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  • Jerome Kocher

74. Christian Georgia

Updated: Jun 7

Georgia was the second country to become Christian after Armenia. Geographically, Christianity spread from Syria through Turkey into Armenia and up to the Caucasus. Unlike the Roman Catholic Church with a central administration by the Pope in the Vatican, all the Eastern Orthodox countries have their own autonomous Patriarch. So there’s variations between Greek, Russian, Serbian, Georgian and Armenian for example.

The disciples of Christ were directed into different regions to spread the Gospel or Good News. Mary, the Mother of Jesus, is presumed to have lived out her life in the mountains outside Ephesus under the care of St. John the Evangelist. Fast forward to the 4th century and a young woman from a Roman province in Cappadocia (Turkey) felt called to spread the Word into now Georgia. When she arrived she had no cross to show, so she made her own out of grape vines, bound together with her hair. She converted the King and Queen of that time and so the subjects all became Christian. She is St. Nino (Nina). 

Another way to interpret this narrative of the spread of Christianity to the Caucasus is to look at the geopolitics. This region historically has looked westward for stability and unification. Just as Georgia today looks towards membership in the European Union to bring security and progress to a nation, so in the 4th century it may have also looked westward to be included in what it saw as the future movement of the Orthodox Christian Faith. This does not diminish St. Nino. She was the messenger and facilitator. But maybe not the deciding factor. The king may have been influenced by his political intuition as well as by the convincing devotion of a young woman.

In its language Georgia has a strong matriarchal stream. It is their Motherland. The huge statue of Mother Georgia overlooks the city of Tbilisi. In a home the main supporting structure is the “mother column.” Even on their money you will find the “mother” image. No politiicans here. And their religion was brought to them by a woman of conviction and faith, St. Nino, always depicted with a cross in her hands. But language is one thing, social patriarchal hierarchy is another. 

When you arrive in Georgia, the Islamic world of mosques, mausoleums and madrasas give way to churches, cathedrals and monuments for the defenders of their Faith. It's everywhere.

One of the most striking examples of faith are the rock monastery caves of Vardzia that stretch along a sandstone cliff face with multiple tiers of living quarters. Started in the 12th century, they were completed by Queen Tamar who insisted on taking the title of King in her position as the first woman to rule Georgia during its Golden Age. It is one of Georgia's most iconic signatures of Christianity carved into a dramatic landscape. Today, only four monks remain with small potted gardens outside their cave cells.

Tunnels carved through the mountain connect the various levels of monk cells, a cave church, wine press and storage, plus a spring water reservoir. It was a challenge for me to navigate the circuitous rock tunnel system, but with the help of a great guide it was one of the highlights of my time in Georgia.

Also of note is the omnipresent wine culture of Georgia, one of its signature products both ancient and modern. An integral part of its cuisine, a staple of every meal, it should not go unnoticed that it has a sacramental presence as well in the Orthodox liturgy and communion of bread and wine. This symbiotic relationship of culture and religion is especially found in Georgia, and for obvious reasons does not exist in the Islamic world.

A typical meal with eggplant, salad and wine. An orthodox priest after the service giving out surplus bread wafers that have not been consecrated.

Another symbiotic relationship is State and Church, the Georgian flag in an Orthodox cathedral.

And on a humorous note, the use of playful language combines hi-tech with a wine culture.

The night skyline of Tbilisi with an iconic cathedral above the river guarded by its "defender of faith" while sharing its modern setting with the "Peace Bridge," hot air balloon and sky cable cars going up to Mother Georgia. This is the northern Caucasus. This is Christian Georgia.

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1 Comment

Jack Greenspun
Jack Greenspun
Jun 07

The combo of history plus great photos is exactly what a great travelogue should do. Spot on Jerome.

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