Today the Church celebrates the entry of Saint Nino into the Kingdom of Iberia in the year 323. Despite the efforts of the Apostles Andrew, Simon the Zealot and Matthias, and no doubt other Christian evangelists after them, Iberia and Colchis remained steadfastly heathen in the early 4th century.
Saint Nino came from a well-respected family; her father Zabulon was a Roman Army officer who retired, moved to Jerusalam and was tonsured a monk. His wife Sosana was ordained by her brother Patriarch Juvenal in Jerusalem as a diaconess (a rank of the Orthodox Christian clergy that has since fallen out of use), and Nino went to live with a devout old lady, Sara, who told her of how Christ’s robe had been taken to Iberia and was hidden there.
Nino prayed to the Virgin Mary for inspiration on how to travel to Georgia to venerate the robe of Christ. The Theotokos appeared to her in a vision and commanded her “Go to the country that was assigned to me by lot and preach the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will send down His grace upon you and I will be your protector”.
Afraid, Nino replied “How can I, a fragile woman, perform such a momentous task, and how can I believe this vision is real?” In reply, the Virgin Mary gave her cross made of grapevines and commanded “Receive this cross as a shield against visible and invisible enemies!”. The cross is still held at Sioni Cathedral in Tbilisi.
When Nino awoke, she was clasping a cross fashioned of grapevines. She lashed them together with her hair and resolved to engage in her mission to the Georgians. It is significant that her cross was to made of grapevines, as the vine in Georgia is treated with greater reverence than any other living thing.
Her mission was endorsed by her uncle, Patriarch Juvenal, and she endured many difficulties and dangers on her travels from Jerusalem to southern Georgia. Over fifty of her followers were martyred in Armenia by the Armenian King Tiridates, and she managed to escape by hiding in rose bushes.
After travelling through the Lesser Caucasus mountains of Javakheti, she entered Iberia in the vicinity of Lake Paravani.
Arriving in the middle of a blizzard, she met Mtskhetan shepherds who provided her with directions to Urbnisi, from where she travelled to the Iberian capital city, Mtskheta, to commence her mission to the Georgians.
It is common to hear foreign social commentators describing Georgian Christian society not only as patriarchal, but as misogynist (literally, demonstrating hatred of women or girls). I believe this view to be erroneous.
Certainly, traditional Georgian culture ascribes different roles to men and women, just as western societies did until after the Second World War, and recognition of the professional talents of Georgian women is still a work-in-progress. That being said, it should be recognised that Christianity ascribes great importance to the dignity and uniqueness of the individual, male or female, rather than just applying a label to a person and treating them generically. It is a common assumption made by foreign gender-equity consultants in Georgia, of whom there are a plethora (indeed, more than agriculture or public health experts) that Georgian women are downtrodden, defenceless and in need a a government programme to “save” them, whereas the reality is that the main breadwinner, spiritual guide and financial controller of most Georgian families is the wife. Certainly there is room for improvement in recognition of women’s capabilities and rights in our society, but it would be fair to say that today’s successful women in Georgia are standing on the shoulders of giants.
If you ask any Georgian Christian to name the ten people of greatest importance to Georgia in history, the Virgin Mary, Saint Nino and Queen Tamar will be mentioned with great regularity. The Theotokos is the most frequently venerated and invoked Saint in Georgian Christianity, and Saint Nino would follow a close second; despite the fact that neither were Georgian, they are seen as the protectors and champions of the Georgian people, and most Georgian males have a strong devotion to them. A truly “misogynist” society would have airbrushed such characters out of history and replaced them with “heroic” male figures.
We shall talk more about the importance of women in the dissemination of the Christian faith in Georgia, and the Church’s recognition of their achievements, in a future post.