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The Orthodox Church of Georgia

Georgia, which is centered in the Caucasus mountains at the eastern end of the Black Sea, has a civilization that reaches back to ancient times. Due in large part to the missionary activity of St. Nino, a woman from a prominent Cappadocian family, the kingdom of Kartli (in eastern Georgia, also known as Iberia) adopted the Christian faith as its state religion, according to received tradition, in 337. Western Georgia, then a part of the Roman Empire, became Christian through a gradual process that was virtually complete by the 5th century.

The Jerusalem liturgy of St. James was celebrated in Kartli, at first in Greek, but in Georgian by the 6th century. The Byzantine liturgy was always used in West Georgia, changing from Greek to Georgian in the 8th or 9th century. East Georgia adopted the Byzantine liturgy soon after East and West Georgia were combined into a single kingdom and Catholicosate in 1008.

The church in Kartli was at first dependent on the Patriarchate of Antioch, but it was established as an independent church by King Vakhtang Gorgaslan in 467. The Georgian Church’s reception of the Council of Chalcedon (451) and its Christological definition was delayed in part by its close relations with the Armenian Church, and by the debate over the council within the Byzantine Empire. By the end of the 6th century the Georgians had begun to side with the Church of Constantinople, and to support the decrees of Chalcedon. The Georgians and Armenians split definitively at the Third Council of Dvin in 607. This council elected Armenian Catholicos Abraham, who advocated the condemnation of Chalcedon and the Georgians who had come to support it.

Monasticism began to flourish in Georgia in the 6th century and reached its zenith in the 10th to 12th centuries. The monasteries became important centers of missionary and cultural activity. Georgians founded the Iviron monastery in the late 10th century on Mount Athos, where many important religious works were translated from Greek into Georgian. There were also contacts with monasteries in Jerusalem and Mount Sinai.

From the 11th to the 13th centuries, Georgia underwent a golden age during which a rich Christian literature was developed in the Georgian language. But this came to an end when the country was devastated by the invasions of Genghis Khan in the 13th century and Tamerlane in the 15th century. In the period from 1500 to 1800 Georgia underwent a cultural renaissance, largely because the rival Ottomans and Persians kept each other from gaining full control over the country. New contacts were developed with the West and Russia.

In 1801 Russia annexed a portion of Georgia, and would control the entire country within a decade. After the Patriarch died in 1811, the Russians abolished the Patriarchate. The Georgian church was then administered from St. Petersburg by the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church through a special exarch. The 30 dioceses of the church were reduced to five, and the Georgian language was suppressed in the seminaries and in the liturgy, being replaced by Russian or Slavonic.

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