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Tbilisi Surb Gevorg Church - First-throned Surb Maryam Astvatsatsin or Big Fortress Church PDF Print E-mail

surb gevorg              Basing on historical information and documents, the first Armenian church in Tbilisi -Surb Gevorg Church at Meydan Square (also known as First-throned Surb Maryam Astvatsatsin or central-domed Big Fortress Church), built at the foot of Narikala Fortress, received the name “Big” to avoid confusing it with Surb Hreshtakapetats Small Fortress Church, which was also located on Krasilnaya Street, but just in 100-150 steps from the first.

Academician Ovsep Orbeli and Professor L. Melikset - Bek marked 1251 as the year of the church foundation, basing mainly upon the Arabic inscription on the cross-stone (khachkar) over the western door of the church yard. It was also reported about this fact in Russian-language collection "Handbook of the Caucasian Institute of History and Archeology” published in 1925 in Tbilisi.(page 58-59) : “…Along with Vank Cathedral, Church of St. Gevorg situated on Meydan Square is one of the oldest monuments among the Armenian churches in Tbilisi. According to historical data the foundation of the church may refer to the 13th century. The central dome characterizes the Church architecture. Unfortunately, the outer wall of the church is covered with stucco, which prevents us from accurate determination of early and late layers. In the yard of the church at its western door a piece of the cross-stone with Arabic inscription belonging to the 13th century is attached…”

However, if we make decisions based on the fact that the church is central-domed, it should be noted that these structures have existed in the period earlier than the 13th century. For example, Jvari monastery - in Georgia, St. Hripsime Church- in Armenia. Besides, the Arabic inscription on the cross-stone in the yard of the church, referring to the 13th century (see "Tiflis and its District", 1925, pp. 185-186), does not prove that the church was built in the 13th century.

Melikset-Bek and O.Orbeli are also referring to the fact that in 1284 our famous poet and philosopher, archimandrite Hovhannes Yerznkatsi, also known as Pluz, read his famous speech in the Cathedral of Saint George, which had a great response, and Vachtang, the younger son of Umek, pleaded Hovhannes Erznkatsi to write down the treatise: “… I got to visit the Georgian kingdom, protected by God and its capital Tpkhis, to read my book entitled “Paytarakan”. And I got to read my book at the gates of the church before the great Armenian Prince Kharimatin. It was built by God-loving and kind-hearted man, master Umek…”.

Hovhannes Erznkatsi mentioned that the church was built by Prince Umek. According to Kirakoz Gandzaketsi, in 1242 the great merchant Prince Umek escaped from Karin to Tiflis, and attained a high place at the Georgian Royal Court. Umek rebuilt the Fortress Church in the image and size of Haghpat Surb Nshan, where he was buried after his death. (See “Ports” Magazine, 1879, №10, page 9). Other historians also don’t deny the fact that the church was built by Prince Umek, but the whole misconception is that both Yerznkatsi and other historians instead of the word "rebuilt" use the word "built". In other words Umek didn’t exactly build, but rebuilt Surb Gevorg Church in 1251, 13 years later after the Mongol invasion.

That means that Surb Gevorg Church has existed long before 1251.

Furthermore another question arises: if Surb Gevorg Church was built in 1251, then where had Tbilisi Armenians been baptized, praying and conducting religious rites, who according to historian Alexander Yeritsyan already in 625 comprised the majority of population in Tbilisi, and who since 609 had separated from the Georgian Church?

It is commonly known that in 625 Khakan, the king of the Khazars, along with Heracles, Caesar of Byzantium, destroyed Tiflis or, as Movses Kagankatvatsi has it, “…surrounded and seized the rich and famous town Tpkhis.” Those were the days when by reason of religious controversies the Georgian and Armenian Churches separated from each other (609). “Despite this tremendous blow, - historian Alexander Yeritsyan writes, -Tiflis soon came to life and was filled with people. This time the Armenian part of the population increased so much that its role in the development of the city was very high. And despite the hatred of Georgian people against us due to the Council of the Chalcedon, the Armenians acquired a right to build the church in the fortress which was named Surb Gevorg, and which up to now is named the Fortress Church. It happened in 80 according to the Armenian calendar (in 631), i.e. 6 years after the destruction of the city (see “Ports” Magazine, 1879, №6, pages 3-4).”

Notice also that it is not mentioned in any historical source about the construction of at least one Armenian Church earlier than the 13th century, except for Surb Gevorg Church. Before the Council of the Chalcedon, and also after it until 609, it is clear that Armenian and Georgian chapels and churches were united, and maybe that were Sioni Church and Anchiskhati bazilica, and also other churches which have already existed before 609. After the severance of the Georgian and Armenian Churches, Armenians undoubtedly must have had their own Armenian Church in Tbilisi at any rate. That was Surb Gevorg Church (631), which was situated in one of the oldest and most densely populated areas of Tiflis, near the walls of Narikala fortress.

In 1037 descendants of Vardan Mamikonyan on the place of the old church built Katoghike Astvatsatsin Church…”, - Senior Priest Gyut Agayan wrote. (“Armenians in Georgia”, “Taraz” Magazine, 1919, № 1-12).

This suggests that even before 1037 a church has existed here.

The editor of the first collection of Sayat-Nova poems Gevorg Akhverdyan in the preface to his book "Sayat-Nova" marks that Surb Gevorg Church already in the 10th century had been the residence of Armenian Haghpat Diocese (G. Akhverdian, “Sayat-Nova”, 1852, page 19).

The residence of Haghpat Diocese for centuries had been at Surb Gevork Church at Meydan Square. It is clear from the written sources of the 13th century that Tiflis with surrounding villages belonged to the Haghpat Diocese, while the Archimandrite resided in the Fortress Church, who was appointed by the Haghpat Diocese to serve as the Primate. “… It is known that in 1114 on the resolution of “The Black Mountain”, Haghpat Cathedral became one of the four Cathlicosats under the covenant of which the Catholicos of All Armenians was elected…”

Names of many prominent Armenians are associated with Surb Gevorg Church at Meydan Square. Sayat-Nova spent his childhood, adolescence, and his last years in the near vicinity of Surb Gevorg Church. A scientist, philosopher, writer, and translator of the 18th century, Senior Priest Philipp Gaytmazyan had served here, from 1922 to 1923 the artist Gevorg Bashinjagyan worked in this church and decorated internal walls, the altar, and the walls in front of it, creating four large murals: “Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane”, “The Repentance of Judas”, “Jesus and the Boatmen”, “Harvest-time”. One more outstanding and original painting must be added to this list. This is Surb Gevorg on Horseback, under whose feet a horrible and terrifying serpent without wings is lying instead of a winged dragon, pierced by a lance of St. George. Gevorg Bashinjagyan died in 1925 and was buried in the yard of Surb Gevorg Church near the tomb of Sayat-Nova.

Senior Priest Saak Saaruni, Senior Priest Martiros Amirkhanyants, Archbishop Karapet Tumanyan and many others are also buried in the churchyard.

The remains of M.Loris-Melikov, Ivan(Hovhannes) Lazarev, Arshak Ter-Gukasov and Beybut Shelkovnikov were transferred and buried in the graveyard of Surb Gevorg Church. Archbishop Gevorg Seraydaryan who served as the Primate of the Diocese from 1972 to 2002 is also buried here.

Despite the fact that many churches were built in Tbilisi the historical Surb Gevorg Church never lost its importance. At present the Church is the seat of the Head of the Diocese of the Armenian Apostolic Church in Georgia.

The feast day dedicated to Surb Gevorg Church is celebrated on the 10th of November according to the Old Calendar.