HISTORY OF THE ORTHODOX CHURCH OF GEORGIA
Georgia, a country of ancient history and culture, is located in the Caucasus, between the Black and Caspian Seas. At the same time it is one of the most ancient Christian countries. The Georgian people shared the Message of God in the first century: lots were cast among the Apostles to clarify to which country each of them was to go to preach. The Most Holy Mother was allotted to go and preach in Georgia. That is why Georgia is considered to be a country allotted to the Most Holy Mother of God and the Holy Mother of God is the protector of Georgia.
By God’s will the Mother of God stayed in Jerusalem while St. Andrew the First-called went to preach in Georgia with the Holy Mother’s Uncreated Icon.
St. Andrew was called to go to the country where a great treasure of theOld Testament was kept – the Mantle of the Prophet Elias broughthere by the Jews persecuted by Nabuchodonosor and the greatest Holy of Christianity – the seamless Chiton of Our Lord Jesus Christ which had been brought to Mtskheta, the capital city of Kartli by a witness of Christ’s crucifixion Elioz, a Jew inhabitant of Mtskheta.
At that period the territory of Georgia consisted of two States: Eastern Georgia – the Kingdom of Kartli (Iberia in Greek) and Western Georgia – the Kingdom of Egrisi (Colkhida in Greek). The Holy Apostle Andrew preached in different parts of Eastern and Western of Georgia. After preaching and converting people in the small town of Atskveri (the Kingdom of Kartli), he left the Icon of the Holy Mother of God there. Since then the Icon has rested at the Atskveri (Atskuri) Cathedral over the centuries.
Together with St. Andrew the First-called the Gospel was preached in Western Georgia by the Holy Apostle Simon the Canaanite who was then buried there near Sukhumi, in the village of Comani. The Georgian land also embraced another holy Apostle – St. Matthata; He preached in the Southwest of Georgia and was buried in Gonio, a village not far from Batumi. Old Christian sources point also to the fact of the Holy Apostles Bartholomew and Thaddeus being in Eastern Georgia.
Georgian Chronicles as well as the works of Greek and Latin Church authors such as Origen (II – III centuries), Dorotheos, Bishop of Tyre (IV century), Epiphanius, Bishop of Cyprus (IV-V century), Nicetas of Paphlagonia (IX century), Ecumenius (X century) and others testify also to the fact of other Holy Fathers visiting Georgia and preaching the Gospel there.
The preaching of the Holy Fathers did not go by without leaving some traces. Archeological evidence testifies to the existence of Christian communities and Churches in the I – III centuries in Georgia, e.g. Saint Irenaeus of Lyon mentions the Iberians (Georgians) among other Christians in the writings of the II century.
Christianity in Kartli (Iberia) was declared the state religion in the IV century. This fact is considered to be a phenomenon of the greatest significance in the history of the Georgian nation and is connected with to the names of Equal to the Apostles St. Nino, St. Mirian the King and St. Nana the Queen.
St. Nino who came from Cappadocia and who wasaclose relativeof St. George,, came to Kartli from Jerusalem to fulfill the Holy Mother of God’s will (announced to her through a revelation) and preach the Christian faith in the country where Christianity had already been preached by the Holy Fathers. St. Nino’s grace and the strength of her word first converted Nana, the Queen of Kartli and then King Mirian to Christianity.
According to the request of King Mirian, the Emperor Constantine the Great sent clergy to the Kingdom of Kartli under the leadership of Bishop John in order to baptize the King, his family and laymen. Before the arrival of the clergy in Mtskheta, the capital city of Kartli, construction had begun on the first church at the very place where the Lord’s Chiton had been buried. That place always was and always will be a center of spiritual life of the Georgian nation. There the Patriarchal Cathedral Svetitskhoveli was built, distinguished for its great sacredness. It was dedicated in honor of the Twelve Holy Apostles.
After the conversion of the Kingdom the Emperor St. Constantine and St. Helen sent to Georgia a part of the Life-Giving Cross, the footrest on which the Lord stood during His Crucifixion, two Nails with which Jesus Christ was nailed to the Cross and an Icon of the Savior. All these relics were provided by St. Helen.
The arrival of the clergy in the Kingdom of Georgia and the baptism of the nation are dated back to the year 326 by the Church of Georgia. The accuracy of these dates are testified to by Sozomon of Salamis, a historian of the V century in his “The Church History” where he notes that Georgia formally was baptised in 325, soon after the First Ecumenical Council in Nicea.
A fact of participation of Stratophilous, the Bishop of Bichvinta in the First Ecumenical Council in Nicea does not leave any doubt that Christianity was spread and the Church first appeared in East Georgia in the first half of the IV century.
It is since that time that Georgia and its Holy Church have steadily followed the path of Christianity unconquerably preserving the orthodox teachings. Procopius of Caesarea, a Byzantian historian of the VI century says, that Iberians “are Christians and they obey the rules of the faith much better than any of those whom we know”.
For centuries, beginning from the period when Christianity was declared the State religion, the Georgian people had to conduct battles almost continuously against foreign conquerors. Persians and Arabs, Turk Seljuks and Khuarazms, Mongols and Ottoman Turks were trying not only to destroy the country during their invasions but also to eradicate the Christian faith. The Georgian people managed to preserve their state system and protect the Orthodox faith during the hardest battles. For centuries the struggle for independence was identified as a struggle for the defense of Orthodoxy. Many clerical or lay persons died as Martyrs for their faith.
We will provide here only two stories from the past: it would not be easy to find in the world history any such examples of witnessing for Christianity as happened in the XI? century in Tbilisi, when 100 000 faithful were crowned as martyrs because they refused to obey the order of Khorezm Shah Jalal Uddin - to trample under foot the Icons of the Savior and the Holy Mother of God placed face up on the bridge and to spit on them; the reaction was - 100 000 heads of Georgian Christians were severed, be it that of a woman or a man, a child or an elderly. It happened in the year of 1226. In 1616, during the invasion of Iranian Shah - Abas I, 6 000 monks died for the name of Jesus Christ as Martyrs at the St. David of Garedja Monastery.
Among those who have been canonized as Saints by the Church of Georgia there are more than one king or governor, who showed an example of patriotism, heroism and Christian devotion. Here let us mention the Rulers of Argueti - David and Constantine Mkheidze (VIII century), King Archil (VIII century), King Dimitry II (XIII century) put to death by Mongols, King Luarsab II (XVII century) killed by Persians and Queen Ketevan (XVII century) tortured by Persians, and others.
Since the period of declaring Christianity the State religion the Church of Georgia has been involved in great building and educational activities despite of the tragic pages of the history of Georgia. The territory of Georgia is covered with a number of churches and monasteries. There are hundreds of churches to mention only those built in the name of St. George to whom special honor is due in Georgia and is considered a protector of Georgia.
A number of churches and monasteries became centers of education and culture. At the beginning of the XII century King David the Builder, who united Georgia, founded the Gelati Monastery and Academy (near Kutaisi), the latter being recognized throughout the whole Orthodox world as one of the most important centers of theology, national education and science. Another well-known center - the Ikalto Academy there was also functioning in Georgia at the same period. In the V century the first examples of hagiographic literature (Life of St. Nino, Martyrdom of the holy Queen Shushanik) were written. One can affirm that from then onwords unique and honored word of the Church of Georgia was proclaimed in any area of Christian writings. Georgian Christian art is also distinguished for the monumental painting, frescoes, mosaic, art of miniatures and cloisone enamle. For the centuries there has been developed original civic and temple architecture, examples of which are considered the best art pieces of the world.
Georgians were building churches and monasteries not only in Georgia but also outside of its boundaries, e.g. in Palestine, Syria, Cyprus, Greece and Bulgaria. In this point of view the most important are: the Holy Cross Monastery in Jerusalem (at present being under the jurisdiction of the Greek Patriarchate in Jerusalem); the St. James Monastery in Jerusalem (at present under the jurisdiction of the Jerusalem Armenian Church), the Iveron Monastery on Mount Athos (the well-known "wonder-working Iberian Icon of the Mother of God" is located in this Monastery) and the Petritsoni (now Bachkovo) Monastery in Bulgaria.
Number of theologians, philosophers, writers and translators whose names are well known to the Christian world, were conducting their activities in Georgia and outside of the country in various periods. They are Petre Iberi (Peter the Iberian), Ephrem Mtsire (Ephraim the Lesser), Ekvtime (Euthymius) and Giorgi Mtatsmindeli (George of Athos), Ioane Petritsi (John of Petritsoni) and others.
Relations with the Holy Land, in particular with Jerusalem have always had a very special meaning for Georgia as well as for the whole Christian world. Not only one but a number of names of holy places, monasteries and patron saints connected with the city of Jerusalem were applied in Georgia, particularly in Mtskheta, the ancient capital city of Kartli. From the very first centuries of Christianity our ancestors wanted to be steadily grounded in the Holy City. That is why our kings and rulers built churches and monasteries there since the very first centuries of Christianity, making donations, taking care for the restoration and decoration of churches.
Some aspects of the restoration of the rights of the Christian population in Jerusalem, which was under the yoke of Moslems in the XIV century, are connected with the name of Giorgi V, the King of Georgia. The King Giorgi V, liberator of the Georgians from the Mongol yoke and uniter of Georgia had great authority not only in our country but throughout the Moslem world as well. It was at the request of Giorgi V that the Sultan of Egypt repealed the debasing rule obligating Christians to sit on horseback woman-like when entering the city. It was also by the request of King Giorgi, that the Resurrection Temple seized by the Mameluks by that time, has been given back to the Christians while the key to the Holy Sepulchere was entrusted to Georgians and placed in their keeping that was the most important thing for the Christians.
We would like to provide a short note about the autocephaly of our Church: since the 20's of the IV century the Church of Kartli was under the jurisdiction of the Apostolic See of Antioch. In the 60 - 70's of the V century at the request of King Vakhtang Gorgasali and through thre intercession of the Byzantine Emperor and the Patriarch of Constantinople, the Patriarchate of Antioch granted self-governance (autocephaly) to the Church of Kartli and elevated the Bishop of Mtskheta to the rank of Catholicos. In Western Georgia the Church (of Abkhazeti) was under the rule of the Patriarch of Constantinople but there rule by the Catholicos was also introduced. At the beginning of the XI century, during the process of the creation of a united monarchy, the Catholicos of Mtskheta (Kartli) was elevated to the honor of Patriarch. From then onwards the premier hierarch of Georgia carries the title of Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia. The primacy of the Patriarch of Mtskheta was always been recognized by the Catholicos of Western Georgia (Abkhazeti or Bichvinta).
In 1811 the Emperor’s Court of Russia have unlawfully abolished Autocephaly of the Church of Georgia, did away with patriarchal rule and the rights of exarchate and subjected the Church to the synodical rule of the Russian Church. In March 1917, the Georgian Hierarchs have restored the both, Autocephaly of the Church and Patriarchal Rule in Georgia. After the restoration of the Autocephaly the first Catholicos-Patriarch of Georgia was elected Bishop Kirion, a famous ecclesiastic figure .
In 1989 the Ecumenical Patriarchate recognized and approved the Autocephaly exercised since the V century as well as Patriarchal honor of the Catholicos existing in Georgia from the ancient times.
Since 1977 up to now the Catholicos-Patriarch and Archbishop of Mtskheta-Tbilisi is His Holiness and Beatitude Ilia II.