1700 Years of the Grapevine Cross: Christianity in Georgia

The miracle of Christianity in Georgia

The Georgian brand of Christianity is distinctive, and it is popular. The Georgian Orthodox Church (GOC) is one of fourteen autocephalous (independent) churches in the Eastern Orthodox family of churches, and occupies a prominent position in Eastern Orthodox hierarchy: second-most senior of the Junior Patriarchates, the second tier of Orthodox churches. Seniority comes partly from orthodoxy, and the GOC has the trappings you would expect: gold-heavy icons, a strong monastic tradition, lots of saints. Yet for all its similarity with its Orthodox cousins, the GOC has achieved an all-pervasive place in the life, culture, and politics of its home country that is – especially in this increasingly secular age – unique.

84% of Georgians are adherents of the GOC,[i] and with an approval rating of 95%, it is the country’s most trusted institution.[ii] Although Georgia is a small country compared to Orthodox heavyweights like the Russian Orthodox Church, the GOC’s figures are impressive: across Europe, only around 76% of people are Christian.[iii] In well-educated countries, religiosity declines with the level of education, yet 57% of Georgian Orthodox Christians have a university degree.[iv] There is something special about the GOC that gives it such a pull.

Age is a factor. The GOC certainly has sticking power. It is one of the oldest extant churches in the world, tracing its roots back to 337AD, when Christianity was first made the state religion of the kingdom of Iberia, a forerunner of modern Georgia. However, it is also due to the relationship the church has forged with political leaders, and the way the church has co-opted folk heroes to its cause over the centuries: there is such a strong link between the Georgian Orthodox brand of Christianity and Georgian national feeling that to be Georgian is to be a Georgian Orthodox Christian. This is even more apparent today as the post-Soviet return of Georgia as an independent country has relied heavily on the resurgence of the GOC in Georgian public life.

The origin story: St Nino and the grapevine cross

Iberia was Christianised by St Nino. The daughter of a Roman general from Cappadocia in modern Turkey, Nino travelled to the Caucasus in the 330s and preached itinerantly. Georgia is famous for wine today, and it was then: Nino used the ubiquitous grapevines to form a cross. Flexible, unlike other woods, the vines bent and the horizontal bar of the cross drooped down on either side. The drooping grapevine cross has become a symbol of the GOC that is still in use today.

Nino arrived in the Iberian capital Mtskheta and stopped: she knew the location at the confluence of the Mtkvari and Aragvi rivers was important so she planted her grapevine cross on Mount Jvari. Queen Nana, who suffered from a mysterious chronic illness, summoned Nino to help her. Nino invoked her Christian God and the miraculous vine cross at Jvari. Nana was cured and converted to Christianity. Yet Nana’s husband, staunch pagan King Mirian, threatened to divorce her until he was struck by his own miracles: first the sudden and complete loss of his sight on a hunting trip, and then, as he prayed to his wife’s new God in desperation, its equally sudden restoration. On returning to Mtskheta, he made Christianity the state religion, built a cathedral, and sent to Emperor Constantine for clergy.

The story of Nino holds the clue as to why Christianity in Georgia is unique, why the GOC is so crucial to the national identity, and why even educated Georgians follow the de facto state religion. Nino was just the beginning. Unlike Augustine or Andrew, who travelled constantly, converting people and moving on, she settled in Georgia and birthed the national church. She became part of its story and a national symbol. Nino is still the most popular women’s name in Georgia.

The history of Christianity in Georgia is less one of Christianisation, and more one of Georgianisation. This thread runs through the rest of the history of Christianity in Georgia. With a dramatic origin story and early adoption as the state religion, Christianity rapidly became embedded in the national psyche. Early leaders wanted to emphasise their piety, and this meant their faith was trumpeted as part of their exploits. Later, the inverse slowly became true: the church was able to co-opt even secular national heroes as religious symbols. This tradition enabled the GOC to survive a sequence of suppressions even when Georgian leaders were forced to submit the invaders.

The divine right of kings and the Golden Age

After being made the state religion, the GOC started its journey to autocephaly under King Vakhtang Gorgasali (reigned c.447/49–502/22 AD). Vakhtang is also credited with founding Tbilisi; defeating a giant (much like the Biblical David); fighting the Iranians who were trying to re-paganise Iberia; and designing a prototype of the Georgian flag. In the centuries since his death, he has acquired a host of legends relating to his strength, courage and devoutness, reflected in the name of modern Georgia’s highest military honour: the Vakhtang Gorgasali Order. Vakhtang provided a template for strong leaders incorporating the Georgian Orthodox faith into their deeds that later enabled the church to draft in other national heroes on its behalf. He also strengthened the link between the church and state, putting faith firmly in the category of patriotism and allowing the concept of the divine right of kings to take root.

At a similar time, at some point during the 4th or 5th centuries AD, the written version of Georgian was developed. Georgian is unlike almost any other language. The written language of Georgia was rapidly adopted for church use and used to produce a local Bible. The role of the church in establishing and perpetuating the written language means this tiny, inimitable language has managed to flourish despite being wedged in between Slavic, Turkic, and Arabic giants.

Two of Georgia’s most culturally influential monarchs before the long centuries of foreign invasions approached their partnership with the GOC through the medium of language and education. King David the Builder (reigned 1089–1125) is widely regarded as Georgia’s most successful king. In addition to driving the Seljuks, members of a medieval Turko-Persian Muslim empire, out of the country, he sent his children abroad to the Byzantine Empire to study languages and literature so that Georgia would have better advantages in diplomacy and translation, and founded several academies, notably Gelati, which was a nationwide hub for maths and science.  

A little later, David’s great-granddaughter Queen Tamar (reigned 1184–1213) presided over Georgia’s ‘Golden Age’ – a term encompassing political stability depending on the divine right of the royal family to rule, a right conferred on them when Mirian III accepted Christianity and strengthened under Vakhtang Gorgasali. Commerce, diplomacy, architecture, and literature flourished and glorified two things: God’s approval of Georgia’s ascendancy, and the importance of women in the political and cultural life of Georgia. The latter, obviously politically expedient for Tamar, was also directly related to the GOC’s own particular brand of Christianity: Nino, a woman, was sent to Christianise Georgia, therefore women were divinely appointed to lead. A notable example of this Nino-feminism is in the treatment of female characters in the epic poem The Knight in the Panther’s Skin, written by Shota Rustaveli (c.1160–c.1220), Georgia’s national poet and Tamar’s Minister of Finance. Rustaveli is a national hero. His name is given to high-status entities, for example Rustaveli Avenue, the main thoroughfare in Tbilisi; and the Shota Rustaveli State Prize, the highest artistic accolade in Georgia.

Being autocephalous, the GOC can create saints and bring them into the fold of Georgian Christianity. Nino, Nana, Mirian, Vakhtang, David, and Tamar were all canonised by the GOC. Their tombs are popular pilgrimage sites: Nino died at Bodbe, in the heart of Kakheti wine country. A monastery now stands on the site, with her grave in the churchyard. Nana and Mirian are buried at Samtavro Church, which they built, in Mtskheta. Vakhtang is interred at Svetitskhoveli Cathedral in Mtskheta, also built by Mirian and improved by Vakhtang. David is buried at the threshold of his academy in Gelati so that visitors step over his body as they enter. Tamar’s tomb has not been confirmed but is supposed to be either at Gelati or somewhere in the Holy Land, sent as a posthumous pilgrimage. Rustaveli has not been canonised, but during his lifetime, his portrait was added to the Georgian church in Jerusalem, where he was later buried, and in 2001 he merited a joint Israeli-Georgian stamp in his honour.

Folk heroes and their embrace by the church

The reign of Tamar was followed by a long period where Georgia did not truly enjoy political independence. Georgia, geographically vulnerable to invasions from all sides, suffered Iranian, Seljuk, and Persian incursions in the Middle Ages, Mongol conquests in the 13th–15th centuries, heavy involvement of the Ottoman and Safavid Empires in its internal affairs as a result of a power struggle between the two in the 15th–18th centuries, assimilation by the Russian Empire in the 19th century, and the Soviet Union for most of the 20th century.

The GOC, however, survived these suppressions and was even able, in a way, to strengthen its position in society. Folk heroes who, unlike the great and good, had no divine right or who were unable to realise a quiet life of piety during their lifetime, were created, canonised and lauded by the GOC to celebrate Christian – and specifically Georgian Christian – values. These values vary a little from century to century but have a common root: devoutness in the face of adversity.

Early on in the GOC’s history, there is a profusion of martyrs. They appear even before the long stretch of invasions and occupations, but – foreshadowing that lengthy segment of Georgian history – tend to be martyred during war. This means they symbolise not only Christian piety and turning the other cheek, but also act as models for patriotic resistance during times of occupation, further cementing the link between the church, the people, and the ‘true’ state as opposed to invaders.

Radzhen the Protomartyr (died c.457 AD) accompanied Persian princess Balendukht as her tutor when she went to Iberia to marry Vakhtang Gorgasali. Radzhen converted to Georgian Orthodoxy at Vakhtang’s court and joined Vakhtang’s army. Captured by the Persians, Radzhen was pressured by the King of Persia to renounce Christianity; instead, he negotiated a brief freedom to say goodbye to his family and returned to captivity to be crucified and shot with arrows. Similarly, in the 8th century AD, brothers David and Constantine Mkheidze were captured by Persian invaders. The Persian commander, Marwan the Deaf (or Blind), mocked them for their defeat, but the brothers responded that it was not Marwan’s skill but their own sin that had led to their capture. Marwan starved them for ten days, offered them clemency if they converted to Islam, and when they refused, had them stoned to death in a ravine.

The rise of Islamic empires and the near-continuous subjugation of Georgia to foreign powers produced many more such stories. Most momentous is perhaps that of the Hundred Thousand Martyrs, who resisted conversion to Islam and were killed by Jalal ad-Din in 1226 when he sacked Tbilisi. Also notable is Tsotne Dadiani, who plotted to overthrow Mongol occupiers in the 1240s: he insisted on taking the whole blame from his co-conspirators, which impressed his captors, and he was released alive; but his humility earned him sainthood.

The next development in Georgian folk heroes’ recruitment to the church cause was after Georgia was assimilated into the Russian Empire (a process lasting from 1801–1810) and the GOC subordinated to the Russian Orthodox Church (1811). The Russian Orthodox takeover of the GOC was representative of a wider programme of Russification, and folk heroes from this era are Georgian nationalists. Although this was not a time of war as such, patriotism and Georgian Orthodoxy were by this point so closely linked that it was easy for the GOC to celebrate such nationalists as they were already popular.

The most significant figure from this period is Ilia Chavchavadze. Chavchavadze was born in 1837, when Russian rule was well-established in Georgia, and was educated at St Petersburg University. Back in Georgia, however, he became a passionate advocate for the revival of the Georgian language and a prolific writer, translator of British literature, collector of folk tales, and advocate for the autocephaly of the GOC. He served in the Russian Duma (parliament) briefly in 1906–7 before returning to Georgia, where he was assassinated in September 1907. This sparked widespread admiration for him amongst the Georgian public and – as Bolsheviks were widely blamed for his murder – catalysed the popularity of the Mensheviks in Georgia. Chavchavadze is interesting because he was not religious himself yet viewed the GOC as an essential component of Georgianness. The fact that he was martyred was, from the church’s point of view, a bonus.

The GOC briefly regained its independence when the Russian Empire collapsed in 1917; however, the Soviet Union soon swallowed Georgia again. Josef Stalin deserves a mention here.  He notoriously ordered the Purges, during which hundreds of churches were closed, church buildings requisitioned, and hundreds of Georgian Orthodox clergy were killed. But Stalin, real name Ioseb Besarionis dze Dzhugashvili, from Gori in Georgia, is not the one-dimensional monster we now imagine. He was a protégé of Chavchavadze’s, having several poems published in Chavchavadze’s nationalist paper Iveria, andhe had also studied to become a priest at a seminary in Tbilisi before developing Marxist sympathies. Even when he was exiled to Siberia in 1903, he escaped and came back to Georgia: his political ideal was specifically Georgian Marxism. He co-edited a Georgian Marxist newspaper and proposed that the Georgian Marxist movement split off from the Russian one.

Obviously, Stalin’s ideals and ambitions later changed to the extent that he Russified his name, became the leader of the Soviet Union, and ordered the Purges; but he was also responsible for restoring the autocephaly of the GOC in 1943. Georgians have a mixed relationship to Stalin: he was a particularly ruthless dictator, but he is undeniably the most influential Georgian ever.

The church was repressed for the next few decades, and trust in it eroded as the clergy was infiltrated by the Soviet secret police. In the 1970s, when the Soviet Union was beginning to crack, Eduard Shevardnadze permitted the Patriarch, Ilia II (in office 1977–present) to build more churches, whilst simultaneously conducting anti-religious repression in other areas. It was also during the 1970s that Zviad Gamsakhurdia rose to prominence as a nationalist and human rights activist, as well as a devoted adherent of the GOC. Then an academic – and, like Chavchavadze, a translator of foreign literature into Georgian – Gamsakhurdia was sentenced to imprisonment for various sins against the Soviet Union. In the late 1980s, Gamsakhurdia formed an organisation called the Society of St Ilia the Righteous (SSIR). A cross between a political party and a religious group, the Ilia of the title was Chavchavadze, canonised in 1987 and now firmly lodged in the popular consciousness as the ‘Uncrowned King’ of Georgia and untouchable folk hero.

The turbulent 1990s: the church as constant

The SSIR formed a coalition with other anti-Soviet political parties and won a massive majority in the 1990 election. Gamsakhurdia became Chairman of the Supreme Council of the Republic of Georgia and, in May 1991, the first President of a free Georgia. This was an interesting moment for the GOC and Christianity in Georgia. After centuries of repression, the country now had an openly religious leader, a majority in parliament affiliated to the church, and the link between patriotism and religion, first made explicit by Chavchavadze, was evident. But Ghamsakhurdia was a divisive politician. In 1993, a military coup ousted him, and civil war ensued.

Gamsakhurdia was killed on New Year’s Eve 1993. His death remains unsolved, with his supporters claiming it was an assassination; his opponents, death during a firefight; and others, suicide. Today, many Georgians view him as a patriot but ill-suited to manage the disorder and ethnic tension rife in the Caucasus in the early 1990s.

In the end, there was no need to have a religious patriot in charge to put the church back in the position of a crucial state institution. The Constitution of Georgia, which was ratified by an interim government in 1995, declared freedom of religion but also recognised the ‘special role of the [GOC] in the history of Georgia’.[v] Shevardnadze – leader of Georgia from 1972–85, and then the last Foreign Minister of the Soviet Union – became Georgia’s second president (in office 1995 –2003) and went still further.

Shevardnadze did one hugely important thing for Georgian Christianity. In 2002, he signed a ‘Concordat’ with Patriarch Ilia. This granted the church a unique and legally protected status as the authority on all religious matters in Georgia, as well as a legally established role as a consultant on educational matters.[vi] The 2002 Concordat effectively did for the GOC what King Mirian had done 1700 years before. No other religious group in Georgia has such a concordat: there is no state religion, but only the GOC has a legislated status.

1700 years on: the church triumphant

The Concordat also came at a time when the GOC was re-establishing its presence in a very visible way. It was in the ascendant: the number of Georgians who stated they were adherents of the GOC rocketed from around half the population in the mid-1980s to 84% in the 2002 census, where it has remained since. Ilia, the Patriarch since 1977, was and is a constant in public life, unlike the revolving door of politicians.

The church had been mulling over plans to celebrate 1500 years of autocephaly, and in 1995 the foundations were laid for a new cathedral in the centre of Tbilisi. When the Concordat was signed, Sameba – the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity – was nearly ready. Most churches in Tbilisi are old, square, and small inside. Sameba is the opposite. It sits on a hill, in grounds so large they contain not only the cathedral but another full-sized church; it is over 87 metres tall; its total area is 3000 square metres; it holds 10,000 worshippers. Impressively, considering the size and drama of other landmarks of the Tbilisi skyline – Narikala Fortress, Mother Georgia statue, Mtatsminda TV tower – Sameba dominates the view. Controversially, Sameba was built on the site of an Armenian cemetery and thus erased the consecrated ground of another denomination belonging to another nationality – an interesting example of cultural erasure by a country and a church that had itself spent centuries resisting its own eradication.

Sameba was consecrated in 2004, as Shevardnadze was ousted and the Rose Revolution ushered in yet another new political leader. On its hill, Sameba overlooks the presidential residence: possibly a sign of the pecking order. The same year, the new government adopted the current flag of Georgia: a white background, a large red St George’s cross touching all four sides, and a smaller red cross in each corner – a little like plus signs with flared ends, but known as ‘grapevine crosses’. Though they do not resemble St Nino’s drooping cross, their prominence on the main international symbol of the country is clear.

It is difficult to disentangle the history of Georgia from the history of the GOC. This is partly because developments in language and art naturally tended to be religious, and partly because of the church’s role as the official state religion for so long. In the post-Soviet era, the GOC formally recognised many of the national heroes named above: whether this was from a desire to enact the will of the people or to pin down its role in the history of Georgian nationalism is impossible to say.

The GOC’s star is still rising, and in recent years this is most obvious in its role at the heart of Georgian tourism. Tourism is vital to the Georgian economy. Religious sites feature heavily on the Georgian National Tourism Administration website. Two out of the three UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Georgia are religious. A further six religious sites are on the UNESCO ‘Tentative’ list for Georgia. A visit to Mtskheta and Jvari is the most popular day trip from Tbilisi. Coachloads of tourists arrive at tiny monasteries daily: Bodbe, Gelati, and Motsameta, where they are encouraged to crawl beneath the skeletons of the martyred Mkheidze brothers for luck. Sameba appears in every ‘Top 10’ list of things to see in Tbilisi: this may seem unremarkable, given that St Paul’s Cathedral would feature on a similar list for London and (until recently) Notre Dame for Paris – but Sameba is less than twenty years old. It is a sign of how iconic the cathedral is, and how powerful what it represents is, that the building should shoot to the top of the tourist agenda in so short a time.

Tourism is a way to propagate information and promote cultural values. Countries market the things that make them special, not just another beach or booze destination. It is obvious that religion makes Georgia distinct: to be Georgian is to be connected to the GOC in some way. So for a country still carving out its own independent place in the world for the first time in centuries, and still vulnerable to invasion, the rich history of the country’s own independent church, and national heroes cloaked in piety, are an obvious selling point. For the GOC, with its place once again firmly established in the Constitution, its history has secured its future.

[i] World Factbook, ‘Georgia’, CIA [website], <https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/gg.html>, accessed 27 May 2020.

[ii] P. Rimple, ‘Georgia’s Mighty Orthodox Church’, BBC [website], 2 July 2013, <https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-23103853>, accessed 27 May 2020.

[iii] Pew Research Centre, ‘Global Christianity – A Report on the Size and Distribution of the World’s Christian Population’ [website], 19 December 2011, <https://www.pewforum.org/2011/12/19/global-christianity-exec>, accessed  27 May 2020.

[iv] Pew Research Centre, ‘Religion and Education Around the World’ [website], 13 December 2016, <http://assets.pewresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/11/2016/12/21094148/Religion-Education-ONLINE-FINAL.pdf>, accessed 27 May 2020.

[v] Georgian Parliament, ‘The Constitution of Georgia’, official English translation, <http://www.parliament.ge/files/68_1944_951190_CONSTIT_27_12.06.pdf>, accessed  27 May 2020.

[vi] ‘International religious freedom report for 2015: Georgia’, US Department of State [website], <https://2009-2017.state.gov/j/drl/rls/irf/religiousfreedom/index.htm?year=2015&dlid=256191>, accessed 27 May 2020.

Most information and legends from author’s own travel notes. Additional resources:

SF. Jones, ‘Soviet religious policy and the Georgian Apostolic Church: from Khrushchev to Gorbachev’, Georgica [website], 1989, <http://georgica.tsu.edu.ge/files/03-Society/Religion/Jones-1989.pdf>, accessed 27 May 2020.

Ladaria, Konstantine. ‘Georgian Orthodox Church and Political Project of Modernisation’, Georgica, 2012, <http://georgica.tsu.edu.ge/files/06-History/Nationalism%20&%20Identity/Ladaria-2012.pdf>, accessed 27 May 2020.

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Published by Asfar in London, UK - ISSN 2055-7957 (Online)