The Georgian Orthodox Church is one of the several 'national' churches of Eastern Christianity and officially traces its foundation to the alleged evangelization of western Georgia by the apostle Andrew and his companion Simon 'the Canaanite'. But this is a late tradition. The Andrew legend began to take root in Byzantium only in the ninth century, largely in response to the special apostolic authority claimed by the papacy. Embellished stories about Andrew's travels quickly spread throughout eastern Christendom. Within a century or two they were embraced and further expanded by Georgian monks working in places such as Mount Athos and St Catherine's monastery on Mount Sinai.
Several lines of archaeological evidence, including burials, have shown beyond any doubt that a small Christian presence already existed in eastern Georgia in the third century. It is possible that some Jewish colonists in the K'art'velian cities of Urbnisi and Mc'xet'a (Mtskheta), the royal seat, were early Christian adherents. Although the Jewish presence in eastern Georgia goes back to a more ancient time, these colonies were enlarged by the exodus following the Jewish Wars in the first and second centuries. The Georgian written tradition, dating from the seventh century onwards, recalls this fact by identifying some of the earliest Christian converts in K'art'li as Jews and by advancing the spurious claim that two K'art'velian Jews witnessed the Crucifixion. Along with this Jewish influence, Christian ideas also were introduced to eastern Georgia by Manichaeans and, it would seem, Gnostics.
Early Georgian Christianity is characterized by its tremendous diversity, inclusive-ness, and syncretic quality. The cosmopolitanism of pre-modern Caucasia, not just in the religious sphere, owed much to the region's status as a major Eurasian crossroads and its proximity to the fabled Silk Roads. A sustained push to create a single, tightly controlled Georgian Christianity and a concomitant obsession with identifying and rooting out heresy commenced much later, in the ninth and tenth centuries, and especially so in the eleventh to thirteenth centuries, under the Byzantine-oriented Bagratids.
It is difficult to gauge the prevalence of Christianity among the eastern Georgians before the fourth century. This uncertainty changes with the conversion of King Mirian III (variants: Mirean/Mihran; r. 284-361) and his family, from whose reign Christianity acquired the protection of the monarchy; within a century or so it became the dominant faith of the realm. The earliest written story of Mirian's conversion, an event dated by many scholars to around 337, is preserved in Rufinus' Ecclesiastical History, which was composed in Latin in the early fifth century. The oldest extant (written) Georgian account, The Conversion of K'art'li, is a product of the seventh century, while a considerably more elaborate version, The Life of Nino, derives from the ninth or tenth century. The interrelationship of these texts and the provenance of their traditions has inspired lively debate, though most specialists accept that the historical Mirian was converted through the intercession of the foreign, perhaps Cappadocian, holy woman Nino and that he consequently favoured the Church in K'art'li by offering royal protection, supporting its administration, and contributing to the building of churches. The chief prelate, sequentially styled bishop, archbishop, and then from the end of the fifth century catholicos (Georgian kat'alikos), was resident at the royal city Mc'xet'a.
Over the next two centuries a network of bishoprics was established under the watchful eye of the K'art'velian king. Eastern Georgia's landscape was predominantly non-urban and so the administrative model adopted by the Church in the Roman/Byzantine Empire was not appropriate. K'art'velian bishops tended to be headquartered at the estates of the most powerful aristocratic families (e.g., C'urtavi in the Armeno-Georgian frontier zone) and, after the sixth century, at important monasteries. Extremely little is known about the early ecclesiastical hierarchy except that the Archbishop of Mc'xet'a stood at its head. According to a later written tradition, Nino herself selected the first two leaders of the Church in K'art'li. Between the fourth and sixth centuries, from King Mirian to King P'arsman VI (r. from 561), the chief prelates were foreigners; several were Greek, while others were Armenian, Syrian and Iranian ('Iranian' in this context may denote 'Manichaean'). In fact, the initial phase of Christianization was very much a pan-Caucasian phenomenon in which non-Caucasians assumed a prominent role.
The Church in K'art'li was claimed by the Patriarchate of Antioch from an early time, although in practice Caucasia was often beyond Antioch's jurisdictional reach. Up to the Arab conquest in the seventh century, when regular communications between Caucasia and Syria were disrupted, the chief bishop of the Church in K'art'li received ordination from Antioch. There is a later, dubious tradition, probably originating in the eleventh century, that the exiled fourth-century Antiochene patriarch, Eustathius, made his way to eastern Georgia and was responsible for guiding the affairs of the local church. Similarly problematic is Elguja Xint'ibidze's assertion (1996) that some of the early Cappadocian fathers, including Basil the Great, might actually have been 'Iberians', i.e., Georgians. Although there may in fact be a genealogical connection of some kind, there is no compelling reason to believe that Basil identified himself as a Georgian or that the alleged Georgian link was in some way instrumental to the formation of his ideas.
In order to propagate the faith rapidly among Mirian's subjects, Christian leaders deliberately invented a script for the K'art'velian idiom of Georgian so that biblical and other religious texts could be translated into the local language. There is considerable controversy about the origins of the Georgian script. The c.800 Life of the Kings, the initial text of the corpus of medieval Georgian histories known as K'art'lis c'xovreba (the so-called Georgian Royal Annals or 'Georgian Chronicles'), credits the first K'art'velian monarch P'arnavaz (r. 299-234 bce) with the invention of Georgian writing in early Hellenistic times. There is, however, no direct evidence to support this fanciful claim.
For its part, the medieval Armenian tradition gives the honour of creating scripts for Armenian, Georgian, and Caucasian Albanian to the Armenian cleric Mashtots, also known as Mesrop. However, surviving manuscripts of the vita of Mashtots, like those transmitting The Life of the Kings, postdate the schism between the Armenian and K'art'velian Churches, and it is altogether possible that both have been manipulated so as to give their respective parties precedence. In terms of chronology there can be no question, however, that all three Caucasian scripts were fashioned by a Christian impulse at about the same time, in the second half of the fourth century or early fifth century. Thus, while Mashtots might not have been involved personally with overseeing the creation of the Georgian script, there is every reason to think that a Christian pan-Caucasian effort was afoot. Armenian clerics would have played a conspicuous role in the project since their Church - established just a generation previously, after the conversion of King Trdat c.314 - was the largest and organizationally the most developed among the embryonic Caucasian churches.
Thus by the end of the fourth and certainly by the start of the fifth century, Christian clerics had equipped themselves with a Georgian script, called asomt'avruli. The Gospels were probably the first to be rendered into Georgian. Translated ecclesiastical literature has remained important in Georgia ever since. None of these early translations have survived intact; the oldest extant Georgian manuscripts are palimpsest fragments of translations deriving from the fifth to the eighth century. They are exclusively religious in nature and transmit texts from both the Old and New Testaments, as well as liturgical, homiletic, and even apocryphal works. It should be noted that some Byzantine sources that are otherwise lost are now preserved only in Georgian translations, including Hippolytus' Commentary on the Song of Songs, Metrophanes of Smyrna's Commentary on Ecclesiastes, Eustratius of Nicaea's Brief Memorandum on When and Why the Romans and their Church Deviated from the Divine Eastern Church, and On Festivals, the last of which was fabulously attributed to Justinian I. Works originally composed in yet other languages are also uniquely preserved in Georgian, including The Passion of Michael of Mar Saba, which was translated from Arabic in the ninth or tenth century.
At the end of the fifth century the first known example of original Georgian literature appeared: The Martyrdom of Shushaniki, composed by her confessor Iakob C'urtaveli (Jacob of C'urtavi). Like other specimens of early Georgian literature, it relates the deeds of a holy person. Original Georgian literary works are rather uncommon prior to the rise of the Bagratid dynasty in the ninth century, nevertheless hagiography appears to have been the genre of choice in the initial stage of local literature. These saintly biographies were written by Christians for the strengthening and defence of the faith of Christ, but they relate relatively few details about the condition and structure of the contemporary Church in K'art'li. However, the Georgian-language vitae of Shushaniki (fifth century), Evstat'i (c.600), and Habo (variant Abo, eighth century) are testaments to the diverse, multicultural character of early Georgian Christianity. All three of these Christian heroes were non-K'art'velians who lived and were killed in eastern Georgia: Shushaniki was an Armenian princess; Evstat'i, an Iranian and son of a Zoroastrian high priest; and Habo, an Arab. What was most important in these early hagiographies is a sense of Christian affiliation, not ethnicity.
In the case of Evstat'i and Habo, saintly biographies demonstrated that Christianity could overcome its enemies and doubters. Further, the physical location of the stories in eastern Georgia was of immense importance, for it showed that even in Caucasia, so far from the Holy Land, the Christian God could work miracles and guide local affairs. Biblical history was enlarged geographically and chronologically through such traditions. The originals of such vitae are lost, and the copies that we do have are typically found in collections of saints' lives of the eleventh century onwards. Although all of this material is in Georgian, the vast majority of the vitae celebrate holy men and women from elsewhere in the Christian world. Other materials in the collections consist of ecumenical Christian patristic, homiletic, theological, and exegetical writings, these works having been translated into Georgian, often from Greek. For example, the eleventh-century Parxali mravalt'avi (polycephalon) incorporates the Georgian vitae of Shushaniki and Habo as well as materials relating to Nino, but also well over a hundred items of an ecumenical nature. As a consequence of this structure, Georgian saints were made every bit as legitimate as saints recognized by the universal Church, and Georgian Christianity was made part of the larger Christian experience.
The writing of saints' lives in eastern Georgia constantly evolved to reflect changing local conditions. The most ancient Georgian hagiographies are passions and martyrdoms. Then, after the foundation of monasticism in K'art'li in the sixth century, the lives and activities of other holy men (and, rarely, women), especially monks, were composed. In the seventh century a narrative of Nino's travails was put into writing. Out of this hagiographical context was produced the first written Georgian-language historiographical texts in the early ninth century. It is worth noting that medieval Georgian histories tend to focus narrowly on kings and kingship and offer relatively few clues about the state of the local church.
Original and translated Georgian literature alike reveals the southerly orientation of early Georgian Christianity, towards Jerusalem, Syria and Armenia. The earliest written versions of Nino's biography exude the eastern Georgians' deep admiration for Jerusalem. Among other things, Nino was given a direct - but possibly fabulous - connection with that city and its patriarch, and holy sites in Mc'xet'a were named in honour of its most important Christian places. A number of scholars have shown the preservation of the Jerusalem rite in original and translated Georgian sources of the pre-Bagratid period (i.e., especially before the tenth century). Of special importance are the medieval Georgian iadgaris, roughly the equivalent of Byzantine tropologia. In the words of musicologist Peter Jeffery,
Though the original Greek manuscripts are lost, the medieval Georgian translations permit us to know what [the early Jerusalem repertories] contained, to trace their historical development, and to document the influence Jerusalem asserted on other Eastern and Western centers of liturgical chant . . . Georgian chant is in some respects our most direct witness to the period and processes in which all medieval Christian liturgical chant was formed.
T'amila Mgaloblishvili's splendid investigation (1991) of the Klarjet'ian mravalt'avi has substantiated the importance of the era of King Vaxtang I Gorgasali (r. 447-522) in the translation and adaptation of liturgical and other ecclesiastical materials into Georgian.
Indeed, the reign of Vaxtang has traditionally been portrayed as a period of tremendous growth for Georgian Christianity. There can be no question of the extension of bishoprics in this era as well as the translating, writing, and copying of texts both at home and by K'art'velian monks resident abroad, especially in Levantine monasteries such as Mar Sabas. The pattern of foreign monasteries as the central sites of Georgian literary production was thus established back in the fifth century. It was also at this time that we observe the eastern Georgians being drawn into the theological disputes of the larger Church. In an attempt to secure K'art'velian support and to acknowledge local support of the empire, the Byzantine government recognized - and perhaps itself instigated - the change in status of the K'art'velian chief prelate from archbishop to catholicos, around the year 480. Fully-fledged autocephaly would not be achieved, however, until the Arab conquest or later. In the sixth century eastern Georgian bishops attended ecclesiastical councils hosted by the Armenians and together with other Caucasian religious leaders voiced their opposition to Chalcedon.
However, eastern Georgia's geopolitical situation and especially the increasing weakness of its monarchy compelled the K'art'velian secular and religious elite to seek aid from Constantinople. The growing Iranian menace forced Vaxtang to seek refuge in Byzantine-controlled eastern Anatolia on at least two occasions. Sassanid influence steadily expanded in eastern Georgia: an Iranian marzban was established in the recently-(re)founded city of T'bilisi (older orthography Tp'ilisi, Russian Tiflis) in 523, and according to the careful research of Toumanoff (1963), K'art'velian kingship was completely extinguished by Iran several decades later, around the year 580. Within a decade the political vacuum was filled by a series of 'presiding princes', which lasted down to the re-establishment of local kingship by the Bagratid dynasty in 888.
The Long Sixth Century is perhaps the single most developmentally significant period of Georgian Christianity. Though the K'art'velian political situation plunged deeper and deeper into crisis, the Church in K'art'li was strengthened and remade itself into a 'national' organization. During the reign of P'arsman VI (561 to 579 at latest), the so-called Thirteen Syrian Fathers under the leadership of the Iovane Zedazadneli (John 'of Zedazadeni') entered eastern Georgia and acquired the king's permission to establish a series of monasteries. Among them were Davit' Garesjeli (David 'of Garesja'), founder of the monastic complex in the Garesja (variant Gareji) desert in the eastern region of Kaxet'i, and Shio Mghwmeli, who established a monastery at the Mghwme (Mghvime) caves just upriver from Mc'xet'a. The Thirteen Syrian Fathers attracted a considerable body of local pupils and this increased the demand for books throughout the land.
It is worth recalling that while these men are credited with the implantation of monasticism in eastern Georgia, the K'art'velians had previously been acquainted with it; a considerable number of K'art'velians, like the famous anti-Chalcedonian Peter the Iberian, had journeyed abroad, especially to Jerusalem. The Syrian monks were likely anti-Chalcedonians (modern observers have variously identified them as Miaphysites and Nestorians), although our relatively late sources do not indicate how or whether this affiliation affected their labours in eastern Georgia. However, at the time of their arrival, the Church in K'art'li remained in the non-Chalcedonian camp with the Armenians and Caucasian Albanians.
Yet the anti-Chalcedonian union among Caucasian Christians was becoming increasingly fragile. P'arsman VI's reign witnessed not only the implantation of monasticism in eastern Georgia but also the 'nativization' of the K'art'velian ecclesiastical hierarchy. A dramatic shift in self-consciousness resulted in the struggle waged by the inflexible catholicoi of K'art'li and Armenia. According to the later sources for the episode preserved in the Armenian Book of Letters (Girk' T'ght'ots'), at first the dispute centred on the Armenian allegation that the K'art'velian Catholicos Kwrion had not dedicated his full energies to the war against 'Nestorianism'. At the heart of the struggle were three issues. First, what was the proper relationship of Christian Caucasia with the Byzantine Empire? Second, was the diversity of Christianity as practised in the eastern Georgian domains appropriate? Finally, who, if anyone, should have the right to make decisions affecting the Christians of greater Caucasia, including the definition of what constituted Orthodoxy? In other words, who, if anyone, held ultimate ecclesiastical authority in Christian Caucasia and what was the structure of the regional church hierarchy?
The Armenians believed themselves, or at least local ecclesiastical councils held under the presidency of the Armenian catholicos, to possess that ultimate, pan-
Caucasian authority. Kwrion dissented, an action not unexpected in light of the great energy and newfound boldness displayed by K'art'velian church officials. Finally, at their Third Council of Dvin, held in 607, the Armenians condemned Kwrion and his adherents, and a schism between the two Caucasian churches was set into motion. It would be another century before this break would become permanent. Though Armenian polemical works were directed against the eastern Georgians not long after Dvin III (this occurring within the larger context of the separation of the imperial and Armenian churches studied by Nina Garsoian, 1999), the K'art'velians would seem to have 'returned fire' only much later. The earliest known such work was penned by the eleventh-century Catholicos Arsen Sap'areli ('of Sap'ara').
Kwrion's Christological orientation has proven a bone of contention: was he a Dio-physite, a Miaphysite or a Monothelite? There is some evidence suggesting the last, but what is certain is that this public dispute with the Armenians brought theology squarely into the K'art'velian foreground. And to the eastern Georgians, the theological issue was inseparable from the question of relations with Byzantium. Over the course of the sixth century, the eastern Georgian elite pinned its protection and fate more and more on Constantinople, and the Armenians had objected to this and resented its possible implications. From Constantinople's perspective, such alliances required what amounted to a declaration of faith: for the K'art'velians to receive Byzantine support and assistance, they would have to embrace the imperial form of Christianity. Kwrion seems to have put his church on that path. But in the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius (610-41), a great many K'art'velian churchmen abandoned their non-Chalcedonian position. Heraclius' very appearance in K'art'li, as he was en route to Sassanid Iran, and his promotion of Byzantine Christianity, was unprecedented in Georgian history. So great was the impact that the episode is uniquely reported in three separate medieval Georgian-language histories.
The excitement stemming from Heraclius' defeat of the Iranian army and his sacking of Seleucia-Ctesiphon was short-lived. Iran and Byzantium had been exhausted from the prolonged war, and both were susceptible to the new, well-organized opponent from the south, the Arabs. Sassanid Iran was an initial target, the Arabs managing to kill the last Sassanid king in 651. Byzantine possessions in Mesopotamia were also coveted by the Arabs. The routing of a Byzantine army at Yarmuk in August 636 opened the door to Syria; by 638 Syria and Palestine, including the patriarchates at Jerusalem and Antioch, were in Muslim hands. The invasion of Christian Caucasia commenced by 640 and five years later Arab troops had penetrated eastern Georgia. In 654-5 the city of T'bilisi surrendered and eastern Georgia was occupied. As was the case in neighbouring Armenia, a major component of the Arabs' approach was the colonization of Christian Caucasia.
In the meantime, Byzantine Egypt also succumbed to the Arabs, in September 642. Egypt is mentioned here because of the infamous Patriarch Cyrus of Alexandria. It was Cyrus, a favourite of Heraclius and a staunch advocate of Monothelitism, who surrendered Egypt. This Cyrus may have a direct connection to Georgia. Zaza Alek'sidze (1968) has advanced the provocative argument that Cyrus is none other than the Catholicos Kwrion. That Cyrus was deemed personally responsible for the dramatic loss of Egypt to the infidels, and that he and his Monothelite partners were singled out and excommunicated at the Sixth Ecumenical Council in 681, may explain why Kwrion's memory was expunged from medieval Georgian sources.
By the end of the seventh or start of the eighth century, Christianity in eastern Georgia had been radically transformed. For the first time in its history, a distinct tradition of the foundation of K'art'velian Christianity was put into writing. In its original form, the succinct Conversion of K'art'li was produced sometime in the seventh century, presumably within a few decades of the events of 607 (Rapp and Crego 2006). Although The Conversion undoubtedly preserves many older, accurate memories of how Christianity triumphed in the time of Nino and Mirian, the work as a whole must also be seen in large measure as a seventh-century declaration of autonomy: the K'art'velian Church was an independent organization and, significantly, connections to the contemporaneous conversions of Armenia and Albania have for the most part been expunged. Indeed, it was in this period that the Church in K'art'li was transformed into the ethnically focused K'art'velian Church. Though observers of the time did not explicitly note the change or apply new terminology to the local church, the K'art'velian Church was strikingly different in its organization and mission. Its hierarchy, including the office of catholicos, was now monopolized by eastern Georgians, especially K'art'velians. What is more, it had now become a 'national' church, an organization by and for the dominant K'art'velian ethnie. This is reflected in contemporary Georgian-language vitae, such as the eighth-century Martyrdom of Habo by Iovane Sabanis-dze. In the case of Habo, an Arab migrant to the Georgian territories, conversion to Christianity was not enough: he had to embrace the local, K'art'velian, form of Christianity which entailed, inter alia, learning the Georgian language and 'converting' to K'art'velian culture. After Habo the heroes of original hagiographies tend to be K'art'velians or other Georgians; the cosmopolitanism of early K'art'velian Christianity was thus curtailed, though by virtue of Georgia's location in a prominent Eurasian crossroads this condition never completely disappeared.
K'art'velian political authority remained feeble throughout the ninth century, and as it had in previous times the local church postured to fill the void. But the Arab conquest brought changes to the K'art'velian Church. As a result of the occupation, what may have been thousands of religious and secular elites evacuated the region. Some travelled east into the mountainous far eastern regions of Kaxet'i, while many others sought refuge in the Georgian south-west, in regions such as Tao (the Armenian Tayk'), Klarjet'i and Shavshet'i, where the Arabs had been unable to extend their dominion. Over the next two centuries a K'art'li-in-exile was created, which I call neo-K'art'li. This area was instrumental in the later re-conquest of eastern Georgia. Georgian Christianity not only survived, it flourished.
From the south-western domains, it gained unprecedented access to Byzantium and the imperial church, and by the tenth century this influx of Byzantine forms and ideas led to a reorientation of the local church away from the south and towards the Byzantine Empire. A prime example of this shift in Christian orientation is the deliberate substitution of the Jerusalemite liturgy with the Constantinopolitan. At the same time, monastic institutions thrived as never before. A number of enormous, often autonomous monastic foundations were established throughout the south western domains. The chief figure associated with this development is the monk Grigol Xandzt'eli (George
'of Xandzt'a/Khandzt'a'). Xandzt'eli's biography, composed by his pupil Giorgi Merch'ule, is not only an extensive record of the growth and development of K'art'velian monasticism, but it also supplies rare glimpses into the political and everyday life of contemporary neo-K'art'li. This vita also expresses the idea of a K'art'velian 'national' church in so far as it makes the Georgian language (i.e., the K'art'velian dialect) not only a legitimate sacred language but also an essential component of Georgian Christianity.
Neo-K'art'li's prosperity contributed to the rejuvenation of K'art'velian political life under the Bagratids. Ironically, the Bagratids were originally an Armenian family; there is evidence that in Vaxtang's time some of them had already entered the service of the K'art'velian monarchy. But it is in the years immediately following the crushing of a disastrous uprising by Armenian noble families against the Arabs in 772 that a branch of the family migrated to neo-K'art'li, where they permanently settled and were rapidly acculturated. In 813 the Bagratid prince Ashot I seized the presiding principate and three-quarters of a century later, in 888, his relative Adarnase II restored local kingship. Great though his achievement was, Adarnase could not have guessed that the Bagratid line of kings would monopolize political power in much of Georgia for the next thousand years, up until the Russian conquest of the nineteenth century.
The greatest and most enduring achievement of the Georgian Bagratids, who had risen to power under Byzantine tutelage, was the political unification of lands on both the eastern and western sides of the Surami mountains, beginning with the union of part of K'art'li, neo-K'art'li, and the western region of Ap'xazet'i (Russian Abkhazia); this was engineered by Bagrat III in 1008. It is worth emphasizing that, up to the start of the Bagratid era, the historical and ecclesiastical experiences of eastern and western Georgia often diverged. Western territories including Ap'xazet'i, and before it Lazika and Egrisi/Colchis, fell more under the influence (and sometimes direct control) of the Roman and then the Byzantine Empire. Consequently, western Georgian Christianity developed along different lines from that in eastern territories such as K'art'li (it should be noted that labelling the western regions as 'Georgian' in this early period is extremely misleading and projects back later realities and perceptions; L. G. Khrushkova's use of 'Eastern Black Sea' (2002) in this context is more historically accurate).
Although the beginning of the conversion of western Georgia may also be traced to the fourth century, the Christianity introduced and fostered there tended to be more in line with that sanctioned by Constantinople. Bishops sitting in the western regions took part in the first and fifth ecumenical councils. Once the Bagratids took the reins of power in Ap'xazet'i, the church of western Georgia was merged with that of the East. That having been said, however, the K'art'velian Church, especially as it existed in neo-K'art'li, often exerted influence over other regions, including western Georgia, long before the Bagratids assumed control of these places. Thus religious uniformity often preceded political unity. By the eleventh century, the Bagratids had realigned local royal imagery - both in art and in the historical texts they sponsored - from its traditional southern-facing, Iranian orientation to one more attuned to Christian Byzantium. In this development, too, we must acknowledge the influence of the eastern Georgian Church and its similar reorientation from the south (in this case, Palestine, Syria and Armenia) to the west, towards the Byzantine Commonwealth. In other words, the local church's intensive adoption and adaptation of Byzantine models from the ninth and especially tenth century preceded and stimulated a similar reorientation by the political elite in the tenth and eleventh centuries.
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