The History of Georgian Orthodox Church

Georgia is located in the south of the Caucasus, between the Black and Caspian Seas. The history of its statehood counts almost three-thousand five hundred years, and that of Christianity, two thousand years. The Mother of God is considered the principal protector and intercessor of Georgia since the country was first allocated to her to preach in. Though later, on the will of God, she gave her icon to the Holy Apostle St Andrew the First Called and dispatched him to preach Gospel in Georgia. St Andrew went to the land keeping the Mantle of the Prophet Elijah, brought to Mtskheta by the Jews persecuted by Nabuchodonosor in the 6th century, and the seamless Chiton of Christ, greatest holy relic of the entire Christendom, also brought here by the Mtskheta Jews after crucifixion of Christ.
At that time there were two kingdoms on the territory of Georgia – Kartli (Iberia) Kingdom to the east, and Egrisi (Colchida) Kingdom to the west. St Andrew preached in different parts of Georgia. After preaching and baptizing people there, he left the Holy Mother of God’s icon in Atskveri Village (Kartli Kingdom). The icon used to be kept at Atskveri (Atskuri) Cathedral Church for many centuries.
St Andrew preached Gospel together with St Simon of Canaan in western Georgia. The last was buried in Komani Village, Georgia. Another Apostle St Matthias was also buried in Georgia. He preached in south-western part of the country and was buried in Gonio, nearby Batumi. According to the oldest scripts holy Apostles Bartholomew and Thaddeus also visited East Georgia and preached Gospel there.
The Georgian Church has been founded by the Holy Apostles. Their journeys and preaches are scripted in the Georgian Chronicles, also by Greek and Latin authors, for instance Origuene (II-III cc), Bishop Dorotheus of Tire (IV c), Bishop Epiphan of Cyprus (IV c), Nikita of Paphlagon (IX c), Ecumen (X c), etc.
Holy Apostles preaches left a significant path. Existence of Christian communities and churches are proved by archaeological materials dated back to I-III cc. St Ireneous of Lyon mentions Iberians, i.e. Georgians, among Christians in II century.
It was in that period, during the reign of King Mirian and Queen Nana (IV century), that Christianity was announced state religion in East Georgia thanks to the efforts of St Nino, Equal-to-the-Apostles. This marked a new stage in the history of the country. The bishop, priests, and deacons sent by the Byzantine Emperor Constantine the Great baptized the people and blessed local clergy. St Nino of Capadoccia was a close relative of St George. According to the advice of St Nino the foundation of the first church of the Twelve Apostles, Svetitskhoveli, where the Mantle of the Prophet Elijah and the Chiton of Christ were buried, was laid there. Svetitskhoveli Patriarchate Cathedral is the spiritual centre of Georgia. The Cathedral manifests immortality of our nation and culture.
After official adoption of Christianity, Emperor Constantine and Queen Elena sent a piece of the Holy Cross, and the board onto which the Savior stood while crucifixion, and two nails, and the Savior’s icon.
The Georgian Church dates baptizing of the Georgians and preaching Gospel to our land back to 326 AD. The fact is confirmed by historian Sozomone of Salaman (V century). According to “The Church History” by Sozomone of Salaman, the Georgians were officially baptizing after the First World Ecclesiastic Council in Nicaea (325 AD).
Preaching Christianity and establishing the Church in early IV century is especially true of West Georgia, which is attested by the presence of Stratophilous, Bishop of Bichvinta, at the First World Ecclesiastic Council in Nicaea. Since then Georgia and the Georgian Orthodox Church have always firmly and piously kept Orthodox canons. VI century Byzantine historian Prokofi of Caesarea writes, “Iberians are Christians keeping the rules better than any other nations”.
Since official adoption of Christianity, and even before, the Georgian people had always fought against foreign invaders. Persians, Arabs, Turks, Mongols, and Ottomans aimed to invade and destroy the country and its Christian faith. The Georgian people could keep and preserve its statehood and Orthodox faith. Fighting for state independence was equal to protecting Orthodoxy for many centuries. Great many clergy as well as civilians sacrificed their lives to Christianity.
There is no other example of selflessness in the world history when hundred thousand Georgians sacrificed at once crowing themselves with martyr’s crowns. Most of inhabitants of Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, refused to keep Jallal Ad-din’s order and step over and spit upon the Savior’s and Mother Virgin’s icons thrown on the bridge in 1226. Tamerlangh’s soldiers killed all nuns at Kvabtakhevi Monastery in 1386. Six thousand monks were martyred at David Gareji Monastery by Shah Abass I in 1616.
Great many royal reigns are canonized by Georgian Church. All of them showed excellent examples of patriotic feelings, courage, heroism, and Christian humanity. Argvety Princes David and Constantine Mkheidze martyred by Arab invaders (VIII c.), King Archil (VIII c.), King Dimitri II beheaded by Mongol invaders (XIII c.), King Luarsab II killed by Persians (XVII c.), and Queen Ketevan martyred by Persians (XVII), is just incomplete list of Georgian saints.
Despite tragic history of Georgia, the Georgian Orthodox Church has always conducted great educational and revival activities since announcing the state religion. The whole territory of Georgia is covered with churches and monasteries. You can find hundreds of St George’s churches all over Georgia. St George has always been especially honored and respected as a patron of Georgia.
Monasteries and churches turn into cultural and educational centers. In early XII century, the glorious King David the Builder, who united the Kingdom of Georgia, established Gelati Monastery and Academy near Kutaisi. Gelati Academy was recognized as a great centre of theology and education and science among the orthodox world at that time. Another famous educational centre existed simultaneously in Ikalto. King David the Builder initiated summon of the Great Ecclesiastic Council in Ruis-Urbnisi Diocese in 1103. The Ruis-Urbnisi Ecclesiastic Council revised vital issues of ecclesiastic as well as civil society. Since early V century when the first Georgian hagiographic scripts about St Nino’s life and Martyr of St Queen Shushanik were found, the Georgian nation has created unique Christian literature. Georgian Christian art is of special note as well. Great many Georgian ecclesiastic and civil architectural monuments have been recognized as unique masterpieces in the world. Monumental art, frescos, and mosaics have been developed along with architecture. Original Georgian frescos played notable role in evolution of Byzantine art.
Georgians have also built churches and monasteries in Palestine, Syria, Cyprus, Greece, Bulgaria, etc. One should especially note Holy Cross Monastery in Jerusalem (currently being under jurisdiction of Greek Orthodox Church), St Jacob’s Monastery in Jerusalem (currently being under jurisdiction of Jerusalem Armenian Church), Iviron Monastery on Holy Mount Athos (famous for Iviron Holy Mother Virgin’s miraculous icon), Petritsoni Monastery (currently Bachkovo, Bulgaria). Such prominent Georgian theologians, philosophers, writers, and translators as Peter Iberi, Ephraim Minor, Ekvtime and George Mtatsmindelis (Athonians), John Petritsi and many others served and created their masterpieces all over Georgia as well as abroad.
Relations with Holy Land of Jerusalem have always been of special importance for Georgia as well as all Christian world. Lots of landmarks and names linked to Jerusalem are found all over Georgia, especially in its ancient capital city Mtskheta. Georgian kings and princes built churches and monasteries, and greatly donated to Jerusalem since early Christian centuries.
Human rights revival for Christians living under Muslims yoke in Jerusalem is connected to Georgia and its King George V. Glorious King George V liberated Georgia out of Mongols yoke and united the Kingdom of Georgia. He gained authority and respect among Georgians as well as Muslims. Upon George V’s demand, Sultan of Egypt ceased humiliating decree ordering Christians wishing to enter to Jerusalem to sit on a horse putting both legs one side. A new decree granted them the right to enter to Jerusalem sitting on a horse in usual manner and keeping flags flying. King George also returned the Savior’s Sepulcher being under Mamelukes’ control back to Christians. The Georgians also regained the keys of the Sepulcher. A bit earlier during the reign of King David VIII, the Georgians returned the Holy Cross Monastery being under Mamelukes turning it into a mosque. Georgian Holy Cross Monastery in Jerusalem is associated with names of the greatest Georgian poet Shota Rustaveli (XII century), and two Georgian martyrs Luca of Jerusalem (Abashidze) and Nicoloz Dvali.
From early 20’s of IV century the Georgian Church was under jurisdiction of Antiochus Autocephaly Cathedral. Upon King Vakhtang Gorgasali’s petition and intercessions by Byzantine Emperor and Patriarchate of Constantinople, the Patriarchate of Antiochus granted autocephaly to Kartli Church and Bishop of Mtskheta was granted the rank of Catholicos in 60-70’s of V century. Church of Western Georgia (Abkhazia) was still under Patriarchate of Constantinople. In IX century there was appointed Catholicos there. In early XI century during the reuniting process of Georgian Kingdom, Catholicos of Mtskheta (Kartli) was granted a rank of Patriarch. Since then the supreme position of the Georgian Church had been titled Catholicos Patriarch of Mtskheta and All Georgia. Catholicos of Western Georgia (Abkhazia or Pitsunda) always respected and recognized priority of Patriarch of Mtskheta.
In 1811 the Russian Empire annulled the autocephaly of Georgian Church. There was ceased the post of Patriarch and the Georgian Church turned under rule of Synod of Russian Church. In March 1917, the Georgian clergy revived the autocephaly and restored the Patriarchate. The prominent Bishop Kirion was elected the first Patriarch after the autocephaly restoration.
In 1989, the Ecumenical Patriarchate recognized existence of the autocephaly and Patriarchate of the Georgian Orthodox Church since V century.
Since 1977 Catholicos Patriarch of All Georgia and Archbishop of Mtskheta and Tbilisi has been His Holiness and Beatitude Ilia II.