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November 23 in Georgia is a public holiday, to allow people to celebrate the Feast of the Martyrdom of Saint George.

The two saints most honoured in Georgian society are Saint George and Saint Nino. According to tradition, they were cousins. Both born in Cappadocia in Anatolia, their family backgrounds were possibly Greek.

Saint George was born into a military family. His father died young, and his widow, originally from Lydda in Palestine, returned to her hometown to raise her children. Her son George was raised as a pious Christian and was well-educated.





The youth followed his father’s example in joining the army soon after his coming of age. His father had been on close terms with the Emperor Diocletian and he was readily accepted by the Emperor. He proved to be a charismatic soldier and consequently rose quickly through the military ranks of the time. By his late twenties he had gained the titles of tribunus (tribune) and later comes (count). By that time George had been stationed in Nicomedia (near Constantinople, on the Asian side of the Bosphorus) as a member of the personal guard attached to Roman Emperor Diocletian (reign 284305). 

 
In 303, Diocletian issued an edict authorising the systematic persecution of Christians across the Empire. His caesar, Galerius, was supposedly responsible for this decision and would continue the persecution during his own reign (305311). It is believed that George was ordered to take part in the persecution but instead confessed to being a Christian himself and criticised the imperial decision. Diocletian offered him money, slaves and property to renounce his faith but he refused. An enraged Diocletian proceeded in ordering the torture of this apparent traitor and his execution. 

After innumerable forms of torture, George was executed by decapitation in front of Nicomedia’s defensive wall on April 23, 303. The witness of his suffering convinced Empress Alexandra and Athanasius, a pagan priest, to also become Christians, and so they also joined George in martyrdom as consequence. George’s body was then returned to Lydda for burial, where Christians soon came to honour George as a martyr.

Many people believe the foreign name for this country, “Georgia”, to be related to the name of Saint George. The reality may be different; in Greek, “giorgos” is a farmer, and the Greeks had extensive contact with Georgian tribes up to 3000 years ago. Various ancient Greek writers described Georgia as a fertile and prosperous land with well-developed agriculture, so it may be that “Georgia”  simply means “The Land of Farmers”.

Nonetheless, Saint George’s tremendous popularity and significance for Georgian people still needs to be explained. His close family relationship with Saint Nino of Cappadocia, the Enlightener of the Georgians, may explain part of his appeal. Saint Nino, considered of equal status to the Apostles in Georgia, established the tradition of commemorating his martyrdom.  His background as a courageous and honourable soldier likewise would attract respect from the martial Georgians, who view themselves as a race of warriors. He is reported to have appeared to Georgian troops many times over the centuries before crucial battles, and has a special place in the heart of Georgian servicemen.

He is usually portrayed in icons as a young soldier in armour, or astride a white horse doing battle with a dragon. While the familiar tales of Saint George slaying the dragon may be mythical, the iconography draws very strong parallels between Saint George, the warrior-saint, and Saint Michael, the Commander of the Heavenly Host. Saint Michael is often portrayed mounted on a horse doing battle with a serpent, which represents Satan. So to an extent Saint George and Saint Michael are closely identified as warriors doing battle with evil.

The Georgian government maintains an image of Saint George on its coat-of-arms

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On November 23, the Georgian Church celebrates the feast of Saint King Konstantin. Of Kakheti royal heritage, he was known as “Kakhi” for this reason. He had been on pilgrimages to Jerusalem and was a pious and charitable person.

In the years 853 to 854, when the Arab Muslims invaded Georgia, the  85 year-old Prince Konstantin commanded the army of Kartli with his son Tarkhuj. Overwhelmed by the huge numbers of Arab troops massed against them, the Georgians suffered defeat, and Konstantin and Tarkhuj were taken captive.

The captive Konstantin-Kakhi was sent to Samarra (a city in central Iraq) to the caliph Ja’far al Mutawakkil (847861). Ja’far was well aware of the enormous respect Konstantin-Kakhi received from the Georgians and all the Christian people who knew him. Having received him with honour, he proposed that Konstantin renounce the Christian Faith and threatened him with death in the case of his refusal. Strengthened by divine grace, the courageous prince fearlessly answered, “Your sword does not frighten me. I am afraid of Him Who can destroy my soul and body and Who has the power to resurrect and to kill, for He is the true God, the almighty Sovereign, Ruler of the world, and Father unto all ages!”

The enraged caliph ordered the beheading of Saint Konstantin-Kakhi. Bowing on his knees, the holy martyr lifted up a final prayer to the Lord. St. Constantine-Kakhi was martyred on November 23, 852. The holy martyr’s body was hung from a high pillar to intimidate the Christian believers, but after some time it was buried.

A few years later a group of faithful Georgians transported Saint Konstantine’s body to his motherland and reburied them there with great honour. In that same century the Georgian Orthodox Church numbered Prince Constantine-Kakhi of Kartli among the saints.

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On November 13 every year, a major commemoration takes place in Tbilisi to celebrate the courageous sacrifice made by the almost the entire population of Tbilisi for their faith.

This article is kindly reproduced by permission of John Sanidopoulos.

In 1227 Sultan Jalal al-Din of Khwarazm and his army of Turkmen attacked Georgia. On the first day of the battle the Georgian army valorously warded off the invaders as they were approaching Tbilisi. That night, however, a group of Persians who were living in Tbilisi secretly opened the gates and summoned the enemy army into the city.

According to one manuscript in which this most terrible day in Georgian history was described: “Words are powerless to convey the destruction that the enemy wrought: tearing infants from their mothers’ breasts, they beat their heads against the bridge, watching as their eyes dropped from their skulls.…”

A river of blood flowed through the city. The Turkmen castrated young children, raped women, and stabbed mothers to death over their children’s lifeless bodies. The whole city shuddered at the sound of wailing and lamentation. The river and streets of the city were filled with death.

The sultan ordered that the cupola of Sioni Cathedral be taken down and replaced by his vile throne. And at his command the icons of the Theotokos and our Savior were carried out of Sioni Cathedral and placed at the center of the bridge across the Mtkvari River. The invaders goaded the people to the bridge, ordering them to cross it and spit on the holy icons. Those who betrayed the Christian Faith and mocked the icons were spared their lives, while the Orthodox confessors were beheaded.

One hundred thousand Georgians sacrificed their lives to venerate the holy icons. One hundred thousand severed heads and headless bodies were carried by the bloody current down the Mtkvari River.

From “Lives of the Georgian Saints” by Archpriest Zachariah Machitadze. Saint Herman of Alaska Press

Every year on this feast a litany is held on the Metechi Bridge lead by the Patriarch of Georgia to honour the 100,000 Holy Martyrs. It is attended by tens of thousands of people; processions from many parishes in Tbilisi parade their icons and crosses at the bridge. People throw flowers in the water of the Mtkvari to honour the martyrs who met their final resting place in the river.

This festival is touching for many reasons. Georgian Orthodox Christians and Armenian Apostolic Christians both suffered in the massacre and both communities celebrate the feast. Coming only two days after Remembrance Day as celebrated by people from the Commonwealth, it is a time when both Georgians and foreigners reflect on the sacrifices made by their ancestors for their principles and their way of life. Perhaps what is most poignant is the sense of forgiveness in the minds of Georgian people in the light of this Feast. Georgian Christians have suffered terrible persecution at the hands of various Turkic peoples over the centuries, and yet modern Georgians have civil and often amicable relations with Turks, Azeris and other Turkic people on a day to day basis. This contrasts strongly with the situation in the Balkans.

 

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