Manglisi is an attractive hill town in the Trialeti Range of Kvemo Kartli in southern Georgia. It is around 1200 metres above sea level and is around 6 degrees cooler than the Mtkvari Valley that nearby Tbilisi and Rustavi lie in.
While the district is now very ethnically diverse, with a substantial Muslim Azeri minority as well as Caucasian and Pontic Greeks, it is regarded as the heartland of the Georgian Church, where some of the earliest monasteries and churches in the country were built. After Georgia’s conversion to Christianity in the early 4th Century, Manglisi was one of the earliest centres of Christian learning and evangelisation in the region, developed contemporaneously with similar centres in Mtskheta and Erusheti in Tao-Klarjeti region.
Manglisi Cathedral dates to the 6th Century and was even a site of pilgrimage for nearby Armenians from further south, until the Schism between the Church and the Armenian Church disrupted relations. A photogallery of this small, beautiful and well-maintained cathedral can be seen here.
My interest in this saint was piqued because, like many others, he had spent a great deal of his life evangelising outside Georgia, in the North Caucasus and the Caspian Sea regions of Daghestan and Astrakhan, traditionally considered staunch Islamic strongholds.
It is interesting to note that despite Muslim attempts to convert the people of Daghestan to Islam from the 7th Century, a Christian Avar kingdom of Sarir survived and thrived in the region from the 5th Century to the 12th Century. Sarir managed to survive Islamic encroachment for many centuries by allying itself with the Jewish Khazar Khaganate of the North Caucasus. Christianity persisted in the region amongst the people until the 15th century, when pressure from Muslim overlords compelled whole clans to convert to Islam. Evangelising the Muslims of the North Caucasus and Astrakhan was a perilous endeavour, as converts were often executed for apostasy and priests likewise faced persecution and martyrdom.
Saint John (Saakadze) of Manglisi was born in 1668 and spiritually nurtured in the Davit-Gareji Wilderness. Outstanding in virtue, John was quickly ordained a hieromonk, and soon after consecrated bishop of Manglisi. In 1724 St. John left Davit-Gareji for Derbend, Dagestan, where he constructed a wooden church and began to preach Christianity among the local people. He labored there with eleven other pious believers. St. John’s humble life and the miracles he performed attracted the attention of the Muslim Dagestanis, and even the government took notice of his tireless evangelical activity.
At that time the Georgian King Vakhtang VI (1703–1724) and Tsar Peter the Great of Russia were corresponding regularly about the evangelization of the Caspian seacoast. Both kings recognized the importance of St. John’s activity in regard to this matter, and they generously contributed to his efforts. With their help, St. John built one church in honor of the Nativity of the Theotokos and another in honor of Great-martyr Catherine.
In 1737 John left his disciples in Dagestan and journeyed to Astrakhan, near the place where the Volga flows into the Caspian Sea. There he constructed a church in honor of St. John the Evangelist, which was converted into a monastery in 1746. Archimandrite Herman, one of St. John’s disciples, was elevated as abbot of this monastery.
While in Astrakhan, St. John discovered that many ethnic Georgians were passing through the city of Kizliar in Ossetia, but they did not have a church in which to celebrate the divine services. So he traveled to Kizliar and, with help from his kinsmen, built a church and opened a preparatory school for clergy nearby.
On March 28, 1751, St. John reposed in Kizliar at the age of eighty. He was buried in the church that he himself had constructed.
Later, by order of King Teimuraz II (1744–1761), the myrrh-streaming relics of St. John were translated to Tbilisi and buried in Sioni Cathedral, in front of the Manglisi Icon of the Mother of God.
From “Lives of the Georgian Saints” by Archpriest Zakaraiah Machitadze, Saint Herman’s Press.