians among Georgia’s Jewish communities in Kartli and Egrisi, the western Georgian kingdom known by the ancient Greeks as Colchis — the mythical land of Jason, Medea and the Golden Fleece.

Modern archaeological evidence — the remains of second- and third-century Christian tombs as well as early fourth-century churches — indicates an early presence of the faith, particularly near the coast. That Christianity was the official religion of Kartli by the year 337 is incontestable. Armenian, Byzantine, Georgian, Greek and Latin sources all indicate that, in circa 300, Nino, a woman from Cappadocia, left Jerusalem for Kartli in search of the robe from Christ’s crucifixion.

“Equal to the apostles,” as Georgians revere her today, St. Nino worked primarily among the kingdom’s Jews, who were her first disciples. Written about a century after her death, “The Life of St. Nino” records the close relationship that existed between Nino and the Jews of Mtskheta (the capital of Kartli) as well as between the churches of Georgia and Jerusalem. It also details the conversion of King Mirian III, his establishment of Christianity as the faith of the kingdom and the erection of a shrine in Mtskheta to house the robe of Christ, known as the cathedral of Svetitskhoveli, or the “life-giving pillar.”

According to tradition, King Mirian later requested bishops and clergy from his ally in Byzantium, the Emperor Constantine the Great.

Growth. Initially, the church of Kartli was subordinate to the patriarchate of Antioch. Led by an archbishop, the church celebrated in Greek the eucharistic liturgy of St. James — the rite of the church of Jerusalem.

Royal reforms instituted in 467, however, led to the “nationalization” of the church of Kartli, including its independence, or autocephaly, from Antioch; the appointment of a chief hierarch, or catholicos, chosen from the Georgian clergy; and the creation of new eparchies. By the sixth century, Georgian replaced Greek in the celebration of the Divine Mysteries, which remained close to practices in Jerusalem and the monasteries of Mar Chariton and Mar Sabas in Palestine.

While two bishops from the western Georgian kingdom of Egrisi participated in the first ecumenical council of Nicea (325), the church grew slowly in that kingdom. Not until 523 did the king of Egrisi embrace Christianity and declare it the state religion.

Because of its strong relationship to Byzantium, the church of Egrisi celebrated the sacraments according to the Byzantine rites of Constantinople. These rites, while reflecting the imperial legacy of the capital, synthesized those of the Antiochene and Jerusalem churches. Services were held in Greek until as late as the ninth century.

Armenians. The Georgian churches were spared the violence associated with the Christological controversies that rocked the Byzantine world. While sympathizing with the theological formula decreed by the Council of Chalcedon (that Jesus, “like us in everything except sin,” possessed two natures, divine and human), the Georgian churches remained ambiguous in deference to their Armenian neighbors and allies, who were rebelling against the Persians and therefore unable to participate in the council. (The Persian emperor demanded his Armenian subjects renounce Christianity, which he identified as a symbol of their loyalty to his Byzantine rival. The Armenian bishops declared their loyalty to Persia, but refused to abjure the Christian faith. They could hardly endorse a theological position initiated by the Byzantine church and enforced by the Byzantine emperor.)

In 506, Armenian and Georgian bishops, monks and members of the laity gathered in the Armenian city of Dvin. There, they proclaimed their confessional unity and apparently accepted a papal-endorsed Christological compromise — the Henotikon of Zeno. They did not sever communion with those churches that embraced the council.

The cultural, sociopolitical and theological differences between the two churches, however, became clear after the Armenian Church broke with Constantinople in 551. Consequently, the Armenian and Georgian churches grew further apart and in 610 the Georgian catholicos of Mtskheta separated from the Armenian Apostolic Church. The Armenians had by then rejected the decrees of Chalcedon as innovations. Today, these theological approaches are understood to reflect cultural, linguistic and political differences and are considered theologically complementary.

Consolidation. Caught between endless wars involving the Armenians, Byzantines, Persians and Arabs, the Georgian states fractured further. Yet, the catholicos of Mtskheta in the eastern kingdom of Kartli exercised leadership and provided the basis for the eventual unification of the Georgian church and state.

The church in Egrisi, threatened by Byzantine hegemony, detached itself from the jurisdiction of the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople and joined the catholicosate of Mtskheta in Kartli in the ninth century. In recognition of its authority, the patriarch of Jerusalem permitted the catholicos of the now unified Georgian church to consecrate the holy myron, the oils used in the celebration of sacraments, which the church had always received from Jerusalem.

In 1008, King Bagrat III of Kartli and Abkhazia unified the eastern and western Georgian kingdoms to become the first king of kings of the Georgians. Melchizedek I of Kartli, who led the church from about 1010 to 1030, took on the title of “Catholicos- Patriarch of All Georgia,” which remains the title of the chief hierarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church. Together catholicos- patriarch and king governed the spiritual and temporal domains of medieval Georgia. And even as Georgia’s kings consolidated their authority, increasingly diminishing the power of the nobles and subordinating the church to the state, the catholicos-patriarch remained the undisputed “spiritual father” of the realm.

Apotheosis. Georgian art and culture, spirituality and learning reached their zenith with the consolidation of the Georgian church and state.

Monasticism first flourished in the sixth century with the foundation of the David-Garedja monastic complex by St. David Garejeli, one of the 13 Syriac Fathers who, according to tradition, bolstered Christianity in the Georgian frontier. Monasteries, often founded by kings and members of the nobility, became important centers of cultural and missionary activity. In the late 10th century, Georgians founded the Iviron Monastery on Mount Athos. Georgian communities also flourished at Mount Sinai’s St. Catherine’s Monastery and Mar Chariton and Mar Sabas in Palestine.

Georgian cathedrals, while using Armenian and Persian architectural motifs, developed along independent lines, featuring complicated cross-in-square plans, soaring elevations, blind arcades, sophisticated vaulting and intricate sculptural details. Exquisite frescoes, mosaics, icons and enamels, while influenced by the work of the Byzantines, covered the vaults and walls of churches and palaces.

Biblical texts and exegetical works, hagiographies and histories, philosophical and theological treatises — all in Georgian — reached a pinnacle in the 13th century, particularly during the reign of Queen Tamara. Scholars continue to discover rare Arab Christian, Armenian, Byzantine, Greek and Syriac works, which somehow have managed to survive the devastation that was soon to follow.

Destruction. In 1226, Georgia was crushed by the Khwarezmids, a Persian Sunni Muslim people who controlled the area around the Caspian Sea. Quickly following in their wake, the Mongols, a nomadic people from Central Asia, took Georgia without much resistance by 1242.

As the power of the Mongols gradually receded, a reduced Georgian kingdom resurfaced. Its kings, however, faced a new enemy, Timur the Lame.

Determined to restore the empire of his Mongolian ancestors, Timur swept through Central Asia and the Caucasus, laying waste to all that stood in his way. Though nominally a Muslim, his bloodthirsty devastation of Aleppo, Damascus and Baghdad had earned him condemnation from Islamic leaders, who labeled him an enemy of Islam.

Frustrated by the tenacity of the Georgians, Timur invaded the Georgian realm at least seven times. His armies pillaged its cities, ransacked its monasteries, razed its churches, leveled its villages and scorched its fields, orchards and vineyards. By 1405, Timur finally secured the tribute of the Georgian king, George VII, whose realm lay devastated. As a final punitive act, he flattened the Georgian capital of Tbilisi.

Georgia never recovered from its desolation at the hands of Timur the Lame, who died soon after subduing the kingdom. Though kings and catholicoi attempted to restore a unified state, it fragmented into rival principalities, which by the end of the 15th century mirrored the borders of the ancient kingdoms of Kartli and Egrisi. The unity, too, of the Georgian church evaporated, as a rival catholicosate was erected in Abkhazia (northwestern Georgia) sometime in the 15th century. Communion between the two rivals, however, was restored in the latter half of the 16th century.

Suppression. The cultural and intellectual creativity of the Georgian church smoldered for several centuries, though there were exceptional monks, priests and bishops who translated and analyzed ancient manuscripts, wrote biographies, recorded histories and published Scripture in the Georgian language. These leaders also deepened bonds with other churches, including the establishment of warm relationships with Franciscans, Dominicans, Theatines and Capuchins, all of whom had religious houses in the Georgian kingdoms.

The Georgian and Roman churches never formally parted ways after the Great Schism of 1054. Nevertheless, full communion between the two eventually ended and perhaps hardened after Byzantine Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453.

In the 18th century, a besieged Georgia turned to its northern neighbor, Orthodox Russia, for support. In 1783, the eastern Georgian kingdom of Kartli-Kakheti and Russia signed the Treaty of Georgievsk, which pledged Russian protection. Within three decades, a series of Russian decrees incorporated Georgia into the tsarist Russian Empire.

Almost without resistance, Georgia lost its autonomy. Ironically, the Orthodox tsar of Russia, not the Muslim sultan of Constantinople, eliminated the Orthodox Church of Georgia. The tsar annulled its autocephaly, abolished the catholicosate, reduced the number of eparchies and subordinated them to the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church. The synod later purged the Georgian church of its ancient practices received from the church of Jerusalem and brought it in line with contemporary Russian liturgical practices. The use of Georgian in the seminaries and in the celebration of the Divine Mysteries was replaced with Church Slavonic.

Nevertheless, the Georgian identity survived. When the empire of tsarist Russia finally unraveled during World War I, Georgia declared its independence.

On 12 March 1917, less than two weeks after the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II, an assembly of Georgian bishops, priests, monks and lay people reclaimed the church’s autonomy and restored the catholicosate. But the church’s newly found freedom, like the state’s, was short-lived. In 1921, Soviet Russia annexed Georgia. Religion was suppressed and several eminent church figures, including the catholicos-patriarch, were killed. Though the Soviet authorities permitted the Georgians to remain independent of the Orthodox Church of Russia, they ruthlessly persecuted the church. In 1917, more than 2,400 churches operated in Georgia. By the mid-1980’s, however, only a handful of monasteries survived and 80 churches remained active. Yet, Georgians did not give up their Orthodox faith.

“In order to receive Communion, my family walked for miles,” said Father Giorgi Getiashvili, a prominent pastor in Tbilisi. “People went to church quietly, secretly. If there were no priests in the churches, people went anyway and prayed. The rituals did not exist. People just went.”

Revival. As the Soviet system lost its grip in the late 1980’s, the Orthodox Church of Georgia — led by Catholicos-Patriarch Ilia II — returned as a major force in the lives of all Georgians. Renewal gathered steam especially after Georgia declared its independence in 1991. Churches throughout the country have reopened, new structures consecrated and two theological academies and six seminaries opened.

Vocations to the priesthood have increased significantly. New religious houses for men and women are actively working to improve all aspects of Georgian society, which has been battered with the collapse of the planned and controlled economy of the Soviet era.

Today, the resurgence of Orthodoxy is highly visible. Stores now sell Georgian and Russian icons, as well as prayer books. When Orthodox Georgians pass in front of a church, they are apt to make the Sign of the Cross.

“These traditions are passed from generation to generation. Everything we have today has been practiced for a very long time, even centuries,” said Father Giorgi.

“It’s due to God’s strength we have been able to preserve it.”

Michael La Civita is the executive editor of ONE magazine.

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