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Georgia’s neighbouring country to the south and east, Azerbaijan, is known to most people as a Turkish-speaking region of Iran wrested from Persian control by the Russian Empire in the 19th century. It is not commonly known that for many centuries an indigenous Christian nation existed in Azerbaijan until it was eventually overwhelmed by Persians from the east and Armenians from the west. This country was known as Caucasian Albania (to distinguish it from the Albania in the Balkans).

Caucasian Albanian tribes spoke a number of East Caucasian languages and are believed to be related to the Lezgins of the North Caucasus. The only remaining tribe who identify as having this ancestry are the Udi; the ancient Caucasian Albanian capital cities of Qabala and Barda were located within the Udi domain, which stretched from the Caspian Sea to the borders of Georgian Iberia. The village of Zinobiani, near Kakheti’s Kvareli town, was settled with Udi refugees from Azerbaijan in 1922 and these families still live there. The Caucasian Albanian tribes of Hers were incorporated into the Georgian state in the 5th century and assimilated by the Kakhetians; the resulting Hereti region makes up most of current-day eastern Kakheti including the Shiraki region.

The Apostle Bartholomew is reputed to have evangelised the Caucasian Albanians. He is believed to have proselytised throughout Caucasian Albania, and to have converted members of the royal family to Christianity in Baku. He was martyred on the orders of the pagan King Astyages by crucifixion, and his relics later transported to Mesapotamia.

The Church was definitively established by the 1st century missionary Saint Elisaeus, who proselytised throughout Caucasian Albania and Persia, and he established the first Christian temple in the Caucasus, in Kis. In 313 the Caucasian Albanian King Urnayr declared Orthodox Christianity to be the State Religion of Caucasian Albania, predating King Mirian of Iberia’s declaration of Iberia as Christian nation in 337.

King Urnayr was baptised by Catholicos Gregory I of Armenia, and hence the Church of Caucasian Albania has had a close relationship with the Armenian Apostolic Church over the years. While at times it has declared its autocephaly, at other times it was considered subordinate to the Armenian Catholicosate.

Many churches were built throughout Caucasian Albania, but unfortunately time and the attention of Muslim marauders over the past 1300 years have destroyed most of them.  The Church of Kis, built in a Georgian style in the 13th century, is the best preserved, having been renovated in 2003.

Given that much of Caucasian Albania was under the control of Georgia during the reign of Queen Tamar, it is not surprising that Georgian architectural influences are seen here. The original church of this village was built by Saint Elisaeus in the 1st century.

The Caucasian Albanian Church was caught up in the controversy of the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon, which it rejected, and so over the years it has been more closely affiliated with the Armenian Apostolic Church than with the Eastern Orthodox communion. The Russian imperial government encouraged this affiliation and discouraged autocephalous movements. In recent years, the remaining Udi Christians of Azerbaijan have repudiated their affiliation with the Church of Armenia and have registered with the Azerbaijan government as the Caucasian Albanian-Udi Christian Community. Reportedly, several Udi men are training in Russian seminaries as priests, so it is quite possible that the Caucasian Albanian Church will return to the Eastern Orthodox communion, as it was prior  to 451, and during Georgia’s “Golden Age” when Georgia controlled the region.

On August 5th, the Community celebrated the 1700th anniversary of their Church as an established state church, and explained to the media the history of their people, and the ongoing renovation efforts for their temples in the village of Nij.

For a scholarly review of the Church in Caucasian Albania by an Azeri Academic, read here.

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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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Following immediately after the celebration of the Georgian Church’s Autocephaly, we commemorate the life of Saint Ambrosi, Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia in the turbulent 1920’s when Georgia was overrun by the Red Army and forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union.

Saint Ambrosi is seen as a bold and patriotic figure who was frequently in trouble with secular authority. He was persecuted by the Russian colonial authorities for agitating for the Georgian Church’s autocephaly to be restored, and likewise persecuted during the early years of the Bolshevik regime for his faith, as a means of intimidating the laity.

Our father among the saints Ambrose (Khelaia) the Confessor, (Georgian: (ამბროსი აღმსარებელი, Ambrosi Aghmsarebeli), was the CatholicosPatriarch of All Georgia of the restored Church of Georgia. He was Catholicos-Patriarch from 1921 to 1927. He is commemorated of March 16.

Life

Besarion Khelaia was born on September 7, 1861 in Martvili, Georgia. He received his primary education at the theological school in Samegrelo, before entering the Tiblisi Theological Seminary. After his graduation in 1885, Besarion married, and then was ordained to the Holy Orders later that year. Fr. Besarion served as priest in Abkhazia for eight years in Sukhumi, New Athos, and Lykhy. In addition to his priestly duties, Fr. Besarion taught the Georgian language and participated in a number of philanthropic organizations. He also published a series of articles under the pseudonym of Amber denouncing the policy of Russification in Abkhazia.

In 1896, Fr. Besarion’s wife died. In 1897, he enrolled in the Kazan Theological Academy. During his time at the academy, Fr. Besarion was interested in both the literary-cultural life of Kazan and in Georgian national independence. His research in the primary sources about the history of Georgia produced several essays including one entitled “The Struggle Between Christianity and Islam in Georgia”. One professor recommended that he continue on that theme and present his research for a master’s degree.

Fr. Besarion graduated from the Kazan academy in 1901 and, before returning to Georgia, received his tonsure as a monk, with the name Ambrose. In Georgia, Fr. Ambrose was raised to the dignity of archimandrite and appointed abbot of Chelishi Monastery in Racha province where he joined with other Georgians in fighting for restoration of autocephaly of the Church of Georgia. At Chelishi, Archim. Ambrose, with the blessing of Bishop Leonid of Imereti, restored the deteriorating monastery and seminary, and attracted gifted young people to study at the seminary.

In 1904, Archim. Ambrose was transferred to the Synodal office in Tbilisi and was named abbot of the Monastery of the Transfiguration.The Georgian hierarchy continued to press for restoration of autocephaly without success, pointing out to Tsar Nicholas II the deterioration in church life and organization that had occurred under the exarchate. The 1905 council of Georgian clergy in Tbilisi, in which Archim. Ambrose participated, was broken up by police. This incident resulted in his exile to the Troitsky Monastery at Ryazan.

In 1908, Archim. Ambrose was accused of conspiring in the murder of the Exarch of Georgia, Abp. Nikon (Sofiisky) and was deprived of the right to serve in the Church. This time, he was exiled to the Holy Trinity Monastery in Ryazan where for a year he was held under strict guard until he was acquitted and reinstated with his rights. But, he was still kept in Russia.

As Russia was overtaken by the chaos of the 1917 revolutions, Archim. Ambrose returned to Georgia in 1917 and rejoined the struggle for restoration of autocephaly of the Georgian Church. On March 12, 1917, a Georgian synod proclaimed autocephaly, and elected Bishop Kirion Catholicos-Patriarch, actions that the Holy Synod of the Church of Russia refused to recognize. Thus, communion was broken between the two churches. With autocephaly, Archim. Ambrose was consecrated Metropolitan of Chqondidi. He was later transferred to Tskum-Abkhazeti.

In March 1921, Bolsheviks forces overthrew the short-lived Democratic Republic of Georgia, outlawed the Church, closed the churches and monasteries, and began the persecution of the clergy. Amidst the chaos, Catholicos-Patriarch Leonid died from cholera.

Elected on September 7, 1921, Metr. Ambrose was enthroned Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia on October 14, 1921. On February 7, 1922, Catholicos-Patriarch Ambrose sent a memorandum to the Conference of Genoa describing the conditions under which Georgia was living since the Soviet invasion, and protested in the name of the people of Georgia who had been deprived of their rights, against the occupation of Georgia by the Soviets, and demanded the intervention of civilized humanity to oppose the atrocities of the Bolshevik regime.

Such a memorandum was unprecedented for the Bolshevik regime and the response by them was immediate. In February 1923, Patr. Ambrose and his council were arrested and imprisoned. In a public show trial, Patr. Ambrose and his fellow clergy were accused of hiding historic treasures of the Church in order to keep them from passing into the hands of the Soviet state. In his defense at the end of the trial, Patr. Ambrose stated,” My soul belongs to God, my heart to my country; you, my executioners, do what you will with my body.”

While expecting execution, the Bolsheviks did not dare to execute him and sentenced Patr. Ambrose to eight years imprisonment. His property was also confiscated. During the time of his imprisonment from 1923, Metr. Kalistrate was locum tenens. The public outcry over the extent of the Red Terror in Georgia caused the Bolsheviks to moderate their pressure on Georgian society. In March 1926, the Bolsheviks put forward an amnesty for the 1924 insurrection and suspension of religious persecutions. Later in 1926, Ambrose and a few Georgian clergy were released from prison. However, the strains of the years showed, and Patr. Ambrose soon reposed in Tbilisi on March 29, 1927.

Glorification

At an expanded council of the Holy Synod of the Church of Georgia in 1995, the life of Ambrose (Khelaia), Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia was discussed and in recognition of his great achievements he was glorified in behalf of the Georgian Church and nation as St. Ambrose the Confessor.

From http://www.Orthodoxwiki.com

 

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