True story: The Georgians were the second people to convert as a nation to Christianity. The Armenians narrowly beat them out for first place, but Georgians figured it out before the Romans or any of their Mediterranean neighbors, in 337 (and joined by the Ethopians shortly thereafter).
However, the story of Georgia’s conversion to Christianity begins with the life of Christ himself. The earliest sources about Georgia in the Christian age (The Georgian Chronicle, or the Life of Kartli) attest to Jews living in Mtskheta, the capital of what was then the kingdom of Western Georgia. In 0 A.D. the Georgian Jews had quite a scare when they heard that Jerusalem was under siege by kings from Iran. However, two years later, they found out the news had been a false alarm: the foreign kings who had left for Judea were not in fact invaders, but the Magi, bringing gifts to a Jewish child born of a virgin. Thirty years later, another messenger told this same Jewish community that this child of whom they had heard was in fact the “son of God” and that those who were “wise and faithful” should come to Jerusalem to see him. So two men from Mtskheta decided to embark on the arduous journey and arrived in Jerusalem on what is now known as Good Friday. Recognizing the crucified convict as the prophesied Messiah, they procured his robes (the ones for which the soldiers cast lots, if you know your NT) and brought them back to the town of Mtskheta in Georgia. [Interestingly, a few decades later, when the temple in Jerusalem was captured by the Romans, the Chronicle tells of a diaspora community of Jews settling in Mtskheta, including, according to legend, offspring of the infamous Barabbas. This is that last we hear about Christianity in Georgia until over two hundred years pass.]
According to historical records and the Chronicle, Georgia’s conversion to Christianity—spurred on by the conversion of King Mirian III in 334—took place in 337. While it may have been Mirian who officially decreed Christianity the state religion, the conversion of Georgia is attributed to Nino, a Cappodocian missionary woman who arrived in Kartli (part of modern Georgia) in 303.
Nino may have come from a prominent Christian family (some lineages link her to the Patriach of Jerusalem), or she may have been a much poorer orphan from some outpost of the Roman Empire (accounts different). In all accounts, she exhibited great piety from childhood and at an early age moved to Rome to live in a community of celibate women. While in Rome, some of these women decided to travel to Armenia to evangelize, having heard that Iberia (the greater area of ancient Armenia and Georgia) was the home to the tunic of Christ. Immediately after plans were made for the trip, Nino experienced a vision from the Virgin Mary, imploring her to travel to the Caucasus. (This motif of the Virgin and Nino as co-intercessors for Georgia has endured into the present day.)
However, upon arriving in Armenia, all but one of the thirty seven women were massacred by an Armenian king, who was enraged at not being able to take one of the virgins as his wife. During the massacre, Nino hid behind a barren shrub, and watched as the souls of her sisters rose into heaven. She asked God why she was being spared, and was answered that she would not be united with her fallen companions until she had cultivated the “great harvest” that awaited her in unchristianized lands. While she conversed with the Divine, the shrub she hid under burst into bloom, and Nino set out to find the Georgians.
Sources place Nino’s arrival in Georgia in 320, but it wasn’t for another seven years that Christianity would take root in the eastern Georgian kingdom. Once Nino had officially crossed out of the treacherous lands of Armenia and into Georgia, she sought out the Jewish community of whom she had heard. The Life of St. Nino relates that she was able to learn about the Georgian people and culture through the Jews, because she could speak Hebrew, but could not yet speak Georgian. It was through them that she witnessed the pagan festivals sponsored by the king, and it was with them that she sided when in her public rejection of the polytheism and sacrificial practices of the natives. While Nino would quickly begin manifesting miraculous powers (her prayers brought on storms, destroyed idols, she could raise huge wooden beams without touching them), she was primarily recognized for her healing powers. Most significantly, after repeatedly refusing to hold court with any royalty, she gave in and healed the Queen of Iberia, Nana, of a variety of ailments. Nana was astounded and impressed by Nino (they love reduplication) and converted to Christianity.
While Nino was rather quickly embraced by Nana, the king, Mirian, rejected Christianity and even persecuted the growing (but largely culturally isolated) community of Christians in his territory. Just for the sake of full historical disclosure, some say that King Mirian himself was not actually an ethnic Georgian (or Iberian), but an Iranian prince, who married into the Georgian elite in part of the Iranian struggle against the Roman empire (at this time Georgia was doing a very delicate balancing act between advancing kingdoms from the east and west).
Mirian’s conversion is reminiscent of the Pauline conversion: he went out hunting and was struck blind, and found himself suddenly alone and abandoned in the forest. In some accounts, he is not blind, but the sun itself is covered and the forest is pitch black. In a panic, Mirian prayed to all of his pagan kings, but to no avail. Finally, he prayed to “Nino’s God” of whom he had heard, and his sight was restored. After holding council with Nino and getting her advice on how proceed, Mirian sent a delegation to Constantine for permission to establish a church in Georgia.
But where to build the first church of the kingdom? Here we return to the tunic that came as the first relic to Georgia…
Well, when the two travelers to Jerusalem returned to Georgia with the robes of Jesus, the sister of one of the travelers, Sidonia, came out and grabbed the robe. She was so overwhelmed by the sacredness of the piece, that she died clutching it, and no one could wrest it from her arms. And so, Sidonia was buried in Mtskheta with the robes pressed against her. Above her grave grew an enormous cedar tree. When Nino learned this, she decided they should fell this tree to use as the pillars of the first Georgian church. However, after the tree was felled and six of the seven pillars hewn were stood upright for the foundation, no one could move the seventh pillar of wood. It is said that Nino herself placed the pillar in the foundation, simply through prayer. Hence, the name for this church is Svetitskhoveli, which means “Life-giving Pillar” (miraculous healing is also attributed to those who touch the pillar).
And it is in this church, dear readers, that I found myself just a few days ago. It’s an incredible building, enormous even by modern standards, but really quite impressive when you consider that it was built in the 11th century (the 4th century church built by Nino was expanded on). I went there on a Sunday, and the place was teeming with young brides, decked out in classy white gowns, and their grooms were rocking the traditional Georgian costume of yore (though some, as you’ll see, did opt for the more contemporary option of suit and tie).
While Mtskheta is no longer the capital of Georgia (Tbilisi was deemed a more militarily advantageous location), its very much the capital of Georgian religion and remains the headquarters of the Georgian Orthodox Church. The churches are thus a collage of the past 1500 hundred years, with early medieval exteriors, and incredible interiors that reflect more than a few periods of artistic flourishing and centuries of disrepair. The churches are all stone, with with a few surviving icons painted on the walls (most of the frescos are more recent, from the 18th-19th century) and then newer (post-Soviet) icons on wood hung on the walls.
Here is a really beautiful example of the fresco painting you’ll find inside:
The church is also quite enormous, so there’s lots of room to just wander around and see beautiful things. There were at least a couple hundred plus people in Svetitskhoveli while I was there–three or four wedding parties (some couples pacing in the wings for their big moment), families come to light candles, opportunists looking for tourists to give tours too, beggars, children, old people, you name it. Except not actually that many tourists, as I heard almost entirely only Georgian around me (let me rephrase, no international tourists).
What I was very surprised by is how diverse the age/gender presence is in churches. Okay, I’ve only been to a few services, but Georgia doesn’t not seem to be your grandmothers’ Catholicos. There are almost as many men as women, there are older men, younger men, there are trendy 20-something women, there are many, many babies (the Patriarch of Georgia is, like all Patriarchs, I think, very in favor of going forth and multiplying). Hence, there were weddings, baptisms, blessings and regular old services happening while I was there. There’s almost a sense of controlled chaos inside this church, as it seems like half a dozen sacraments are happening at once while a choreographed crowd of visitors weave between candle stands and icons amidst the singing and preaching and blessing.
Mtskheta actually has a couple of significant sights for the visitor interested in Orthodoxy, history, architecture or just plain sight seeing. In addition to Svetitskhoveli Church, there is another smaller church called Samtavro and the Jvari Monastery, located on a hill above the city, which is also a major holy site for Georgians and provides a pretty stunning vista. Moreover, you can get to Mtskheta fairly easily from Tbilisi–just go to the Didube metro stop, a major hub for marshrutkas, the preferred form of public transport (basically minibuses with cheap fares and local routes), and wander around clueless until you see a minibus with “Mtskheta” handwritten on a poster in the window.
I found the bus after wandering through the bazaar surrounding the subway, but the bus was just pulling out and I hopped in at the last minute. The driver said something to me and I had no idea what it was, so I confusedly told the driver that I spoke Georgian poorly and wanted to go to Mtsketa. After pondering the onslaught of sound he’d unleashed on me, I realized that what he’d said was that there were no more seats in the bus, and that I would have to stand. Of course, by now the marshrutka was already rumbling onto the road. So stand I did. I awkwardly balanced in the aisle for a twenty five minute ride (wimpy pilgrim style!), until the driver stopped the bus to address me.
“chtkhtchgrightzkhtqv Mtskheta chtkhtchgrightzkhtqv go chtkhtchgrightzkhtqv yes?”
“Um, I don’t understand. I want Nino’s church. Me, will go, no, went, no, be going, Nino’s church. Yes, I want Nino’s church!”
“Are you going to the Jvari Monastery?”
“Yes! I will going Jvari. You go? I be on bus?” (I can never remember the word for stay/remain)
“No, of course I don’t go to the monastery. chtkhtchgrightzkhtqv.”
And in Russian we resolved that I should get out of the bus (at this point everyone was staring) and just walk to the churches. I had done remarkably little research before hitting up Mtskheta, so I wasn’t sure where everything was. I saw a church though, and headed towards it. As I was walking through the parking lot to the church grounds, a car stopped and a couple got out. Then the guy reopened his door and grabbed a pack of cigarettes from the dashboard. His lady companion lit into him–”Cigarettes?! Cigarettes? For what do you need cigarettes on the grounds of a monastery? Tell me! Tell me! What are you going to do with those cigarettes? This is a church! This is a monastery!” And so I ascertained that I must be at Samtavro, a women’s monastary, and not Svetitskhoveli…
Samtavro is a large, beautiful church with a women’s monastery attached, which nevertheless seems a bit quaint when compared with the proportions of Svetitskhoveli around the corner.
St. Nino prayed on this site, so it’s also a popular pilgrimage destination, although I didn’t spot any wedding folks here and there were very few people inside the church itself. There’s surely some traditional route for the wedding processions and I don’t know if little Samtavro made it. Those who were visiting were generally most toned down too (no formal wear or photography) and seemed there to pray and light a candle in the tiny chapel where Nino once was.
In fact, there was a cemetery on the grounds, and I witnessed something I hadn’t seen before: there was the grave of a holy man, and people crowded around it to press their hands into the soil. They took off their crosses and immersed them in the soil and people crowded around, waiting for a chance to dig their hands into the dirt that encased the body of a holy man. When in Rome…I also placed my hands in and had a moment of silence, although I wasn’t quite sure what the protocol was, and felt slightly uncomfortable shoving my way towards a burial plot. It also takes me much longer to decipher signs written in Georgian, especially when handwritten, so I couldn’t quite read anything that might have informed the moment. But whatever, being awkward but present is basically what I’ve signed up for.
After wandering out of Samtavro, I went up to Jvari Monastery, which is a beautiful ancient building atop the hill outside Mtskheta and affords excellent views of the valley below and the scenic convergence of two rivers Aragvi and Mtkvari. Jvari was chosen by St. Nino as the sight for the church as there had been a pagan temple there, but in its place Nino planted a cross (the first cross in Georgia is said to have been woven out of vines by her hands). The church itself is quite famous for its architectural design, it has what they call a tentraconch, and it became a model for the distinct style of Georgian churches even in the present day.
At Jvari, many more wedding couples were gathered, and a number of Russian (-speaking) tourists as well. As you may have gathered above, I felt totally comfortably taking photos, what with the paparazzi style photography happening due to the weddings.
In fact, the chaotic feeling in the church made me feel incredible comfortable. There was a sense that each had come to do his own thing, some alone, some in groups, and that to just wander around, or sit for a bit, or photograph, or look at icons was fine. There were no scary babushkas regulating behavior, and even the monks seemed extra friendly (in my experience, monks normally are, but I don’t know enough to really make generalizations). I was given a strange-ish tract that linked the Georgians to the Israelites, but as I haven’t yet gotten around to reading it all the way through, I’ll save that introduction for another time…
On a practical travel note, the whole trip, from my front door and back again, took only about 4-4.5 hours, so I would highly recommend you check if out if you ever find yourself fortunate enough to be in Tbilisi. Its an experience of Georgian culture and piety that you can savor without speaking of lick of the crazy language. Chilly stone chapels, frescos, newlyweds shuffling about with monks, teenagers and dogs chilling under cypress trees overlooking ancient citadels. Yes, well worth an afternoon.
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Dorky Addendum to those interested:
While the Life of Kartli is presumed to have been written in the eighth century in Georgian, the earliest extant manuscripts are all Armenian translations. In general, the lack of surviving historical documentation about Georgia in Georgian leads to very patchy accounts of Georgian in the 4th-8th centuries.
Amidst the discussion of “Georgia’s” conversion, it is also important to note that the account related here is that of Eastern Georgia, and the Western Kingdom of Egresi was converted later (ca. 523). Moreover, despite linguistic and cultural similarities, these two kingdoms were not united politically until the eleventh century. Some karvelologists (is that what a scholar of Georgia is called?!) are confident that at no previous point in written history was there such unity between the East and the West, and that their autonomy from each other can be traced back to the “proto-Caucasian Bronze Age” The term “Sak’art’velo”–the name for the Republic of Georgia in Georgian–was coined as a term for the united state of these two kingdoms