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Happy Birthday, Your Holiness! The article from the Georgian government’s media outlet Agenda.ge is worth reading in its entirety, as it provides a concise summary of Patriarch Ilia’s career, the state of the Church in the Soviet era and its current state.

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Long regarded as the most trusted and popular identity in the country, he is particularly respected for his activities in the last decades of the Soviet era. Having been appointed as Patriarch in 1977 with KGB acquiescence, who mistakenly assumed he would be a safe pair of hands to protect USSR imperial interests, he ascertained that Georgian public sentiment was overwhelmingly in favour of a sovereign Georgian state independent of the USSR, and threw his support behind this cause. His address to the crowd in front of Georgia’s parliament on April 9, 1989 , immediately prior to the massacre of civilians by Soviet troops armed with shovels, is very well known here:

The tenfold increase in operating churches and monasteries, fifteen-fold increase in serving clergy, temples overflowing with parishioners every weekend, and widespread attraction of Church life for Georgia’s youth are remarkable achievements under Patriarch Ilia’s stewardship of the Church in Georgia. May God grant him many years to come.

Today the Catholicos-Patriarch of Georgia Ilia II turned 83. He has lead the spiritual life of the Orthodox Georgian parish for 38 years……

……. The  Prime Minister of Georgia, the  President and the United States’ Ambassador to Georgia released special congratulations today for Ilia II…..

The Patriarch had to take the responsibility of being a Catholicos-Patriarch of Georgia in a very hard period, when Christianity was suffering significant suppression from the Soviet Union time ideology. 

Ilia II was born as Irakli Ghudushauri-Shiolashvili in Vladikavkaz, currently Russia’s North Ossetia.

…..He is a descendant of the influential eastern Georgian mountainous clan with family ties with the former royal dynasty  of Georgia – Bagrationi.

In 1967 he was consecrated as the bishop of Tskhumi and Abkhazeti in west, currently occupied region, and elevated to the rank of metropolitan in 1969.

 After the death of the Patriarch David V, he was elected the new Catholicos-Patriarch of Georgia on December 25, 1977. 

In the new position Ilia II initiated a range of reforms, enabling the Georgian Orthodox Church to largely regain its former influence and prestige by the late 1980s. 

In 1988 there were only 180 priests, 40 monks, and 15 nuns for the faithful, who were variously estimated as being from one to three million.

 There were 200 churches, one seminary, three convents, and four monasteries. During the last years of the Soviet Union, Ilia II was actively involved in Georgia’s social life…..

….Currently there are about 2,000 acting churches and monasteries in Georgia and up to 3,000 spirituals (parish clergy and monastics). 

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Today is the feast day of King David the Builder, a major figure in Georgia’s political and ecclesiastical history. We have referred to him previously regarding his patronage of the  Bagrati Cathedral in Kutaisi, and his miraculous victory over the Seljuk Turks at the Battle of Didgori . The victory at Didgori however was the culmination of a long struggle for independence from Turkic colonisation beginning during his father’s reign, as this history describes:

 

From “Lives of the Georgian Saints”

At the end of the 11th century the Georgian Church underwent a trial of physically and spiritually catastrophic proportions.

The Seljuk sultan, Jalal al-Dawlah Malik Shah (1073–1092), captured the village of Samshvilde, imprisoned its leader, Ioane Orbeliani, son of Liparit, ravaged Kvemo Kartli, and finally captured all of Georgia, despite the isolated victories of King Giorgi II (1072–1089). The fearful Georgians fled their homes to hide in the mountains and forests. 

In the year 1089, during this period of devastation and despair, King Giorgi II abdicated, designating his sixteen-year-old only son, Davit (later known as “the Restorer”), heir to the throne. 

The newly crowned King Davit took upon himself enormous responsibility for the welfare of the Church. He supported the efforts of the Council of Ruisi-Urbnisi to restore and reinforce the authority of the Georgian Church and suppress the conceited feudal lords and unworthy clergymen. During King Davit’s reign, the government’s most significant activities were carried out for the benefit of the Church. At the same time, the Council of Ruisi-Urbnisi reasserted the vital role of the Orthodox Faith in rescuing the Georgian people from the godless mire into which they had sunk. 

Foremost among King Davit’s goals at the beginning of his reign was the repatriation of those who had fled Georgia during the Turkish rule. The king summoned his noblemen and began to reunify the nation. The king’s efforts to reunify Georgia began in the eastern region of Kakheti-Hereti, but the Turks and traitorous feudal lords were unwilling to surrender the power they had gained in the area. Nevertheless, King Davit’s army was in God’s hands, and the Georgians fought valiantly against the massive Turkish army. King Davit himself fought like any other soldier: three of his horses were killed, but he mounted a fourth to finish the fight with a fantastic victory. The Turkish presence was eliminated from his country. 

Soon, however, the uncompromising Seljuk sultan Mehmed (Muhammad) I of Baghdad (1105–1118) ordered an army of one hundred thousand soldiers to march on Georgia. When King Davit heard of the enemy’s approach, he immediately assembled a force of fifteen hundred men and led them towards Trialeti. A battle began in the early morning, and with God’s help the enemy was defeated.

Simultaneously, the king’s adviser, Giorgi of Chqondidi, recaptured the town of Rustavi, and in 1115 the Georgian army recovered the ravine of the Mtkvari River. One year later, the Turks, who had been encamped between the towns of Karnipori and Basiani, were banished from the country. The “Great Wars” continued, and the holy king was crowned with new victories. Davit’s son Demetre (later the venerable Damiane), a young man distinguished in “wisdom, holiness, appearance and courage,” was a great asset to his father. The prince led a war on Shirvan, captured Kaladzori, and returned to his father with slaves and great riches, the spoils of war in those days. One year later, the villages of Lore and Agarani were rejoined to Georgia. 

In spite of his victories, King Davit knew that it would be difficult for his meager army to protect the recovered cities and fortresses, while continuing to serve as a permanent military force. Thus it became necessary to establish a separate, permanent standing army. The wise king planned to draft men from among the Qipchaks, a northern Caucasian tribe, to form this army. He was well acquainted with the character of these people, and confident that they were brave and seasoned in war. Furthermore, Davit’s wife, Queen Gurandukhti, was a daughter of Atrak, the Qipchaks’ ruler. Atrak joyfully agreed to the request of his son-in-law, the king. 

As a true diplomat seeking to maintain peaceful relations with the Qipchaks, King Davit took his adviser, Giorgi of Chqondidi, and traveled to the region of Ossetia in the northern Caucasus. There Giorgi of Chqondidi, an “adviser to his master and participant in his great works and victories,” reposed in the Lord. Following this, the dispirited King Davit declared that his kingdom would grieve for forty days. But he accomplished what he had set out to do, and selected forty thousand Qipchaks to add to the five thousand Georgian soldiers he had already enlisted. From that point on King Davit had a standing army of forty-five thousand men. 

The king’s enormous army finally uprooted the Turkish presence in and around Georgia permanently. The defeated Turks returned in shame to their sultan in Baghdad, draped in black as a sign of grief and defeat. Nevertheless, the unyielding sultan Mahmud II (1118–1131) rallied a coalition of Muslim countries to attack Georgia. The sultan summoned the Arab leader Durbays bin Sadaka, commanded his own son Malik (1152–1153) to serve him, gathered an army of six hundred thousand men, and marched once more towards Georgia. 

It was August of 1121. Before heading off to battle, King Davit inspired his army with these words: “Soldiers of Christ! If we fight bravely for our Faith, we will defeat not only the devil’s servants, but the devil himself. We will gain the greatest weapon of spiritual warfare when we make a covenant with the Almighty God and vow that we would rather die for His love than escape from the enemy. And if any one of us should wish to retreat, let us take branches and block the entrance to the gorge to prevent this. When the enemy approaches, let us attack fiercely!” 

None of the soldiers thought of retreating. The king’s stunning battle tactics and the miracles of God terrified the enemy. As it is written, “The hand of God empowered him, and the Great-martyr George visibly led him in battle. The king annihilated the godless enemy with his powerful right hand.” 

The battle at Didgori enfeebled the enemy for many years. The following year, in 1122, King Davit recaptured the capital city of Tbilisi, which had borne the yoke of slavery for four hundred years. The king returned the city to its mother country. In 1123 King Davit declared the village of Dmanisi a Georgian possession, and thus, at last, unification of the country was complete. 

One victory followed another, as the Lord defended the king who glorified his Creator. 

In 1106 King Davit had begun construction of Gelati Monastery in western Georgia, and throughout his life this sacred complex was the focus of his efforts on behalf of the revival of the Georgian Church. Gelati Monastery was the most glorious of all the existing temples to God. To beautify the building, King Davit offered many of the great treasures he had acquired as spoils of war. Then he gathered all the wise, upright, generous, and pious people from among his kinsmen and from abroad and established the Gelati Theological Academy. King Davit helped many people in Georgian churches both inside and outside his kingdom. The benevolent king constructed a primitive ambulance for the sick and provided everything necessary for their recovery. He visited the infirm, encouraging them and caring for them like a father. The king always took with him a small pouch in which he carried alms for the poor. 

The intelligent and well-lettered king spent his free time reading the Holy Scriptures and studying the sciences. He even carried his books with him to war, soliciting the help of donkeys and camels to transport his library. When he tired of reading, King Davit had others read to him, while he listened attentively. One of the king’s biographers recalls, “Each time Davit finished reading the Epistles, he put a mark on the last page. At the end of one year, we counted that he had read them twenty-four times.” 

King Davit was also an exemplary writer. His “Hymns of Repentance” are equal in merit to the works of the greatest writers of the Church. 

This most valiant, powerful, and righteous Georgian king left his heirs with a brilliant confession when he died. It recalled all the sins he had committed with profound lamentation and beseeched the Almighty God for forgiveness. 

King Davit completed his will in 1125, and in the same year he abdicated and designated his son Demetre to be his successor. He entrusted his son with a sword, blessed his future, and wished him many years in good health and service to the Lord. The king reposed peacefully at the age of fifty-three. 

St. Davit the Restorer was buried at the entrance to Gelati Monastery. His final wish was carved in the stone of his grave:This is My rest for ever and ever; here I will dwell, for I have chosen here (Ps. 131:15).

From “Lives of the Georgian Saints” by Archpriest Zakaraiah Machitadze. St Hermans 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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