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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.

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From various accounts of the lives of the Thirteen Syrian Fathers of Georgia, we can see that they were diligent not only in evangelising the Kartvelian people of the region, but also the Mountain People of the North Caucasus. Today we commemorate the life of Saint Ise (Jesse) of Tsilkani, who is famed not only in his diocese of Mtskheta-Mtianeti but amongst the Ossetian peoples of Samachablo and North Ossetia-Alania also. Contact between Georgian missionaries and the Mountain Peoples of the North Caucasus pre-dates Russian missionary efforts by over 500 years.

The Alans, an Iranian tribe and the ancestors of today’s Ossetian people, had been recorded by the Romans as living in scattered settlements in the North Caucasus since the first century AD. Around 100 AD, a large number of Alans had settled between the Don and Volga Rivers in southern Russia, where they were initially evangelised by Greek missionaries.  In 350, this European Alan kingdom was destroyed by the Huns, and the population scattered. By the 6th century, many had settled in what is now the Russian Republic of Alania-North Ossetia. The first Georgian missionaries reached them in the mid-sixth century, most notably Saint Ise of Tsilkani. The Alan people maintained their own religion, and by the 10th Century a substantial number were Jewish under the influence of their Khazar neighbours. By the early 10th Century, Alania‘s king was an Orthodox Christian and most of his subjects converted soon after. Georgian and Alan missionaries later co-operated in evangelising the Chechen and Ingush people with some success. Despite current difficulties and territorial disputes, the Georgian and Ossetian peoples have a long history of cooperation and mutual support; while divided by politics, they are united in a common faith.

The Monk Ise (Jesse), Bishop of Tsilkan, was born at Syrian Antioch in a pious Christian family. While still a lad he felt the pull towards the spiritual life, and with the attainment of mature age, and the blessing of his parents, he set out to one of the Antioch monasteries, where at the time asceticised the Monk John Zedazeni.

The Monk Ise was included amongst the number of the 13 holy Syrian (Cappadocian) Fathers, who were chosen by lot by the Monk John Zedazeni (as commanded him by the Mother of God). The Monk Ise arrived in Georgia together with them, and with them he taught and instructed the people in the pious life, providing an example of sanctity and healing the sick.

The reports of the deeds of the 13 Syrian Fathers spread about among the people such, that the Katholikos-Archbishop of Georgia Eulabios (533-544) proposed having a council of bishops meet and choose certain of these ascetics to fill empty cathedra-seats. Because of the difficulty of whom to choose, since all alike were worthy of the dignity of bishop, they proposed to go to the city of Zadeni, where the ascetics dwelt, and to choose those who at the time were celebrating the Divine Liturgy. In this manner thus became bishops: the PriestMonk Habib and the MonkDeacon Ise, appointed to the Tsilkani cathedra-seat.

Having arrived in his diocese, Ise was astonished by the rampant pagan rites, customs and superstition. He zealously concerned himself with the restoration of piety, preaching constantly and making frequent Divine-services. His work bore fruit – in the Tsilkani diocese Orthodox piety was affirmed, and with it also was affirmed the Church of Christ. Continuing also his ascetic efforts, Saint Ise attained to great gifts of prayer and wonderworking. Through his prayer, in the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ there separated off from the River Khana a stream of water, which – in following the course that the saint intended, formed the bed of a canal and stretched to the church of the MostHoly Mother of God (near Tsilkani).

Having put his diocese in good order, Saint Ise set off preaching to the mountain peoples of the great Caucasus Mountain range. He made the rounds of the ravines and the rocky crags with the Gospel and cross in hand, everywhere affirming the teaching of God’s revelation.

Saint Ise learned about his impending end through a revelation from above. Gathering his flock and clergy, he preached a spiritual instruction, communed the Holy Mysteries, and with hands upraised to Heaven he offered up his soul o the Lord. This transpired at the end VI Century. (The known exact day of the saint’s death is 18 August). The venerable relics of Saint Ise, already glorified by healing at the time of his burial, were consigned to earth in the church of the MostHoly Mother of God at Tsilkani, betwixt the altar-table and the table of oblation. The Church subsequently enumerated Saint Ise to the rank of the Saints and set his day of memory as 2 December.

From “Lives of the Georgian Saints” Archpriest Zakaria Machitadze,  St. Herman Press:

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