In the sixth century, the Georgian people were relatively young in the Christian faith, whose presence might have seemed tenuous. Widespread conversion of the eastern heartland, Iberia, began a mere two centuries before when St Nino, a wandering nun from Cappadocia, brought the Gospel to the Chosroid monarchy. Paganism lingered still in the mountains, and the Chosroids were vassals of an ardently Zoroastrian empire, Sassanid Persia. Many of Iberia’s most powerful nobles were Persian aristocrats who espoused–and sometimes violently spread–the religion of their homeland.
Georgian politics, meanwhile, played in the overlapping shadows of Persia and her rival Rome, and despite Persian regional dominance, the Chosroid royal family looked west to the political center of their new faith. Tensions between Georgians and their Persian overlords were catalyzed into war during the reign of King Vakhtang I, when an Ibero-Persian noble killed his Christian wife, Shushanik, an Armenian princess renowned for her saintliness. Vakhtang executed the noble. The war did not go well for Georgia, and King Vakhtang died in battle. His successors lost most of their independence. Before he died, however, Vakhtang secured the ecclesiastical promotion of the head of the Georgian Church, the bishop of Mstkheta, to catholicos. This essentially granted the Georgian Church recognition by Constantinople as a self-governing body.
To the south, Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) was home to the Assyrian people. They spoke the language of Jesus Christ–Aramaic–and had converted early to Christianity, yet they too were ruled by the intermittently hostile Persian Empire. The Persian emperors eventually granted recognition to the Assyrian Church; however, they insisted that the Church sever its ties with Rome, isolating Assyrian Christians from many of the theological revolutions occurring in the west. In the late fifth century, the emperor executed the Assyrian catholicos and put his support behind the Nestorian movement, a theological faction arising from Antioch that had been denounced as heretical by the clerical hierarchy of the west.
During this period of upheaval, many Assyrian priests and monks migrated from Mesopotamia, establishing churches and monasteries throughout Asia. According to tradition, thirteen of them traveled to Georgia from Edessa, led by a priest named John. The Iberian catholicos in Mtskheta welcomed these missionaries, who then spread out across Eastern Georgia. John settled in Zedazeni in the mountains above Mtskheta, while his followers each found a corner of Georgia wherein to evangelize and do good works. They each founded a monastery, where they were later buried and are still venerated to this day.
Of these thirteen remembered fathers, five settled within the boundaries of modern Kakheti: David of Gareja, Abibos of Nekresi, Joseph of Alaverdi, Stephen of Khirsa, and Zenon of Ikalto.
We know the most about David, whose feast is celebrated in Georgia the first Thursday after Easter. He could be considered the Georgian equivalent of St Francis of Assisi; he lived peacefully with his disciples and with nature. According to legend, he drank the milk of does and played with their fawns, and even expressed pity for a dragon destroyed by God. He founded a significant monastery on Mount Gareja in the desert; all the monks who wished to follow his rule carved their own cells out of the rock. The monastery became a center of art and learning.
The Gareja Monastery was destroyed several times, notably by the Mongols in the 13th century. In 1616, Persian soldiers slaughtered the entire community of monks, reputedly amounting to some 6000 souls, and destroyed the monastic library. It was rebuilt within fifty years, and remained active until the Russians closed it down and turned the area into a military training camp and firing range. Although today the site is endangered by a border dispute with Azerbaijan, Georgian monks again live in those same caves.
Abibos traveled to Nekresi in the eastern mountains and worked to convert the mountain tribes. According to legend, he was influential in the conversion of the Dagestanis. However, he fell afoul of the Persian military governor for his denunciations of Zoroastrian fire-worship, and was beaten to death with stones. His feast day is December 12.
Nekresi is the subject of one famous story: During the Arab invasions, a Muslim army assembled to sack the monastery. In response, the villagers, knowing Muslim revulsion toward swine, killed their pigs and spread their skins around the monastery. The Arabs decided to withdraw and go someplace else. Because of this deliverance, pigs are occasionally sacrificed at Nekresi, the only church in Georgia where this is permitted.
Joseph, who carried a relic of the True Cross, made his way to the desolate plain of Alaverdi and lived there as a hermit. A nobleman passing through on a hunt was impressed by the Assyrian’s piety, and paid for the construction of a church on a site formerly used for moon-worship. Soon, a community of monks had formed around Joseph, who died surrounded by many disciples. His feast day is 28 September. Alaverdi is still one of the most important religious sites in Kakheti and the site of Georgia’s second-tallest church.
Of the other two, little is known. Stephen preached throughout Kakheti, and started his own monastic community at Khirsa, in modern Tibaani near Tsnori. The Khirsa church is beautifully placed and visible far and wide, located on the ridge overlooking the Alazani valley. The monastery was closed by the Russians, and only reopened several years ago. One modern Georgian saint, Giorgi Mkheidze from Racha, lived for a time at Khirsa, and was reputedly beaten and forcibly shaved at this monastery by Soviet agents in 1924 for his nationalist agitation.
Zenon‘s monastery at Ikalto hosted a famous school called the Academy, which served as a medieval center of learning to rival Gelati in western Georgia. The famous national poet Shota Rustaveli attended this Academy, according to locals. Much of the remains of the complex, which included three churches, has been recently excavated.
As for the Assyrian Fathers outside Kakheti, some settled near John’s original monastery at Zedazeni, in the greater Mtskheta area (Tsilkani, Samtavisi, and Shio-mghvime). Another’s monastery is in Martkopi, near Tbilisi. One founded a church in Urbnisi and reputedly had some connection with Stepantsminda. The most obscure of the thirteen lived at Breti (near Gori) and Ulumbo (in the hills of Shida Kartli).
Georgian Educational Videos on the Assyrian Fathers