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Tomorrow we commemorate the passing of of the much venerated King Vakhtang Gorgasali. A powerful personality, he managed to evict the Eastern Roman Empire from its military occupation of western Georgia, while still maintaining an amicable relationship with the Patriarchate of Constantinople and having the Georgian Church’s autocephaly recognised. The father of Tbilisi as the national capital, his statue overlooking the Metekhi Bridge is a major Tbilisi landmark.

From “Lives of the Georgian Saints”

The holy and right-believing king Vakhtang I ascended the throne of Kartli at the age of fifteen. At that time Kartli was continually being invaded by the Persians from the south and by the Ossetians from the north. The situation was no better in western Georgia: the Byzantines had captured all the lands from Egrisi to Tsikhegoji.

After his coronation, the young King Vakhtang summoned his court and addressed his dedicated servants with great wisdom. He said that the sorrowful circumstances in which the nation had found itself were a manifestation of God’s anger at the sins of the king and the people. He called upon everyone to struggle in unity and selflessness on behalf of the Faith and motherland.

King Vakhtang led a victorious campaign against the Ossetians, freed the captive princess (his older sister), and signed several treaties with the Caucasian mountain tribes to secure their cooperation in the struggle against foreign conquerors. Then he carried out another campaign in western Georgia, freed that region from the Byzantines, reinforced the authority of KingGubaz, and returned in triumph to Kartli.

King Vakhtang was remarkable in faith, wisdom, grace, virtue, and appearance (he towered above all others at a stately seven feet ten inches). He spent many nights in prayer and distributed alms to the poor, in this way dedicating his life to God.

King Vakhtang could fight tirelessly in battle. Vested in armor and fully armed, he could carry a war-horse on his shoulders and climb from Mtskheta to the Armazi Fortress in the mountains outside the city. On foot he could outrun a deer. The holy king was judicious in politics, displayed great composure, and preserved a sense of calm even when critical decisions needed to be made.

On the brow of Vakhtang’s military helmet was depicted a wolf, and on the back, a lion. Catching a glimpse of the helmet with the wolf and lion, the Persians would cry out to one another: “Dar’ az gurgsar!” (“Beware of the wolf ‘s head!”) This was the source of King Vakhtang’s appellation “Gorgasali.”

During King Vakhtang’s reign the Georgian Church was first recognized as autocephalous. When the holy king banished the pagan fire-worshippers from Georgia, he also sent a certain Bishop Mikael — who was inclined to the Monophysite heresy, which had been planted in Georgia by the Persians — to Constantinople to be tried by the patriarch. The bishop had disgracefully cursed the king and his army for rising up against the Monophysites. In fact, he was so infuriated that when King Vakhtang approached him to receive his blessing, he kicked him in the mouth and broke several of his teeth. The patriarch of Constantinople subsequently defrocked Bishop Mikael and sent him to a monastery to repent.

More importantly perhaps, the patriarch and the Byzantine emperor then sent to the patriarch of Antioch several clergymen whom King Vakhtang had chosen for consecration. In Antioch the patriarch consecrated twelve of these clergymen as bishops and enthroned a certain Petre as the first Catholicos of Georgia.

Vakhtang fulfilled the will of Holy King Mirian by founding the Georgian Holy CrossMonastery in Jerusalem. In addition, he replaced a wooden church that had been built in Mtskheta at the time of St. Nino with a church made of stone. During his reign several new dioceses were founded. King Vakhtang built a cathedral in Nikozi (Inner Kartli) and established a new diocese there, to which he translated the holy relics of the Protomartyr Razhden.

King Vakhtang built fortresses at Tukhari, Artanuji, and Akhiza; founded monasteries in Klarjeti at Artanuji, Mere, Shindobi, and Akhiza; and established many other strongholds, churches, and monasteries as well. He built a new royal residence in Ujarma and laid the foundations of the new Georgian capital, Tbilisi. His political creed consisted of three parts: an equal union of the Georgian Church with the Byzantine Church, national independence, and the unity of the Church and nation.

In the year 502 the sixty-year-old King Vakhtang was obliged to defend his country for the last time. In a battle with the Persians he was fatally wounded when a poisoned arrow pierced him under the arm. Before he died, King Vakhtang summoned the clergy, his family and his court and urged them to be strong in the Faith and to seek death for Christ’s sake in order to gain eternal glory.

All of Georgia mourned the passing of the king. His body was moved from the royal residence in Ujarma to Mtskheta, to Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, which he had himself built. There he was buried with great honor.

Some fifteen centuries later, with the blessing of Catholicos-Patriarch Ilia II, an addition was built onto the Sioni Patriarchal Cathedral in Holy King Vakhtang Gorgasali’s name, and a cathedral in his honor was founded in the city of Rustavi.

THE LIVES OF THE GEORGIAN SAINTS by Archpriest Zakaria Machitadze,  Herman Press:

 

 

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On November 13 every year, a major commemoration takes place in Tbilisi to celebrate the courageous sacrifice made by the almost the entire population of Tbilisi for their faith.

This article is kindly reproduced by permission of John Sanidopoulos.

In 1227 Sultan Jalal al-Din of Khwarazm and his army of Turkmen attacked Georgia. On the first day of the battle the Georgian army valorously warded off the invaders as they were approaching Tbilisi. That night, however, a group of Persians who were living in Tbilisi secretly opened the gates and summoned the enemy army into the city.

According to one manuscript in which this most terrible day in Georgian history was described: “Words are powerless to convey the destruction that the enemy wrought: tearing infants from their mothers’ breasts, they beat their heads against the bridge, watching as their eyes dropped from their skulls.…”

A river of blood flowed through the city. The Turkmen castrated young children, raped women, and stabbed mothers to death over their children’s lifeless bodies. The whole city shuddered at the sound of wailing and lamentation. The river and streets of the city were filled with death.

The sultan ordered that the cupola of Sioni Cathedral be taken down and replaced by his vile throne. And at his command the icons of the Theotokos and our Savior were carried out of Sioni Cathedral and placed at the center of the bridge across the Mtkvari River. The invaders goaded the people to the bridge, ordering them to cross it and spit on the holy icons. Those who betrayed the Christian Faith and mocked the icons were spared their lives, while the Orthodox confessors were beheaded.

One hundred thousand Georgians sacrificed their lives to venerate the holy icons. One hundred thousand severed heads and headless bodies were carried by the bloody current down the Mtkvari River.

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

Every year on this feast a litany is held on the Metechi Bridge lead by the Patriarch of Georgia to honour the 100,000 Holy Martyrs. It is attended by tens of thousands of people; processions from many parishes in Tbilisi parade their icons and crosses at the bridge. People throw flowers in the water of the Mtkvari to honour the martyrs who met their final resting place in the river.

This festival is touching for many reasons. Georgian Orthodox Christians and Armenian Apostolic Christians both suffered in the massacre and both communities celebrate the feast. Coming only two days after Remembrance Day as celebrated by people from the Commonwealth, it is a time when both Georgians and foreigners reflect on the sacrifices made by their ancestors for their principles and their way of life. Perhaps what is most poignant is the sense of forgiveness in the minds of Georgian people in the light of this Feast. Georgian Christians have suffered terrible persecution at the hands of various Turkic peoples over the centuries, and yet modern Georgians have civil and often amicable relations with Turks, Azeris and other Turkic people on a day to day basis. This contrasts strongly with the situation in the Balkans.

 

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