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As we have mentioned before, there is evidence that the Apostle Matthias was martyred in Colchis  (the ancient name for Georgia’s Black Sea regions) and buried in Gonio, near Batumi. Today is his feast day.

The elevation of Matthias from the Seventy to the Twelve Apostles is interesting, as it is one of the first written accounts of Apostolic Succession,. Saint Luke’s account of events in the Acts of the Apostles is;

“In those days Peter stood up among the believers (a group numbering about a hundred and twenty) and said, “Brothers, the Scripture had to be fulfilled which the Holy Spirit spoke long ago through the mouth of David concerning Judas, who served as guide for those who arrested Jesus— he was one of our number and shared in this ministry.” (With the reward he got for his wickedness, Judas bought a field; there he fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out. everyone in Jerusalem heard about this, so they called that field in their language Akeldama, that is, Field of Blood.) “For,” said Peter, “it is written in the book of Psalms, ” ‘May his place be deserted; let there be no one to dwell in it,’ and, ” ‘May another take his place of leadership.’ Therefore it is necessary to choose one of the men who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us. For one of these must become a witness with us of his resurrection.” So they proposed two men: Joseph called Barsabbas (also known as Justus) and Matthias. Then they prayed, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which of these two you have chosen to take over this apostolic ministry, which Judas left to go where he belongs.” Then they cast lots, and the lot fell to Matthias; so he was added to the eleven apostles.” Acts 1:15-26

The Nicene Creed, developed in 325 at the First Ecumenical Council, describes the Church as being “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic”. Given that the Twelve Apostles all reposed almost two millennia ago, for outsiders this description may seem odd. Orthodox Christians believe in Apostolic Succession; tracing a direct line of apostolic ordination, Orthodox doctrine, and full communion of Orthodox jurisdictions from the Twelve Apostles to the current Episcopacy of the Orthodox Church. All three elements are integral to apostolic succession. It is through apostolic succession that the Church is the direct spiritual successor to the original body of believers in Christ as the Son of God, composed of the Apostles. This succession manifests itself through the unbroken succession of its bishops back to the Apostles.

Ordination of a bishop requires the presence of three other bishops. It is not mandatory that the candidate already be ordained as a priest or deacon, but in most jurisdictions that is the norm.

Elections of Patriarchs vary somewhat from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but it is generally performed by secret ballot. The repose of a Patriarch generally triggers the appointment of a caretaker Patriarch who organises elections as soon as possible. Each Patriarchate has its own statutes governing such elections, which may take into account dioceses abroad as well as consultation with the laity. National governments are often tempted to interfere with this process, which is generally quite vigorously resisted.

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Today is the Feast of Transfiguration; while it falls during the Dormition fast, dietary restrictions are relaxed today.

Prior to the conversion of Georgia to Christianity in the 4th century, various folk religions and Greek-influenced pagan cults were present in the country. As Georgia has the world’s oldest winemaking tradition (over 8000 years), viticulture plays a very large role in the lives of lowland Georgians, and the management practices of the vineyard were often linked with religious festivals. Archaelogical ruins in Georgia indicate that Dionysian/Bacchan cults were widespread before Georgia’s conversion, and that rites to this god involving wine and grapes were common.

Orthodox Christian practice, past and present, has been to examine local pagan customs and, provided such customs are not wicked, to adapt and Christianise them.  For example, Orthodox priests in China commonly hold a liturgy in memory of the deceased for Chinese converts on the two Grave-Sweeping Festivals, which are ancient ancestor-worship festivals. The Church Fathers in the early days of the Church in the Roman Empire likewise evaluated local folk customs and pre-existing Jewish rites, and conflated them with Church festivals. The presentation of grapes at Transfiguration is one of these customs.

Presenting fruit and grapes at the temple is an ancient Jewish custom (Gen 4:2-4; Ex 13:12-13; Num 15:19-21; Deut 8:10-14).  It was Christianised by the Apostles  (1 Cor 16:1-2). Presentation of grapes at the temple is mentioned in the Third Rule of the Apostolic Canon, which is the earliest collection of written ecclesiastic laws (canons) in our possession, dating to the second century.

In the first centuries of the Church, the faithful presented to the temple the fruit and produce of each seaon’s new harvest: bread, wine, oil, incense, wax, honey and fruit . Bread, wine, oil and wax were taken to the altar, while the other offerings were used to feed the clergy and the poor who were under the Church’s care.

In Georgia, the date of the grape harvest or Rtveli is determined by the ripeness of the grapes rather than a fixed date, but traditionally it was forbidden to consume grapes during the Dormition fast before Transfiguration and so Rtveli always occurs no earlier than Transfiguration. In practical terms, Rtveli is usually no earlier than the last week of August, and in the mountainous areas of western Georgia it can be as late as November.

There is a theological significance to the blessing of grapes at Transfiguration. Just as we celebrate Christ’s Transfiguration today, we celebrate this with objects that undergo both physical and spiritual transformation. Grapes are physically transformed, from flower to fruit, from fruit to must, and from must to wine. Grapes are also spiritually transformed, from ordinary wine into the Blood of Christ during the Divine Liturgy.

It should also be recalled that the Church is frequently described as a vine, with the faithful being the fruit that it bears.

In addition, King Demetre 1st of Georgia in the 12th century wrote a hymn of praise to the Ghvtismshobeli, the Virgin Mary, describing her as a beautiful vineyard. As Georgia is the land allocated to the Virgin Mary by the Holy Spirit, the hymn functions almost as an unofficial national anthem and is very popular.  The melody by the 19th century composer Paliashvili is favoured today. The lyrics of the hymn “Shen Khar Venakhi/Thou Art a Vineyard” are:

Georgian text:
შენ ხარ ვენახი, ახლად აყვავებული,
ნორჩი კეთილი, ედემს შინა ნერგული,
(ალვა სუნელი, სამოთხეს ამოსული,)
(ღმერთმან შეგამკო ვერვინა გჯობს ქებული,)
და თავით თვისით მზე ხარ და გაბრწყინვებული.
Latin transliteration:
shen khar venakhi, akhlad aqvavebuli.
norchi k’etili, edems shina nerguli.
(alva suneli, samotkhes amosuli.)
(ghmertman shegamk’o vervina gjobs kebuli.)
da tavit tvisit mze khar da gabrts’qinvebuli.
English translation:
You are a vineyard newly blossomed.
Young, beautiful, growing in Eden,
(A fragrant poplar sapling in Paradise.)
(May God adorn you. No one is more worthy of praise.)
You yourself are the sun, shining brilliantly.

A blessed Transfiguration Feast to you all.

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The second half of August in Georgia is devoted to the Virgin Mary, or the Ghvtismshobeli as she is known in Georgia.  For two weeks, starting today, a fast is practiced and Orthodox Christians focus their prayers upon the Virgin Mary, as a prelude to the celebration of her death (“Dormition” or falling asleep) and reunion with her Son, Jesus Christ. As the Liturgical Calender starts on September 1, the Feast of the Dormition is the last major feast of the Church year.

During this season, the Transfiguration of Christ is also celebrated.

As Georgia is the country allocated to the Virgin Mary by the Holy Spirit, Georgians are quite dedicated to this season. Although Georgia is a conservative country with somewhat demarcated roles for men and women, the deep passions that this season arouses reflect or perhaps inspire the high status of women in this very traditional society.

The Scriptures have no accounts of the Virgin Mary’s death, but Church Tradition is rich with accounts of this event that are recounted in the hymns and iconography of the event. There are substantial traditional accounts of her life between the Ascension and her death.

“After the Ascension of the Lord, the Mother of God remained in the care of the Apostle John the Theologian, and during his journeys She lived at the home of his parents, near the Mount of Olives. She was a source of consolation and edification both for the Apostles and for all the believers. Conversing with them, She told them about miraculous events: the Annunciation, the seedless and undefiled Conception of Christ born of Her, about His early childhood, and about His earthly life. Like the Apostles, She helped plant and strengthen the Christian Church by Her presence, Her discourse and Her prayers.

The reverence of the Apostles for the Most Holy Virgin was extraordinary. After the receiving of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, the Apostles remained at Jerusalem for about ten years attending to the salvation of the Jews, and wanting moreover to see the Mother of God and hear Her holy discourse. Many of the newly-enlightened in the Faith even came from faraway lands to Jerusalem, to see and to hear the All-Pure Mother of God.

During the persecution initiated by King Herod against the young Church of Christ (Acts 12:1-3), the Most Holy Virgin and the Apostle John the Theologian withdrew to Ephesus in the year 43. The preaching of the Gospel there had fallen by lot to the Apostle John the Theologian. The Mother of God was on Cyprus with St Lazarus the Four-Days-Dead, where he was bishop. She was also on Holy Mount Athos. St Stephen of the Holy Mountain says that the Mother of God prophetically spoke of it: “Let this place be my lot, given to me by my Son and my God. I will be the Patroness of this place and intercede with God for it.”

The respect of ancient Christians for the Mother of God was so great that they preserved what they could about Her life, what they could take note of concerning Her sayings and deeds, and they even passed down to us a description of Her outward appearance.

According to Tradition, based on the words of the Hieromartyrs Dionysius the Areopagite (October 3), Ignatius the God-Bearer (December 20), St Ambrose of Milan (December 7) had occasion to write in his work “On Virgins” concerning the Mother of God: “She was a Virgin not only in body, but also in soul, humble of heart, circumspect in word, wise in mind, not overly given to speaking, a lover of reading and of work, and prudent in speech. Her rule of life was to offend no one, to intend good for everyone, to respect the aged, not envy others, avoid bragging, be healthy of mind, and to love virtue.”

When did She ever hurl the least insult in the face of Her parents? When was She at discord with Her kin? When did She ever puff up with pride before a modest person, or laugh at the weak, or shun the destitute? With Her there was nothing of glaring eyes, nothing of unseemly words, nor of improper conduct. She was modest in the movement of Her body, Her step was quiet, and Her voice straightforward; so that Her face was an expression of soul. She was the personification of purity.

All Her days She was concerned with fasting: She slept only when necessary, and even then, when Her body was at rest, She was still alert in spirit, repeating in Her dreams what She had read, or the implementation of proposed intentions, or those planned yet anew. She was out of Her house only for church, and then only in the company of relatives. Otherwise, She seldom appeared outside Her house in the company of others, and She was Her own best overseer. Others could protect Her only in body, but She Herself guarded Her character.

At the time of Her blessed Falling Asleep, the Most Holy Virgin Mary was again at Jerusalem. Her fame as the Mother of God had already spread throughout the land and had aroused many of the envious and the spiteful against Her. They wanted to make attempts on Her life; but God preserved Her from enemies.

Day and night She spent her time in prayer. The Most Holy Theotokos went often to the Holy Sepulchre of the Lord, and here She offered up fervent prayer. More than once, enemies of the Savior sought to hinder Her from visiting her holy place, and they asked the High Priest for a guard to watch over the Grave of the Lord. The Holy Virgin continued to pray right in front of them, yet unseen by anyone.

In one such visit to Golgotha, the Archangel Gabriel appeared to Her and announced Her approaching departure from this life to eternal life. In pledge of this, the Archangel gave Her a palm branch. With these heavenly tidings the Mother of God returned to Bethlehem with the three girls attending Her (Sepphora, Abigail, and Jael). She summoned Righteous Joseph of Arimathea and other disciples of the Lord, and told them of Her impending Repose.

The Most Holy Virgin prayed also that the Lord would have the Apostle John come to Her. The Holy Spirit transported him from Ephesus, setting him in that very place where the Mother of God lay. After the prayer, the Most Holy Virgin offered incense, and John heard a voice from Heaven, closing Her prayer with the word “Amen.” The Mother of God took it that the voice meant the speedy arrival of the Apostles and the Disciples and the holy Bodiless Powers.

The faithful, whose number by then was impossible to count, gathered together, says St John of Damascus, like clouds and eagles, to listen to the Mother of God. Seeing one another, the Disciples rejoiced, but in their confusion they asked each other why the Lord had gathered them together in one place. St John the Theologian, greeting them with tears of joy, said that the time of the Virgin’s repose was at hand.

Going in to the Mother of God, they beheld Her lying upon the bed, and filled with spiritual joy. The Disciples greeted Her, and then they told her how they had been carried miraculously from their places of preaching. The Most Holy Virgin Mary glorified God, because He had heard Her prayer and fulfilled Her heart’s desire, and She began speaking about Her imminent end.

During this conversation the Apostle Paul also appeared in a miraculous manner together with his disciples Dionysius the Areopagite, St Hierotheus, St Timothy and others of the Seventy Apostles. The Holy Spirit had gathered them all together so that they might be granted the blessing of the All-Pure Virgin Mary, and more fittingly to see to the burial of the Mother of the Lord. She called each of them to Herself by name, She blessed them and extolled them for their faith and the hardships they endured in preaching the Gospel of Christ. To each She wished eternal bliss, and prayed with them for the peace and welfare of the whole world.

Then came the third hour (9 A.M.), when the Dormition of the Mother of God was to occur. A number of candles were burning. The holy Disciples surrounded her beautifully adorned bed, offering praise to God. She prayed in anticipation of Her demise and of the arrival of Her longed-for Son and Lord. Suddenly, the inexpressible Light of Divine Glory shone forth, before which the blazing candles paled in comparison. All who it saw took fright. Descending from Heaven was Christ, the King of Glory, surrounded by hosts of Angels and Archangels and other Heavenly Powers, together with the souls of the Forefathers and the Prophets, who had prophesied in ages past concerning the Most Holy Virgin Mary.

Seeing Her Son, the Mother of God exclaimed: “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God My Savior, for He hath regarded the low estate of His Handmaiden” (Luke 1:46-48) and, rising from Her bed to meet the Lord, She bowed down to Him, and the Lord bid Her enter into Life Eternal. Without any bodily suffering, as though in a happy sleep, the Most Holy Virgin Mary gave Her soul into the hands of Her Son and God.

Then began a joyous angelic song. Accompanying the pure soul of the God-betrothed and with reverent awe for the Queen of Heaven, the angels exclaimed: “Hail, Full of Grace, the Lord is with Thee, blessed art Thou among women! For lo, the Queen, God’s Maiden comes, lift up the gates, and with the Ever-Existing One, take up the Mother of Light; for through Her salvation has come to all the human race. It is impossible to gaze upon Her, and it is impossible to render Her due honor” (Stikherion on “Lord, I Have Cried”). The Heavenly gates were raised, and meeting the soul of the Most Holy Mother of God, the Cherubim and the Seraphim glorified Her with joy. The face of the Mother of God was radiant with the glory of Divine virginity, and from Her body there came a sweet fragrance.

Miraculous was the life of the All-Pure Virgin, and wondrous was Her Repose, as Holy Church sings: “In Thee, O Queen, the God of all hath given thee as thy portion the things that are above nature. Just as in the Birth-Giving He did preserve Thine virginity, so also in the grave He did preserve Thy body from decay” (Canon 1, Ode 6, Troparion 1).

Kissing the all-pure body with reverence and in awe, the Disciples in turn were blessed by it and filled with grace and spiritual joy. Through the great glorification of the Most Holy Theotokos, the almighty power of God healed the sick, who with faith and love touched the holy bed.

Bewailing their separation from the Mother of God, the Apostles prepared to bury Her all-pure body. The holy Apostles Peter, Paul, James and others of the Twelve Apostles carried the funeral bier upon their shoulders, and upon it lay the body of the Ever-Virgin Mary. St John the Theologian went at the head with the resplendent palm-branch from Paradise. The other saints and a multitude of the faithful accompanied the funeral bier with candles and censers, singing sacred songs. This solemn procession went from Sion through Jerusalem to the Garden of Gethsemane.

With the start of the procession there suddenly appeared over the all-pure body of the Mother of God and all those accompanying Her a resplendent circular cloud, like a crown. There was heard the singing of the Heavenly Powers, glorifying the Mother of God, which echoed that of the worldly voices. This circle of Heavenly singers and radiance accompanied the procession to the very place of burial.

Unbelieving inhabitants of Jerusalem, taken aback by the extraordinarily grand funeral procession and vexed at the honor accorded the Mother of Jesus, complained of this to the High Priest and scribes. Burning with envy and vengefulness toward everything that reminded them of Christ, they sent out their own servants to disrupt the procession and to set the body of the Mother of God afire.

An angry crowd and soldiers set off against the Christians, but the circular cloud accompanying the procession descended and surrounded them like a wall. The pursuers heard the footsteps and the singing, but could not see any of those accompanying the procession. Indeed, many of them were struck blind.

The Jewish priest Athonios, out of spite and hatred for the Mother of Jesus of Nazareth, wanted to topple the funeral bier on which lay the body of the Most Holy Virgin Mary, but an angel of God invisibly cut off his hands, which had touched the bier. Seeing such a wonder, Athonios repented and with faith confessed the majesty of the Mother of God. He received healing and joined the crowd accompanying the body of the Mother of God, and he became a zealous follower of Christ.

When the procession reached the Garden of Gethsemane, then amidst the weeping and the wailing began the last kiss to the all-pure body. Only towards evening were the Apostles able to place it in the tomb and seal the entrance to the cave with a large stone.

For three days they did not depart from the place of burial, praying and chanting Psalms. Through the wise providence of God, the Apostle Thomas was not to be present at the burial of the Mother of God. Arriving late on the third day at Gethsemane, he lay down at the tomb and with bitter tears asked that l he might be permitted to look once more upon the Mother of God and bid her farewell. The Apostles out of heartfelt pity for him decided to open the grave and permit him the comfort of venerating the holy relics of the Ever-Virgin Mary. Having opened the grave, they found in it only the grave wrappings and were thus convinced of the bodily ascent of the Most Holy Virgin Mary to Heaven.

On the evening of the same day, when the Apostles had gathered at a house to strengthen themselves with food, the Mother of God appeared to them and said: “Rejoice! I am with you all the days of your lives.” This so gladdened the Apostles and everyone with them, that they took a portion of the bread, set aside at the meal in memory of the Savior (“the Lord’s Portion”), and they exclaimed : “Most Holy Theotokos, save us”. (This marks the beginning of the rite of offering up the “Panagia” (“All-Holy”), a portion of bread in honor of the Mother of God, which is done at monasteries to the present day).

The sash of the Mother of God, and Her holy garb, preserved with reverence and distributed over the face of the earth in pieces, have worked miracles both in the past and at present. Her numerous icons everywhere pour forth signs and healings, and Her holy body, taken up to Heaven, bears witness to our own future life there. Her body was not left to the vicissitudes of the transitory world, but was incomparably exalted by its glorious ascent to Heaven.”

OCA

A neat summary of the accepted Tradition is documented for us. At the time of the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon in 451, Byzantine Empress Pulcheria requested the Patriarch of Jerusalem, Patriarch Juvenal, to transfer a garment of the Virgin Mary to Constantinople.  Explaining that no bodily relics of the Virgin Mary existed,  he referred to a much earlier document, the Euthymian History.

There is nothing in the holy, inspired Scripture about the death of Mary, the holy Theotokos; but we know from an ancient and truest tradition that at the time of her glorious falling asleep, all the holy Apostles, who were traveling the world preaching salvation to the nations, were in an instant lifted up and brought to Jerusalem. As they stood before her, they saw an angelic apparition, and a divine chanting was heard from the higher Powers. And so, in a state of divine and heavenly glory she placed her soul into God’s hands in an ineffable way.

Her body, which had received God, was carried with angelic and apostolic hymns, was prepared and laid to rest in a coffin in Gethsemane. It was there and for three days that the angelic choruses and hymns continued unceasingly. After three days, however, the angelic hymnody ceased. The Apostles were there, and since one of them –Thomas– who had been absent from the burial, came after the third day and asked to reverence that body which had received God, they opened the coffin. They could not find anywhere her much-praised body, and since all they could find were her burial swaddling-clothes and the ineffable fragrance that came out of them and filled their bowels, they closed the coffin again. Amazed by the miracle of this mystery, they could only think this: that the One who willed to be incarnated and become human from her in his person, and to be born in the flesh he who is God the Word and Lord of Glory, and who preserved her virginity incorruptible after the birth, he was also the One that was well-pleased to honor her immaculate and spotless body, after her departure from this world, [by endowing it] with incorruptibility and with a transposition (metathesis) [to heaven] before the common, and universal resurrection.”

The iconography of the Dormition is fascinating and bears some explanation. A scholarly and detailed account of the symbolism of this icon can be found here

The Apostles are clearly assembled to witness her passing, some of them wearing their bishop’s sashes, and angels are present, as mentioned in the earlier account. The image of Christ bearing the soul of His mother, wrapped in swaddling clothes like an infant, is a fascinating reversal of the usual image of Christ as an infant embraced by His mother.

The Icon of the Feast of the Falling-asleep of the Theotokos depicts her body resting breathless in a bed while her soul, wrapped in swaddling clothes like a new-born baby, is upheld in the arms of the Risen and glorified Christ who stands behind the bed. This icon is the reversal of the usual icon of the Theotokos which depicts the Virgin holding Christ in her arms. Christ holding the Virgin’s soul in his arms indicates her entry into the Kingdom of Heaven which the Incarnate Christ opened up for us through his saving life and work. It indicates in the most concrete way St. Athanasius’ well known dictum: “God became human that we (humans) may be made divine.” Christ the Savior taking the soul of his Mother to Heaven marks the first resurrection, which Christians experience when they die, thanks to our Lord’s redemptive work. The full resurrection of our humanity, i.e. the resurrection of the body, will take place at the second coming of Christ which will be accompanied by the general resurrection and the last judgment of all human beings.”

Source: Father George Dion Dragas, Saint John the Baptist Hellenic Orthodox Church, http://www.saintjohnthebaptist.org

Church Tradition provides us with a great deal of information about the Virgin Mary’s later life and even her physical appearance;  according to Tradition, that from the compiler of Church history Nicephorus Callistus (fourteenth century), the Ghvtismshobeli “was of average stature, or as others suggest, slightly more than average; Her hair golden in appearance; Her eyes bright with pupils like shiny olives; Her eyebrows strong in character and moderately dark, Her nose pronounced and Her mouth vibrant bespeaking sweet speech; Her face was neither round nor angular, but somewhat oblong; the palm of Her hands and fingers were longish…

In conversation with others She preserved decorum, neither becoming silly nor agitated, and indeed especially never angry; without artifice, and direct, She was not overly concerned about Herself, and far from pampering Herself, She was distinctly full of humility. Regarding the clothing which She wore, She was satisfied to have natural colors, which even now is evidenced by Her holy head-covering. Suffice it to say, a special grace attended all Her actions.” (Nicephoros Callistus borrowed his description from St Epiphanius of Cyprus (May 12), from the “Letter to Theophilus Concerning Icons.”

A blessed fasting season to you all.

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In March this year, a protest was held outside a Georgian government office by a supporter of an inmate whom he believed to have been unjustly charged and incarcerated. The inmate in question is former Prisons Minister Bacho Akhalaia, from Georgia’s western Samegrelo region. The protester smeared his body with honey and announced his willingness to exchange places with the inmate. The footage of this spectacle can be seen here.

This spectacle was perplexing for the foreign media covering the incident for whom the reference to honey had no meaning. For Georgians, particularly those from Samegrelo, it is a well known image of self-sacrifice and faith in the incarcerated, first practiced by Prince Tsotne Dadiani of Samegrelo. His life is commemorated by the Georgian Church today.

The Dadiani family are believed to have moved from the mountainous Svaneti region in western Georgia to the subtropical Black Sea region of Samegrelo in antiquity. They were rulers of the Samegrelo region for from the 12th-19th centuries, as dukes, archdukes and principals. A scholarly source of information on this family is the Smithsonian Institute in the USA; a useful concise history of the region can be found here   and the Dadiani  family history can be found here.

Tsotne was the son of Shergil, the pre-eminent noble of western Georgia and the Eristavi (duke) of Samegrelo. During the Mongol occupation of Georgia in the 13 century, he was regent for the western half of the Kingdom of Georgia, a position he shared with the Duke of Racha, a mountainous region in Georgia’s northwest. He was also a Lord High Steward (Mandaturt-Ukhutsesi) of Georgia, and upon the death of his brother Vardan III, the Eristavi of Samegrelo (or Odishi as it was known at the time).

According to “Lives of the Georgian Saints” by Archpriest Zakaraiah Machitadze,

“Saint Tsotne Dadiani, a virtuous military leader and the prince of Egrisi, lived in the middle of the 13th century. During that time Georgia languished under the yoke of Mongol oppression.

After the death of Queen Rusudan, the Mongols began to exact exorbitant fees from the Georgian princes, and they established compulsory military service for their Georgian subjects. The situation became unbearable, and the Georgian nobility planned a massive rebellion against the invaders.

Having assembled at the peak of Mount Kokhta  (in the Meshkheti region of southern Georgia), rulers from all over Georgia agreed to assemble the troops in Kartli and attack on a single front. Tsotne Dadiani and the ruler of Racha were the first to muster their armies. But there were traitors among them, and the Mongols learned of the conspiracy. They surrounded Mount Kokhta, arrested the rebels—save for Tsotne Dadiani and the ruler of Racha—and led them away to the Mongol ruler at Anis-Shirakavan.

The prisoners denied every accusation and asserted that the purpose of the gathering on Mount Kokhta was to collect the tribute that the Mongol authorities had demanded. Infuriated at their insurgency, the Mongols stripped them bare, bound their hands and feet, smeared them with honey, threw them under the scorching sun, and interrogated them daily about the gathering on Mount Kokhta. 

Having heard what had transpired, Tsotne Dadiani became deeply distressed and took upon himself the blame for this tragic turn of events. Escorted by two servants, he journeyed voluntarily to Anis to lay down his life and suffer together with his brothers. Arriving in Anis and seeing his kinsmen doomed to death, the prince promptly undressed, tied himself up, and lay down next to them under the scorching sun.

The disbelieving Mongols informed their ruler about the strange man who had willingly lain down beside those who were condemned.

The ruler summoned him and demanded an explanation. “We gathered with a single goal—to collect the tribute and fulfill your command. If it was for this that my countrymen were punished, I also desire to share in their lot!” answered the courageous prince.

Tsotne’s chivalrous deed made a dramatic impression on the Mongols, and every one of the prisoners was set free. Tsotne Dadiani is not mentioned in accounts of the next conspiracy against the Mongols, in the year 1259. Historians believe that he had already reposed by that time.

The virtues of Saint Tsotne Dadiani are known to all throughout Georgia. His heroism and integrity are an example of faith, love and devotion to every generation, and the faithful of every era have honored his holy name.

Tsotne Dadiani was numbered among the saints on October 26, 1999, according to a decree of the Holy Synod of the Georgian Orthodox Church.”

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Georgia’s neighbouring country to the south and east, Azerbaijan, is known to most people as a Turkish-speaking region of Iran wrested from Persian control by the Russian Empire in the 19th century. It is not commonly known that for many centuries an indigenous Christian nation existed in Azerbaijan until it was eventually overwhelmed by Persians from the east and Armenians from the west. This country was known as Caucasian Albania (to distinguish it from the Albania in the Balkans).

Caucasian Albanian tribes spoke a number of East Caucasian languages and are believed to be related to the Lezgins of the North Caucasus. The only remaining tribe who identify as having this ancestry are the Udi; the ancient Caucasian Albanian capital cities of Qabala and Barda were located within the Udi domain, which stretched from the Caspian Sea to the borders of Georgian Iberia. The village of Zinobiani, near Kakheti’s Kvareli town, was settled with Udi refugees from Azerbaijan in 1922 and these families still live there. The Caucasian Albanian tribes of Hers were incorporated into the Georgian state in the 5th century and assimilated by the Kakhetians; the resulting Hereti region makes up most of current-day eastern Kakheti including the Shiraki region.

The Apostle Bartholomew is reputed to have evangelised the Caucasian Albanians. He is believed to have proselytised throughout Caucasian Albania, and to have converted members of the royal family to Christianity in Baku. He was martyred on the orders of the pagan King Astyages by crucifixion, and his relics later transported to Mesapotamia.

The Church was definitively established by the 1st century missionary Saint Elisaeus, who proselytised throughout Caucasian Albania and Persia, and he established the first Christian temple in the Caucasus, in Kis. In 313 the Caucasian Albanian King Urnayr declared Orthodox Christianity to be the State Religion of Caucasian Albania, predating King Mirian of Iberia’s declaration of Iberia as Christian nation in 337.

King Urnayr was baptised by Catholicos Gregory I of Armenia, and hence the Church of Caucasian Albania has had a close relationship with the Armenian Apostolic Church over the years. While at times it has declared its autocephaly, at other times it was considered subordinate to the Armenian Catholicosate.

Many churches were built throughout Caucasian Albania, but unfortunately time and the attention of Muslim marauders over the past 1300 years have destroyed most of them.  The Church of Kis, built in a Georgian style in the 13th century, is the best preserved, having been renovated in 2003.

Given that much of Caucasian Albania was under the control of Georgia during the reign of Queen Tamar, it is not surprising that Georgian architectural influences are seen here. The original church of this village was built by Saint Elisaeus in the 1st century.

The Caucasian Albanian Church was caught up in the controversy of the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon, which it rejected, and so over the years it has been more closely affiliated with the Armenian Apostolic Church than with the Eastern Orthodox communion. The Russian imperial government encouraged this affiliation and discouraged autocephalous movements. In recent years, the remaining Udi Christians of Azerbaijan have repudiated their affiliation with the Church of Armenia and have registered with the Azerbaijan government as the Caucasian Albanian-Udi Christian Community. Reportedly, several Udi men are training in Russian seminaries as priests, so it is quite possible that the Caucasian Albanian Church will return to the Eastern Orthodox communion, as it was prior  to 451, and during Georgia’s “Golden Age” when Georgia controlled the region.

On August 5th, the Community celebrated the 1700th anniversary of their Church as an established state church, and explained to the media the history of their people, and the ongoing renovation efforts for their temples in the village of Nij.

For a scholarly review of the Church in Caucasian Albania by an Azeri Academic, read here.

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