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Queen Tamar of Georgia is a very dominant figure in Georgian history and culture. Her 29 year rule saw the country maintain a unified state with a strong economy, a well-organised bureaucracy, a careful balance between state and Church power, harmonious relations between different ethnic groups in the Kingdom, and a flourishing of the arts.

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In particular, the magnificent Vardzia monastic complex, carved into the hillsides near Akhaltsikhe in Georgia’s southern Samtskhe-Javakheti region, is one of her enduring physical legacies on the Georgian landscape.

Her kingdom extended from the Black Sea in the west to the Caspian Sea in the East, and from the Greater Caucasus range in the north to the Armenian plateau in the south.

From Wikipedia

The Mongol invasions two decades after her death devastated Georgia, with a large proportion of the population killed, cities razed and churches destroyed, and the kingdom never recovered its previous territories even after the Mongols were evicted by King George V (“the Brilliant”).

Tamar (and its derivatives Tamara, Tamuna, Tamila, Tata, Tato, Tamta and many others) is one of the most common names in Georgia, and so many women enjoy their Name Day today. Queen Tamar, in recognition of her piety, her defence of the Christian religion, and her patronage of the Church at home and abroad was recognised amongst the Saints by the Church.

 In 1166 a daughter, Tamar, was born to King George III (1155–1184) and Queen Burdukhan of Georgia. The king proclaimed that he would share the throne with his daughter from the day she turned twelve years of age.

The royal court unanimously vowed its allegiance and service to Tamar, and father and daughter ruled the country together for five years. After King George’s death in 1184, the nobility recognized the young Tamar as the sole ruler of all Georgia. Queen Tamar was enthroned as ruler of all Georgia at the age of eighteen. She is called “King” in the Georgian language because her father had no male heir and so she ruled as a monarch and not as a consort.

At the beginning of her reign, Tamar convened a Church council and addressed the clergy with wisdom and humility: “Judge according to righteousness, affirming good and condemning evil,” she advised. “Begin with me–if I sin I should be censured, for the royal crown is sent down from above as a sign of divine service. Allow neither the wealth of the nobles nor the poverty of the masses to hinder your work. You by word and I by deed, you by preaching and I by the law, you by upbringing and I by education will care for those souls whom God has entrusted to us, and together we will abide by the law of God, in order to escape eternal condemnation…. You as priests and I as ruler, you as stewards of good and I as the watchman of that good.”

The Church and the royal court chose a suitor for Tamar: Yuri, the son of Prince Andrei Bogoliubsky of Vladimir-Suzdal (in Georgia Yuri was known as “George the Russian”). The handsome George Rusi was a valiant soldier, and under his command the Georgians returned victorious from many battles. His marriage to Tamar, however, exposed many of the coarser sides of his character. He was often drunk and inclined toward immoral deeds. In the end, Tamar’s court sent him away from Georgia to Constantinople, armed with a generous recompense. Many Middle Eastern rulers were drawn to Queen Tamar’s beauty and desired to marry her, but she rejected them all. Finally at the insistence of her court, she agreed to wed a second time to ensure the preservation of the dynasty. This time, however, she asked her aunt and nurse Rusudan (the sister of King George III) to find her a suitor. The man she chose, Davit-Soslan Bagrationi, was the son of the Ossetian ruler and a descendant of King George I (1014-1027).

In 1195 a joint Muslim military campaign against Georgia was planned under the leadership of Atabeg (a military commander) Abu Bakr of Persian Azerbaijan. At Queen Tamar’s command, a call to arms was issued. The faithful were instructed by Metropolitan Anton of Chqondidi to celebrate All-night Vigils and Liturgies and to generously distribute alms so that the poor could rest from their labors in order to pray. In ten days the army was prepared, and Queen Tamar addressed the Georgian soldiers for the last time before the battle began. “My brothers! Do not allow your hearts to tremble before the multitude of enemies, for God is with us…. Trust God alone, turn your hearts to Him in righteousness, and place your every hope in the Cross of Christ and in the Most Holy Theotokos!” she exhorted them.

Having taken off her shoes, Queen Tamar climbed the hill to the Metekhi Church of the Theotokos (in Tbilisi) and knelt before the icon of the Most Holy Theotokos. She prayed without ceasing until the good news arrived: the battle near Shamkori had ended in the unquestionable victory of the Orthodox Georgian army.

After this initial victory the Georgian army launched into a series of triumphs over the Turks, and neighboring countries began to regard Georgia as the protector of the entire Transcaucasus. By the beginning the 13th century, Georgia was commanding a political authority recognized by both the Christian West and the Muslim East.

Georgia’s military successes alarmed the Islamic world. Sultan Rukn al-Din was certain that a united Muslim force could definitively decide the issue of power in the region, and he marched on Georgia around the year 1203, commanding an enormous army.

Having encamped near Basiani, Rukn al-Din sent a messenger to Queen Tamar with an audacious demand: to surrender without a fight. In reward for her obedience, the sultan promised to marry her on the condition that she embrace Islam; if Tamar were to cleave to Christianity, he would number her among the other unfortunate concubines in his harem. When the messenger relayed the sultan’s demand, a certain nobleman, Zakaria Mkhargrdzelidze, was so outraged that he slapped him on the face, knocking him unconscious.

At Queen Tamar’s command, the court generously bestowed gifts upon the ambassador and sent him away with a Georgian envoy and a letter of reply. “Your proposal takes into consideration your wealth and the vastness of your armies, but fails to account for divine judgment,” Tamar wrote, “while I place my trust not in any army or worldly thing but in the right hand of the Almighty God and the infinite aid of the Cross, which you curse. The will of God–and not your own–shall be fulfilled, and the judgment of God–and not your judgment–shall reign!”

The Georgian soldiers were summoned without delay. Queen Tamar prayed for victory before the Vardzia Icon of the Theotokos, then, barefoot, led her army to the gates of the city.

Hoping in the Lord and the fervent prayers of Queen Tamar, the Georgian army marched toward Basiani. The enemy was routed. The victory at Basiani was an enormous event not only for Georgia, but for the entire Christian world.

The military victories increased Queen Tamar’s faith. In the daytime she shone in all her royal finery and wisely administered the affairs of the government; during the night, on bended knees, she beseeched the Lord tearfully to strengthen the Georgian Church. She busied herself with needlework and distributed her embroidery to the poor.

Once, exhausted from her prayers and needlework, Tamar dozed off and saw a vision. Entering a luxuriously furnished home, she saw a gold throne studded with jewels, and she turned to approach it, but was suddenly stopped by an old man crowned with a halo. “Who is more worthy than I to receive such a glorious throne?” Queen Tamar asked him.

He answered her, saying, “This throne is intended for your maidservant, who sewed vestments for twelve priests with her own hands. You are already the possessor of great treasure in this world.” And he pointed her in a different direction.

Having awakened, Holy Queen Tamar immediately took to her work and with her own hands sewed vestments for twelve priests.

History has preserved another poignant episode from Queen Tamar’s life: Once she was preparing to attend a festal Liturgy in Gelati, and she fastened precious rubies to the belt around her waist. Soon after she was told that a beggar outside the monastery tower was asking for alms, and she ordered her entourage to wait. Having finished dressing, she went out to the tower but found no one there. Terribly distressed, she reproached herself for having denied the poor and thus denying Christ Himself. Immediately she removed her belt, the cause of her temptation, and presented it as an offering to the Gelati Icon of the Theotokos.

During Queen Tamar’s reign a veritable monastic city was carved in the rocks of Vardzia, and the God-fearing Georgian ruler would labour there during the Great Fast. The churches of Pitareti, Kvabtakhevi, Betania, and many others were also built at that time. Holy Queen Tamar generously endowed the churches and monasteries not only on Georgian territory but also outside her borders: in Palestine, Cyprus, Mt. Sinai, the Black Mountains, Greece, Mt. Athos, Petritsoni (Bulgaria), Macedonia, Thrace, Romania, Isauria and Constantinople. The divinely guided Queen Tamar abolished the death penalty and all forms of bodily torture.

A regular, secret observance of a strict ascetic regime–fasting, a stone bed, and litanies chanted in bare feet–finally took its toll on Queen Tamar’s health. For a long time she refrained from speaking to anyone about her condition, but when the pain became unbearable she finally sought help. The best physicians of the time were unable to diagnose her illness, and all of Georgia was seized with fear of disaster. Everyone from the small to the great prayed fervently for Georgia’s ruler and defender. The people were prepared to offer not only their own lives, but even the lives of their children, for the sake of their beloved ruler.

God sent Tamar a sign when He was ready to receive her into His Kingdom. Then the pious ruler bade farewell to her court and turned in prayer to an icon of Christ and the Life-giving Cross: “Lord Jesus Christ! Omnipotent Master of heaven and earth! To Thee I deliver the nation and people that were entrusted to my care and purchased by Thy Precious Blood, the children whom Thou didst bestow upon me, and to Thee I surrender my soul, O Lord!”

The burial place of Queen Tamar has remained a mystery to this day. Some sources claim that her tomb is in Gelati, in a branch of burial vaults belonging to the Bagrationi dynasty, while others argue that her holy relics are preserved in a vault at the Holy Cross Monastery in Jerusalem.
     

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Today we commemorate many of the victims of Tamerlane‘s rampage through the Caucasus. The long-term effects of his invasions, of which there were eight, were that Georgia’s economy was devastated, its political structures splintered, and it never recovered the glories of its Golden Age, as a united country covering much of the South Caucasus. At its peak, Georgia occupied much of present-day Armenia, Azerbaijan, and parts of today’s northeastern Turkey.

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A more comprehensive history of Timur’s invasions of Georgia can be read here. The shattered Georgian kingdom eventually fragmented into the three kingdoms of Imereti, Kartli and Kakheti, and the principalities of Samegrelo, Guria, Svaneti, Abkhazia and Samtskhe, until their eventual incorporation into the Russian Empire.

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In the 14th century, during the reign of King Bagrat V (1360–1394), Timur (Tamerlane) invaded Georgia seven times. His troops inflicted irreparable damage on the country, seizing centuries-old treasures and razing ancient churches and monasteries.

Timur’s armies ravaged Kartli, then took the king, queen, and the entire royal court captive and sent them to Karabakh (in present-day Azerbaijan). Later Timur attempted to entice King Bagrat to renounce the Christian Faith in exchange for permission to return to the throne and for the release of the other Georgian prisoners.

For some time Timur was unable to subjugate King Bagrat, but in the end, being powerless and isolated from his kinsmen, the king began to falter. He devised a sly scheme: to confess Islam before the enemy, but to remain a Christian at heart. Satisfied with King Bagrat’s decision to “convert to Islam,” Timur permitted the king to return to the throne of Kartli. At the request of King Bagrat, Timur sent twelve thousand troops with him to complete Georgia’s forcible conversion to Islam.

The Holy Martyrs of the Kvabtakhevi Monastery

When they were approaching the village of Khunani in southeastern Georgia, Bagrat secretly informed his son Giorgi of everything that had happened and called upon him and his army to massacre the invaders.

The news of Bagrat’s betrayal and the ruin of his army infuriated Timur, and he called for immediate revenge. At their leader’s command, his followers destroyed everything in their path, set fire to cities and villages, devastated churches, and thus forced their way through to Kvabtakhevi Monastery.

Monastics and laymen alike were gathered in Kvabtakhevi when the enemy came thundering in. Having forced open the gate, the attackers burst into the monastery, then plundered and seized all its treasures. They captured the young and strong, carrying them away.

The old and infirm were put to the sword. As the greatest humiliation, they mocked the clergy and monastics by strapping them with sleigh bells and jumping and dancing around them.

Already drunk on the blood they had shed, the barbarians posed an ultimatum to those who remained: to renounce Christ and live or to be driven into the church and burned alive.

Faced with these terms, the faithful cried out: “Go ahead and burn our flesh—in the Heavenly Kingdom our souls will burn with a divine flame more radiant than the sun!” And in their exceeding humility, the martyrs requested that their martyrdom not be put on display: “We ask only that you not commit this sin before the eyes of men and angels. The Lord alone knows the sincerity of our will and comforts us in our righteous afflictions!”

Having been driven like beasts into the church, the martyrs raised up a final prayer to God: “In the multitude of Thy mercy shall I go into Thy house; I shall worship toward Thy holy temple in fear of Thee. O Lord, guide me in the way of Thy righteousness; because of mine enemies, make straight my way before Thee (Ps. 5:6–7) that with a pure mind I may glorify Thee forever….”

The executioners hauled in more and more wood, until the flames enveloping the church blazed as high as the heavens and the echo of crackling timber resounded through the mountains. Ensnared in a ring of fire, the blissful martyrs chanted psalms as they gave up their spirits to the Lord.

The massacre at Kvabtakhevi took place in 1386. The imprints of the martyrs’ charred bodies remain on the floor of the church to this day.

From “Lives of the Georgian Saints” by Archpriest Zacharaiah Machitadze, Saint Hermans’ Press

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Today is what is known as a “soul day” in the Church, when people pray for the souls of their deceased relatives. Concurrently, it is a the commemoration of the martyrdom of nine children of Georgia’s Tao-Klarjeti region, now lying within Turkey’s borders, at the headwaters of the Mtkvari/Kura river. At the time of this incident, Christianity had already been the State religion in Iberia (Eastern Georgia) for over 200 years, but indigenous paganism and Iranian Zoroastrianism still persisted in the country in many areas. Colchis was incorporated into the Roman province of Lazika during the reign of Justinian in the 6th century, involving much of Georgia’s coastal regions, but the inland regions of Georgia’s west remained under the control of the Chosroid dynasty that ruled Iberia at the time, which alternated between vassalage of Constantinople and Persia in order to maintain autonomy. 

Kola (Gole in Turkish) is in Ardahan province of today’s Turkey and was seized from the Georgian Atabegs of Samtskhe by the Ottomans in 1561. It was conquered by the Russians in 1878 and remained within the Russian Empire until 1919, following which it was under Armenian occupation for a year until being handed over to Turkey by the Bolshiviks. Kola is around 100 kilometres southwest of Akhalkalaki in Georgia’s Samtskhe-Javakheti region.

Gole Village may be seen just to the south of Ardahan town, marked in red on the map

Many centuries ago, the village of Kola was located at the source of the Mtkvari River. There Christians and pagans dwelt together as neighbors. Christian and pagan children would play together, but when the Christian children heard church bells ringing, they recognized the call to prayer and dropped their games. Nine pagan children—Guram, Adarnerse, Baqar, Vache, Bardzim, Dachi, Juansher, Ramaz, and Parsman—would follow the Christian children to church.

But the Christians always stopped them near the gates of the church and reprimanded them, saying, “You are children of pagans. You cannot enter God’s holy house.” They would return sorry and dejected.

One day the nine pagan children tried to enter the church forcibly, but they were cast out and scolded. “If you want to enter the church, you must believe in our Lord Jesus Christ and be baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” they were told. “You must receive Holy Communion and join the community of Christian believers.”

With great joy the youths promised the Christians that they would receive Holy Baptism. When the Christians of Kola related to their priest the good news of the pagan boys’ desire, he recalled the words of the Gospel: He that loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me: and he that loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he that takes not his cross, and follows after Me, is not worthy of Me. (Matt. 10:37–38).

He was not afraid of the anger that would follow from the pagan community, but rather took the boys on a cold winter night and baptized them in the icy river. A miracle occurred while the Holy Sacrament was being celebrated: the water became warm and angelic hosts appeared to the youths. Greatly encouraged in their faith, the children decided to remain in the Christian community rather than return to their parents.

When their parents learned that they had been baptized in the Christian Faith, they dragged their children away from the church, abusing and beating them into submission all the way home. The heroic children endured the abuses and, though they went hungry and thirsty for seven days, repeated again and again, “We are Christians and will not eat or drink anything that was prepared for idols!”

Neither gentle flattery, nor costly clothing, nor promises of good things to come could tempt the God-fearing youths. Rather they asserted, “We are Christians and want nothing from you but to leave us alone and allow us to join the Christian community!”

The enraged parents went and reported to the prince everything that had happened. But the prince was of no help—he simply told them, “They are your children, do with them as you wish.” The obstinate pagans asked the prince permission to stone the children. So a large pit was dug where the youths had been baptized, and the children were thrown inside.

“We are Christians, and we will die for Him into Whom we have been baptized!” proclaimed the holy martyrs, the Nine Children of Kola, before offering up their souls to God.

Their godless parents took up stones, and then others joined in, until the entire pit had been filled. They beat the priest to death, robbed him, and divided the spoils among themselves.

The martyric contest of the Nine Righteous Children of Kola occurred in the 6th century, in the historical region of Tao in southern Georgia.”

from “Lives of the Georgian Saints” by Archpriest Zacharaiah Machitadze, Saint Hermans Press, 2006.

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Last Sunday was Forgiveness Sunday, the last Sunday before the season of Great Lent. In order to avoid hypocrisy or lingering resentment at a time when we should be focussed upon prayer, Christians are advised to make their peace with those whom they are in dispute, and any tensions between lay people and their spiritual fathers are to be resolved before Great Lent begins.

Despite the many difficulties experienced in Georgia currently with a weakening economy and regional tensions, we are fortunate that we can go about our daily lives peacefully and unmolested for the most part. Regrettably this is not the case in many parts of our immediate neighbourhood. Conflict in Eastern Ukraine between people of the same faith and in some cases from the same towns and neighbourhoods is a great tragedy that may take decades to heal.

Only a few hundred kilometres away, Islamic State terrorists in recent days have kidnapped several hundred Assyrian Christians in Syria; such actions in the past have generally ended with martyrdom of the captives. Assyrians are a people native to Syria, Iraq, Iran and south-eastern Turkey, whose presence in the region predates the Arab conquest by millennia. Assyrians typically belong to various churches in communion with Rome, or to Oriental Orthodox communities (in communion with the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Coptic Orthodox Church and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church), or to the Church of the East (a Nestorian church). The so-called Syrian Fathers of the Georgian Church were most likely Orthodox monastics from this nationality.

The genocide of the Ottoman Empire’s Christians in 1915, resulting in the mass deaths of Greeks, Armenians and Assyrians throughout the empire, resulted in many survivors fleeing to the Russian Empire as refugees. Many of Georgia’s Armenian, Greek and Assyrian people can trace their ancestries to such refugees; this short documentary explains the perambulation of one persecuted Assyrian community from Turkey to Iran to Georgia during the First World War.

Greek villages in Kvemo Kartli’s Tsalka district and the Assyrian village of Dzveli Kanda in Mtskheta-Mtianeti region are populated with the descendants of such refugees, and Armenian communities in Samtskhe-Javakheti, Kvemo Kartli, Shida Kartli and Tbilisi have many ancestors who fled from Turkey in 1915.

With the 100th anniversary of a genocide of the Ottoman Empire’s Christian citizens approaching in late April, tensions are running high between the Turkish government, which claims that no genocide happened or that it was hugely exaggerated, and descendants of the victims, Greek, Armenian and Assyrian, seeking acknowledgement and contrition. No likely agreement is in sight and bitter feelings on both sides are likely to persist for some time; forgiveness is difficult to give if the counterparty expresses no contrition. That being said, sometimes such gestures of contrition are offered at times and places when least expected. This very well written story by an Armenian-American journalist combines interviews with a Kurdish mayor of a small town in southeastern Turkey, trying to make amends for the murders of Armenians that his community’s ancestors committed, and the author’s family history associated with the same small town.

Most of us would have recently seen excerpts of chilling footage of the murder of 21 Coptic Christians on a beach in Libya by Islamic State terrorists. Anger, resentment, hatred and a desire for revenge would be natural emotions for the families of the victims to endure. While no doubt the families would be enduring tremendous grief at losing their loved ones, the brother of two of the victims, speaking on talkback radio in Egypt, amazes all who listen to him by blessing those who killed his brothers and praying for their salvation.

While we may be frustrated with day-to-day conflicts and harbour ill-feeling for those we feel treat us with contempt or disrespect, we could all afford to put our concerns into perspective and consider the example of forgiveness and compassion set by the mother of the two Coptic martyrs of Libya. The courage and steadfastness shown by the martyrs should also be an inspiration to us.

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As we enter the last week before Great Lent, we are encouraged to occupy ourselves with assisting those around us suffering from misfortune or illness.

The Georgian Wounded Warrior Program emulates the very successful Wounded Warrior Project in the USA. It is run by the US Office of Defense Cooperation’s Bilateral Affairs Office, based at the US Embassy in Tbilisi. Its personnel include civilian rehabilitation experts and serving US Army personnel.

In Georgia, the project has been providing prostheses to Georgian veterans who have lost limbs in the 2008 war against Russia, as well as the Iraq and Afghanistan theatres of operations. As is well-known, Georgia has been the largest non-NATO military contingent in Afghanistan for some time, and a substantial number of mortalities and serious injuries have been sustained by Georgian troops on active duty there. A modern Rehabilitation Centre is to be commissioned by August 2016 in Tbilisi with funding and technical support from the Georgian Wounded Warrior Project.

An identified deficiency in the Georgian Military, and in Georgia in general, is a shortage of trained counsellors or therapists to deal with psychological illnesses, such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The military chaplains embedded in Georgian battalions,  provided by the Georgian Church, have previously received some basic training in counselling; given that Georgian soldiers are reluctant to admit vulnerability to their comrades, or to strangers, a chaplain is often the first port of call for a distressed soldier having difficulty coping. The established Orthodox Christian model of intimacy and confidentiality between the priest and his spiritual son provides a good base upon which counselling, guidance, or even referral for additional treatment, can develop.

Last week, representatives of the Georgian Wounded Warrior Project met with relevant clergy from the Georgian Church to discuss co-operation, with great willingness on the Georgian side for Georgian chaplains to receive training from US Special Forces chaplains in identifying and supporting Georgian soldiers with psychological problems. This is a very pleasing development indeed, and we will keep readers posted on new developments.

For those interested in the interface between Orthodox Christianity and mental health, I can strongly recommend Father Alexis Trader’s website and his bookAncient Christian Wisdom and Aaron Beck’s Cognitive Therapy: A Meeting of Minds

Another function of the Georgian Wounded Warrior Project is to find employment for demobilised soldiers who have suffered from physical or psychological injuries. Given the high rate of unemployment amongst the able-bodied in Georgia, this is a challenge. That being said,they have many attributes that are desirable in the private sector. Veterans are typically highly disciplined and reliable, amenable to training in complex tasks including IT and communications, work effectively in teams, and often have leadership experience gained under very trying conditions. Employers in Georgia wishing to employ wounded veterans in their enterprises, or provide other support for rehabilitation activities, may contact me in the comments section below to be referred to the relevant personnel at the Georgian Wounded Warrior Project.

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As I have remarked many times before in these pages, the history of the Church in Georgia is rich with stories and anecdotes of foreigners from countries hostile to Georgia, who have heard Christ’s call to serve, have submitted to baptism and often ordination, and have paid the heavy price of martyrdom at the hands of their own people. The story of Saint Abo Tbilieli is a good example of this.

Georgia, particularly eastern Georgia, has a very longstanding relationship with Iran. Many Georgians were carried off into slavery in Iran over the past two millennia, and Georgia served as a battleground between the Roman and Persian worlds for many centuries. The Georgian language has a huge number of loan-words from Persian, and Persian names are commonly adopted by Georgian people. Many historical figures in Georgia, such as King Mirian and King Vakhtang Gorgasali, were of Persian descent. The history of the interaction between Georgian and Persian peoples has sometimes been co-operative and sometime hostile; Persia’s colonial occupations of Georgia were characterised by intermittent periods of toleration and persecution of the Christian faith.

This history of the conversion of the Persian military commander Omar to Christianity in 7th century Georgia, his ordination and consecration as a Bishop, and his ultimate martyrdom at the hands of the Persian Zoroastrians, is well known by Georgian Christians, and a reminder that the Church in Georgia transcends race or national origin. It ialso provides inspiration for those who may seek to reach out to the 16,000 Iranians currently living in Georgia; the country has a long history of baptising and integrating Persians, and there are few families in eastern Georgia without a Christianised Persian ancestor.

From “Lives of the Georgian Saints” by Archpriest Zacharaiah Machitadze, Saint Herman of Alaska Press.

 The holy hieromartyr Neophytus of Urbnisi descended from a line of Persian fire-worshippers.

In the 7th century, by order of the Saracen emir Mumni (Mu’min), the military leader Ahmad attacked Georgia with an enormous army. After overrunning the central part of Shida (Inner) Kartli, Ahmad dispatched two of his commanders, Omar and Burul, to the capital city of Mtskheta. At the confluence of the Mtkvari and Aragvi rivers, across from the village of Tsikhedidi in the rocky Sarkineti region, the invaders discovered a group of caves and plotted to occupy them. They tried to cross the Mtkvari but were unable. 

Having suffered a setback, the enemies asked their captives what was located in those caves. They were told that this was the Shio-Mgvime Monastery, where dwelt God’s chosen, who had deprived themselves of every earthly blessing.

Surprised at this reply, the commanders decided to pass this information on to Ahmad. Then, as though it were commonplace, Ahmad sent Omar to the monastery to ask the monks to pray for him and remember him at the grave of their abbot, Saint Shio. “Pray for me, O slaves of God, and accept these gifts of aloe and incense. Offer these as a sacrifice to your abbot,” he told them.

Approaching the monastery caves, Omar sent a messenger to inform the monks that he was coming to them in peace and bearing gifts. Drawing near to the monastery gates, the commander saw an army of incorporeal hosts descending from the heavens and among them an elder, radiant with a great light. 

The meek and modest behavior of the monks left a great impression on Omar. He soon understood that the strange armies he had seen on the steps of the monastery were angels of God and that the elder was Saint Shio of Mgvime, abbot of the monastery. He related his vision to the monks and vowed to return to them, receive the sacrament of Holy Baptism, be tonsured a monk, and remain there to join in their holy labors.

Soon Omar abandoned all his possessions, his military rank, and his wealth and was baptized in the Christian Faith at the Shio-Mgvime Monastery as he had promised. Two of his slaves were baptized with him as well. Omar received the new name Neophytus (Newly Planted / From the Greek word neophytos, which in I Tim. 3:6 refers to a new convert.), and his slaves became Christodoulus (Christ’s Slave) and Christopher (Christ-bearer).

According to God’s will, Saint Neophytus was consecrated bishop of Urbnisi, and all were amazed at his wisdom and steadfastness. He was a true father to his flock: “He strengthened the weak, healed the sick, raised the fallen, cleansed the possessed, directed the lost and sought out those who were perishing, protecting them, and forbidding them to wander off again.”

But the enemy could not tolerate the native Persian’s apostolic activity, and he convinced the fire-worshippers to kill the Christian shepherd. So the unbelievers devised an ambush and attacked Neophytus’ isolated cell, then tied him up and began to mock, curse, and revile him. They knew that Saint Neophytus longed to become like the holy protomartyr Stephen, and they plotted to stone him to death.

When his time to depart this world had arrived, Saint Neophytus turned to his persecutors with a tender voice, saying, “Sweet is death to me, O unbelievers! Sweet it is to me. I desire to sunder the link between my mortal and immortal nature.… With my own blood I will confirm the Holy Church, which is founded upon the Precious Blood of the Son and Word of God, Whom I preach. May that which was foreordained for me by the Providence of God be fulfilled, for He has called me to His light from the depths of ungodliness!”

The furious pagans stoned the saint to death. With his last breath Holy Hieromartyr Neophytus cried out, “Lord Jesus Christ receive my soul!”

 

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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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