A new step in the history of Christian monasticism in eastern Georgia is associated with thirteen Syrian monks, led by John, who came to Iberia (K‘art‘li) in the mid-sixth century C.E. They were the bearers of a Syrian tradition that implied the combination of an heroic ascetic endeavor and an apostolic mission. They came as spiritual heirs of St. Nino, a Cappadocian virgin who converted Georgia to Christianity in the beginning of the fourth century. Their vitae were first composed by a certain hagiographer named John-Martyrius, but this work does not survive. In the tenth century, the head of the Georgian Church and the distinguished ecclesiastical writer Arsenius II (955–980) depicted their lives and deeds based on different oral and written sources. Later, other unknown authors also wrote additional hagiographical works about these Syrian ascetics. At the beginning of their ascetic and ecclesiastical careers, the thirteen Syrian monks settled on Zedazeni mountain with their spiritual supervisor, John. John later sent them to different corners of the Iberian kingdom in opposition to paganism and Zoroastrianism. They founded monasteries and became influential religious leaders during the second half of the sixth century. Through their vitae, composed by Arsenius and other unknown authors, it is possible to trace the process of transforming the small ascetic communities established by Syrian monks into great feudal organizations. These monasteries had an important impact on the Georgian social and cultural landscape during the Middle Ages.
From the 320s C.E.,1 the newly established church of Iberia (K‘art‘li)2 became a major religious force in Georgia along with Georgian paganism3 and Zoroastrianism.4 The religious controversies existing in late antique Georgia (the kingdoms of Iberia and Colchis)5 were cleverly used by Byzantium and Persia in their favor, and the political orientation of Iberia was frequently conditioned by these controversies.
The Kingdom of Iberia (K‘art‘li), located at the eastern border of the Roman Empire to the north of Armenia, always played an active role in the political controversies of the Caucasus and the Middle East (Figure 1). In the third century B.C.E., the newly founded kingdom of Iberia reached a high point of its power, but it came under Roman influence after the campaigns of Pompey in 65 B.C.E.6 In the second century C.E., the Iberian kingdom grew strong politically again and resisted Roman influence. Thereafter, however, the region became the arena of the political and military struggle between the Roman and Persian empires. Conversion to Christianity strengthened Georgia's orientation to Rome, but in 363 Persia finally succeeded in exercising dominion over the eastern Georgian kingdom of Iberia. The western Georgian kingdom of Colchis, meanwhile, remained under Roman governance.7 As a result, the Georgian church had to resist Persian political and religious pressure. In the fifth century C.E., during the reign of king Vaxtang Gorgasali,8 the ancient kingdom of Iberia once again tried to recover its glory, but in vain. At the end of the fifth century, it lost the battle against Sassanian Persia, and in the sixth century Georgian kings were still trying to free their kingdom from Sassanian dominance. The growth of Persian influence ultimately led to the abolishment of the local royal dynasty in Iberia.9
It was during that unstable and turbulent era that thirteen Syrian monks came to Eastern Georgia. The exact date of their arrival is not known,10 but most scholars assume that they arrived in K‘art‘li in the 540s, during the reign of king P‘arsman VI (542–557).11 One of the Syrian Fathers, Anthony of Martqop‘i, joined them during the siege of Edessa in 545.12 In Iberia, since they met king P‘arsman, enthroned in 542, the Syrian Fathers could not have arrived earlier than this date; therefore presumably they arrived between 542–544, and most likely in 543.13
The missionary and monastic life of these Syrian monks was a major step in the development of Georgian monasticism. As a result of their activities in the country, the influence of Holy Men and monastic communities over the cultural and political climate of Georgia increased significantly in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages. The remarkable achievements of these Syrian monks were conditioned by the various specific social changes that took place in Late Antique Georgia. According to traditional assumptions deeply rooted in nineteenth-century and Soviet Georgian historiography, these Syrian hermits were considered to be the pioneers of organized monastic life in Georgia.14 However, now this once firmly established conviction has slowly been changing. Different kinds of sources confirm the existence of individual hermits and ascetic communities in Iberia since the fourth century C.E.15
Georgian monasticism had diverse origins—it did not generate from one ascetic leader or from one group of Holy Men.16 Moreover, neither of the hagiographic works describing the lives of the thirteen Syrian monks claims that these Syrian monks were the pioneers of monastic life in Georgia. Nevertheless, monasteries had counted for little in the social and cultural life of Georgia during the early period (the fourth and fifth centuries) of Georgian monasticism, unlike in Egypt, Syria, and Asia Minor.17 The Syrian Fathers inflamed the quest for ascetic life with new gusto, and a revival of Georgian monasticism began. The role of ascetics rapidly increased after the establishment of the influential monastic communities by these notable hermits, and this process was deeply connected with subsequent social transformations in the Iberian kingdom.
The origin of Christian monasticism in Georgia was conditioned by several factors: first, foreign influence spreading from the neighboring regions of Iberia and Colchis (the main producers of the ascetic ideals spreading in Georgia were Syria and Pontus-Cappadocia); second, the local desire for ascetic practice, so obviously seen in The Life of Peter the Iberian, in which the hagiographer presents the whole Georgian royal family of Peter as an ascetic community;18 third, social factors also had a great influence. The deconstructing of old proto-feudal social structures caused the liberation and marginalization of many members of the lower classes who did not fit in the newly-established social hierarchy. It seems that they found their shelter in the church (i.e., through monasteries). These factors could explain the extensive flow into the newly-founded monasteries in sixth-century Georgia.
The Syrian Fathers brought their native tradition to Georgia; Syrian monastic tradition had a significant influence on the Eastern Mediterranean.19 Traditionally, the emergence of Syrian monasticism is associated with famous Syrian ascetics such as Jacob of Nisibis, who became the bishop of Nisibis around 300 and died in 337/338,20 and Julian Saba, who founded the first coenobitic community in Syria and died around 367.21 Byzantine texts tend to present the beginnings of Syrian monasticism as following the pattern for Egyptian monasticism. According to this tradition, the genesis of monasticism in Syria resembled the start of monastic life in Egypt,22 but the beginnings of monastic life in Egypt and in Syria were in fact more complicated and diverse. Later sources neglect the existence of the Syrian ascetic consecrated lifestyle, or what Sebastian Brock called “proto-monasticism.”23
Scholars have sought to examine the distinct features of Syrian monasticism and the distinct conception of the desert in Syria. According to Sebastian Brock's claim, “an ascetic understanding of Christianity in the Syrian Orient was fundamental from earliest times.”24 Peter Brown also speaks about the oddities of Syrian monasticism:
In Syria, a significantly different image of the desert lay in the back of men's minds. It reached back over a millennium to the story of Gilgamesh and Enkiddu. The desert was the land where men and beasts had once mingled in the state of pre-social liberty. As a result, many ascetics were content to sink back into that state, by living with an angelic freedom that resembled that of beasts, wandering up the mountainside to graze, with the sheep, on the natural grasses.25
Monasticism in neighboring Armenia was also greatly influenced by Syrian monastic life. The juxtaposition of different sources reveals the similarities between the development of Armenian and Georgian monasticism. The materials about fourth- and fifth-century Armenian monasticism are more extensive and informative than for Georgian monasticism. Like Georgians, Armenians also appeared in the Holy Land at an early date, and there were a great number of Armenian monks in the monastery of St. Euthymius near Jerusalem.26 The earliest sources, such as Koriwn's Life of Mashtots’ and canons of local ecclesiastical councils, provide valuable information about the formative age of Armenian monasticism and Syrian influence on ascetic habits in Armenia.27 As in Georgia, Syrian monks in Armenia influenced the development of monastic life. The famous Armenian ascetic Gind of Tarôn was the disciple of the great Syrian ascetic Daniel;28 and as in Georgia, monasticism in Armenia in the fifth century was organized according to the patterns of St. Basil the Great.29 Armenian monasticism could also have influenced Georgian monasticism. Though we do not have any direct and informative sources about this influence, the 15th chapter of the Life of Mastots’ gives us some clues. Koriwn narrates the visit of the great ascetic and teacher Mashtots’ in Georgia,30 which could indicate some relation between Armenian and Georgian monastic traditions (if this full episode is not a later interpolation).
In order to understand fully the religious connections between the Caucasus and the Middle East and the development of Georgian monasticism, it is important to mention the missionary trip of Syrian monks to Caucasian Albania. As Armenian Catholicos Iohanes indicates in the Book of Letters, groups of Syrian fathers came to Albania to preach Nestorianism or Chalcedonianism.31 Albanian monasticism thrived in the Holy Land and it, in turn, had a great influence on Albanian culture. In the Caucasus, ascetics actively engaged in the struggle between Chalcedonians and anti-Chalcedonians. Unlike in Georgia, however, the activities of these Chalcedonian missionaries could not resist Monophysitism in Albania. This struggle was especially sharpened in the sixth century, when the revival of Monophysitism and growing Armenian influence caused the decay of Albanian identity.32
The mission of Syrian monks in Ethiopia, in the Aksumite kingdom, is also relevant. The monastic and missionary activities of the nine Syrian Fathers who came to the Aksumite kingdom under the spiritual leadership of St. Abuna Aregawi during the reign of Ella Amida very much resembles the missions of Syrian monks in the Iberian and Albanian kingdoms. The pattern of Syrian missionary ascetics is similar over the vast religious and cultural realm of the Late Antique Mediterranean.33
Though monastic life existed in Iberia before the sixth century, the revival of Georgian monasticism is deeply associated with the Syrian monks who settled there. That there were thirteen (John of Zedazeni and his disciples) monks displays a certain symbolism (like Christ and his Twelve Apostles), which is probably due to later hagiographical elaboration. As the oldest Sinaitic redaction of the vita of the Syrian Fathers reveals, Syrian monks numbered more than thirteen. The redaction preserved the name of Theodosius of Mrexi, who was the son of a judge in Edessa and served there as deacon. He met John and his disciples when they arrived in Edessa on their way to Georgia, and Theodosius joined them in their trip to Iberia.34 John's followers were Šio of Mġvime, David of Gareja, Abibos of Nekresi, Jesse of Cilkani, Joseph of Alaverdi, Isidore of Samt‘avisi, Stephen of Xirsa, Zeno of Iqalt‘o, Thaddeus of Step‘ancminda, Pyrrhus of Bret‘i, Michael of Ulumbo, Theodosius of Mrexi and Elijah the deacon.35 Their number increased to fifteen when Anthony of Martqop‘i joined them in 545.36
VARIOUS REDACTIONS OF THE
The hagiographical cycle of the Lives of the Syrian Fathers, which is preserved today in the ancient Georgian language,37 consists of extremely varied redactions and recensions. The extant vitae are written in the extensive, brief, metaphrastic, and synaxarium versions. As Mariam Chkhartishvili has argued, John Martyrius had already created the original vitae in the sixth century. Compared to the later versions, these had a stronger historical foundation. Unfortunately, these early vitae do not survive.38 Later, a new redaction of the Lives of the Syrian Fathers was created (the exact date is unknown, but presumably it was in the ninth or in the beginning of the tenth century) which has survived in the St. Catherine monastery of Sinai (manuscript Sin-50).39 In the tenth century, the distinguished Georgian ecclesiastical figure and erudite hagiographer Arsenius II (955–980)40 revised John Martyrius’ original texts and created hagiographical works about John of Zedazeni, Šio of Mġvime (and his disciple Evagrius), and Jesse of Cilkani.41 Arsenius, the catholicos of the Georgian church,42 applied Biblical rhetoric and sacred discourse based on the Biblical and classical hagiographical literary models for didactic reasons.43 From the text, we can tell that Arsenius especially used the Life of Saba the Sanctified (and maybe other works by Cyril of Scythopolis) because he cites from this vita. The authors of the vitae of the other Syrian Fathers are unknown, and their work survives in later recensions. In the eighteenth century, elaborated redactions of The Lives of Thirteen Syrian Fathers were included in the new redaction of K'art'lis C‘xovreba (History of K'art'li).44
The vitae possess all the classical features characteristic of Christian hagiography. When creating these writings, Arsenius had the didactic intention of fostering the cult of the great Syrian spiritual leaders settled in Iberia. The introduction that Arsenius prefaced to his treatment of John of Zedazeni shows that he was an extraordinary theologian: he reviews important theological issues and explains the need for exemplary lives of Holy Men. The sacred fiction and historical events are almost inseparably fused in these hagiographical works, but some historical information can still be traced. Since the middle of the nineteenth century, a growing body of scholarship has analysed the vitae, revealing the cultural, social, and political conditions of late antique and medieval Georgia.
Medieval Georgian literature attaches great importance to the Syrian monks. They were represented as the great imitators of Biblical heroes such as Moses, Elijah, Elisha, and John the Baptist, as was typical for Christian hagiography.45 Readers might be impressed by their startlingly pristine austerity, superhuman ascetic self-denial, and desire for a pious life dedicated to Christ. This kind of asceticism was deeply rooted in the Bible.46
Arsenius and other unknown authors of the Lives created images of Christian heroes through applying Biblical and classical hagiographical models. But here, examined in a broader context, hagiography expresses another interesting aspect of medieval Christian ascetic discourse: Every hagiographical legend (through its text) is a part of specific saint's cult, and every hagiographer strives to reestablish this cult.47 Arsenius and other hagiographers modified the original texts created by John Martyrius for didactic and theological reasons, and they intended these revised texts mainly for public reading during the lectio divina or the liturgy. In this way, they more broadly extended knowledge about the lives and deeds of the Syrian Fathers. This fact reveals the real intellectual power of these biographies. As Averil Cameron has suggested, the hagiographers caused a bilateral influence: the texts were influenced by the cultural paradigms of their times, and reality was impacted and even formed by these sacred texts and biographies.48 This circumstance perfectly explains Arsenius’ intention to revise the original texts. He considered the exemplary Lives of the Holy Men and the expression of Biblical topoi to be more important than the accurate historicity of the narrative.
The Life of John of Zedazeni has been preserved in three different editions (and survived in later manuscripts; see Figure 2). The oldest one is that of Arsenius and is incomplete: it is interrupted at the episode of healing the sick man. This vita presented not only the life of John but the lives of his disciples as well. The second edition is a shortened version of Arsenius’ writing, while the third one is the metaphrastic (extensive) edition based on the second brief one.49 Only two editions of the Lives of Šio and Evagrius have been preserved—one brief and one extended. The brief edition of Šio's vita is an abridged version of Arsenius’ lost writing, which included a description of the lives of John's disciples.50 The twelfth-century extended edition was created by an unknown author as a result of revising the brief version. This latter version preserved the name of the first biographer of the Syrian Fathers—John Martyrius.51 Two redactions of the Life of David of Gareja have survived: one brief and one metaphrastical (dating from the twelfth century). The brief one is the oldest, and it was used as an archetype of the metaphrastical Life, which was created by the order of Onuphrius, the twelfth-century Abbot of Gareja monastery. The author of this vita is unknown.52
One of the thirteen Syrian Fathers, Abibos, became the bishop of Nekresi in the Kaxet‘i region of Eastern Georgia. Two versions of his Martyrdom survive: a brief one (from a thirteenth-century manuscript) and an extended one (preserved in a seventeenth-century manuscript). According to Ilia Abuladze, among the redactions of the Martyrdom, priority should be given to the extended one, because it is more ancient and authentic.53 Recently, the French scholar Bernard Outtier discovered a fragment of the Martyrdom in Matenadaran (Armenia's Mesrop Mashtots Institute of Ancient Manuscripts). He considers it to be a new redaction of this writing.54 Zaza Aleksidze has recently suggested that the Martyrdom was originally written by the bishop of Nekresi in the seventh or the first half of the eighth century.55
As mentioned above, the Life of Jesse of Cilkani was first described by Arsenius II in the Life of John of Zedazeni. Later in the eighteenth century, his synaxarium vita was written; another version of Jesse's Life was created by the famous Georgian ecclesiastic author and the head of the Georgian church, Catholicos Bessarion Baratashvili-Orbelishvili (1723; 1725–1737).56 The ancient version of the vita of the fourteenth Syrian Father, Anthony of Martqop‘i, has not survived. We have a later synaxarium version of his Life preserved in a seventeenth-century collection (manuscript A-1582). This synaxarium vita, concerning the life of Anthony, also depicted the story of a miraculous icon of Christ “not made by hands,” which Anthony brought from Edessa. Later, the brief vita of Anthony was created on the basis of the extended one.57 Despite the fact that the Life of Anthony was written later, his cult has been attested in much more ancient sources.58 Hippolyte Delehaye considered the historicity of Anthony Martqop'i highly reliable.59
The Life of Joseph of Alaverdi was written by the eighteenth-century female author Macrina.60 This vita is likely to be based on more ancient sources. At the beginning of the vita, Macrina expressed her concern that Joseph's previous biography had been lost due to the frequent devastation of the country and the destruction of monasteries by foreign invaders.61 Macrina's work reveals some details about Joseph's godly activities and miracles. The Lives of other Syrian Fathers are preserved in only very brief synaxarium versions. These vitae have a conventional character and do not reveal any specific historical information at all. Nevertheless, scholars often use these writings to describeof the activities of Thaddeus of St‘epancminda, Isidore of Samt‘avaisi, Stephen of Xirsa, and Zeno of Iqalt‘o.
The expeditions organized in 1975, 1990, and 1994 to Mount Sinai by the Georgian National Centre of Manuscripts (then the “Korneli Kekelidze Institute of Manuscripts of the Georgian Academy of Sciences”) discovered a number of new Georgian manuscripts. One of them (the tenth-century manuscript Sin-50), along with the new recension of Mok‘c‘evay K‘art‘lisay (Conversion of K‘art‘li), includes the oldest survived edition of the Lives of the Syrian Fathers. It mainly describes the activities of Saint John and Saint Šio and the martyrdom of Saint Abibos of Nekresi in brief.62
GENERAL CHARACTERIZATION OF THE THIRTEEN SYRIAN FATHERS
During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, two major issues regarding the Syrian hermits became matters of great significance: their religious identity and their ethnic background. When studying the historical images of these great ascetic figures, scholars have expressed many objections concerning the sources. In the nineteenth century, Georgia was undergoing a process of renewed nationalism under the pressure of the Russian Empire. Some Georgian intellectuals argued for the actual Georgian ethnicity of these Syrian monks.63 In an article published in 1926, the famous Georgian philologist Korneli Kekelidze reviewed the religious and ethnic identities of the Syrian Fathers. According to his hypothesis, these Syrian monks were Georgian monophysite hermits who escaped from Justinian's persecution.64 Recently, these assertions have been mostly refuted—currently most scholars agree that these great hermits were dyophysite monks of Syrian origin,65 not Georgian monophysites.
The main purpose of the thirteen Syrian Fathers was missionary work: preaching against Georgian paganism and Persian Zoroastrianism. According to the hagiographical narratives, they inherited the mission of Saint Nino, who had brought Christianity to Georgia. Despite the fact that Christianity had been present in Iberia for two hundred years, Georgian paganism was still powerful, especially among Georgian highlanders.66 Meanwhile, the Persian Empire, which had always made claims on the Christian Caucasus, was spreading Zoroastrianism in Iberia,67 Armenia, and Albania through Zoroastrian missionaries.68
Despite the value of the Lives of the Syrian monks, they are preserved only in ancient Georgian, which makes the basic narratives of their lives and deeds inaccessible for English-speaking readers. It is therefore useful to cover their main narratives in more detail. I will focus on three major figures: John of Zedazeni, Šio of Mġvime, and David of Gareja, because their Lives are longer and more informative then the other vitae, and they are much better preserved than the hagiographies of other Syrian Fathers.
It is hard to distinguish the authentic parts of the narratives from later accretions. At least the geography of the Lives should be historically accurate (archeological evidence supports the claim of the vitae that monastic life in Zedazeni, Šio-Mġvime, and Gareja began in the early sixth century). Also the historical reality of sixth-century Georgia is more or less accurately reflected in the Lives (e.g., King P‘arsman or the social landscape of early medieval Georgia). Of course hagiographical fiction occupies a great part of the narrative presented below; certainly the images of the Syrian Fathers are products of literary elaboration across centuries of medieval Georgian literary cycles, but still we can see a glimpse of historical reality.
JOHN OF ZEDAZENI
After a comprehensive and original theological introduction, Arsenius begins to describe John's life as follows:
This blessed John was from the country of Mesopotamia and with the guidance of the Holy Spirit came to the country of K'art'li, near by the Capital City of Mc‘xet‘a, he who devoted himself to Christ from his youth.69
According to Arsenius in the early years of his youth, John began the monastic life and acquired an ability to work wonders, which made him famous in his native Syria.70 According to Arsenius, he was afraid of the most dangerous passion, arrogance, as is well-known from ascetic literature and monastic practice. For this reason he left the primary place of his monastic life and went to the desert near Antioch. Together with his followers he stopped in one of the caves in the desert— that is, he already had disciples before leaving the world. As the number of monks increased, however, the perennial theme and problem of hagiography surfaced: a return to anchoritic life. Any great ascetic strives to return to the original condition of severe anachoresis and thus he always “runs away.” A hermit becomes well-known for his gift of wonder-working and prophecy; followers begin to gather around him; crowds of people ask for healing; and the hermit, when his initial calm is violated, searches for renewed seclusion. Clearly Arsenius’ intention was to present the same desire for solitude in the case of John of Zedazeni. Arsenius narrates that together with his followers, he settled down in a desert cave (like Julian Sabbas) and periodically sent one of his followers to the city for food. Yet John failed to hide himself, because according to the Holy Scripture “whosoever will humble himself he shall be exalted” (Matthew 23:12); thus the name of John became famous again and as a result, he finally decided to leave Syria and go to a foreign land.
Catholicos Arsenius II did not describe the Syrian period of John's life in detail, probably because this part of his life was depicted in the original and now-lost Life.71 John desired to go alone, but his disciples reminded him of the words of Elisha and refused to allow this. Arsenius here presents another hagiographical cliché: John of Zedazeni became like Elijah, while his followers became like those of Elisha—a classic model of relationship of spiritual leader and disciples (spudaioi) in Christian hagiography.72 The historical narration is made in the manner of the Bible, and Scriptural passages echo in each episode of the vitae.73 According to Arsenius, the Syrian Fathers came to K‘art‘li with “the guidance of the invisible force,” which once led the Magi towards the newly born infant Jesus in Bethlehem.74 According to the unknown author of the extended vita of John, he departed for Iberia “leaving his country and household like another Abraham, summoned by the divine voice.”75 According to the vast Vita of Šio of Mġvime, on their way to Georgia the thirteen Syrian Fathers met with Simeon Stylites the Younger (521–597) and received a blessing from him. Thus the Syrian Fathers came to Georgia.
Arsenius’ clear intention was to connect the Syrian monks who appeared in K‘art‘li as missionaries with the original story of Georgia's conversion. Arsenius relates that during the liturgy in Svetic‘xoveli (the temple of the life-giving pillar),76 a divine vision notified Catholicos Eulalios77 about the arrival of the Holy Fathers in Iberia.78 He met the monks in Mc‘xet‘a. Here the hagiographer creates another Biblical allusion as he describes how John, when meeting the Catholicos, began to speak Georgian and compares this episode with the miracle of Pentecost. Although this miraculous episode is clearly fictional, it is reasonable to think that the Syrian monks, having arrived in K'art'li, should have a meeting with the head of Georgian church.
According to the hagiographer, after meeting with the Catholicos, John, along with his followers, bowed down before the living pillar and prayed to God to show him the place for monastic and missionary activities.79 John and his disciples went on a pilgrimage, following the footsteps of St. Nino and exploring her life and missionary courage:
And they went to all the places where Blessed Nino had been, and kissed the ground and saw her as though she were still alive.80
Following the divine sign, John went to Zedazeni Mountain near Mc‘xet‘a. The intention of the hagiographer is not accidental: the sanctuary of the ancient Georgian deity of Zadeni81 had been a place of worship for centuries, and the influence of pagan cults and the traces of their practices were still visible. John settled here as a “desert-loving turtle-dove.”82
The Lives of Šio and Evagrius evince some interesting details emphasizing John's spiritual strength and courage. The hagiographer narrates how one day John saw a number of demons on Zedazeni Mountain from Mc‘xet‘a, and because of this demonic apparition floating above the mountain he decided to settle down there and exorcise the fallen angels.83 Although the Catholicos did not suggest this to him as a possible dwelling-place, John and his disciples nevertheless went to Zedazeni mountain and miraculously crossed the overflowing river of Aragvi in May. They first went to a Holy Cross that had been erected on a hilltop near Mc‘xet‘a84 and then turned to one of the caves of Zedazeni Mountain. There John settled and his disciples settled around him.85
Apart from the hagiographical fiction, the geographical location could be accurate. Archeological evidence reveals that the first church here was built at the end of the sixth century (or in the beginning of the seventh century),86 which supports the claim of the hagiographical texts. From these we find out that John did not wish to build the church or any other monastic building, but later, after John's death, his disciple T‘at‘a (T‘adeoz) built a church on the top of the mountain and another at the bottom of Zedazeni mountain (see below). Also, a sixth-century plate with a relief depicting monks was found during archeological surveys.87
There is, however, a slight inconsistency. According to the Life of John of Zedazeni, John had a constant desire for solitude and that is why he came to Iberia and sent his followers to different regions of the kingdom for preaching.88 According to the Lives of Šio and Evagrius, however, this activity was due not only to a wish for secluded life: back in Syria, divine revelation had instructed John to take a missionary trip to Iberia. On Zedazeni mountain, the divine vision appeared to John again: he saw the Virgin Mary and Saint Nino, who ordered him to send his disciples to different places to preach Christianity. This meaningful episode again shows the profound spiritual and providential link between St. Nino, who had converted Georgia, and the Syrian Fathers, who came to Iberia to complete her work.89 This link was an important invention of medieval Georgian literature, and it says more about the conceptions of later medieval Georgian authors than the Syrian Fathers’ original purpose. This inconsistency between the Life of John of Zedazeni and the vast Lives of Šio and Evagrius seriously complicates the question of the real historical circumstances around the arrival of these Syrian monks.
Before sending them to preach, John admonished his followers. Revaz Siradze considers John's admonition to be a separate writing included in the vita and calls it The Teaching of John of Zedazeni.90 Indeed, John's admonition seems to be a kind of theological-homiletical work, although it is hard to say now whether it was originally a separate work. The homily manifests the traditional and deep link between Christian eschatology and Christian asceticism, a link that was extremely strained in early Christianity91 and that monasticism inherited: one should mortify his body for the sake of the Lord, and he will be gloriously resurrected. The time of the second coming is near; earthly reality and the material world is illusory (a concept shared by pagans and Christians),92 so Christians should refuse sinful, bodily desires and transform their souls and bodies into vehicles of divine grace. The homily is important for the history of Georgian literature, for it has aspects of great originality, even if it is a product of later elaboration.
Arsenius continues, using Biblical symbolism: after the admonition of the followers, John gave them holy relics which he had brought from Syria93 and sent them to different corners of Iberia. This episode symbolizes Jesus’ act of sending away his Apostles to propagate the gospel throughout Judaea. The author of the metaphrastical vita compares the Syrian fathers to the Apostles and their missionary courage.94
John continued his anchoretic life with Elijah the deacon on Zedazeni mountain. The hagiographer impressively depicts John's heroic struggle against dark forces. Thanks to his spiritual merit he exorcized demons from Zedazeni mountain through prayers and the signum crucis. The demons moved to the north.95 John purified his dwelling with the help of his divine power; he tamed a fearsome bear, miraculously created a fresh spring, and transformed the Zedazeni mountain into a holy place like a paradise where men and beasts lived together in perfect harmony.96 This episode outlines the intimate relationship between nature and Holy Men, one of the major features of Christian hagiography.
It seems that John of Zedazeni remained a true anchorite until the end, dwelling as a hermit until the end of his courageous life. According to Catholicos Arsenius,
he did not wish to build that place, but he dwelt as it is the law of hermits; he found the small cave in the rock where he ended the wandering of his faithful life.97
When lying on his deathbed, John called his disciples, gave them spiritual instructions, and then passed away. John had wanted to be buried near his dwelling place, but Elijah the deacon and Thaddeus, who had built the monastery at the bottom of Zedazeni mountain, decided to take John's relics there; they put the holy body in a larnax, but after an earthquake, which they perceived as a divine warning about the replacement of John's grave, they returned his holy remains to the place of his original dwelling, where later Catholicos Clement built a new church.98 In the tenth century the church was reconstructed (Figure 3).99
ŠIO OF MĠVIME
According to the hagiographical cycle of the Syrian Fathers, Šio of Mġvime was one of John's distinguished disciples and the founder of one of the greatest medieval Georgian monasteries. Šio, like John of Zedazeni, was also originally Syrian: “He was from the country of Assyria, from the great city of God, Antioch,”100 The hagiographer depicts him as the son of religious, aristocratic parents. From early youth he learned Holy Scriptures and Christian theology:
And when he turned sixteen years old, he began to research the words of the Holy Books and used to sit and read unceasingly day and night.101
After his parents had taken monastic vows, Šio sold the family property, gave everything to the poor, and followed John. He was 20 years old at that time.102 As mentioned above, the Syrian monks initially settled down on Zedazeni mountain and spent four years there. Šio wished to start an eremitical life and asked John to give him the appropriate blessing.103 John and the Catholicos gave their blessing to his wish to live a reclusive life, and he settled down in a gorge west of Mc‘xet‘a.
The gorge was deep, without any comfort, waterless, full of beasts and venomous reptiles and their sight alone was terrifying for human nature.104
Presumably, the details of the spiritual relationship between Šio, John, and the Catholicos are the product of later imagination, but the core of these narratives—the geography of the Syrian monks’ itinerary, and Šio's among them—should be accurate. The architectural analysis conducted by Georgian Soviet art historian Giorgi Chubinashvili in the first half of the twentieth century reveals that the central church of the Šio-Mġvime monastery preserved until today belongs to the sixth century.105 This could be evidence for monastic activity in this very place in the sixth century, and it could prove, at the very least, the accuracy of the description of geographical locations in later hagiographical texts.
According to the hagiographical narrative, Šio had lived together with John in Syria for 20 years and for four years on Zedazeni, and only then asked his confessor to bless him for the hermit's life. Even in this case John did not take the decision on his own, but he also sent him to the Catholicos. Only after receiving his consent did John give Šio his blessing to begin a life of radical seclusion. Šio settled down in a “completely comfortless desert.” The hagiographer presents him as zealous ascetic: he “completed 60 days without receiving any food or drink.”106
Here another odd paradox characteristic to these hagiographical texts comes to light: The hagiographers depict every Syrian monk who settled in Iberia (not only Šio) as choosing the anchoretic life, while their spiritual leaders also instructed them actively to preach the gospel because of the shaky condition of Christianity and the recurrent forays of paganism and Zoroastrianism into K'art'li. Medieval Georgian authors constructed an impressive and yet paradoxical combination of eremitical renouncement and lively missionary activity.
And there are more miraculous events: after spending another night in prayers, as it began to dawn, Šio saw an indescribable light in his cave. The hagiographer then describes the revelation to Šio of the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist. Both of them were major figures in Christian imagination, and both of them were influential Biblical models in medieval Georgian culture: the Virgin Mary as Mother of all Christians and the heavenly patron of Georgia, and the Virgin Mary as the enduring Biblical image in Georgian hagiography, revealed herself both to Saint Nino and the Syrian Fathers and instructed them in their apostolic mission. The second Biblical charismatic model, John the Baptist, is the main and inimitable archetype of Christian hermits, the classical Biblical example (together with Elijah) of reclusion and the anchoretic life used by Christian hagiographers for centuries. This model also had a long-standing tradition in Syrian tradition in particular.107 The Virgin Mary predicted to Šio the prosperity of the desert and the growth of the monks’ numbers: “And this desert will become full of God-bearing men and they will imitate your way of life.“108
The hagiographer indicates that the prophecy of The Virgin Mary came true, and the Great Prince Evagrius (the trustee of king P‘arsman) became Šio's first disciple; then other followers joined them until their number reached 2,000. In the early period, the monastery of Šio-Mġvime should be considered a primitive ascetic community. At first, the local aristocrat Evagrius became Šio's disciple, and soon many other brothers joined them. Šio proceeded with his ascetic life in his cave, while Evagrius dwelt in a separate one like the other brothers. Initially, the brotherhood did not even have a church. Šio's biographer described the typical process of the transformation of the primitive ascetic community into the classic model of a great lavra.109 Soon, it became necessary to build a church in the community:
Afterwards the brethren began to multiply; and they were powerless because they did not have a church where they could gather at the glorious day of the Lord, and for this reason they asked blessed Šio to order the building of church.110
Through divine instruction, Šio found an appropriate place for the church, and the brothers began to construct the church which still stands today in the renewed monastery of Šio-Mġvime.
The hagiographer then relates the interesting meeting of Šio and king P‘arsman. The authentic character of this episode is likely because it clearly depicts the place of monasteries in early feudal Georgia. Evagrius, whom Šio admitted to monastic vows, was a trusted man of the king. According to the unknown author of Lives of Šio and Evagrius, king P‘arsman left Evagrius as the ruler of Iberia when he, together with Emperor Justinian, went to fight against “tribe of Taskuns.”111 When the king returned to K‘art‘li, he learned that Evagrius had taken monastic vows. The king was troubled and went to Evagrius to ask him to return to secular life.
And Evagrius told him: O King! Why are you bothering me, the begotten of God, to become like dogs returning to their vomit.112
King P‘arsman then met Šio, and
when he saw his image, he was stunned, because he saw the divine grace on him and immediately he threw his crown on the ground, untied his belt, and ran to throw himself at the feet of the monk.113
The king kneeled and apologized to the Holy Man. Šio helped the king to rise, returned his crown, and blessed him. At that very moment a miracle happened, and one of the nobles, who had an eye injured by an arrow, was cured. “And seeing this miracle they all glorified God.”114 The king rewarded the monastery with treasure and supplies.115 After this memorable event the monastic community founded by Šio rapidly turned into a greater lavra.116 Besides the miraculous events that are inseparable from hagiographical imagination, the first encounter between the king and the growing monastic community may be authentic information. A pious Christian king appears as the main protector of a newly-established monastery. This episode explains how Šio-Mġvime monastery gained power and material wealth. Royal patronage played a decisive role in the growing influence of the monastery.
While lying on his deathbed, John of Zedazeni called his disciples and gave them spiritual instructions. Šio asked his permission to begin a more severe ascetic life. He decided to climb down into the grotto and spend the rest of his life there. John gave him his blessing for such a radical undertaking and self-abnegation. Šio said farewell to his disciples and went down to the cave. Due to his self-entombment, together with the humidity and lack of air, Šio's skin blackened, and as a result of harsh fasting, his body wasted away.117 Nevertheless, Šio transformed the deep underground cave into a ladder linked to heaven, because the main aim of divine descent was the ascent of humanity towards God; Šio (as a “new creation”) started to fulfill this purpose.118 The Holy Man died in this cave, and there his relics were buried. Šio's self-entombment could be the product of later imagination, used to explain the existence of the “grotto of St. Šio” within the Šio-Mġvime monastery, a famous destination for sightseeing travelers. Such ascetic practices, however, were wide-spread among Syrian ascetics, and so makes it more likely.
The lavra founded by Šio developed rapidly. By the end of the sixth century it had already become a powerful feudal organization.119 The hagiographical texts say little about how the monastery's profile changed in this period. It is likely that the lavra became a semi-coenobitic monastery with its own typikon.120 The separate hermits would have continued their ascetic life, particularly in the cave-monasteries of the Sxaltba ridge, which stretched over 3–3.5km behind the main buildings of the monastery (Figure 4).121
DAVID OF GAREJA
Starting in the sixth century, the Gareja desert also played an important role in the religious, political, and cultural life of Georgia. Archeological materials attest to the emergence of monastic communities there as early as the sixth and seventh centuries. According to Georgian ecclesiastical tradition, the founder of these communities, the widely-known David of Gareja, was a disciple of John of Zedazeni and Syrian in origin: “The fatherland of this venerable and wonder-working Father is Mesopotamia of Assyria.”122 According to the twelfth-century hagiographer, the identity of David's parents was unknown: “Not even in his original Life was described the origins and descent of this Holy Man.”123 Apparently, according to the hagiographer, David in his early youth became John's follower and learned from him about the ascetic life and virtue. He was among those disciples who followed John to Iberia. After arriving in K‘art‘li, he had lived on Zedazeni mountain together with John and other Syrian monks for four years; then he left for a “desert place” with his disciple Lucian. According to the author of his Life: “This astonishing and beloved Father David, as another desert-lover Elijah, came to the desert of Gareja.”124
An oral tradition preserved an interesting legend about the beginning of St. David's activities: after having dwelt on Zedazeni mountain, he went to the capital of the Iberian kingdom, T'bilisi.125 He settled down on the mountain that bordered the city and started weekly visits in T'bilisi to challenge Zoroastrians. As Christopher Haas suggests, “What marked St. David as unusual was the regularity of his forays into the city.”126 David had worked hard against Zoroastrianism in the heart of the Iberian kingdom when he was accused regarding the pregnancy of a nun in T'bilisi. After dealing with this accusation, David left the city and went to the desert in order to live an eremitical life. This legend is based on folk tradition and thus is highly questionable, but the possibility of David's dwelling near T'bilisi should not be completely excluded.
David arrived at an uninhabited place in the southeastern part of Iberia bordering Albania. This scrubland closely resembled the Syrian deserts, and he settled in caves there along with his follower Lucian.127 These caves are still preserved today as Gareja monastery. The caves are irregular in shape, located in the lower yard of the original monastery and bear traces of human activity.128 Besides the caves themselves, there are other signs of the early life of the Gareja monasteries: for example, the stele with a sixth- or seventh-century inscription in the John the Baptist monastery, David's larnax, and the remains of the painting discovered in the so called “White Desert,” most likely dating back to the seventh and eighth centuries.129 Gareja is completely covered by a cave system which (unlike in Cappadocia) was definitely designed for monastic life.130
The hagiographer depicts the typical relationship between a great old man and a disciple, which is so wide-spread in Christian hagiography: the desert where David and his disciple settled down was completely “desolate,” lacking any food. The conditions distressed Lucian, who lacked faith, but he was encouraged by his spiritual father by appeals to trust in God's providence. Initially, David and Lucian survived on the plants that grow in the Gareja desert in the spring, but later, due to summer's fierce heat, the grass completely faded, and that made Lucian even more desperate. Here again there begins a typical hagiographical narrative: nature itself helped the Holy Man. The original harmony disrupted by Adam's sin is now restored by a Saint.131 A deer came to David and Lucian; David ordered Lucian to milk the deer, then he performed the sign of the cross over the milk and turned it into curds; Lucian praised God and asked the confessor's pardon for being faint-hearted.132 The deer came to David and Lucian every day except fasting days, Wednesday and Friday.133 This and other episodes of David's life were later depicted in the mural at the Gareja monastery.134
The narration then continues in a traditional, hagiographic manner: later authors strove to imagine the earliest development of Gareja's monastic communities: the local inhabitants learned about David and asked to dwell with him. The monks refused them, but because they had a great desire to take the monastic vow, they persisted and after a time the number of ascetic dwellers increased. Father Dodo, who most likely had already been a monk, came to David.135 When the number of brothers increased, David gave Dodo his blessing to climb up the rock located opposite of David's original cave and stay there together with the brothers. Dodo fulfilled David's benediction where later the separate monastery was constructed. Sometimes David came to them and prayed at the bottom of the rock. The narrative mentions that David worked many miracles, including the creation of a fresh-water spring in the hot desert, the conversion of a hostile local nobleman (Bubak‘ar), and the banishment of a dragon.136
The Life of David of Gareji gives us significant information about the initial type and nature of the Gareja monastery. This could have some historical elements, if it is not completely a later conventional description of the emergence of a hermit's community. According to the author of the brief Life:
The Holy Father and good shepherd Saint David went every day to seek out those hermit brothers and he reinforced them, gave solace, and strengthened them all.137
In other words, David used to visit anchorites, encouraging them and giving spiritual instructions. The author of the metaphrastical vita describes this activity in more detail:
Day-by-day a great number of brothers came to this desert, by which all these places became full of virtuous and venerable men. Some of them were staying as hermits and others settled at the community of brothers…and the great shepherd and our Father David was joyful because of the revival of the flock; every day he went out to see hermit brothers and lonely dwellers and gave them solace, encouraged, and strengthened them towards the good purpose.138
If this episode is at all historical, it suggests that the monastery originally founded by David and Lucian was semi-lavriotic, or a monastery of “le systéme hybride lavriote.”139 The Brotherhood was divided: one part lived in a coenobitic community and the other part as secluded hermits; they were, nevertheless, subordinate to one charismatic spiritual leader.
Through the centuries, more than twelve monasteries were established in the Gareja desert as a result of the expansion of monastic life. According to hagiographical and oral tradition, David's disciple Dodo founded a new monastery not far from David's cloister. This monastery became known as “Dodo's Horn.” The other disciple, Lucian, founded John the Baptist's monastery.140 Later, other cloisters emerged in the desert of Gareja, such as Bert‘ubani, Udabno, and Camebuli.141
MONASTICISM AND THE SOCIAL WORLD OF LATE ANTIQUE GEORGIA
John, together with his disciples, lived on the mountain of Zedazeni without any form of organization. Like Antony the Great, he had no desire to establish any kind of institutionalized ascetic community.142 His disciples, having settled in deserted places and living a life of rigorous anachoresis and self-denial, soon became the objects of imitation as examples of a true Christian life: hundreds of ascetics gathered around them and settled in the caves of Šio Mġvime or David Gareja for fasting, praying, and atonement. The transformation of these communities first into a lavra and then into a coenobium imitates the major patterns established in the ascetic landscape of Egypt and Syria.143
The lavriotic style of ascetic life was organized in the desert of Nitria, Cellia, and Scetis144 and then it flourished in Palestine, particularly, under the spiritual leadership of Chariton145 and Euthymius.146 The monks in the lavra lived in caves scattered over the desert, and they had the main church where they gathered for liturgy on Saturdays and Sundays. The lavra was under the spiritual leadership of one charismatic leader but they did not have any unified typikon.
Pachomius the Great, for example, became the founder of the first coenobitic community in Upper Egypt.
This model originated in Upper Egypt, in the Thebaid, and was in principle based on the same premises as ascetic life presented by Antony and Amoun, but it carries the aspects of hospitality, charity, and mutual dependence to their logical conclusion: Pachomian cenobitism.147
According to the Life of Pachomius, the monk's great mission was to save humankind. His purpose was to worship not only God but humanity as well.148 This was an apostolic call. Basil the Great developed the pattern of the coenobium in Cappadocia, and Sabas the Sanctified established the classic models of coenobitic communities in Palestine. The hagiographic texts and the writings of the great ascetic leaders illustrate the distinguished apostolic nature of the coenobium, where the brothers lived in a strictly organized community under one superior and one written typikon. The first founders and inventors of these communities did not perceive them as different from the first Jerusalem community described in the Acts of Apostles. The first coenobiums were the unions of Christians who wanted to live the true Christian life among other citizens—people who made their secular careers under the patronage of the pious emperors. The privileged position of the Church weaken the eschatological and ascetic tensions of early Christian life; so those Christians, who desired a devout spiritual life, joined the communities of Pachomius and Basil, where they could live what they saw as a genuine Christian life.149
The same concerns existed at the monasteries founded by the Syrian Fathers in the Iberian kingdom. We should highlight two aspects of the process that took place in the monasteries founded by the Syrian Fathers in Georgia. First, the pattern of transforming the lavra into a coenobium (preserving lavriotic features) was well-known in Syria and in Palestine. Syrian Fathers could bring this pattern to Georgia, but, second, this process seems naturally to have occurred in many other regions of the Christian world. The spiritual leaders and supervisors of the monastic life established coenobia for those monks (or nuns) who were unsuitable for lavriotic life. After years of spiritual growth and preparations, those who wished a more solitary life could join the lavra.150 This process was determined more by the internal logic of monastic arrangements and flourishing ascetic communities than by direct imitation of already existing patterns. This logic worked in the case of Georgian monasticism as well. Those patterns were not necessarily brought to Iberia from elsewhere: the development of monastic life found its natural route in Georgia, as elsewhere.
The social (not only spiritual) reasons for the success of these monasteries is also worth examining. The Georgian Church, and monasteries in particular, was actively engaged in the major social changes and transformations that took place in late antique Georgia. The politics of asceticism became very important and influential. The process of deconstructing the ancient proto-feudal social hierarchy of Iberia preserved in Strabo's description151 and the emergence of new social strata152 fostered the success of Christianity. The growing inequality between the free warriors and landowners of pagan Iberia caused the formation of a new social class of “aznauris” (noblemen). “Aznauris” were professional warriors who pledged their loyalty to the Georgian king and were rewarded with vast lands for their military service. The other part of this old Iberian social stratum went in to ruin, losing their lands and their freedom. Many of them lost their social status. The Church, and monasteries in particular, could serve for them as places to start a new life.
The authors of the vitae portrayed the Syrian Fathers as having founded ascetic communities that included the huge monasteries settled by numerous (2,000–3,000) monks. According to Babilina Lominadze, this is a historical claim,153 if somewhat exaggerated (2,000 or 3,000 monks is unrealistic). The great number of brotherhoods (especially in the two major monasteries of Šio Mġvime and David Gareja) implies great social change, which by the middle of the sixth century had become a reality in eastern Georgia. The Soviet Georgian historian Simon Janashia called this change a “feudal revolution in Georgia.” The feudalization of society and formation of new social classes banished and marginalized the vast majority of former slaves and free landowners, who could not find their place in the newly established social hierarchy. Clearly in the feudal social order, they found in the church (monasteries) a patron and shelter. The suggestion of Babilina Lominadze seems logical in those social conditions where a number of people searched for a new place in the new social world of Early Medieval Georgia.
Very soon, Georgian monasteries became powerful organizations and were involved in a prolonged social and political struggle with the secular authorities. This process was the same as in Byzantium, as Averil Cameron suggests: “monasteries…became another type of player in the game of power and authority, even when they retained their hold on ascetic ideals from which they originally grew.”154 Here we can find the roots of the justification for the superiority of ecclesiastical power which later flourished in Georgia. As in western Europe, but unlike Byzantium (where the emperor often suppressed the church), this power made the Georgian Church enormously influential over the cultural, social, and political life of the country.
The church quickly came to the aid of the newly-established feudal system. In Soviet Georgian historiography, the opinion about the close link between a newly-formed class of anzauris and the newly-organized Christian church was dominant. Simon Janashia argued that the vast lands that the royal house extracted from pagan temples were divided between king, church, and noblemen.155 The Church quickly became one of the most influential land-owners, as is clearly confirmed by sources.156 The king and the aznauris granted Christian churches lands and other kinds of property. Serfs, who ensured the material wellbeing of the servants of the new religion, populated these vast lands. The marginalized members of the old lower classes thus appear to have been introduced into feudal dependence through the Church. Later documents, which apparently preserve older information, reveal that the monastery of Šio-Mġvime had bought lands and peasants already in the sixth century (the monastery owned the villages Sxaltba and Gorovani).157
The Life of St. Šio provides some insight. According to the Life, King P'arsman gave land to the monastery and granted the property of the monastery “freedom,” which scholars interpret as immunity from the feudal apparatus of the royal government.158 The monastery had full authority over its lands without any kind of intervention from the royal house or from any other major house in Iberia.159 This obviously indicates the complex socio-economic structure of some monasteries established by the Syrian Fathers already at an early stage of development (the second half of the sixth century).160 This complex structure was firmly incorporated into the feudal system of the Iberian kingdom. Thus, the Church became one of the most influential feudal land-owners of Late Antiquity and was introduced into the feudal squabble with other land-owners (kings, princes, and warlords of Iberia). Below I present an episode from this conflict that took place in early medieval Georgia.
At the end of the sixth century, the Persian Empire abolished royal rule in Iberia, but after the agreement of 591 between Maurice and Chosroes II, Roman influence won and Iberia regained its autonomy; instead of royal governance, however, Iberia “was placed now under princes appointed by the Emperor.”161 The Georgian church gained even more influence and power during this period of decentralized rule.
Medieval Georgian sources provide some information about the strained relations between monasteries and the secular government in early medieval Iberia. One of the most vivid glimpses from these interactions is preserved in the twelfth-century hagiographical composition the Miracles of St. Šio.162 In the eighth miracle, the unknown author narrates a conflict between the controversial Georgian prince Step‘anoz (Stephen) I163 and the monastery of Šio-Mġvime at the beginning of the seventh century.164 The conflict began when Step‘anoz arrived in the monastery with the head of the Georgian church Bartholomew. Monks showed more respect toward the Catholicos Bartholomew than towards the prince Step‘anoz. Step‘anoz was furious and took two vast tracts of land from the monastery. The words of Step‘anoz are important here: he told the monks that “he occupied the royal throne.”165 He thought that he had royal authority and demanded adequate respect. He was not intending to return these lands to the monastery, but St. Šio appeared to him in a dream and ordered him to return the monastery's property. Still the prince did not obey until he and his family became blind and insane. They were cured only after he repented for his treatment of the monastery. He acted as he was advised and the monastery won.166 Secular power flinched in this argument, despite Step‘anoz's ambition to possess the royal power of Iberian kings.
According to general scholarly agreement, despite later elaboration and invented miraculous events, this episode has a great deal of authenticity.167 The episode reveals the total feudal decentralization of the former Iberian kingdom.168 The twelfth-century source does not perceive Step‘anoz as king as we might expect from a later source. Rather Step‘anoz claims that he occupies the royal throne (he does not claim to be king); thus he has highest authority and everyone should obey him (including clerics).
The episode is in full agreement with other (Georgian or non-Georgian) medieval sources that describe the seventh-century Iberian kingdom as a decentralized country where erist‘avis (local warlords) were independent from central authorities and had full control of their lands and properties.169 Their rights within their “countries” are confirmed by the Byzantine emperor and Persian Šahanšahs.170 Step‘anoz was only primus inter pares among other erist‘avis. He had no royal power over other lords, but the episode described above reveals his aspiration towards royal power. Other seigneurs were hindering this aspiration, and the Georgian church was the most powerful seigneur among them.
This narrative reveals the conceptual differences between the perception of power on the part of ecclesiastic and secular authorities. The abbot of a monastery answers the prince: Christ is superior; therefore the spiritual head deserves more respect from monks than a secular leader, because the Catholicos is chosen by Christ.171 In the battle between ecclesiastical and secular powers, the clergy had won: the monasteries played an important role in this controversy, and due to their influence ecclesiastic ambitions grew even more in the following centuries.
In general, the ascetic life and missionary work of the Syrian monks was of great importance in the history of the Georgian Orthodox Church. In the sixth century their exemplary lives and engagement in the conflict with paganism and Zoroastrianism significantly strengthened the position of the Georgian church. In addition, their mission became a new step in the revival of Georgian monasticism. Through the centuries (until the occupation of the First Democratic Republic of Georgia by Bolsheviks in 1921), the monasteries founded by them remained important centers of religious life in Georgia and played a significant role in shaping the Georgian Middle Ages.