The Peaceful Liberation of the Holy Places in the XIV Century

II - 3 The Georgians

The Georgians are the inhabitants of a region southwest of the Caucasus known as Georgia. It is an area of seventy thousand square kilometers with a population of about five million people. Since 1804 it has been part of Russia. In times past it was also known as Colchidan, Iberia, and Albania. The Georgians were converted to Christianity very early. They were represented at the Council of Nicea (325). Ecclesiastically they were dependant upon the Patriarchate of Antioch. Politically they were under the protection of the Byzantine Emperor. All this explains why their clergy had adopted the Greek Rite and language in their liturgy.
The Georgians were victims to the invasions of the Arabs, the Turks, the Persians, and the Mongols, all of whom attempted to impose Islam upon them. Besides being brave in combat, the Georgians were also steadfast in adhering to their Christian faith. Despite these many calamities, Georgia was a constant source of ecclesiastical vocations. Already at the end of the Fourth Century the area had provided many monks found throughout the Byzantine Empire: Antioch, Cyprus, Bitinia, on Mt. Athos, as well as in Constantinople.
They founded numerous monasteries in Palestine. Among those in the area of Jerusalem was St. Saba in the Judean wilderness. Other noted monasteries were the convent near the place of the martyrdom of St. James the Great (sold to the Armenians in the Seventeenth Century) and the Monastery of the Holy Cross, mentioned previously, which was built or restored around 1040. There were also many others of lesser importance.
The Georgians were a large and powerful presence in the Holy Land. By the end of 1050 they succeeded in entering into the service of the Holy Places. In that same year their King, Bagrat, asked the Emperor of Constantinople (Constantine IX Monomachus) for half of Calvary. It was probably the southern half. They also asked for a Georgian bishop for Jerusalem. There was a Georgian bishop present in Jerusalem until the arrival of the Turks (1071). No pilgrim of the Crusader era (1099-1291) has noted the presence of the Georgians in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, probably because they were included in the liturgy of the Arab clergy of the Greek Rite for certain feasts of the year.
In the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries the Georgians enjoyed a privileged condition above the other Christians. This was especially so from the year 1250 onward, that is, during the dynasty of the Mameluke Sultans. James de Vitry (1226) wrote that while most Christians entered Jerusalem with difficulty and lived a most tenuous existence, the Georgians were able to move about freely. In fact, when Georgian pilgrims arrived they entered the city with flags unfurled and held high. They were not required to pay the tax which was imposed upon other Christians.(*36)
Many Georgians served in the Egyptian army, protecting both Egypt and its dependant territories. They formed a corps of faithful and brave soldiers. For that reason they had a certain influence in the government at Cairo and their humble fellow-countrymen were able to enjoy their protection and a privileged position. The Sultan En-Naser knew well that there were also thousands of Georgian cavalry and infantry in the Mongol army of Khazan. This did not displease him. He also knew that there were other brave and loyal Georgians devoted to his Mameluke regime in his own military force.
For these reasons it is easily understood how the Georgian religious had the faith and courage to ask the Sultan of Egypt for the Church of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem, for Calvary, for the presence of two religious in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and how they obtained possession of the keys to the Edicule of the Tomb of the Lord.(*37)


*36 - Iacobus de Vitriaco, Historia Ierosolymitana seu Orientalis, c. LXXIX (De Sandoli, Itinera, III, 352-353).

*37 - Janin, "Les Géorgiens à Jérusalem", 32 and 211.

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