Yesterday was the Feast of the Ascension, where we relive the Ascension of Christ to heaven and formally end the Paschal season. In Georgia, we concurrently celebrate the forced exile and martyrdom of many thousands of Georgians enslaved by the Iranian Shah Abbas in the 17th century.
I have remarked before at the difficult relationship between Iran and Georgia over the centuries. At various times the Christian Church in Persia was very strong, with large numbers of native adherents and a functioning clerical establishment. Indeed, Orthodox missionaries from Persia were responsible for evangelising some of the North Caucasus tribes. Unfortunately the conversion of the Persian establishment to Islam resulted in such severe persecution of the Church that in many regions the faith was completely extinguished. Today some of the ethnic Armenian minority in Iran still openly practice their faith within the Armenian Apostolic tradition, but there are few native Christians left and the death sentence for apostasy from Islam is still in place.
There is a substantial ethnic Georgian minority in Iran, descended from Kakhetians and Kartlians enslaved by Shah Abbas and deported to Iran. Both the Georgian state and the Georgian Church have been active in reaching out to this diaspora community. Almost all of this community are now Shi’ite Muslims, and the crypto-Christianity practiced by the exiles referred to in this passage appears to have been extinguished over time. There are probably millions of Iranians with some Georgian ancestry, but less than 100,000 identify as being of Georgian ancestry. The Isfahan region of Iran has the densest population of Georgians in Iran, with one small town Fereydunshahr still using a Georgian dialect and Georgian script.
It is also interesting that the “Turkmen” referred to in this passage as having replaced deported Kakhetians have given rise to the nominally ethnic Azeri populations of Sagarejo and Shiraki, who still live in the region in large numbers.
Throughout history Georgia has frequently been forced to defend what Saint Ilia the Righteous called its “threefold treasure”— language, fatherland, and Faith. In this regard, the events of the 17th century are some of the most tragic in all of Georgian history.
In 1616 the bloodthirsty Persian ruler Shah Abbas I invaded Georgia with a massive army. His goal was to level the country completely, to leave not a single building standing. The shah’s army kidnapped hundreds of thousands of Kakhetian Georgians and then sent them to Persia to be sold as slaves. They settled Turkmen in the newly depopulated Georgian regions. In collaboration with the Shah, many Lezgin peoples from the mountainous North Caucasus moved south to occupy the homes of the exiled Georgians.
The 17th-century Italian traveler Pietro della Valle described the Georgian exile in Persia: “It would be too long to narrate all that has passed in this miserable migration, how many murders, how many deaths caused by privation, how many seductions, rapes, and acts of violence, how many children drowned by their own parents or cast into rivers through despair, some snatched by force from their mother’s breasts because they seemed too weak to live and thrown down by the wayside and abandoned there to be food for wild beasts or trampled underfoot by the horses and camels of the army, which marched for a whole day on top of dead bodies; how many sons separated from their fathers, wives from their husbands, sisters from their brothers, and carried off to distant countries without hope of ever meeting again. Throughout the camp, men and women were sold on this occasion much cheaper than beasts, because of the great number of them.” (Quoted in David Marshall Lang, Lives and Legends of the Georgian Church (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1956), p. 170.)
The Georgian exiles in Persia included a large number of clergy. Many of them celebrated the divine services in secret and inspired the people to remain faithful to God. Those discovered were punished severely. Many Georgians were martyred for the Christian Faith during the Persian exile. Not only Georgian researchers, but historians and travelers of other nationalities attest to the truth of this. Furthermore, ethnic Georgians currently residing in formerly Persian territories continue to commemorate their fallen ancestors to this day. They make pilgrimages to the sites where their ancestors were martyred and prepare feasts there in honor of their memory. One of these sites has been called “Ascension.”
Of language, fatherland, and Faith, only language remains alive among Georgians in the formerly Persian territories. Most have lost touch with both their fatherland and the Christian Faith. Those fortunate enough to be able to return to Georgia often convert to Orthodox Christianity. In 2001, when Catholicos-Patriarch Ilia II visited the ethnic Georgians in Iran, he presented them with a mound of Georgian soil. With great emotion the Georgians scattered the soil over the ground where their ancestors were martyred.
On September 18, 2003, the Holy Synod of the Georgian Orthodox Church prayerfully considered the martyric contest of the Georgians in Persia. The Synod declared all those martyred at the hands of Muslims in the 17th and 18th centuries worthy to be numbered among the saints. Their commemoration day was set on the feast of Holy Ascension, in honor of the place where many of them were martyred.
From “Lives of the Georgian Saints” by Archpriest Zacharaiah Machitadze, St Herman’s Press