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In March this year, a protest was held outside a Georgian government office by a supporter of an inmate whom he believed to have been unjustly charged and incarcerated. The inmate in question is former Prisons Minister Bacho Akhalaia, from Georgia’s western Samegrelo region. The protester smeared his body with honey and announced his willingness to exchange places with the inmate. The footage of this spectacle can be seen here.

This spectacle was perplexing for the foreign media covering the incident for whom the reference to honey had no meaning. For Georgians, particularly those from Samegrelo, it is a well known image of self-sacrifice and faith in the incarcerated, first practiced by Prince Tsotne Dadiani of Samegrelo. His life is commemorated by the Georgian Church today.

The Dadiani family are believed to have moved from the mountainous Svaneti region in western Georgia to the subtropical Black Sea region of Samegrelo in antiquity. They were rulers of the Samegrelo region for from the 12th-19th centuries, as dukes, archdukes and principals. A scholarly source of information on this family is the Smithsonian Institute in the USA; a useful concise history of the region can be found here   and the Dadiani  family history can be found here.

Tsotne was the son of Shergil, the pre-eminent noble of western Georgia and the Eristavi (duke) of Samegrelo. During the Mongol occupation of Georgia in the 13 century, he was regent for the western half of the Kingdom of Georgia, a position he shared with the Duke of Racha, a mountainous region in Georgia’s northwest. He was also a Lord High Steward (Mandaturt-Ukhutsesi) of Georgia, and upon the death of his brother Vardan III, the Eristavi of Samegrelo (or Odishi as it was known at the time).

According to “Lives of the Georgian Saints” by Archpriest Zakaraiah Machitadze,

“Saint Tsotne Dadiani, a virtuous military leader and the prince of Egrisi, lived in the middle of the 13th century. During that time Georgia languished under the yoke of Mongol oppression.

After the death of Queen Rusudan, the Mongols began to exact exorbitant fees from the Georgian princes, and they established compulsory military service for their Georgian subjects. The situation became unbearable, and the Georgian nobility planned a massive rebellion against the invaders.

Having assembled at the peak of Mount Kokhta  (in the Meshkheti region of southern Georgia), rulers from all over Georgia agreed to assemble the troops in Kartli and attack on a single front. Tsotne Dadiani and the ruler of Racha were the first to muster their armies. But there were traitors among them, and the Mongols learned of the conspiracy. They surrounded Mount Kokhta, arrested the rebels—save for Tsotne Dadiani and the ruler of Racha—and led them away to the Mongol ruler at Anis-Shirakavan.

The prisoners denied every accusation and asserted that the purpose of the gathering on Mount Kokhta was to collect the tribute that the Mongol authorities had demanded. Infuriated at their insurgency, the Mongols stripped them bare, bound their hands and feet, smeared them with honey, threw them under the scorching sun, and interrogated them daily about the gathering on Mount Kokhta. 

Having heard what had transpired, Tsotne Dadiani became deeply distressed and took upon himself the blame for this tragic turn of events. Escorted by two servants, he journeyed voluntarily to Anis to lay down his life and suffer together with his brothers. Arriving in Anis and seeing his kinsmen doomed to death, the prince promptly undressed, tied himself up, and lay down next to them under the scorching sun.

The disbelieving Mongols informed their ruler about the strange man who had willingly lain down beside those who were condemned.

The ruler summoned him and demanded an explanation. “We gathered with a single goal—to collect the tribute and fulfill your command. If it was for this that my countrymen were punished, I also desire to share in their lot!” answered the courageous prince.

Tsotne’s chivalrous deed made a dramatic impression on the Mongols, and every one of the prisoners was set free. Tsotne Dadiani is not mentioned in accounts of the next conspiracy against the Mongols, in the year 1259. Historians believe that he had already reposed by that time.

The virtues of Saint Tsotne Dadiani are known to all throughout Georgia. His heroism and integrity are an example of faith, love and devotion to every generation, and the faithful of every era have honored his holy name.

Tsotne Dadiani was numbered among the saints on October 26, 1999, according to a decree of the Holy Synod of the Georgian Orthodox Church.”

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In addition to the cycle of Lenten services we are experiencing, commemorations of Georgian saints continues. Saint Demetre the Devoted, known to the world as Demetre II of Georgia, was a Bagratid king ruling with the approval of Georgia’s Mongol overlords at the time. He distinguished himself in the military service of the Mongol Khan, serving in Aqaba Khan’s campaigns against the Mameluke rulers of Egypt, and he was commended for his role in the Second Battle of Homs, where Georgian and Armenian troops prevailed over well-armed Mameluke troops. Ironically, the Mamelukes were in many cases Muslims of Georgian and Circassian origin, so Georgian fought Georgian on Syrian soil.

Saint Demetre was a controversial character at the time as he engaged in bigamy, maintaining up to three wives at one time (although of course only canonically married to one). Despite his personal failings, his self-sacrifice at the end of his life endeared him to the Georgian people and he was later canonised as a saint.

From “Lives of the Georgian Saints”

Saint Demetre the King, also called “the Devoted,” was a great-grandson of Holy Queen Tamar. God sent St. Demetre many tribulations during his childhood, thus encouraging him in the Faith from an early age. Demetre was still an infant when the Mongols killed his mother, the pious Queen Gvantsa. His father, King Davit V (1258–1269), died when Demetre was just ten years old.

When he reached the age of twelve, the royal court sent him to the Mongol ordu (the military camp and headquarters of the Mongols. This particular camp of the Ilkhanid Mongols lay in Mughan of Azerbaijan.), to the ruler Abaqa Khan (1265–1282) (ruler of the Ilkhanid Mongols (descendents of Qubilay Khan’s brother Hulegu).

As the Georgians were under Mongol dominion, they asked Abaqa Khan to proclaim Demetre king, and their request was honored.

Filled with virtue, King Demetre ruled the nation in wisdom and kindness. At night he would go out in search of the poor, the infirm, and the orphaned to distribute his wealth to them. The king took advantage of comparatively peaceful periods to build and restore churches and monasteries and to strengthen fortifications.

Many of King Demetre’s lofty goals, however, were never realized, because the khan was constantly calling the Georgian soldiers to arms. A vast number of Georgia’s finest soldiers fought and perished in the khan’s battles. Soon Georgia was exhausted from battle and the sacrifice of her sons’ blood in the wars of foreign nations.

Internal strife began to tear at the Georgian people, and in desperation they began to pillage the lands and villages that belonged to their own Church.

During this difficult time, Demetre yielded to a temptation. Although already joined in a marriage of political convenience, he abducted Natela, the daughter of southern Georgia’s ruler, Beka Jakeli. She bore Demetre a son, whom they named Giorgi. He would later be honored with the title Giorgi V “the Brilliant” (1314–1346).

After the death of Abaqa Khan, his brother, Ahmad Tegüder (1282–1284), was proclaimed khan. In the second year of his reign, Ahmad’s brother, Qongurdam, plotted to overthrow him but failed. A short time later, Abaqa Khan’s son, Arghun (1284–1291), rose up against his uncle and seized the throne. Finally, Bugha Chingsang, the khan’s prime minister, organized a plot against Arghun. On January 17, 1289, Bugha Chingsang was executed along with his fellow conspirators.

Demetre, who had been on friendly terms with the khan, was now summoned to the khan’s ordu as a suspected member of the plot.

King Demetre immediately surmised the reason for this summons: “The khan is very angry and has called me to him,” he told his court. “I am certain he intends to do me evil, but my kingdom will lie defenseless before him if I do not go. How many Christians will die or become his slaves? How many churches will be laid to waste? Truly my life cannot be so valuable that I could live and bear this sin while many Christian souls are left to perish. It is my wish to go to the khan. God’s will be done: if I am killed, I will be certain that my country is saved!”

The royal court tried with all its might to convince Demetre that it was foolish to go, meet certain death, and leave the country without a ruler. Catholicos Abraam alone supported King Demetre’s decision and advised him, “If you sacrifice your own life for your nation, we, the bishops of this land, will bear your sins, and will pray to God that you be numbered among the holy martyrs. For the Lord Himself said, Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends (John 15:13). And if it is good for a man to lay down his life for just one neighbor, how profitable is it for a man to die for the sake of many?”

“Demetrius II’s Farewell to His People” by Henryk Hrynievski

Upon hearing these words, the king rejoiced exceedingly and began to prepare for his journey to the Mongol ordu. He took with him Catholicos Abraam, a certain priest Mose, his son Davit, and several members of his court. At the ordu the Mongols could find no fault in the young Georgian king, but they imprisoned him nevertheless. Then a group of Georgian faithful forced their way into the prison to see him and offered to help him escape. The king was deeply moved by their compassion, but nevertheless he told them, “I knew from the beginning the death I would suffer, and I offered my life for this nation. If I escape now, the nation will be destroyed. For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? (Mark 8:36).”

The khan ordered his execution. Fully prepared to meet death, King Demetre prayed fervently, received the Holy Gifts, and gave up his soul to the Lord. Those present witnessed a divine miracle: the sun grew dark and an ominous gloom enshrouded the whole city.

The holy relics of the Royal Martyr Demetre were guarded until the catholicos and the priest Mose secretly retrieved the body and, with the help of a group of Tbilisi fishermen, returned the king to his homeland. He was buried in Mtskheta, in the burial vault of his forefathers at Svetitskhoveli Cathedral.”

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

 

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