Sunday, February 28, 2016

Tbilisi, Georgia: The Birth of Christianity in Eastern Europe - February 2016

Guest Blogger: James Strange

Persians turn the Kura River red. In 1227 Sultan Jalal al-Din of Khwarazm and his army of Persians attacked Georgia in what is today the city of Tbilisi. On the first day of the battle, Georgian soldiers were able to defend their beautiful capital city and hold off the pagan invaders. That night however, a small band of Persians who were living in Tbilisi secretly opened the gates and allowed the invaders into the city. By morning a river of blood flowed through the streets.

As dawn broke, the Sultan commanded that all the holy Christian artifacts be removed from Sioni Cathedral and placed at the center of the Metekhi Bridge that crossed the Kura River. The remaining survivors were then rounded up and taken to the bridge and ordered to cross it, walking over the holy icons and denouncing their faith. Those who did were spared their lives, while those who refused were beheaded.

One hundred thousand souls sacrificed their lives that day. One hundred thousand Georgians were thrown from the bridge. The bodies piled up so high that it was described that a man could cross the river by walking over the bodies. The Kura River turned crimson red from the blood of these canonized saints that day.

Flash forward 2016. The country of Georgia today represents a culture of a long sought after independence.  As a visitor to the city of Tbilisi, your eyes are immediately drawn to the massive 20-meter aluminum statue of Mother Georgia. This beautiful figure, perched on a hilltop overlooking the city, is greeting her friends with a bowl of wine in one hand and her enemies with a sword in the other.

As we toured this city and the surrounding countryside it became evident that this country has two main foundations: wine and Orthodox Christianity. We marveled at the history and legends of how Georgia became one of the earliest Christianized areas outside of the Middle East.  

Saint Nino brings Christianity to Georgia. The story begins in 320 AD with a 13 year girl named Nino and a grapevine cross that she had woven together with strands of her own hair. She came from a prominent family with ties to Jerusalem and Rome. She was the daughter of a Roman general and was paternally related to the founding father of Georgia, King George.

Legend tells that she is said to have been visited by a vision of the Virgin Mary and was given these instructions: "Go to Iberia and tell there the good tidings of the gospel of Jesus Christ and you will find favor before the Lord; and I will be for you a shield against all visible and invisible enemies. By the strength of this cross, you will erect in that land the saving banner of faith in my beloved Son and Lord."

Upon arrival to the capital city of Mtskheta, she met with Queen Nana who had been stricken with a severe illness. Through the prayers of young Nino, the queen was healed, immediately baptized and became a Christian.  Despite the miracle, King Mirian would not convert from his pagan worshiping and threatened to exile his wife.

One day, on a hunting trip, the King was struck with blindness as darkness covered the woods. Lost and confused he cried out to his pagan gods to help him see again. After hours of panic and fear, he began to pray to the God of Nino. As he finished his prayer, the darkness was lifted and he could see to find his way back to the palace.

The King converted to Christianity and made it the official religion of the country. In honor of the God of Nino, he erected a wooden cross on one of the highest peaks overlooking the city.  The large cross was an iconic landmark of early Christianity.  Later a church, Jvari Monastery, was erected in honor of this young apostle. Though the church has been damaged and rebuilt several times over the centuries, the original rock foundation for the cross remains tucked away inside this small basilica. Still an active church, we attended Sunday mass here with the local Georgian worshipers. 

Svetitskhoveli Cathedral and the cloak of Christ. In the small town of Mtskheta lies the second largest Georgian Orthodox Church. Originally built in the 4th century, this holy place of worship has been destroyed and rebuilt many times, the latest being in 1029 AD. So why all the fuss over a church? Why have so many conquering armies made it a point to destroy this simple church? The answer ... this is no simple church.

The story begins in Jerusalem at the crucifixion of Christ. As told in the Gospel of John, Roman soldiers cast lots to see who would claim the robe of Christ. As fate would have it, a Georgian Jew named Elias happened to be in the city and had made his way to Golgotha. Moved by the events of the day, he persuaded the lucky winner into letting him purchase this holy cloak. 

Elias made his way back to Mtskheta and was immediately greeted by his sister, Sidonia. He told her of the horrible killing of a prophet and how he had come in possession his robe. Sidonia was deeply moved by the story and asked to hold the cloak. As she gathered this bundle of cloth into her arms, she was overcome with such grief and emotion that she died. Unable to remove the cloak from her grasp, Elias chose to bury his sister with the robe forever in her embrace.

A cedar tree sapling soon sprouted at the headstone of Sidonia’s grave.  Time passed and the tree grew tall and wide and served as a marker for the resting place of Sidonia and the holy robe. Three hundred years later, young Nino found herself before this tree. Christianity was spreading across Georgia and the people needed a place to worship. She ordered that the tree be cut down and that seven large columns be made from its trunk. These columns would serve as the foundation for the church. 

The first six columns were placed into position but as the seventh was readied for lifting it began to ascend into heaven. The workers were amazed at this miracle happening before their very eyes. Word quickly spread that the construction had stopped and that the seventh column had risen into heaven. Nino came to the site and heard the story of what had happened. She knew that God had instructed her to build this church and to make the columns from the cedar tree and so she began to pray. Nino prayed throughout the night and as the sun began to rise that next day, the seventh column could be seen descending down from heaven and laid into the place that had been prepared for it. It is said that water would seep from the seventh column and that this sacred liquid could cure the sick. 

The construction of the church was completed and today a monument marks the location of Sidonia’s grave inside the cathedral. It has served not only as the coronation site for kings but also as their burial place. There are ten Georgian Kings buried inside the church. 

Georgia has survived occupation by the Arabs, Persians, Mongols and most recently the Russians.  Nestled between the Caspian and Black seas, this country is rich in culture, architecture and history.  Their stories are told today as if they had just happened yesterday. It inspires me to learn more ...

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