Caucasia, the territory bounded by the Black and Caspian Seas and taking its name
from the Caucasus Mountains, has been a vibrant centre of Christianity since late
antiquity. By the reign of Constantine the Great, monarchs of the eastern Georgian
district of K‘art‘li (Greek Iberia) and Armenia had already embraced the Christian God;
soon afterwards Christianity also took root in nearby Lazika/Colchis and Caucasian
Albania. As Cyril Toumanoff (1963) and others have demonstrated, in many respects
early Christian Caucasia constituted a single historical and socio-cultural unit.
However, divergent responses to the imperial contest for Caucasia and the processes
leading to the establishment of separate Armenian and K‘art‘velian ‘national’ churches
ultimately led to a clear religious break, beginning in the early seventh century. Despite
this ecclesiastical estrangement, Armeno–Georgian relations have endured to the
present day, not least because of the shared experience of invasion and conquest by
foreign imperial powers as well as the persistence of the extensive, bicultural Armeno–
Georgian frontier zone. Any investigation of Christianity in Georgia must therefore take
into consideration the history of neighbouring lands, especially Armenia.
The Early Period
The Georgian Orthodox Church is one of the several ‘national’ churches of Eastern
Christianity and officially traces its foundation to the alleged evangelization of western
Georgia by the apostle Andrew and his companion Simon ‘the Canaanite’. But this is
a late tradition. The Andrew legend began to take root in Byzantium only in the ninth
century, largely in response to the special apostolic authority claimed by the papacy.
Embellished stories about Andrew’s travels quickly spread throughout eastern
Christendom. Within a century or two they were embraced and further expanded
by Georgian monks working in places such as Mount Athos and St Catherine’s mon-
astery on Mount Sinai.
Several lines of archaeological evidence, including burials, have shown beyond any
doubt that a small Christian presence already existed in eastern Georgia in the third
century. It is possible that some Jewish colonists in the K‘art‘velian cities of Urbnisi and
Mc‘xet‘a (Mtskheta), the royal seat, were early Christian adherents. Although the
Jewish presence in eastern Georgia goes back to a more ancient time, these colonies
were enlarged by the exodus following the Jewish Wars in the first and second centu-
ries. The Georgian written tradition, dating from the seventh century onwards, recalls
this fact by identifying some of the earliest Christian converts in K‘art‘li as Jews and by
advancing the spurious claim that two K‘art‘velian Jews witnessed the Crucifixion.
Along with this Jewish influence, Christian ideas also were introduced to eastern
Georgia by Manichaeans and, it would seem, Gnostics.
Early Georgian Christianity is characterized by its tremendous diversity, inclusive-
ness, and syncretic quality. The cosmopolitanism of pre-modern Caucasia, not just in
the religious sphere, owed much to the region’s status as a major Eurasian crossroads
and its proximity to the fabled Silk Roads. A sustained push to create a single, tightly
controlled Georgian Christianity and a concomitant obsession with identifying and
rooting out heresy commenced much later, in the ninth and tenth centuries, and
especially so in the eleventh to thirteenth centuries, under the Byzantine-oriented
It is difficult to gauge the prevalence of Christianity among the eastern Georgians
before the fourth century. This uncertainty changes with the conversion of King Mirian
III (variants: Mirean/Mihran; r. 284–361) and his family, from whose reign Christian-
ity acquired the protection of the monarchy; within a century or so it became the
dominant faith of the realm. The earliest written story of Mirian’s conversion, an event
dated by many scholars to around 337, is preserved in Rufinus’ Ecclesiastical History,
which was composed in Latin in the early fifth century. The oldest extant (written)
Georgian account, The Conversion of K‘art‘li, is a product of the seventh century, while
a considerably more elaborate version, The Life of Nino, derives from the ninth or tenth
century. The interrelationship of these texts and the provenance of their traditions has
inspired lively debate, though most specialists accept that the historical Mirian was
converted through the intercession of the foreign, perhaps Cappadocian, holy woman
Nino and that he consequently favoured the Church in K‘art‘li by offering royal protec-
tion, supporting its administration, and contributing to the building of churches. The
chief prelate, sequentially styled bishop, archbishop, and then from the end of the fifth
century catholicos (Georgian kat‘alikos), was resident at the royal city Mc‘xet‘a.
Over the next two centuries a network of bishoprics was established under the
watchful eye of the K‘art‘velian king. Eastern Georgia’s landscape was predominantly
non-urban and so the administrative model adopted by the Church in the Roman/Byz-
antine Empire was not appropriate. K‘art‘velian bishops tended to be headquartered
at the estates of the most powerful aristocratic families (e.g., C‘urtavi in the Armeno–
Georgian frontier zone) and, after the sixth century, at important monasteries.
Extremely little is known about the early ecclesiastical hierarchy except that the
Archbishop of Mc‘xet‘a stood at its head. According to a later written tradition, Nino
herself selected the first two leaders of the Church in K‘art‘li. Between the fourth and
sixth centuries, from King Mirian to King P‘arsman VI (r. from 561), the chief prelates
were foreigners; several were Greek, while others were Armenian, Syrian and
Iranian (‘Iranian’ in this context may denote ‘Manichaean’). In fact, the initial phase
of Christianization was very much a pan-Caucasian phenomenon in which non-
Caucasians assumed a prominent role.
The Church in K‘art‘li was claimed by the Patriarchate of Antioch from an early
time, although in practice Caucasia was often beyond Antioch’s jurisdictional reach.
Up to the Arab conquest in the seventh century, when regular communications between
Caucasia and Syria were disrupted, the chief bishop of the Church in K‘art‘li received
ordination from Antioch. There is a later, dubious tradition, probably originating in the
eleventh century, that the exiled fourth-century Antiochene patriarch, Eustathius,
made his way to eastern Georgia and was responsible for guiding the affairs of the local
church. Similarly problematic is Elguja Xint‘ibidze’s assertion (1996) that some of
the early Cappadocian fathers, including Basil the Great, might actually have been
‘Iberians’, i.e., Georgians. Although there may in fact be a genealogical connection
of some kind, there is no compelling reason to believe that Basil identified himself as a
Georgian or that the alleged Georgian link was in some way instrumental to the forma-
tion of his ideas.
In order to propagate the faith rapidly among Mirian’s subjects, Christian leaders
deliberately invented a script for the K‘art‘velian idiom of Georgian so that biblical and
other religious texts could be translated into the local language. There is considerable
controversy about the origins of the Georgian script. The c.800 Life of the Kings, the
initial text of the corpus of medieval Georgian histories known as K‘art‘lis c‘xovreba (the
so-called Georgian Royal Annals or ‘Georgian Chronicles’), credits the first K‘art‘velian
monarch P‘arnavaz (r. 299–234 bce) with the invention of Georgian writing in early
Hellenistic times. There is, however, no direct evidence to support this fanciful claim.
For its part, the medieval Armenian tradition gives the honour of creating scripts for
Armenian, Georgian, and Caucasian Albanian to the Armenian cleric Mashtots, also
known as Mesrop. However, surviving manuscripts of the vita of Mashtots, like those
transmitting The Life of the Kings, postdate the schism between the Armenian and
K‘art‘velian Churches, and it is altogether possible that both have been manipulated
so as to give their respective parties precedence. In terms of chronology there can be
no question, however, that all three Caucasian scripts were fashioned by a Christian
impulse at about the same time, in the second half of the fourth century or early fifth
century. Thus, while Mashtots might not have been involved personally with oversee-
ing the creation of the Georgian script, there is every reason to think that a Christian
pan-Caucasian effort was afoot. Armenian clerics would have played a conspicuous
role in the project since their Church – established just a generation previously, after
the conversion of King Trdat c.314 – was the largest and organizationally the most
developed among the embryonic Caucasian churches.
Thus by the end of the fourth and certainly by the start of the fifth century, Christian
clerics had equipped themselves with a Georgian script, called asomt‘avruli. The Gospels
were probably the first to be rendered into Georgian. Translated ecclesiastical literature
has remained important in Georgia ever since. None of these early translations have
survived intact; the oldest extant Georgian manuscripts are palimpsest fragments of
translations deriving from the fifth to the eighth century. They are exclusively religious
in nature and transmit texts from both the Old and New Testaments, as well as liturgi-
cal, homiletic, and even apocryphal works. It should be noted that some Byzantine
sources that are otherwise lost are now preserved only in Georgian translations, includ-
ing Hippolytus’ Commentary on the Song of Songs, Metrophanes of Smyrna’s Commentary
on Ecclesiastes, Eustratius of Nicaea’s Brief Memorandum on When and Why the Romans
and their Church Deviated from the Divine Eastern Church, and On Festivals, the last of
which was fabulously attributed to Justinian I. Works originally composed in yet other
languages are also uniquely preserved in Georgian, including The Passion of Michael of
Mar Saba, which was translated from Arabic in the ninth or tenth century.
At the end of the fifth century the first known example of original Georgian literature
appeared: The Martyrdom of Shushaniki, composed by her confessor Iakob C‘urtaveli
(Jacob of C‘urtavi). Like other specimens of early Georgian literature, it relates the deeds
of a holy person. Original Georgian literary works are rather uncommon prior to the
rise of the Bagratid dynasty in the ninth century, nevertheless hagiography appears to
have been the genre of choice in the initial stage of local literature. These saintly biog-
raphies were written by Christians for the strengthening and defence of the faith of
Christ, but they relate relatively few details about the condition and structure of the
contemporary Church in K‘art‘li. However, the Georgian-language vitae of Shushaniki
(fifth century), Evstat‘i (c.600), and Habo (variant Abo, eighth century) are testaments
to the diverse, multicultural character of early Georgian Christianity. All three of these
Christian heroes were non-K‘art‘velians who lived and were killed in eastern Georgia:
Shushaniki was an Armenian princess; Evstat‘i, an Iranian and son of a Zoroastrian
high priest; and Habo, an Arab. What was most important in these early hagiographies
is a sense of Christian affiliation, not ethnicity.
In the case of Evstat‘i and Habo, saintly biographies demonstrated that Christianity
could overcome its enemies and doubters. Further, the physical location of the stories
in eastern Georgia was of immense importance, for it showed that even in Caucasia, so
far from the Holy Land, the Christian God could work miracles and guide local affairs.
Biblical history was enlarged geographically and chronologically through such tradi-
tions. The originals of such vitae are lost, and the copies that we do have are typically
found in collections of saints’ lives of the eleventh century onwards. Although all of
this material is in Georgian, the vast majority of the vitae celebrate holy men and
women from elsewhere in the Christian world. Other materials in the collections consist
of ecumenical Christian patristic, homiletic, theological, and exegetical writings, these
works having been translated into Georgian, often from Greek. For example, the
eleventh-century Parxali mravalt‘avi (polycephalon) incorporates the Georgian vitae of
Shushaniki and Habo as well as materials relating to Nino, but also well over a hundred
items of an ecumenical nature. As a consequence of this structure, Georgian saints
were made every bit as legitimate as saints recognized by the universal Church, and
Georgian Christianity was made part of the larger Christian experience.
The writing of saints’ lives in eastern Georgia constantly evolved to reflect changing
local conditions. The most ancient Georgian hagiographies are passions and martyr-
doms. Then, after the foundation of monasticism in K‘art‘li in the sixth century, the

lives and activities of other holy men (and, rarely, women), especially monks, were
composed. In the seventh century a narrative of Nino’s travails was put into writing.
Out of this hagiographical context was produced the first written Georgian-language
historiographical texts in the early ninth century. It is worth noting that medieval
Georgian histories tend to focus narrowly on kings and kingship and offer relatively
few clues about the state of the local church.
Original and translated Georgian literature alike reveals the southerly orientation
of early Georgian Christianity, towards Jerusalem, Syria and Armenia. The earliest
written versions of Nino’s biography exude the eastern Georgians’ deep admiration for
Jerusalem. Among other things, Nino was given a direct – but possibly fabulous – con-
nection with that city and its patriarch, and holy sites in Mc‘xet‘a were named in
honour of its most important Christian places. A number of scholars have shown the
preservation of the Jerusalem rite in original and translated Georgian sources of the
pre-Bagratid period (i.e., especially before the tenth century). Of special importance are
the medieval Georgian iadgaris, roughly the equivalent of Byzantine tropologia. In the
words of musicologist Peter Jeffery,

Though the original Greek manuscripts are lost, the medieval Georgian translations permit
us to know what [the early Jerusalem repertories] contained, to trace their historical
development, and to document the influence Jerusalem asserted on other Eastern and
Western centers of liturgical chant . . . Georgian chant is in some respects our most direct
witness to the period and processes in which all medieval Christian liturgical chant was

T‘amila Mgaloblishvili’s splendid investigation (1991) of the Klarjet‘ian mravalt‘avi has
substantiated the importance of the era of King Vaxtang I Gorgasali (r. 447–522) in
the translation and adaptation of liturgical and other ecclesiastical materials into
Indeed, the reign of Vaxtang has traditionally been portrayed as a period of tremen-
dous growth for Georgian Christianity. There can be no question of the extension of
bishoprics in this era as well as the translating, writing, and copying of texts both at
home and by K‘art‘velian monks resident abroad, especially in Levantine monasteries
such as Mar Sabas. The pattern of foreign monasteries as the central sites of Georgian
literary production was thus established back in the fifth century. It was also at this
time that we observe the eastern Georgians being drawn into the theological disputes
of the larger Church. In an attempt to secure K‘art‘velian support and to acknowledge
local support of the empire, the Byzantine government recognized – and perhaps itself
instigated – the change in status of the K‘art‘velian chief prelate from archbishop to
catholicos, around the year 480. Fully-fledged autocephaly would not be achieved,
however, until the Arab conquest or later. In the sixth century eastern Georgian bishops
attended ecclesiastical councils hosted by the Armenians and together with other
Caucasian religious leaders voiced their opposition to Chalcedon.
However, eastern Georgia’s geopolitical situation and especially the increasing
weakness of its monarchy compelled the K‘art‘velian secular and religious elite to seek
aid from Constantinople. The growing Iranian menace forced Vaxtang to seek refuge
in Byzantine-controlled eastern Anatolia on at least two occasions. Sassanid influence
steadily expanded in eastern Georgia: an Iranian marzbān was established in the
recently-(re)founded city of T‘bilisi (older orthography Tp‘ilisi, Russian Tiflis) in 523,
and according to the careful research of Toumanoff (1963), K‘art‘velian kingship was
completely extinguished by Iran several decades later, around the year 580. Within a
decade the political vacuum was filled by a series of ‘presiding princes’, which lasted
down to the re-establishment of local kingship by the Bagratid dynasty in 888.
The Long Sixth Century is perhaps the single most developmentally significant
period of Georgian Christianity. Though the K‘art‘velian political situation plunged
deeper and deeper into crisis, the Church in K‘art‘li was strengthened and remade itself
into a ‘national’ organization. During the reign of P‘arsman VI (561 to 579 at latest),
the so-called Thirteen Syrian Fathers under the leadership of the Iovane Zedazadneli
(John ‘of Zedazadeni’) entered eastern Georgia and acquired the king’s permission to
establish a series of monasteries. Among them were Davit‘ Garesjeli (David ‘of Garesja’),
founder of the monastic complex in the Garesja (variant Gareji) desert in the eastern
region of Kaxet‘i, and Shio Mghwmeli, who established a monastery at the Mghwme
(Mghvime) caves just upriver from Mc‘xet‘a. The Thirteen Syrian Fathers attracted a
considerable body of local pupils and this increased the demand for books throughout
the land.
It is worth recalling that while these men are credited with the implantation of
monasticism in eastern Georgia, the K‘art‘velians had previously been acquainted with
it; a considerable number of K‘art‘velians, like the famous anti-Chalcedonian Peter the
Iberian, had journeyed abroad, especially to Jerusalem. The Syrian monks were likely
anti-Chalcedonians (modern observers have variously identified them as Miaphysites
and Nestorians), although our relatively late sources do not indicate how or whether
this affiliation affected their labours in eastern Georgia. However, at the time of their
arrival, the Church in K‘art‘li remained in the non-Chalcedonian camp with the
Armenians and Caucasian Albanians.
Yet the anti-Chalcedonian union among Caucasian Christians was becoming
increasingly fragile. P‘arsman VI’s reign witnessed not only the implantation of monas-
ticism in eastern Georgia but also the ‘nativization’ of the K‘art‘velian ecclesiastical
hierarchy. A dramatic shift in self-consciousness resulted in the struggle waged by the
inflexible catholicoi of K‘art‘li and Armenia. According to the later sources for the
episode preserved in the Armenian Book of Letters (Girk‘ T‘ght‘ots‘), at first the dispute
centred on the Armenian allegation that the K‘art‘velian Catholicos Kwrion had not
dedicated his full energies to the war against ‘Nestorianism’. At the heart of the struggle
were three issues. First, what was the proper relationship of Christian Caucasia with
the Byzantine Empire? Second, was the diversity of Christianity as practised in the
eastern Georgian domains appropriate? Finally, who, if anyone, should have the right
to make decisions affecting the Christians of greater Caucasia, including the definition
of what constituted Orthodoxy? In other words, who, if anyone, held ultimate ecclesi-
astical authority in Christian Caucasia and what was the structure of the regional
church hierarchy?
The Armenians believed themselves, or at least local ecclesiastical councils held
under the presidency of the Armenian catholicos, to possess that ultimate, pan-
Caucasian authority. Kwrion dissented, an action not unexpected in light of the great
energy and newfound boldness displayed by K‘art‘velian church officials. Finally, at
their Third Council of Dvin, held in 607, the Armenians condemned Kwrion and his
adherents, and a schism between the two Caucasian churches was set into motion.
It would be another century before this break would become permanent. Though
Armenian polemical works were directed against the eastern Georgians not long after
Dvin III (this occurring within the larger context of the separation of the imperial and
Armenian churches studied by Nina Garsoïan, 1999), the K‘art‘velians would seem to
have ‘returned fire’ only much later. The earliest known such work was penned by the
eleventh-century Catholicos Arsen Sap‘areli (‘of Sap‘ara’).
Kwrion’s Christological orientation has proven a bone of contention: was he a Dio-
physite, a Miaphysite or a Monothelite? There is some evidence suggesting the last, but
what is certain is that this public dispute with the Armenians brought theology squarely
into the K‘art‘velian foreground. And to the eastern Georgians, the theological issue
was inseparable from the question of relations with Byzantium. Over the course of the
sixth century, the eastern Georgian elite pinned its protection and fate more and more
on Constantinople, and the Armenians had objected to this and resented its pos-
sible implications. From Constantinople’s perspective, such alliances required what
amounted to a declaration of faith: for the K‘art‘velians to receive Byzantine support
and assistance, they would have to embrace the imperial form of Christianity. Kwrion
seems to have put his church on that path. But in the reign of the Byzantine Emperor
Heraclius (610–41), a great many K‘art‘velian churchmen abandoned their non-
Chalcedonian position. Heraclius’ very appearance in K‘art‘li, as he was en route to
Sassanid Iran, and his promotion of Byzantine Christianity, was unprecedented in
Georgian history. So great was the impact that the episode is uniquely reported in three
separate medieval Georgian-language histories.
The excitement stemming from Heraclius’ defeat of the Iranian army and his sacking
of Seleucia-Ctesiphon was short-lived. Iran and Byzantium had been exhausted from
the prolonged war, and both were susceptible to the new, well-organized opponent
from the south, the Arabs. Sassanid Iran was an initial target, the Arabs managing to
kill the last Sassanid king in 651. Byzantine possessions in Mesopotamia were also
coveted by the Arabs. The routing of a Byzantine army at Yarmuk in August 636
opened the door to Syria; by 638 Syria and Palestine, including the patriarchates at
Jerusalem and Antioch, were in Muslim hands. The invasion of Christian Caucasia
commenced by 640 and five years later Arab troops had penetrated eastern Georgia.
In 654–5 the city of T‘bilisi surrendered and eastern Georgia was occupied. As was the
case in neighbouring Armenia, a major component of the Arabs’ approach was the
colonization of Christian Caucasia.
In the meantime, Byzantine Egypt also succumbed to the Arabs, in September 642.
Egypt is mentioned here because of the infamous Patriarch Cyrus of Alexandria. It was
Cyrus, a favourite of Heraclius and a staunch advocate of Monothelitism, who surren-
dered Egypt. This Cyrus may have a direct connection to Georgia. Zaza Alek‘sidze
(1968) has advanced the provocative argument that Cyrus is none other than the
Catholicos Kwrion. That Cyrus was deemed personally responsible for the dramatic loss
of Egypt to the infidels, and that he and his Monothelite partners were singled out and
excommunicated at the Sixth Ecumenical Council in 681, may explain why Kwrion’s
memory was expunged from medieval Georgian sources.
By the end of the seventh or start of the eighth century, Christianity in eastern
Georgia had been radically transformed. For the first time in its history, a distinct tradi-
tion of the foundation of K‘art‘velian Christianity was put into writing. In its original
form, the succinct Conversion of K‘art‘li was produced sometime in the seventh century,
presumably within a few decades of the events of 607 (Rapp and Crego 2006). Although
The Conversion undoubtedly preserves many older, accurate memories of how Christi-
anity triumphed in the time of Nino and Mirian, the work as a whole must also be seen
in large measure as a seventh-century declaration of autonomy: the K‘art‘velian
Church was an independent organization and, significantly, connections to the con-
temporaneous conversions of Armenia and Albania have for the most part been
expunged. Indeed, it was in this period that the Church in K‘art‘li was transformed into
the ethnically focused K‘art‘velian Church. Though observers of the time did not explic-
itly note the change or apply new terminology to the local church, the K‘art‘velian
Church was strikingly different in its organization and mission. Its hierarchy, including
the office of catholicos, was now monopolized by eastern Georgians, especially
K‘art‘velians. What is more, it had now become a ‘national’ church, an organization
by and for the dominant K‘art‘velian ethnie. This is reflected in contemporary Georgian-
language vitae, such as the eighth-century Martyrdom of Habo by Iovane Sabanis-dze.
In the case of Habo, an Arab migrant to the Georgian territories, conversion to
Christianity was not enough: he had to embrace the local, K‘art‘velian, form of
Christianity which entailed, inter alia, learning the Georgian language and ‘convert-
ing’ to K‘art‘velian culture. After Habo the heroes of original hagiographies tend to be
K‘art‘velians or other Georgians; the cosmopolitanism of early K‘art‘velian Christianity
was thus curtailed, though by virtue of Georgia’s location in a prominent Eurasian
crossroads this condition never completely disappeared.
K‘art‘velian political authority remained feeble throughout the ninth century, and
as it had in previous times the local church postured to fill the void. But the Arab con-
quest brought changes to the K‘art‘velian Church. As a result of the occupation, what
may have been thousands of religious and secular elites evacuated the region. Some
travelled east into the mountainous far eastern regions of Kaxet‘i, while many others
sought refuge in the Georgian south-west, in regions such as Tao (the Armenian Tayk‘),
Klarjet‘i and Shavshet‘i, where the Arabs had been unable to extend their dominion.
Over the next two centuries a K‘art‘li-in-exile was created, which I call neo-K‘art‘li.
This area was instrumental in the later re-conquest of eastern Georgia. Georgian
Christianity not only survived, it flourished.
From the south-western domains, it gained unprecedented access to Byzantium and
the imperial church, and by the tenth century this influx of Byzantine forms and ideas
led to a reorientation of the local church away from the south and towards the Byzan-
tine Empire. A prime example of this shift in Christian orientation is the deliberate
substitution of the Jerusalemite liturgy with the Constantinopolitan. At the same time,
monastic institutions thrived as never before. A number of enormous, often autono-
mous monastic foundations were established throughout the south western domains.
The chief figure associated with this development is the monk Grigol Xandzt‘eli (George
‘of Xandzt‘a/Khandzt‘a’). Xandzt‘eli’s biography, composed by his pupil Giorgi
Merch‘ule, is not only an extensive record of the growth and development of K‘art‘velian
monasticism, but it also supplies rare glimpses into the political and everyday life of
contemporary neo-K‘art‘li. This vita also expresses the idea of a K‘art‘velian ‘national’
church in so far as it makes the Georgian language (i.e., the K‘art‘velian dialect) not
only a legitimate sacred language but also an essential component of Georgian
Neo-K‘art‘li’s prosperity contributed to the rejuvenation of K‘art‘velian political life
under the Bagratids. Ironically, the Bagratids were originally an Armenian family;
there is evidence that in Vaxtang’s time some of them had already entered the service
of the K‘art‘velian monarchy. But it is in the years immediately following the crushing
of a disastrous uprising by Armenian noble families against the Arabs in 772 that a
branch of the family migrated to neo-K‘art‘li, where they permanently settled and were
rapidly acculturated. In 813 the Bagratid prince Ashot I seized the presiding principate
and three-quarters of a century later, in 888, his relative Adarnase II restored local
kingship. Great though his achievement was, Adarnase could not have guessed that
the Bagratid line of kings would monopolize political power in much of Georgia for the
next thousand years, up until the Russian conquest of the nineteenth century.
The greatest and most enduring achievement of the Georgian Bagratids, who had
risen to power under Byzantine tutelage, was the political unification of lands on both
the eastern and western sides of the Surami mountains, beginning with the union of
part of K‘art‘li, neo-K‘art‘li, and the western region of Ap‘xazet‘i (Russian Abkhazia);
this was engineered by Bagrat III in 1008. It is worth emphasizing that, up to the start
of the Bagratid era, the historical and ecclesiastical experiences of eastern and western
Georgia often diverged. Western territories including Ap‘xazet‘i, and before it Lazika
and Egrisi/Colchis, fell more under the influence (and sometimes direct control) of the
Roman and then the Byzantine Empire. Consequently, western Georgian Christianity
developed along different lines from that in eastern territories such as K‘art‘li (it should
be noted that labelling the western regions as ‘Georgian’ in this early period is extremely
misleading and projects back later realities and perceptions; L. G. Khrushkova’s use of
‘Eastern Black Sea’ (2002) in this context is more historically accurate).
Although the beginning of the conversion of western Georgia may also be traced to
the fourth century, the Christianity introduced and fostered there tended to be more in
line with that sanctioned by Constantinople. Bishops sitting in the western regions took
part in the first and fifth ecumenical councils. Once the Bagratids took the reins of
power in Ap‘xazet‘i, the church of western Georgia was merged with that of the East.
That having been said, however, the K‘art‘velian Church, especially as it existed in
neo-K‘art‘li, often exerted influence over other regions, including western Georgia, long
before the Bagratids assumed control of these places. Thus religious uniformity often
preceded political unity. By the eleventh century, the Bagratids had realigned local
royal imagery – both in art and in the historical texts they sponsored – from its
traditional southern-facing, Iranian orientation to one more attuned to Christian
Byzantium. In this development, too, we must acknowledge the influence of the eastern
Georgian Church and its similar reorientation from the south (in this case, Palestine,
Syria and Armenia) to the west, towards the Byzantine Commonwealth. In other
words, the local church’s intensive adoption and adaptation of Byzantine models from
the ninth and especially tenth century preceded and stimulated a similar reorientation
by the political elite in the tenth and eleventh centuries.

The Medieval Bagratid Period

With the definite expansion of the K‘art‘velian Church beyond lands inhabited
primarily by K‘art‘velians in the tenth and eleventh centuries, we can begin to speak
properly of the Georgian Church. The growing prestige of the Church attracted
the Bagratids’ constant attention. Potentially, the Georgian Church was as much a
powerful ally as it was a dangerous rival. When the Catholicos Melk‘isedek petitioned
for tax immunity around the year 1031, King Bagrat IV (r. 1027–72) had little choice
but to comply, for he relied heavily on the support of the local church in his obstacle-
laden quest for political consolidation and unification. A number of royal charters
acknowledging such immunities along with property rights have come down to us. As
early as Bagrat’s time the crown sometimes attempted to restrict the powers of and even
subordinate the ecclesiastical hierarchy, but these attempts, led by the Georgian
Athonite Giorgi Mt‘acmideli (variant Mtatsmindeli, ‘of the Holy Mountain’), failed. A
reflection of the increasing power and prestige of the Georgian Church is the assump-
tion of the title ‘patriarch’ (patriark‘i) by its chief prelate at some point in the eleventh
century. Who authorized this alteration of status is unknown; it may very well have
been self-generated, without the endorsement or even knowledge of Byzantine
King Davit‘ II, nicknamed Aghmashenebeli (‘the [Re-]Builder’, r. 1089–1125),
manipulated church affairs to an unprecedented degree. During his reign the first
attested all-Georgian ecclesiastical councils took place, the most famous of which
occurred in 1103 at the neighbouring Ruisi and Urbnisi churches not far from the city
of Gori. These assemblies mimicked the Ecumenical Councils, albeit on a smaller, Cau-
casian scale. At least one council examined Miaphysitism, a burning issue owing to the
Georgian annexation of much of Caucasian Armenia. Indeed, it was in the second half
of the eleventh century that the Georgian Catholicos Arseni Sap‘areli wrote a tract
censuring the anti-Chalcedonian Armenians for the schism. It was in this time, under
the Bagratid regime, that the Georgian Church embarked on an unprecedented pro-
gramme to define, unmask and combat heresy. At the Ruisi-Urbnisi council Davit‘
succeeded in appointing supporters and close associates to many of the highest eccle-
siastical positions. He also created a new official, the mcignobart‘-uxucesi chqondideli,
which combined a major secular position with the bishopric of Chqondidi, one of the
most important episcopal sees in western Georgia. After the patriarchate, the See of
Chqondidi was now the second highest position in the Georgian Church. The king’s
intention was to control appointments to this office in order to manipulate church
affairs as part of his larger project to expand and centralize state control. However, a
headstrong mcignobart‘-uxucesi chqondideli might also turn the institution on its head
by giving the Church a clear path to interfere in secular matters. This tension is evident
throughout the ‘golden age’ of the Bagratids that ended with the Mongol conquest.
The ninth to thirteenth century witnessed an unprecedented blossoming of ecclesi-
astical culture. Stone churches were constructed throughout the Georgian domains,
and they were decorated with beautiful frescoes. This was also a period of intensive
literary output. In 897 the oldest complete copy of the Georgian Gospels was made, the
so-called Adyshi variant, named for the city in the northern region of Svanet‘i in which
it was discovered. In the tenth century a number of Gospels appear: Urbnisi (906), Opiza
(913), K‘sani (early tenth century), Jruchi (936), Mount Sinai (two variants, mid-
century and 978), Parxali (973), Bert‘ay (988), and Tbet‘i (995). As the extensive
studies by Ilia Abuladze show (1944), the ninth and tenth centuries, especially the
period 840 to 960, witnessed the translation of many Armenian hagiographies and
other ecclesiastical texts into Georgian and vice versa. This was an attempt of the two
peoples to understand one another at a time when large numbers of Armenians were
subjected to Georgian political authority.
In the twelfth century, the Georgian Royal Annals, K‘art‘lis c‘xovreba, were trans-
lated and adapted into Armenian. Starting in the early eleventh century we possess
several royal charters granting ecclesiastical tax immunity and the like; such docu-
ments become especially plentiful in the second half of the century. The original eccle-
siastical-historical compilation known as Mok‘c‘evay k‘art‘lisay, with its core component
The Conversion of K‘art‘li (initially composed back in the seventh century), took shape
in early Bagratid times. Its oldest surviving manuscripts were copied in the tenth
century, and include the famous Shatberdi Codex (named for the neo-K‘art‘velian
monastery by the same name founded by Grigol Xandzt‘eli) and the N/Sin.-50 manu-
script from St Catherine’s monastery on Mount Sinai. Mok‘c‘evay k‘art‘lisay includes
The Life of Nino, an enlarged, reworked version of The Conversion, which itself was
written in the ninth or early tenth century.
The role of monasteries in the production and safeguarding of such texts should not
be underestimated. Shatberdi in neo-K‘art‘li was a particularly important literary
centre. Of even greater significance in this regard were Georgian monks and monastic
foundations abroad. The monastic diaspora, especially in the Holy Land and Syria,
played a decisive role in medieval Georgian Christianity. In the ninth to thirteenth
centuries Georgian monks were resident throughout the Eastern Christian world. Mon-
asteries dominated by Georgians or having large Georgian constituencies were also
widespread. The most famous of these were Iveron (Greek for ‘of the Iberians/Geor-
gians’; the Georgians sometimes referred to it as the k‘art‘velt‘a monastiri, or ‘Monastery
of the Georgians’) on Mount Athos, St Catherine’s on Mount Sinai, the Monastery of
the Holy Cross in Jerusalem (rebuilt by Proxore/Prochoros ‘of Shavshet‘i’ in the elev-
enth century), the Monastery of the Black Mountain near Antioch in Syria, and Petri-
cioni near Bachkovo in Bulgaria. A large number of original Georgian compositions,
especially of a theological nature, were produced in these places, and copies were sent
back to Georgia. Many translations of ecclesiastical literature were also made into
Georgian, especially from Greek. The eleventh century saw the formation of distinct
literary schools among Georgian monks. Some advocated a free-form translation from
Greek while others, including Ep‘rem Mcire (Ephrem ‘the Lesser’), promoted transla-
tions that slavishly reproduced the Greek even at the risk of clouding comprehension
of the translated text.
The energetic ‘golden age’ of the medieval Georgian monarchy of the Bagratids came
to an end in the thirteenth century as a consequence of the overextension of resources
on the part of the Crown, the inept rule of Giorgi IV Lasha (r. 1213–23) and the casting
of Mongol hegemony over much of the Caucasian isthmus. Mongol rule had several
consequences. Political power was fragmented, although a shadow of royal authority
endured. At times, the Mongols recognized more than one Bagratid as king simultane-
ously. Bagratid power within Georgia was sometimes questioned, but the Bagratids
entered the post-Mongol era with their monopoly over royal authority intact. The
Georgian Church also survived the Mongol onslaught, although its special position had
in some ways been contested. In Ap‘xazet‘i, during Mongol times, a separate, rival
‘patriarchate’ was established (or re-established; there is a divergence of opinion over
when a patriarchate in Ap‘xazet‘i was first created). As early as 1224, in a response to
a letter announcing the enthronement of Queen Rusudan (r. 1223–45) the previous
year, Pope Honorius III had invited the Georgians to join a new crusade against the
Muslims. The exchange of letters continued under the pontificate of Gregory IX, and in
1240 Rusudan begged him for assistance, as the Mongol invasion was unleashed upon
her country. Though the Pope could do little more than offer encouragement to the
Christians of distant Caucasia, he urged the Georgians to enter formal communion with
the Catholic Church. In the first half of the thirteenth century the Georgian Church
was drifting into schism with the Byzantine Church, and Rusudan seems to have
attempted to counterbalance Byzantine influence with that of the papacy. This is remi-
niscent of an earlier period, the fourth century, when King Mirian had sought to restrict
the influence of Sassanid Iran by accepting the new religion of Constantine the Great.
In the reign of Rusudan and continuing throughout the thirteenth century, Fran-
ciscan and Dominican friars established a foothold in Georgia. In 1328 Pope John XXII
established a see in the city of T‘bilisi and in the following year appointed the Dominican
John of Florence as the first Catholic bishop in Georgia. This see existed down to the
early sixteenth century. Despite these inroads, Orthodox Georgians never accepted
formal reunion with the Roman Church.
From the late 1380s to about 1400 the Georgian lands were invaded by the armies
of Timur (Tamerlane). Many places were devastated; churches and monasteries were
singled out for plunder. Local Bagratid kings were in no position to defend the embattled
Church. Starting under the Mongols, autonomous non-Bagratid ‘principalities’ had
been established in the west and south-west, including in Samc‘xe, Samegrelo (Men-
grelia), and Ap‘xazet‘i. Though a united Georgian kingdom was reassembled by the
Bagratid Alek‘sandre I (r. 1412–42), political union did not extend past his death;
Georgia would not again be united until the establishment of Russian control in the
nineteenth century. In the thirteenth to early fifteenth century, the authority of the
Georgian Church was diminished. Existing churches fell into disrepair and many were
The state of deterioration persisted for the next two centuries. The fall of Constanti-
nople in 1453 deprived the Bagratids and the Georgian Church of potential Byzantine
aid, but the psychological impact was more important than loss of material support,
which for a long time had been meagre. The re-emergence of a strong Iranian state
under the Safavids and the rising fortunes of the Ottomans had dramatic consequences
for Georgia. The intense rivalry of these two Islamic enterprises was often played out
in the Caucasian arena, a situation not unlike the earlier imperial contests fought
in the isthmus by Rome and Byzantium and Iran and Islam. The Georgian political
elite attempted once more to play the great powers off one another, but ultimately
their Christian affiliation was a hindrance as both the Ottomans and Safavids were
Islamic (compare the situation under Mirian III with Christian Byzantium and
Zoroastrian Iran).
Some Georgian princes and kings converted to Islam and the Georgian Church fell
upon even harder times. After their occupation of south-western Georgia in the six-
teenth century, the Ottomans actively established mosques throughout the region.
There were some opportunities to repair existing church buildings, as was the case with
the restoration of the Sioni cathedral in T‘bilisi and Sueti-c‘xoveli (modern Sveti-
c‘xoveli, i.e., Church of the ‘Life-Giving Pillar’) in Mc‘xet‘a by King Vaxtang VI, but this
was the exception rather than the norm. This was also a renewed period of Georgian
martyrs. In September 1624 the queen of Kaxet‘i K‘et‘evan was put to death by
order of Shah Abbas I (r. 1587–1629). Her martyrdom was reported to the pope by
Augustinian fathers, who were then resident in Iran.

The Modern Period

The fact that Catholic monks reported K‘et‘evan’s murder reflects the renewed influ-
ence of Catholicism in the seventeenth century. This influence was made possible
largely through French relations with the Ottomans and Iranians. In 1626 Theatine
missionaries first visited western Georgia. One of their number, Cristoforo Castelli, pro-
duced many detailed drawings of the region and its leaders, which remain a valuable
and unique source of information. From 1661 until their expulsion by the Russians in
1845 Capuchins were established in eastern Georgia, at T‘bilisi. Several Bagratid
princes and kings and even Georgian patriarchs flirted with Catholicism and many
more were sympathetic to it. The famous scholar Vaxushti Bagrationi, a son of Vaxtang
VI and author of a famous history and geography of all Georgia, was educated by
Catholics based in T‘bilisi. Vaxtang’s uncle and adviser, Sulxan-Saba Orbeliani, actu-
ally converted to Catholicism. Orbeliani was author of several books, including the first
lexicon of the Georgian language and memoirs of his travels to western Europe, which
had begun in 1713. This journey was undertaken so as to solicit aid for the embattled
Vaxtang VI from Pope Clement IX and the French King Louis XIV.
The resurgence of Catholicism in Georgia had other important literary consequences.
In 1629 the first Georgian printing press was set up in Rome through the collaboration
of the Georgian envoy Prince-Monk Nikephoros Irbak‘idze and Italian scholars. Yet
again we observe the importance of the tiny Georgian diaspora in the history of Geor-
gian literature and Christianity. The first printed books in Georgian were intended to
aid Catholic missionary endeavours among the Georgians and included a 3,000-word
Georgian-Italian vocabulary. The first printing press in Georgia was established by
Vaxtang VI in T‘bilisi in 1709 and was active until 1723. Early publications were reli-
gious, and included the Four Gospels (1709) and a book of liturgies (1710). However,
the first edition of the great Georgian epic, the Vep‘xistqaosani (The Knight in the Pan-
ther’s Skin), by the thirteenth-century poet Shot‘a Rust‘aveli, appeared in 1712. The
next great centre of Georgian printing was Moscow, where from 1737 books were
published by members of the exiled Georgian royal family. Chief among the early
Moscow publications is the first complete printed edition of the Georgian Bible,
dated 1743.
That Moscow (and St Petersburg) was a centre of early Georgian printing was
hardly accidental. The crushing psychological blow resulting from the destruction of
Christian Byzantium by the Ottomans and the bloody conflict waged in Georgia and
throughout Caucasia by the Ottomans and Iranians compelled many Georgian elites
to look northwards to Orthodox Russia, for support and protection. From the late
fifteenth century, several embassies were exchanged between eastern Georgia and
the Russian Empire. The Orthodox Christianity shared by the Georgians and Russians
was crucial in the growing dialogue. And, as Kenneth Church (2001) has cogently
argued, both peoples contributed to and accepted an ‘extermination thesis’ whereby
Christian Georgian society would be wiped out in the absence of full-scale Russian
In 1783 the Bagratid king of eastern Georgia, Erekle II (r. 1762–98), and the Russian
Empress Catherine the Great (r. 1762–96) agreed to make Georgia a ‘protectorate’ of
the empire. Among other things, the Treaty of Georgievisk guaranteed the sovereignty
of the Georgian monarchy and Church. After the devastating Iranian attack upon
eastern Georgia and especially T‘bilisi by Agha Muhammad Khan in 1795 the Geor-
gians were unable to mount serious opposition to further Russian encroachments, and
in 1801 the empire annexed eastern Georgia, in part using the ‘extermination thesis’
to justify its unilateral action. The remaining Georgian lands were gathered under
Russian hegemony over the course of the eighteenth century.
The implications of Russian rule for the Georgian Church were numerous. The
‘patriarchate’ of Ap‘xazet‘i had already disappeared in 1795; with the establishment
of their direct control over the eastern regions of K‘art‘li and Kaxet‘i, Russia sought to
curb Georgian institutions that might challenge their authority. The Georgian Church
was specially targeted and its patriarchate was abolished in 1811, when Antoni II, son
of King Erekle II, was forced into exile. Disenfranchised remnants of the church hierar-
chy were absorbed into the Russian Holy Synod. The first exarch, Metropolitan Varlaam,
belonged to the Georgian nobility. But once Varlaam’s tenure ended in spring 1817,
his successors, starting with Feofilakt Rusanov, were ethnic Russians whose knowledge
of Georgia and its culture was extremely limited.
Georgian Christianity was now subjected to the Russification sweeping across the
empire. The Russian liturgy replaced the Georgian. Episcopal sees in Georgia were
reorganized so as to tighten the exarch’s control. Frescoes in churches were systemati-
cally whitewashed. Over the next century, church buildings were poorly maintained
and by the 1860s and 1870s corruption within the exarchate was rampant. But
although under attack, Georgian ecclesiastical culture was by no means forced into
extinction. For example, some religious books were published in the Georgian lan-
guage. In 1882 Mixail Sabinin’s Sak‘art‘ūēlos samot‘xe (The Paradise of Georgia), a
collection of hagiographical texts celebrating the holy men and women of Georgian
Christianity, was published in St Petersburg (a Russian translation also appeared). And
especially from second half of the nineteenth century, Georgian academics such as
Ivane Javaxishvili (Dzhavakhishvili, Dzhavakhov) embarked on the scholarly study of
Georgian Christianity; their works were published in Russian and Georgian.
In May 1905 Georgian priests and bishops convened in T‘bilisi (Russian Tiflis) to
discuss the critical situation and to issue a call for the restoration of autocephaly. The
Russians could not tolerate this bold defiance and dispatched troops to break up the
meeting. Meanwhile, charges of corruption grew louder with stories of the exarchate
selling icons and other ecclesiastical treasures while at the same time the physical
condition of church buildings worsened. Some twenty episcopal sees were unoccupied
and well over 700 parishes were without pastors. Few Georgians attended services. In
spring of 1908 the Russian exarch Nikon, who was widely regarded as a Georgian
sympathizer, was assassinated. These events attracted the attention of Christians
abroad, including the papacy. In 1910 the Georgian Catholic priest Michel Tamarati
(T‘amarashvili) published in Rome his L’Église géorgienne des origines jusqu’a nos jours.
Though it is now outdated, this book remains the most comprehensive history of
Christianity in Georgia. But it also had a decidedly political purpose. Tamarati not
only painted Catholicism in Georgia in the best possible light, but he also criticized the
illegal abrogation of the centuries-old autocephaly of the Georgian Church and the
heavy-handed policies of the Russian Empire. Indeed, Georgian Christianity had become
central to the Georgian national struggle against Russian rule.
The question of Georgian autocephaly resurfaced during the revolutions of 1917.
After the March uprising, a group of Georgian clerics and bishops forced their way into
the offices of the exarchate and installed Georgians to replace the exarch and his staff.
All-Georgian ecclesiastical councils were held in T‘bilisi in September 1917 and at the
Gelat‘i monastery near K‘ut‘aisi in western Georgia in 1921. The 1917 council elected
Kwrion II (Kyrion) as the catholicos-patriarch of the all-Georgian Church, and with
this act full autocephaly was reclaimed. The name of the new chief prelate was an
auspicious one, for it should be recalled that the first Kwrion had presided over the
K‘art‘velian Church during its estrangement from the Armenian Church at the start of
the seventh century. Needless to say, the Russian Holy Synod vehemently opposed
these actions and deemed them illicit. Until the Second World War, dialogue between
the two Churches virtually disappeared.
Out of the revolutions of 1917 was born the Georgian Democratic Republic. When
it was established in May 1918 its Menshevik leaders tended to see no formal place for
religion in the state government. Their attitudes towards religion, and the Georgian
Church in particular, ranged from indifferent to hostile. However, the local church was
now free from the suppression it had experienced under Russian rule. Freedom of reli-
gion was guaranteed by the new constitution, but here the Georgian Church was not
specially singled out. At the same time, many political figures advocated a legal separa-
tion of Church and state; the debate over this issue continued until 22 February 1921,
when such a clause was introduced into the constitution. Chapter 1, article 31 guar-
anteed the ‘full liberty of conscience’ for each citizen: ‘Everyone has the right to profess
his/her own religion, to change the same, or not to have any religious belief.’ However,
the promulgation of this Act was mostly symbolic for it occurred as Soviet troops were
advancing on eastern Georgia. Later that month, independent Georgia fell to the
Bolsheviks and Soviet rule was extended over the Georgian lands.

Although the government of the USSR did not dismantle the Georgian Church or
rescind its autocephaly, Soviet policies and laws greatly restricted its activities; it was
as if chapter 1.31 of the pre-Soviet constitution had been maintained, but with empha-
sis upon the right of citizens to be atheists. The Catholicos-Patriarch Ambrosi, an out-
spoken critic of Soviet power, was arrested in winter 1923. He remained imprisoned
until shortly before his death in spring 1927. Throughout the 1930s the Georgian
Church suffered the state-sponsored persecution of religion. Soviet attitudes towards
religious groups were altered with the outbreak of the Second World War. The need to
unite in the face of the Nazi threat led Stalin, the ethnically-Georgian leader of the USSR
and a former student of the T‘bilisi Theological Academy, officially to recognize major
religious organizations including the Georgian Church. One of the implications of this
policy was the rapprochement of the Georgian and Russian Churches. In October 1943
the Russian Church formally recognized the autocephaly of its Georgian counterpart,
twenty-six years after the Georgians had reclaimed this status. However, the lifting of
certain restrictions did not lead to a significant revival of Christianity in Georgia.
After the war restrictions on religious organizations re-emerged. It was in this
renewed anti-religious atmosphere, in 1962, that the Georgian Church applied for
admission to the World Council of Churches (WCC), an ecumenical organization
representing over three hundred churches including Anglicans, Protestants and
Orthodox (but not Roman Catholics). Christians around the world were made aware
of the dilapidated state of the Georgian Church. Georgian scholars continued to publish
works about Georgian Christianity, although such publications tended to appear in
small print runs and their circulation was limited to academic circles. To this period
belong the initial volumes of Ilia Abuladze’s splendid Dzveli k‘art‘uli agiograp‘iuli litera-
turis dzeglebi (Monuments of Ancient Georgian Hagiographical Literature), a series
featuring critical editions of medieval Georgian vitae.
Corruption infected the ruling elite of the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic in the
early 1970s. The Church was not immune to this wave of corruption, a situation remi-
niscent of the exarchate in the late nineteenth century. Church officials were rumoured
to have sold ecclesiastical treasures and the deteriorating condition of church buildings
was publicized in underground samizdat pamphlets. Among the most active samizdat
writers was Zviad Gamsaxurdia (Gamsakhurdia), who campaigned against corruption
in the Georgian Church and drew attention to continued attempts by the Soviets to
Russify it. As never before, the Georgian Orthodox Church became a potent symbol in
the resistance of the Georgians to the USSR. Along with the Georgian language, the
Church was a constant reminder of Georgia’s distinctiveness but also the wrongs that
had been inflicted by Moscow.

The Late 1970s and After

Upon his enthronement as catholicos-patriarch of all-Georgia in late 1977, Ilia II
embarked on a programme to rejuvenate the Georgian Church. Vacant ecclesiastical
positions were filled, church buildings were refurbished, and some new ones
constructed. Serving as a president of the WCC from 1979 to 1983, he drew global
attention once again to Georgian Christianity and strengthened his Church’s commit-
ment to the ecumenical movement. Ilia also engaged the national movement, espe-
cially in the years of Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms. In early April 1989 Georgians
protested in the streets against what they perceived as threats by the Ap‘xazians (Abk-
hazians) of western Georgia. It was the catholicos-patriarch who addressed the crowd,
rallying the protesters while urging calm. The brutal suppression of the demonstrators
by Soviet troops on 9 April and its aftermath helped propel Zviad Gamsaxurdia to
power. Gamsaxurdia’s Round Table–Free Georgia Bloc enjoyed enormous support in
the October 1990 elections, and independence was declared from the Soviet Union on
9 April 1991, the second anniversary of the 9 April massacre. The following month
Gamsaxurdia was elected president of the Republic of Georgia.
Though Gamsaxurdia held the reins of power only until January 1992, the conse-
quences of his regime for the Georgian Church continued to resonate. Unlike the
Menshevik-dominated Republic of Georgia earlier in the century, Gamsaxurdia’s
Georgia aligned itself closely with the Georgian Orthodox Church. The Church was
crucial to Gamsaxurdia’s vision of Georgian unity. He made prominent public appear-
ances with Patriarch Ilia, and the state government specially endorsed the proselytizing
efforts of the Georgian Church. In addition, the mantra ‘Georgia for Georgians’ was
often heard. Gamsaxurdia reasoned that a strong Georgia depended first and foremost
upon ethnic unity among the Georgian majority; the non-Georgian populations of the
republic were termed ‘guests’ and, in Gamsaxurdia’s mind, should not expect equal
rights with the majority.
Gamsaxurdia made innumerable enemies. In late December 1991 a coup was
launched against the president and he was forced to flee the capital in January. Ironi-
cally, Gamsaxurdia eventually ended up in the care of the Chechen leader Dzhokhar
Dudaev, who championed an independent Chechnya. Back in Georgia, the junta invited
back the former Soviet ruler of Georgia, Eduard Shevardnadze. Although the Georgian
Church remained a favoured institution in Shevardnadze’s Georgia, the large-scale
official assault against ethnic minorities was for the most part rescinded. The exact legal
relationship of the Church and state was still being debated in parliament in fall 2002.
It remains uncertain how the Rose Revolution and the inauguration of the reform-
minded Mixail Saakashvili in early 2004 will affect this situation. However, Saakashvili
and his allies have maintained good relations with the patriarchate. Indeed, just prior
to his official inauguration as president, Saakashvili took an oath administered by
Patriarch Ilia II over the tomb of King Davit‘ II Aghmashenebeli at the monastic complex
of Gelat‘i near K‘ut‘aisi.
At the outset of the twenty-first century, the Georgian Church is again at a cross-
roads. Suppressed by the Russians and Soviets and treated with indifference by the
government of the first Republic of Georgia, it was briefly given special legal status
under Gamsaxurdia and its leaders are now struggling to carve out a privileged place
in post-Soviet Georgian society. With the flood of new freedoms has come a resurgence
of religious practice in Georgia. But a substantial number of Georgians have turned
their backs on the Georgian Orthodox Church and have joined various Protestant sects
in particular. Not since the eras of Nino and Vaxtang Gorgasali has Christianity in
Georgia been so multifarious. Missionaries from western Europe and North America
have entered the country in large numbers, and Georgian Church authorities have
responded to the challenge in various ways. Some have called for a special legal status
for their organization, and some have even advocated the legal banning of ‘foreign’
religions in Georgia (ironically, as medieval Georgian sources themselves acknowledge,
Christianity itself began its existence in Georgia as an imported religion). These issues
lay at the heart of the 1997 crisis. In April of that year, monks from several prominent
Georgian monasteries published an open letter to Ilia II criticizing the ecumenical
movement as ‘heresy’. In particular, they attacked ‘western Protestantism’ and the
ecumenical movement’s endorsement of women in clerical activities, its indifference to
and even support of homosexuality, and its emphasis upon the ‘inclusive’ language of
the Bible. Archimandrite Giorgi of the Shio-Mghvime monastery and his companions
insisted there could be only one church and that any compromise was tantamount to
heresy. Much of this anti-ecumenical attitude was the result of Protestant missionary
activities in post-Soviet Georgia.
The debate broke into the open, opposition rapidly mounted, and the Georgian
Church stood on the verge of internal schism. Ilia reminded dissenters of the virtues
and benefits of ecumenism, but to no avail. Just a short time later, on 20 May 1997,
Ilia summoned ecclesiastical leaders and the decision was reached that the Georgian
Church would immediately withdraw from the World Council of Churches and also the
Council of European Churches. The patriarch was in the awkward position of having
been a WCC president. It is instructive that in his communication of 20 May, Ilia did
not characterize the ecumenical movement as heretical; clearly, he was compelled to
this act as last resort in order to avoid full-blown schism within the Georgian Church.
Anti-ecumenical sentiment remains strong in some quarters. Most dramatically, the
former Orthodox priest Basil Mkalavishvili has been charged with orchestrating attacks
upon non-Orthodox religious groups active in Georgia. Mobs armed with clubs and
carrying crosses, icons, and banners have frequently interrupted meetings of non-
Orthodox groups including Pentecostalists and Baptists. By fall 2002, there had been
nearly a hundred registered acts of violence against Jehovah’s Witnesses, one of the
prime targets of ‘Father Basil’ and his thugs. Despite protests from governments in
Europe and the United States, Georgian authorities have been slow to crack down on
this campaign of violence and intimidation and others like it. Mkalavishvili’s is an
extreme and unfortunate solution to a very real problem facing the contemporary
Georgian Orthodox Church: the proper place of religion, and especially Georgian
Orthodoxy, in a newly independent, post-Soviet, democracy.

References and further reading

Abuladze, I. (1944) K‘art‘uli da somxuri literaturuli urt‘iert‘oba IX-X ss-shi: gamokvleva da tek‘stebi
(Georgian–Armenian Literary Relations, 9th–10th Centuries: Study and Texts). T‘bilisi:
Alek‘sidze, Z. (1968) Epistlet‘a cigni (The Book of Letters). T‘bilisi: Mec‘niereba.
Blake, R. P. (1924) Georgian theological literature. Journal of Theological Studies (October): 50–64.
Church, K. (2001) From dynastic principality to imperial district: the incorporation of Guria into
the Russian Empire to 1856. PhD dissertation, University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.
Djobadze, W. (1976) Materials for the Study of Georgian Monasteries in the Western Environs of
Antioch on the Orontes. Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium 327, subsidia 48.
Louvain: CSCO/Peeters.
—— (1992) Early Medieval Georgian Monasteries in Historic Tao, Klarjet‘i, and Shavshet‘i. Stuttgart:
Franz Steiner Verlag.
van Esbroeck, M. (1975) Les plus anciens homéliaires géorgiens: étude descriptive et historique.
Publications de l’Institut orientaliste de Louvain 10. Louvain: Catholic University of Louvain,
Institut Orientaliste.
—— (1982) Église géorgienne des origines au moyen age. Bedi Kartlisa 40: 186–99.
Gabashvili, T. (2001) Pilgrimage to Mount Athos, Constantinople, and Jerusalem 1755–1759, trans. and
with commentary by M. Ebanoidze and J. Wilkinson. Richmond, UK: Curzon/Caucasus World.
Garsoïan, N. G. (1996) Iran and Caucasia. In R. G. Suny (ed.) Transcaucasia, Nationalism, and
Social Change: Essays in the History of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, rev. edn. Ann Arbor:
University of Michigan Press.
—— (1999) L’Église arménienne et le grand schisme d’orient. Corpus Scriptorum Christanorum
Orientalium 574, subsidia 100. Louvain: Peeters.
Garsoïan, N. G. and Martin-Hisard, B. (1996) Unité et diversité de la Caucasie médiévale (IVe–XIe
s.). In Il Caucaso: Cerniera fra Culture dal Mediterraneo alla Persia. Settimane di Studio del Centro
Italiano di Studi Sull’alto Medioevo 43a. Spoleto: Presso la Sede del Centro.
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