Somewhat coincidental with the theme of yesterday’s post, today’s Saint’s Day focusses on a Georgian raised in the Ottoman Empire and martyred during Greece’s struggle for independence from the Ottomans.
It is particularly interesting that Saint Tevdore, an Ajaran raised in Trebizond (Trabzon in today’s Turkish Republic). Trebizond, located on the southeastern shores of the Black Sea, was one of the last Orthodox Christian enclaves in Anatolia to resist colonisation by the Ottomans until the mid 15th century. The region was a fascinating patchwork of Orthodox Greeks, Orthodox Georgians (Laz), Armenians of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Roman Catholic Armenians, and Eastern Orthodox Armenians (known by Armenians as Hay-Horum or Chalcedonian Orthodox, who sometimes worshipped in churches of Georgian architectural design in this diverse region).
Saint Tevdore is mentioned to have entered a Georgian monastery in Smyrna, on the Aegean coast of western Anatolia. This was an interesting detail, as I was aware of Georgian monasteries in Cyprus, Bulgaria, Jerusalem and Mount Athos, but not Smyrna.
The Great Fire of Smyrna of 1922 is covered in great detail in Giles Milton’s eminently readable Paradise Lost. A prosperous multi-ethnic trading city for centuries, and one of the few Christian-majority cities of the Empire at the time, it was badly affected by the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1919 and the Greek invasion of Anatolia in the same year. Seeing their mission as the reconquest of lost Christian territories seized by the Muslim Turks in the late Middle Ages, the Greek Expeditionary Force from the Greek Mainland aimed to unite the independent Greek Homeland with its traditional sister territories in Asia, the vast Anatolian region that previously made up the heartland of the Greek-speaking Eastern Roman Empire, extending from the Aegean Sea to the borders of the Russian Empire in the South Caucasus. Given that most Greeks at the time lived in Asia under Turkish rule this was perhaps an understandable ambition.
Milton does not shirk from identifying Greek atrocities during this war of reconquista, and it is well known that both Greek and Turkish forces engaged in tremendous destruction of life and property in thousands of villages with mixed Christian and Muslim populations. Even a century afterwards, forgiveness for misdeeds committed generations ago has been rare and hard-won on both sides.
The collapse of the Greek Offensive in Anatolia and the spirited counter-offensive of Ataturk’s Turkish Republican troops resulted in Greek troops being swept back to the Aegean coast in the west in 1922, with unprotected Christian communities left vulnerable to Turkish Republican reprisals.
Despite initial promises of amnesty, Turkish troops engaged in a deliberate campaign of rape, pillage, arson and murder in the richest city in the Near East, Smyrna (Izmir). Greek and Armenian populations were decimated and the city put to the torch. Despite having urged the Christians of the Ottoman Empire to rise up against their Muslim overlords, the Allied Powers did little or nothing to protect them when the venture faltered.
Unlikely heroes of the Great Fire rose to the challenge before them, that of saving hundreds of thousands of innocent lives. Asa Jennings, a modest YMCA secretary in Smyrna, somehow leveraged his US passport into creation of a not-very-official American Relief Committee which later allowed him to commandeer the entire Greek merchant navy and armed fleet, armed with no more than bravado, bluff and determination to evacuate as many Christian civilians, Greek and Armenian, as possible. Jennings was credited with evacuating 350,000 civilians from Smyrna, and a further 1.2 million civilians from Turkey’s western coastal regions, from dire peril.
Many Smyrniot Greek families ended up in Australia, Canada and the United States, as life in the refugee camps of Athens offered no prospect for advancement.
Georgia’s link with Smyrna, Saint Tevdore, had an interesting history as a crypto-Christian in Ottoman-occupied Ajara and a refugee to Christian-majority Smyrna, the largest Christian city in Asia at the time.
Holy Hieromartyr Theodore of Ajara belongs to the glorious multitude of Ajaran faithful who were martyred at the hands of the Ottomans.
St. Theodore was born in the late 18th century. At that time the Ottoman invaders had nearly completed the forced Islamization of the Ajaran region. They had already annihilated those who resisted the conversion and were beginning to evict those who, in spite of their apparent acceptance of Islam, continued to “arouse suspicions.” Some abandoned their native region and fled to foreign lands.
St. Theodore was born to a family that had been forced into exile. From his childhood he watched his fellow countrymen, who had been forcibly converted to Islam, secretly retain their Christian way of life. It is unclear how the saint’s family settled in Trebizond (modern Trabzon). It is known, however, that St. Theodore managed to free himself from Islam, receive Christianity, and find refuge at a Georgian monastery in Smyrna (now Izmir). There he was tonsured a monk and later raised to the rank of proigoumenos (deputy abbot). It is also known that St. Theodore converted his nephew to Christianity during that time.
In 1822 St. Theodore set out on a pilgrimage to Mt. Athos. But at the same time the Ottomans were attempting to crush the Greek independence movement, and the Holy Mountain was surrounded by Ottoman soldiers. They captured the faithful pilgrim and killed him. Then they tossed the holy martyr’s body into the sea.
The Holy Synod of the Georgian Apostolic Orthodox Church canonized Holy Martyr Theodore on October 17, 2002.
© 2006 “The Lives of the Georgian Saints” by Father Zacharaiah Machitadze, St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood.