Sunday, November 22, 2009

One hundred thousand martyrs and a blessing

I followed the icon and attending monks from the Georgian Orthodox church down towards the river. First they were joined by another procession and then all were submerged into the huge crowd waiting on the Metekhi Bridge.

This was clearly a major event, but what? Again language was a barrier to comprehension so all I could do was soak up the atmosphere and relish the experience.

One side of the bridge was reserved for a line of dignatories, and demarked with an array of banners, flags, icons and crosses. They made an impressive sight against the backdrop of some of the top sights of Tbilisi.

The bridge is at the heart of old town: on one side of the river was the Metekhi Church and statue of King Vakhtang Georgasali, while on the hill above the other were the Narikala Fortress and Church of St Nicholas (above).

The icon I had followed passed along the line of banners to the square just on the left bank of the river where there was the mass of the crowd and a marquee (below).

There were TV cameras on a crane above the crowd and others posted at strategic places such as below the statue of King Vakhtang Gorgasali (see more pictures here).

The crowd were very patient and after about half an hour a service began, led by none other than the Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia Illia II himself.

To flash forward to what Google told me later, this was an open air service to commemorate the One Hundred Thousand Martyrs. It relates back to 1227 when Sultan Jalal al-Din of Khwarazm and his army of attacked Georgia where he drove the inhabitants onto the bridge and ordered them to walk and spit on their holy icons.

One hundred thousand of them refused and were beheaded, with their remains being thrown into the river below! As I'd noticed before, in Georgia martyrdom and faith seems inextricably linked together.

The service included many moments of the beautiful Georgian plain chants from several choirs, prayers, responses and readings. The Patriarch gave part of the service in the marquee but then led a procession with icons and senior clerics to the bridge itself.

It was quite hard to see what was going on, though got this glimpse of the Patriarch. You have to look closely but he is stepping down from the marquee:

The crowd around me had bunches of flowers and candles which they kept lit through out the service. This was not simple, for despite it being a lovely evening there was a bit of a breeze and one lady next to me seem to use up all her matches and had to get her candle re-lit by the help of others.

It was very packed and at one point another of the ladies shawls caught fire! It was quickly put out by the hands of those around her.

At the end the soldiers keeping us back from the line of barriers melted away and their was a scrum to the bridge. Here the congregation threw their flowers into the river to commemorate those martyrs way back in the 13th Century.

In the midst of all this pushing and shoving one of the senior clerics made his way back towards the square. The mass of people parted in front of him, a line of empty space that went just passed me.

As he walked along this line he placed his hands on the congregation and blessed each one, including me.

It and the service were both very moving experiences.

I left the bridge and joined the throng of good people of Tbilisi returning back to the city.

It was the end of my time in Georgia, and the memory card in my camera was a full as my heart.


Pat said...

These posts gave me new things to think about and gave me just a bit of a feel for a country that I'd never have received from a book or simple factual description. Thanks for taking the time to chronicle your experiences in Georgia.

JP said...

Thanks Pat, very glad you liked the posts.

Georgia is a great country which was amazing to visit. Together with Venezuala that made 2009 a very good year for travel.