The city of Rustavi, where I live, came into existence about 51 years ago. Recently, a beautiful new church was built here. I visited the church during the week, when there weren’t many parishioners around, and as I stepped forward I saw an extraordinary icon on the wall featuring thirteen saints - thirteen Assyrian Church Fathers. All the men in the picture are ascetic and comely. The head of a deer is drawn near one of them. Not far from the first icon there is another serene one, that of Saint Father David Garedja, holding in his right hand a cross, his left hand open in reverence; to his right some deer, while above him stands an angel.
Who are these thirteen Assyrian Church Fathers who came to Georgia in the late 5th or early 6th centuries, and why do we still revere them at the end of the twentieth century? As reported by the editor of Nineveh, Julius N. Shabbas, in the Second/Third Quarter, 1987, issue of the magazine, these "thirteen Assyrian Church Fathers came from Nisibin, Edessa and other Assyrian Christian centers during the 5th and 6th centuries A.D. They brought the Christian faith and teachings, ascetical, monastic life and ideals to Georgians and other nations of the western Caucasus. They founded some great and well known churches and monasteries in Georgia. Up to the present time the Orthodox Georgians and Russians still honor the works and accomplishments of these Assyrian Fathers. The records are well preserved and are all mentioned in the Russian Church Calendar.
The following are the names of the thirteen Assyrian Fathers:
- Joane (Yovane or Yonan) of Zedazeni
- Abibos, Bishop of Nekressi
- Antony of Martkobi (Mart Kobi)
- David of Garedja (Kareja)
- Zinon of Ikalto
- Tade (Thaddeus) of Stepanatsminda
- Isse (Eshu), Bishop of Tsilkani
- Joseph (Yosip), Bishop of Alaverdi
- Isidor of Samtavissi
- Michael (Mishael) of Ulumbi
- Pirr (Pira) of Breti
- Stephan (Estepanos) of Hirza
- Sheeo of Mqwime.
These names also appear in M. Sabinin’s book "The Lives of Saints" (in Russian).
Prior to the advent of these thirteen Assyrian Church Fathers, the pagan Georgians adopted Christianity through the ministry of a woman named Saint Nina early in the 4th century. Assyrian by birth, and a native of Cappadocia, she was the only daughter to her rich and noble Assyrian parents. Her father, Zambulon, was a high ranking officer in the service of the Roman army in Cappadocia, and her mother, Shushan, was the sister of the Bishop of Jerusalem. Saint Nina died in Kakhetia, eastern Georgia, at age 67, and was buried inside the monastery. Later, a parish church "Bodbe" was erected there. Many legends and healings have been attributed to her.
The chronicles of the thirteen Assyrian Church Fathers do not have complete biographies for all of them, except for three. But the names of all are well known. The ancient books write that all the Saint Fathers came from Mesopotamia. Twelve were the disciples of Joane (Yonan). When he was in the blessed city of Edessa, he had a divine call to select twelve disciples and go to Georgia to preach and strengthen people in their belief. From the 6th century on a number of feudal states or principalities developed in the Georgian region. At that time they had one Catholicos who was elected at the ecclesiastical meeting in Mtskheta. Ancient Georgian sources say that when the Fathers reached Kartveli (Kartli, a province of Georgia) Catholicos Evlavios welcomed them to enlighten his country as Saint Nina had done before. The Saint Fathers arrived in Kartveli after great hardship and their clothes were worn out. All of them had special monastic head dresses by which they could be recognized as Assyrian priests. Soon, all the Iver churches were subordinated to the preachings of the Assyrian Fathers. Catholicos Evlavios elevated three of them to the Episcopal pulpits and soon the education of the clergy and the people passed into the hands of the pious monks (M. Sabinin).
On their first missionary journey these Assyrian Fathers traveled to the areas where Saint Nina had ministered. Here they propagated the Christian message to the people, showed them how to lead a spiritual life, and eventually returned to Mtskheta. When Catholicos Evlavios died he entrusted the Iver Church to Joane (Yonan), who retreated to a cave on the mountain of Zedazeni. Yonan founded a Church - he assigned an area to each of his disciples to help the people of Kartveli spiritually and in other ways.
Information about their subsequent activities is somewhat fragmentary for most, although more is known about Yonan, David Garedja and Sheeo.
Bishop Abibos went to the north, to Nekressi, and Christianized the pagans, had their shrines destroyed, enlightened them and built new churches.
Bishop Joseph became Bishop of Alaverdi, in northeast Georgia, which developed into a center of Christianity in the region.
Father Sheeo went to the west of Mtskheta and settled there in a cave near the Mtkvari (Kura) River. According to legend, he fasted for a long time, until food was brought to him by a dove. He recruited a number of disciples, among them a senior representative of Czar Evagre. Many people in the area converted to Christianity, and the Church of Mart Maryam (Saint Mary) was built near the location of the cave. Later, the Church of Joane (Yonan) was also built there.
During this time, Makari became the Catholicos of Georgia. He sanctified the Monastery of St. Sheeo at Mgwine in the presence of Czar Paraman VI, and supplied it with many theological books. Later, this church became the center of spiritual education in Georgia.
The monasteries of the thirteen Assyrian Church Fathers had libraries which contained theological books, some written and others collected by the monks. These collections were the pride and beauty of the Georgian Church. In subsequent centuries, Georgia was subjected to invasions by Mongols, Turks and Persians, who often plundered the monasteries and their collections. Many of these priceless manuscripts ended up in the libraries of Europe and Asia,where they surprised everyone by the richness of their content and the beauty and accuracy of their handwritten Aramaic (Syriac modern Assyrian) script.
Father David of Garedja first went to Tbilisi, the present capital of Georgia, and settled there on the mountain called Mtatsminda. He preached in Tbilisi in a little square called Madin, where Kashveti Church now stands. In 562 A.D. he went to Kakheti and settled in a deserted area there called Udabno, in a cave shared with another Father from Mtskheta. The spring from which they took water ran at the foot of the mountain. This spring still exists today and is known as the "Water of Tears." It is considered to be holy water. At the time of the Holy Fathers, deer with their young would come to the cave and the Fathers milked them and used their milk for food. That is why deer are portrayed on Father David’s icon (see cover picture). Many pilgrims who went to Udabno stayed there, first as disciples and later as missionaries. Father David required every pilgrim to hollow out a cave in the rock and live there. During sixty-six years twelve monasteries were built in the Udabno area in addition to many caves. This is how the lives of hermits developed in cave dwellings, and their number grew yearly. One of them was Father Thaddeus (Tade), who accompanied Father David on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. From this holy place they brought a stone to Georgia which had mysterious healing powers. Over the centuries, the monasteries were plundered on different occasions and the stone would disappear, only to be returned later.
During the reconstruction of the church in 1816 excavations uncovered a silver box that contained a stone believed to be the one that Father David brought from Jerusalem. It is removed from the box once a year , usually the first week after Easter on Thursday, when the Georgian Church celebrates the day in memory of Father David Garedja. Also during those excavations an icon drawn on clay was unearthed; it showed Fathers David and Thaddeus after their return from Jerusalem.
Because of their Christian beliefs, Georgians often paid a heavy price to conquerors of other religions. For example, massacres by Tamerlane; and later by Shah Abbas of Persia who slaughtered over 6,000 priests. The latter event occurred on the night of Easter; the relics of the priests are kept in the church built by Czar Teimuras I. A day dedicated to their memory is celebrated in Georgia and is called "Garedjioba" in honor of the Assyrian Holy Father David of Garedja.
In 1884, in the Udabno area, there were five churches that had been preserved and were active, and five monasteries in which the monks lived. Russian historian M. Sabinin described the grave of Father David in the latter part of the 19th century as follows: in one of the churches there is a tomb containing a walnut coffin, and above it is drawn an image of Father David. Buried in the monasteries are also many Georgian metropolitans, Czar Alexander I, Czarina Ketevan, and others. Last year, according to Father Michael of Rustavi Church, a new church was discovered under the monastery.
During the Soviet period, tank units used the area for military exercises and a firing ground. The effects of the explosions and the vibrations damaged the structures in the area of Father David Garedja’s monastery. The ancient churches were slowly being destroyed. Now, due to the country’s hard economic conditions, it has not been possible to restore these ancient treasures from the past. The thirteen Assyrian Fathers who came from Nisibin, Edessa and other centers of the Assyrian Church of the East in the 5th-6th centuries penetrated into many inaccessible regions of Georgia, and in subsequent centuries the Church’s missionaries spread Christianity to all of Asia. They brought the light of Christianity to Georgia and their souls were the source of brightness during their life. After their deaths they left their sacred bones as relics to the Georgian Church. Each of them could say "I did my best for my Assyrian Christian faith."
Translated by Alla Bet-Sarad and Helen Inviyanova
- M. Sabinin, "The History of the Georgian Church to the 6th Century", St. Petersburg, 1877 (in Russian).
- "The Desert of Saint David Garedja", Tbilisi, 1984 (in Georgian).
- "The Life of Saint Sheeo Mqwime". Publication of Tsilkan Eparchy, Tbilisi, 1996 (in Georgian).
- David Lang, "Lives and Legends of the Georgian Saints", 1956 (in English).