Traditions regarding Christianity's first appearance in Iberia and Colchis
According to Georgian Orthodox Church tradition, the first preacher of the Gospel in Colchis and Iberia (modern-day Western and Eastern Georgia) was the apostle Andrew, the First-called. According to the official church account, Andrew preached across Georgia, carrying with him an acheiropoieta of the Virgin Mary (an icon believed to be created "not by human hand"), and founded Christian communities believed to be the direct ancestors of the Church. However, modern historiography considers this account mythical, and the fruit of a late tradition, derived from 9th-century Byzantine legends about the travels of St. Andrew in eastern Christendom. Similar traditions regarding Saint Andrew exist in Ukraine, Cyprus and Romania. Other apostles claimed by the Church to have preached in Georgia include Simon the Canaanite (better known in the West as Simon the Zealot) said to have been buried near Sokhumi, in the village of Anakopia, and Saint Matthias, said to have preached in the southwest of Georgia, and to have been buried in Gonio, a village not far from Batumi. The Church also claims the presence in Georgia of the Apostles Bartholomew and Thaddeus, coming north from Armenia.
The Conversion of Iberia
The propagation of Christianity in present-day Georgia before the 4th century is still poorly known. The first documented event in this process is the preaching of Saint Nino and its consequences, although exact dates are still debated. Saint Nino, honored as Equal to the Apostles, was according to tradition the daughter of a Roman general from Cappadocia. She preached in the Kingdom of Iberia (also known as Kartli) in the first half of the 4th century, and her intercession eventually led to the conversion of King Mirian III, his wife Queen (later Saint) Nana and their family. Cyril Toumanoff dates the conversion of Mirian to 334, his official baptism and subsequent adoption of Christianity as the official religion of Iberia to 337. From the first centuries C.E., the cult of Mithras, pagan beliefs, and Zoroastrianism were commonly practiced in Georgia. However, they now started to gradually decline, even despite Zoroastrianism becoming a second established religion of Iberia after the Peace of Acilisene in 378, and more precisely by the mid-fifth century.
The royal baptism and organization of the Church were accomplished by priests sent from Constantinople by Constantine the Great. Conversion of the people of Iberia proceeded quickly in the plains, but pagan beliefs long subsisted in mountain regions. The western Kingdom of Lazica was politically and culturally distinct from Iberia at that time, and culturally more integrated into the Roman Empire; some of its cities already had bishops by the time of the First Council of Nicea (325).
Expansion and Transformation of the Church
The conversion of Iberia marked only the beginnings of the formation of the Georgian Orthodox Church. In the next centuries, different processes took place that shaped the Church, and gave it, by the beginning of the 11th century, the main characteristics that it has retained until now. Those processes concern the institutional status of the Church inside Eastern Christianity, its evolution into a national church with authority over all of Georgia, and the dogmatic evolution of the church..
The long path to autocephaly
In the 4th and 5th centuries, the Church of Iberia was strictly subordinate to the Apostolic See of Antioch: all bishops were consecrated in Antioch before being sent to Iberia. Around 480, in a step towards autocephaly, the Patriarch of Antioch Peter the Fuller elevated the Bishop of Mtskheta to the rank of Catholicos of Iberia with the approval, or at the instigation, of the Byzantine emperor Zeno. The Church remained subordinate to the Antioch Church; the Catholicos could appoint local bishops, but until the 740s, his own election had to be confirmed by the synod of the Church of Antioch, and even after the 8th century, annual payments were made to the Church of Antioch.
In 1010, the Catholicos of Iberia was elevated to the honor of Patriarch. From then on, the premier hierarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church carried the official title of Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia.
Territorial expansion and birth of a national church
At the beginnings of the Church history, what is now Georgia was not unified yet politically, and would not be until the beginnings of the 11th century. The western half of the country, mostly constituted of the kingdom of Lazica, or Egrisi, was under much stronger influence of the Byzantine Empire than eastern Iberia, where Byzantine, Armenian and Persian influences coexisted. Such division was reflected in major differences in the development of Christianity.
In the east, from the conversion of Mirian, the church developed under the protection of the kings of Iberia, or Kartli. A major factor in the development of the church in Iberia was the introduction of the Georgian alphabet. The impulse for a script adapted to the language of the local people stemmed from efforts to evangelize the population. A similar dynamic led to the creation of the Armenian alphabet. The exact origin of the script is still debated, but must have happened in the second half of the 4th century or the early 5th century. The introduction of monasticism, and its tremendous development, in Iberia in the 6th century encouraged both foreign cultural inputs and the development of local written works. From that moment, together with translations of the Bible, ecclesiastical literature in Georgian was produced in Iberia, most prominently biographies of saints, such as the "Martyrdom of the Holy Queen Shushanik" and the "Martyrdom of Saint Abo". Many of the saints from the first centuries of the church were not ethnic Georgians (Shushanik was an Armenian princess, Abo an Arab), showing that the church had not yet acquired a strictly national character.
This changed only during the 7th century, after the wide political and cultural changes brought about by the Muslim conquests. This new menace for local culture, religion, and autonomy, and the difficulties to maintain constant contact with other Christian communities, led to a drastic cultural change inside the Church, which became for the first time ethnically focused: it evolved into a "Kartvelian Church". The bishops and Catholicos were now all ethnic Georgians, as were the saints whose "Lives" were written from that period.
In the western half of Georgia, ancient Colchis, which had remained under stronger Roman influence, local churches were under jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, and were culturally and linguistically Hellenistic. Bishops from the port cities took part in ecumenical councils, from the Council of Nicea (325) together with those from the Byzantine territories. From the 6th century, those churches, whose language remained Greek, were headed by a metropolitan in Phasis. The integration of the Black sea coastal regions into what came to be known as Georgia was a long process. A first step came with the Arab invasions of the 7th and 8th centuries, which mostly affected Iberia. Refugees, among them noblemen such as Archil of Kakheti, took shelter in the West, either in Abkhazia or Tao-Klarjeti, and brought there their culture. Such movements led to the progressive merge of western and eastern churches under the latter, as Byzantine power decreased and doctrinal differences disappeared. The western Church broke away from Constantinople and recognized the authority of the Catholicos of Mtskheta by the end of the 9th century. Political unification under the Bagrationi dynasty consolidated this evolution by the end of the 10th century: in a single, unified Kingdom of Georgia, there would be a unified Georgian Church.
Relations with the Armenian and Byzantine churches
During the first centuries of Christianity, the South Caucasus was culturally much more united than in later periods, and constant interactions between what would become the Georgian and Armenian Churches shaped both of them. The Armenian Church was founded two decades earlier, and was during the 4th century larger and more influential than the Church in Iberia. As such, it exerted strong influence in the early doctrine of the Church. The influence of the Church of Jerusalem was also strong, especially in liturgy. The Georgian-Armenian ecclesial relationship would be tested after the Council of Chalcedon (451), whose christological conclusions were rejected by the Armenian Church and important portions of the Church of Antioch, as well as the Coptic Church based in Alexandria.
At first, the Catholicoi of Iberia chose the anti-Chalcedonian camp together with the Armenians, even though diversity of opinions was always present among the clergy, and tolerated by the hierarchy. The king of Iberia, Vakhtang Gorgasali, who sought an alliance with Byzantium against the Persians, accepted the Henotikon, a compromise put forward by the Byzantine Emperor Zeno in 482. Such conciliation was attempted again at the First Council of Dvin in 506, and the status quo was preserved during the 6th century.
Around 600 however, tensions flared between the Armenian Apostolic Church and the church in Iberia, as the Armenian Church attempted to assert prominence in the Caucasus, in both hierarchical and doctrinal matters, whereas the Catholicos of Mtskheta, Kirion I, leaned towards the Byzantine, Chalcedonian side of the debate, as Iberia was once again seeking imperial support against the Sassanid Empire, who had abolished the Kingdom in 580. The
Third Council of Dvin, in 607, sanctioned the rupture with the Armenian Church.
The following centuries confirmed the Byzantine orientation of the Georgian Church, and its estrangement from the Armenian Church. Confessional disputes remained impossible to overcome, and were a staple of theological literature in both areas. The integration of western and eastern Georgian churches from the 9th century also sealed the Orthodox nature of the Georgian Church, as Byzantine liturgy and cultural forms spread to the detriment of traditional Oriental practice.
The Church during the Golden Age of Georgia
Between the 11th and the early 13th centuries, Georgia experienced a political, economical and cultural golden age, as the Bagrationi dynasty managed to unite western and eastern halves of the country into a single kingdom. To accomplish that goal, kings relied much on the prestige of the Church, and enrolled its political support by giving it many economical advantages, immunity from taxes and large appanages. At the same time, the kings, most notably David the Builder (1089–1125), used state power to interfere in church affairs. In 1103, he summoned the council of Ruisi-Urbnisi, which condemned Armenian Miaphysitism in stronger terms than ever before, and gave unprecedented power, second only to the Patriarch, to his friend and advisor George of Chqondidi. For the following centuries, the Church would remain a crucial feudal institution, whose economical and political power would always be at least equal to that of the main noble families.
Cultural influence of Christianity in Medieval Georgia
A page from a rare 12th century Gelati Gospel depicting the Nativity
During the Middle Ages, Christianity was the central element of Georgian culture. The development of a written Georgian culture was made possible by the creation of the Georgian alphabet for evangelization purposes. Monasticism played a major role in the following cultural transformation. It started in Georgia in the 6th century, when Assyrian ascetic monks, known as the Thirteen Assyrian Fathers, settled in Iberia and founded a series of monasteries, most notably David Gareja. They were soon joined by local monks, which led to the creation of significant works of hagiographic literature in Georgian, such as the "Life of Saint Nino" and the "Martyrdom of the Holy Queen Shushanik". The golden age of Georgian monasticism lasted from the 9th to the 11th century. During that period, Georgian monasteries were founded outside the country, most notably on Mount Sinai, Mount Athos (the Iviron monastery, where the Theotokos Iverskaya icon is still located), and in Palestine. The most prominent figure in the history of Georgian monasticism is judged to be Gregory of Khandzta (759–861), who founded numerous communities in Tao-Klarjeti.
Specific forms of art were developed in Georgia for religious purposes. Among them, calligraphy, polyphonic church singing, cloisonné enamel icons, such as the Khakhuli triptych, and the "Georgian cross-dome style" of architecture, which characterizes most medieval Georgian churches. The most celebrated examples of Georgian religious architecture of the time include the Gelati Monastery and Bagrati Cathedral in Kutaisi, the Ikalto Monastery complex and Academy, and the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral in Mtskheta.
Outstanding Georgian representatives of Christian culture include Peter the Iberian (Petre Iberieli, 5th century), Euthymius of Athos (Ekvtime Atoneli, 955–1028), George of Athos (Giorgi Atoneli, 1009–1065), Arsen Ikaltoeli (11th century), and Ephrem Mtsire, (11th century). Philosophy flourished between the 11th and 13th century, especially at the Academy of Gelati Monastery, where Ioane Petritsi attempted a synthesis of Christian, aristotelician and neoplatonic thought.
The division of the Church (13th–18th centuries)
The Mongol invasions in the 13th century and Tamerlane in the 14–15th century greatly disrupted Georgian Christianity. The political unity of the country was broken several times, and definitely in the 1460s. Churches and monasteries were targeted by the invaders, as they hosted many treasures. As a result of those devastations, many fell into disrepair or were abandoned. In the western half of Georgia, the Catholicate of Abkhazia was established following the Mongol rule. It seceded from the Mtskheta see as the Kingdom disintegrated, and the western Catholicos thereafter assumed the title of Patriarch. This rival seat, based first in Pitsunda, then at the Gelati Monastery near Kutaisi, subsisted until 1795. During those times, contacts with the Catholic Church increased, first as a way to liberate itself from meddling by the Byzantine Church, then to find stronger allies against invaders. Between 1328 and the early 16th century, a Catholic bishop had his see in Tbilisi to foster those contacts. However, formal reunion with Rome never happened, and the Church remained faithful to Eastern Orthodoxy.
In the next centuries, Georgia, weakened and fragmented, fell under the domination of the Ottoman and successive Persian (Safavid, Afsharid, and Qajar) Empires: mostly, the Ottomans ruled the West of the country, the Persians the East, while generally allowing autonomous Georgian kingdoms to subsist under their control. With the fall of Constantinople in 1453, Georgian Christians had lost their traditional recourse against Muslims, and were left to themselves.
New martyrs were canonized by the Church after each invasion, most notably Queen Ketevan of Kakheti, who was tortured to death in 1624 for refusing to renounce Christianity on the orders of Abbas I of Persia (Shah-Abbas). Not all members of the royal families of Kartli and Kakheti were so faithful to the Church, though. Many of them, to gain Persian favor, and win the throne over their brothers, converted to Islam, or feigned to, such as David XI of Kartli (Daud Khan). Other noblemen, such as Sulkhan-Saba Orbeliani, left the weakened local Church for Catholicism, as missionaries were bringing the printing press and western culture to Georgia around 1700. Only the emergence of a strong Orthodox power, the Russian Empire, could reinforce during the 18th century the status and prestige of the Church among the elites, and the shared Orthodoxy was a potent factor in the calls for Russian intervention in the Caucasus, to liberate Georgia from Muslim domination.
The Church under Russian and Soviet rule
Patriarch Anton II of Georgia
was downgraded to the status of an archbishop by the Russian Imperial authorities.
In 1801, the Kingdom of Kartl-Kakheti (Eastern Georgia) was occupied and annexed by the Russian Empire. On 18 July 1811, the autocephalous status of the Georgian Church was abolished by the Russian authorities, despite strong opposition in Georgia, and the Georgian Church was subjected to the synodical rule of the Russian Orthodox Church. From 1817, the metropolitan bishop, or exarch, in charge of the Church was an ethnic Russian, with no knowledge of the Georgian language and culture. The Georgian liturgy was suppressed and replaced with Church Slavonic, ancient frescoes were whitewashed from the walls of many churches, and publication of religious literature in Georgian heavily censored. The 19th century was a time of decline and disaffection, as the church buildings often fell into disrepair, and the trust of people in the institution was diminished by its Russification and corruption. Calls for autocephaly became heard again only after the intellectual national revival that started in the 1870s; the local clergy made such calls during the 1905 revolution, before being repressed again.
Following the overthrow of the Tsar Nicholas II in March 1917, Georgia's bishops unilaterally restored the autocephaly of the Georgian Orthodox Church on 25 March 1917. These changes were not accepted by the Russian Orthodox Church. After the Red Army invasion of Georgia in 1921, the Georgian Orthodox Church was subjected to intense harassment. Hundreds of churches were closed by the atheist government and hundreds of monks were killed during Joseph Stalin's purges. The independence of the Georgian Orthodox Church was finally recognized by the Russian Orthodox Church on 31 October 1943: this move was ordered by Stalin as part of the war-time more tolerant policy towards Christianity in the Soviet Union. New anti-religious campaigns took place after the war, especially under Nikita Khrushchev. Corruption and infiltration by the security organs were also plaguing the Church. First signs of revival can be seen from the 1970s, when Eduard Shevardnadze, then secretary of the Georgian SSR's Communist Party, adopted a more tolerant stance, and new Patriarch Ilia II could from 1977 renovate derelict churches, and even build new ones. At the same time, nationalist dissidents such as Zviad Gamsakhurdia emphasized the Christian nature of their struggle against Communist power, and developed relations with Church officials that would come to fruition after 1989.