Georgia, Church in Ancient

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Georgia (Georg. Sakartvelo, Russ. Gruziya ) is located south of the main ridge of the Caucasus, between the Caspian and Black seas. Located to the south of Russia, Georgia was part of the Soviet Union until 1991. Georgia's historical development is part of the rich history of the east Mediterranean world.


The Georgian nation emerged between the 7th and the 4th century b.c. as a result of the mingling of several older peoples of pre-Indo-European (Japhetite) linguistic affinities and is thus related to the ancient Urartians, proto-Hattians, and Hurrians (Mitannians). Historical Georgia stretched from the Caucasus Mountains in the north to Armenia in the south, and from the Black Sea eastward toward the Caspian Sea. On its soil numerous cultural and political influences met and overlapped: Mesopotamian, Anatolian, Aegean, Iranian, Greek, and Hellenistic. From the start the territory of the Georgians was divided into two units, East and West Georgia (Kartli and Egrisi). The earliest political formation took place in West Georgia in the 7th century b.c. as the kingdom of Colchis, whose connection with the myth of the Argonauts is an indication of early Caucasian-Greek contacts. This was followed, in the 4th century b.c., by the rise of the East Georgian kingdom of Iberia (Kartli).


In the 1st century b.c. Colchis was annexed to the kingdom of Pontus; this left Iberia as the point of historical continuity of the Georgian nation. In 65 and 64 b.c., as a result of the Mithridatic wars, both Iberia and Colchis became vassals of Rome and bulwarks of the Pax Romana against Iran. But in the 3rd century a.d. the Iberian throne passed to the Chosroids, a dynasty of Iranian origin. This Iranian political success was thwarted by the acceptance of Christianity, almost simultaneously with the Roman Empire's acceptance of it, on the part of the first Chosroid king of Iberia, Mirian III. It brought Iberia into a religious as well as political conformity with the Roman Empire, and sowed discord between it and Mazdaist Iran.


Georgian paganism was an amalgam of local astral and ancestor cults, worship of the forces of nature, imported Hellenistic syncretism, and Mazdaism introduced from Iran. Christian influences also found their way to Georgia, preceding official conversion. This was especially the case of West Georgia, a Roman province after a.d. 63, with Greek coastal cities and widely developed economic contacts with the Mediterranean world. It is, however, the conversion of East Georgia (Iberia) that is better known as the result of the apostolate of a Roman captive woman, St. Nino, Christiana of the Roman Martyrology (d. 338). Freed from the superimpositions of Georgian and Armenian legends, her story goes back to a version by rufinus of aquileia, who derived it near the end of the 4th century from the Iberian prince Bacurius. It is corroborated by the seemingly independent Iberian version as well as by archeological data.

Arriving in Iberia in 324 and beginning her preaching in 328, St. Nino converted first the Queen of Iberia (333) and then King Mirian himself (334). The King then asked Emperor Constantine I for clergy to organize the Church in his country, and in 337, with the baptism of the King, his family, the princes of the realm, and many of the people, Iberia became officially Christian. Though its first bishop, whose see was at the capital city of Mtskheta, received his consecration from Constantinople, the Iberian Church was under the jurisdiction of Antioch. In addition to Greek influences, the youthful Iberian Church came under the influence of Palestinian, Armenian, and Syro-Iranian Christianity.

The earliest Biblical texts, traceable to the 5th century, show a dependence on Armenian and Syriac versions; and the earliest liturgical monuments show the prevalence in Iberia of the Hierosolymitan liturgy of St. James, first in Greek, and after the end of the 6th century, in Georgian. In spite of the resistance of local paganism and especially of Mazdaism sponsored by Iran, Christianization progressed steadily, and by the beginning of the 6th century there were some 30 bishops in Iberia.

The evangelization of West Georgia was less the work of historical personages than part of the general Christianizing of the Roman Empire. Among the fathers of Nicaea I (325) there was a bishop from West Georgia, Stratophilus of Pityus (modern Pitsunda); another, the bishop of Trebizond, considered Georgian by some historians, belonged to Pontus and not to Colchis, and it was only after the 10th century that his diocese came to be called Lazica by the Byzantines, after the neighboring Georgian land of Lazica (Chaneti). By the 5th century the whole of West Georgia had become Christian, except the land of Abkhazia in the north and that of Lazica in the south, which were evangelized in the 6th century. In the 7th century West Georgia was divided into two ecclesiastical units, the Metropoly of Phasis (Poti), with four suffragan sees, and the Archdiocese of Sebastopolis (Dioscurias, modern Sukhum), both under the jurisdiction of Constantinople. Here, the liturgy was that of Constantinople, in Greek at first, but from the 8th and 9th centuries in Georgian.


The history of Georgia hinged largely on its position as a buffer between two hostile empires, Roman and Iranian, each trying to control it. With West Georgia firmly in Roman hands, this was particularly the case of Iberia, which, though an autonomous kingdom, passed from the one imperial suzerainty to the other. The Iberian monarchy, in its endeavor to assert its authority over its great vassals, gravitated toward the centralized and autocratic Roman Empire; on the other hand, the local princes, though Christians, tended in their opposition to the crown to be pro-Iranian. King Vakhtang I Gorgasal (c. 466522), a strong monarch, concluded an alliance with Emperor zeno, ending Iranian suzerainty over Iberia, and accepted the pro-Monophysite henoticon (484). In return, Zeno recognized (between 486488) the head of the Iberian Church as an autocephalous catholicos, but still dependent on Antioch. Mtskheta, his see, was now superseded as political capital by Tiflis. And in 505 Iberia, together with Armenia and Caucasian Albania, officially adhered to the Henoticon at a council at Dvin in Armenia.

In the course of the 6th century, East and West Georgia returned to Catholicism in the wake of Byzantium's reconciliation with Rome in 519; Armenia and Albania, however, clung to the Henoticon. In 555, at another council at Dvin, Armenia openly accepted Monophysitism, whereas Albania was to waver between it and Catholicism. The political alliance with the empire ended with the death of Vakhtang I in 522, and his successors fell once more under the control of Iran, which in 580 abolished the Iberian monarchy.

The successful anti-Iranian war of Emperor maurice brought Iberia back to the Roman sphere of influence and in 588, the Emperor established the office of presiding prince to replace the Iberian kingship. Within a decade, a new change in the balance of power brought Iberia momentarily under Iranian suzerainty, causing a resurgence of Monophysitism. It was due to Catholicos Cyrion I that in the 600s Iberia returned to Catholicism, as it did to the imperial political allegiance, breaking with the stanchly Monophysite sister-church of Armenia.

Although Georgian monastic communities are known to have already existed in the Holy Land in the 5th century, monasticism began to flourish in Georgia only in the 6th century. The earliest monastic foundations are ascribed to the activity of the so-called 13 Syrian Fathers, who arrived there in the decade of 560570 and who were probably Monophysites. But the Monophysitic tinge soon vanished, and the Georgian monasteries became centers of missionary and cultural activity that greatly contributed to the growth of the Church in Georgia. A blossoming of monastic life was reached in the southwestern provinces of Iberia (Tao-Klarjeti) in the 8th and 9th centuries, owing particularly to the activity of St. Gregory of Khandzta (d. 861), as well as in the Georgian monastic communities on Mt. athos, Mt. sinai, and in the Holy Land. It was to monasticism that organized education, traceable to the 5th century, owed its growth after the 10th century.


From the mid-7th to the 9th century, Iberia, along with Armenia, was an autonomous vassal state of the Arab caliphate, and so became a buffer between the latter and Byzantium, as it had been between Rome and Iran. Tiflis was the seat of an Arab emir. In 813 the office of presiding prince became hereditary in the Bagratid dynasty, a branch of the Armenian princely house of the same name. Profiting by the temporary weakness of the Abbasid caliphate, Ashot I the Great (d. 830), first Bagratid prince of Iberia, accepted the suzerainty of the Byzantine Empire along with the title of Curopalate; and in 888 his descendant Adarnase IV assumed the title of king, restoring the monarchy.

The history of West Georgia was no less turbulent. In the mid-5th century Colchis was conquered by the Lazic princes from the south, and from a Roman province it became a vassal kingdom of Lazica, which lasted until the late 6th century and which served as a battleground for Justinian's Persian wars. From the 6th to the 8th century Lazica was again a province of the empire, but in the 790s it was conquered by the Princes of Abkhazia and became the kingdom of Abasgia (Apkhazeti), though still under imperial suzerainty. In 978 the crown of Abasgia was inherited by Bagrat III of Iberia (d. 1014), who in 1008 united Abasgia and Iberia into one kingdom of Georgia. Simultaneously the West Georgian Church was united with that of Iberia under the catholicos of Mtskheta. But Constantinople was compensated in influence for this loss in jurisdiction. The Byzantine liturgy of the West Georgian Church now passed to East Georgia replacing the ancient Hierosolymitan liturgy of Iberia.

Arab overlordship had considerably weakened Byzantine influence. This and the unification of the two Georgias contributed to the birth of national consciousness, which now expressed itself in the field of religion in the purely Georgian system of chronology with a new annus mundi, a purely Georgian order of ecclesiastical feasts, of the Lessons, and of the Divine Office, as well as in a distinct character of Georgia's Byzantine rite in general. Georgian church music, traceable back to the beginnings of Georgian Christianity, has a distinct flavor.


The period of more than two centuries following the unification of 1008 is considered the golden age of Georgia. The Bagratid sovereigns, among whom the most notable were David III (II) the Builder (10891125) and Queen Thamar (11841212), both recognized as saints by the Georgian Church, transformed the country into a powerful military state. The onslaught of the Seljuk Turks, who now spearheaded Islam and who, between 1060 and 1070, had nearly destroyed Georgia, was now repelled, and Tiflis was regained from the Muslims (1122).


Georgia became a pan-Caucasian empire, stretching from sea to sea, controlling non-Georgian states, and enjoying the zenith of culture and prosperity. Among its vassals it counted at different times the Greek empire of Trebizond and the Muslim kingdom of Shirvan on the Caspian. Georgia even launched a counteroffensive against the Seljuk empire, a Georgian crusade, which by diverting to the north a part of Seljuk power contributed to the First Crusade. This success was grounded in the predominance achieved by the crown over the highly feudalized nobility and to the use of mercenary troops to supplement the feudal levies. Georgia's industries and commerce profited by the unification under one sovereignty of all the important Transcaucasian commercial and industrial centers and by its participation in two great economic systems, the Saracen (trans Caspian) and the Byzantine (Black Sea region). In the golden age, Georgian literature reached its apogee and the arts flourished. Georgian architecture, chiefly ecclesiastical, was marked at this period by the blending of the two hitherto distinct types, the centralized domed edifice and the basilica, into the new cruciform domed type.

A happy balance was reached between the absolutist tendencies of the crown and the feudal society of Georgia. The emergence of the Council of the State, an embryonic parliament, was a manifestation of this balance. In this great epoch the Church played a leading role. Although national success obliterated vestiges of Byzantine suzerainty, Byzantine influence was again on the increase in the domain of religion and culture, with the Georgian monasteries as centers of diffusion. The imposition of the Byzantine liturgy on East Georgia was one aspect; in the literary output of the time, likewise, translations from the Greek tended to outnumber original productions. The monasteries organized centers of higher education. In them the study of philosophy was accompanied by the Byzantine tension between anti-intellectual clericalism, admitting only mystical experience, and philosophy, especially Neoplatonist and verging on laicism. There was a struggle among the philosophers themselves, as the Georgian academies became battlefields between the Neoplatonists (led by John Petritsi, d. c. 1125) and the Aristotelians (led by Arsenius of Iqalto, d. c. 1130). This submission to Byzantinism did not fail to evoke a nationalist reaction, even among the monks themselves, both at home and on Mt. Athos.

It was in the golden age that the Church-State relations began to be formulated. Ultimately the catholicos was regarded as the spiritual king of the country, theoretically the king's equal. But he was also a temporal prince, possessed of territory, noble vassals, subjects, and armed forces, and as such he was subordinate to the king. The bishops and abbots ranked with the princes of the realm and were endowed with feudal rights. The office of Grand Chancellor of Georgia, for example, belonged ex officio to the archbishop of Chqondidi in West Georgia. The power and wealth of the Church, its involvement in the feudal order, and its national character had many negative effects. Its high offices became the nobles' monopoly. In his struggle with the nobility David III (II) attempted also to break the monopoly. With this in view he convoked in 1103 the Council of Ruisi-Urbnisi. But he was not successful. Altogether, as in Byzantium, the Church in Georgia had become a mere venerable adjunct of the nation and of the state.

Two waves of barbarian invasions abruptly terminated the golden age. The first wave, that of Genghis Khan's Mongols and of the Khwarizmian Turkomans in the first half of the 13th century, devastated Georgia and enforced on Queen Rusudan (122345) the suzerainty of the Great Khan. The second wave was the series of campaigns of Tamerlane at the end of the 14th and the beginning of the 15th century. It completed the ruin of the kingdom. Under the weight of the earlier wave, Georgia had lost its unity; in 1258 it split into two kingdoms, Georgia (Iberia) and Abasgia (also called Imeretia). This split was momentarily healed by George VI (V) the Illustrious (131446).

After Tamerlane, decline set in definitively, in spite of the countermeasures of Alexander I (141242). His son and third successor, George VIII (144665), offered to take part in Pope pius ii's projected anti-Ottoman crusade (145860). But the impoverishment of the country through constant warfare and exactions of the conquerors, the general economic collapse, and the weakening of the crown furthered by the strife within the royal family, which broke out under George VIII, led to a new and final division of Georgia. It split into three kingdoms: Georgia proper (Iberia), Abasgia-Imeretia, and Kakhetia (eastern Iberia); as well as five independent principalities: Abkhazia, Guria, Meschia, Mingrelia, and Suania. This division became definitive in the years 149091. The Georgian Church actually anticipated this trend, since by 1390 West Georgia had withdrawn from the jurisdiction of the catholicos of Iberia and formed a rival catholicate of Abasgia with its seat at Pitsunda (ancient Pityus). Antioch sought to profit by this disunion to establish its authority over the new catholicate.


The relations of the Georgian Church and the Holy See, which after the former's lapse into Monophysitism were strengthened by the catholicos Cyrion I in the 600s, seem to have continued unchanged well into the golden age. The distance and the intermediary position of Byzantium must account for the paucity of evidence regarding them. We do know that St. Hilarion the Iberian in the 9th century journeyed to Rome to venerate the tombs of the Apostles and the popes, and appears to have been responsible for the translation into Georgianfrom the Latin, it seems, rather than the Greekof the liturgy of St. Peter. The few annalistic references to the popes assign to them a place above the Eastern patriarchs, as is the case also with the dating of some manuscripts, and almost invariably apply to them the adjective holy.

Anti-Byzantine reaction in the golden age may have in part prevented the Georgian Church, which had kept aloof from the iconoclastic and the Photian upheavals, from following Cerularius in 1054. Thus, in 1065 St. George the Hagiorite, Abbot of the Iberian monastery on Mt. Athos, asserted in the presence of Emperor Constantine X the ancient belief in the inerrancy of the Roman Church. However, the isolation, aggravated by the Byzantine schism and Seljuk conquests, the nationalization of Georgian Christianity, and the continued communion with the Byzantines, with whom the Georgians shared the same riteall this made Georgia, almost imperceptibly, drift into schism. Yet there was no formal break. In his letter of 1224, Pope honorius iii, replying to Queen Rusudan's announcement of her accession of 1223, invited her to participate in a crusade and granted to her and her people an apostolic indulgence. Gregory IX continued this correspondence, asking the Queen in 1233 for assistance to some Friars Minor. But when in 1240 the Queen appealed to the same Pope for help against the Mongols, she promised reunion with the Holy See; and in his reply, of that year, Gregory IX urged her to return to the union with the See of Peter. It was, accordingly, between 1224 and 1240 that the Holy See became apprised of the fact of separation.

The Friars Minor, who came to Georgia in the 13th century, were followed by the Dominicans; and their missionary effort was so successful that in 1328 Pope John XXII, who seven years previously had written to King George the Illustrious urging reunion, transferred the See of Smyrna to Tiflis and in 1329 named the Dominican John of Florence the first Latin-rite bishop of the capital. The See of Tiflis continued until the beginning of the 16th century. In 1330 an English Dominican, Peter Gerald, was named Catholic bishop of Sukhum (Sebastopolis-Dioscurias). All this hinged, obviously, on royal sanction.

There is much here that is unknown, but that may explain the curious fact that one of the titles officially accorded to the king of Georgia by the contemporary Mamluk Court of Egypt was "Supporter of the Pope." In spite of this and of the exchange of communications between the Holy See, the kings and the catholicoi that were to continue for centuries to come, no reunion was effected, and the two Georgian representatives at the Council of florence did not sign the Act of Union (1439).


The receding Mongol waves revealed what was still left standing of the cultural and political structure of Georgia. Slowly the work of restoration began. Politically, indeed, the situation had hardly improved. The internal division and consequent weakness continued; the Mongol pressure had been succeeded by two simultaneous pressures of Safavid Iran and the Ottoman Empire. It was, however, precisely the rivalry of the two empires, both claiming suzerainty over Georgia, a geopolitical inheritance of the struggle between Rome and Iran, that made possible, despite sporadic violence, the survival and renaissance of Georgia, its so-called silver age (c. 15001800). The violence took the shape of religious persecution; and although there were many apostasies, there were also numerous martyrdoms, such as that of the Dowager Queen Ketevan of Kakhetia, who suffered for her Christian faith at the hands of Shah Abbas I, at Shiraz on Sept. 22, 1624, and who has since been regarded as a saint by the Georgian Church.


In the silver age, under the enlightened guidance of the governing class, education was reorganized, new centers of learning were established, and literature was revived. Byzantium had long been dead and other influences now gave shape to this renaissance. In the face of the renewed Moslem danger Georgia sought a rapprochement with the West and with Russia. The post-Tridentine development of missionary activity sent numerous religious to Georgia: Augustinians, Carmelites, and especially Theatines, to whom the Georgian mission was entrusted in 1628 by Urban VIII. They were followed by the Capuchins, who remained active from 1661 to 1845, when the Russians, then masters of Georgia, expelled them.


Like the Byzantine elite at the end of the empire, a number of distinguished Georgians, including kings and catholicoi, were drawn to Catholicism. In 1629 the first Georgian printing press was set up at Rome. Thomism found its way to Georgia in the works of Antony Dadiani, Archbishop of Chqondidi. The greatest figures of this Catholic revival were also those of Georgian literature: Orbeliani and Catholicos Antony I. It should be mentioned that the silver age saw a considerable decline of the Georgian Orthodox Church, worldliness of the prelates, and ignorance and immorality of the clergy in general.


Georgian relations with Russia were at first exclusively political, motivated, on the Georgian side, by the need of protection against Islamand only as a last resort after the attempts to secure the aid of the West had failedand on the Russian side by the need of a springboard for the eventual expansion in the eastern Mediterranean. That both Russia and Georgia belonged to the Greek Orthodox communion was an additional factor; and Georgia changed somewhat, under the cultural influences of Russia, and, through Russia, of the enlightenment of the West.

Politically the Russian empire played an increasingly predominant role. Its growing expansionism coincided with Georgia's growing dependence on it in the face of resumed Iranian expansionism. In these circumstances on Aug. 3, 1783, King Heraclius II of Georgia (Georgia and Kakhetia had been united since 1762) concluded a treaty of protectorate with Empress catherine ii of Russia, which guaranteed the integrity of both the kingdom and its church. George XIII (XII), who succeeded him in 1798, was pressed by Emperor Paul I and showed a willingness to increase Georgia's dependence on Russia, but his death, on Jan. 9, 1801, before he could sign the projected new treaty, left it without legal force. Nevertheless, in that same year, Paul I proceeded to annex Georgia, weakened by the Iranian war of retaliation of 1795, in violation of the guarantees of 1783. His successor, Alexander I, ratified this act. In 1804 a protectorate was in turn imposed on Imeretia, which was annexed in 1810. The pattern of protectorate and annexation was applied to other Georgian states (Guria, 1829; Suania, 1858; Abkhazia, 1864). In 1867 the Prince of Mingrelia was allowed to abdicate in favor of Emperor Alexander II. Meschia, no longer a princedom, was acquired from the Turks in 1878.

In 1811 Russian annexationism affected the Georgian Church as well. The catholicate of Iberia was abolished, while that of Abasgia had been in abeyance from 1795. The last catholicos, Antony II, was deported to Russia and the Church became part of the Russian Church, to be ruled by the Holy Synod through an exarch. All the exarchs, save the first one, were Russians. The Georgian episcopal sees, which had numbered some 77 in the 17th century and some 30 on the eve of the annexation, were reduced to 5. The Church was impoverished through governmental confiscations of Church property (amounting to some 140,000,000 rubles) and the rapacity of the Russian-appointed hierarchs. Ecclesiastical art treasures were decimated through neglect and the rapacity of lay officialdom. The Georgian language was suppressed in seminaries, in schools, and even in the liturgy, and replaced by Russian or Palaeoslavic. The Church, no less than the country, was subjected to Russification, a trend that was resented by the people. The collapse of the Russian empire in 1917 brought about the restoration of Georgia's political independence, if only momentarily.

In 1917 the Georgian Orthodox Church declared its independence from the Russian Holy Synod and reestablished a catholicos-patriarch of All Georgia. In 1921, however, Georgia was reabsorbed into the new Soviet empire, though accorded the status of a Soviet socialist republic, while two West Georgian lands, Abkhazia and Achara, were given that of autonomous republics. The catholicate was allowed to continue.

After the Russian expulsion of the Capuchins in 1845 the Georgian Catholics were cared for by local Catholic clergy, later principally members to the Georgian Congregation of the Servants of the Immaculate Conception, founded at Constantinople in 1861. They were placed under the Catholic bishop of Tiraspol in Russia. At the outbreak of World War I there were some 40,000 Catholics of the Latin, as well as of the Armenian rite in Georgia (the Byzantine rite was always especially persecuted in the Russian Empire) out of the population that has since risen to over 4,000,000. After the war the Holy See appointed an administrator apostolic of Tiflis and Georgia.

Bibliography: w. e. d. allen, A History of the Georgian People (London 1932). m. tamarati, L'Eglise géorgienne: Des origines jusqu'à nos jours (Rome 1910). m. tarchniŠvili, Muséon 73 (1960) 107126, autocephalous church; "Sources arménogéorgiennes de l'histoire ancienne de l'Eglise de Géorgie," ibid. 60 (1947) 2950; Geschichte der kirchlichen georgischen Literatur (Rome 1955); Orientalia Christiana 39 (1955) 7992, church and state. c. toumanoff, Studies in Christian Caucasian History (Washington 1963); "Christian Caucasia between Byzantium and Iran," Traditio 10 (1954) 109189.

[c. toumanoff]

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