The “Martyrdom of St. Abo” by Ioane Sabanisdze

The Metekhi church in Tbilisi, with the church of St. Abo at the foot of the bridge to the left

“Receive, friends of Christ and devotees of the martyrs, this joyful story of the holy martyr and warrior of Christ, which tells you, how he was crowned with glory and honor by Christ.” [Shurgaia 2003: 231]

„In the month of January, on the seventh day”. With this precise indication begins the text of Ioane Sabanisdze – we have little information about the author, perhaps a clergyman who lived at the turn of the 8th and 9th century –, composed between 786 and 790 in commission of Samoel, Katholikos of Kartli, and dedicated to “Abo, the holy and blessed martyr of Christ”, who “died a martyr’s death at the hands of the Saracens in Kartli, in the city of Tbilisi, on 6 January 846” [actually 786]. The feast of the holy martyr Abo Tbileli (di Tbilisi, in Georgian აბო თბილელი), the holy protector of Tbilisi is celebrated on 8 January, the day after the Orthodox Christmas, as in the terms of liturgical practice, no feast of a saint can coincide with the twelve feasts of the Lord, but rather must be postponed. The church dedicated to the saint is under the Metekhi rock, on the banks of the Mt’k’vari river, at the foot of the Avlabari bridge.

The apse of the church of St. Abo

1. Christian Georgia

The geographic location of Georgia, extending between the Lesser and Greater Caucasus, always made the country a veritable corridor, a meeting point of many roads. Not a simple land of passage, but something more complex. A land that has always absorbed, used, invented and transformed. Historical, political, social and religious trends alternated in its territories. It has therefore been a land that made its strength from the encounter and interrelation.

In this period there was yet no Georgian political entity, like today, but from the extant descriptions we have already a clear image of the territories that would later constitute the country. This is not a given identity, but one which is continuously refounded and rebuilt. In part, this is due to its geographic situation, but not only that.

Chapel in the courtyard of the St. Abo church, on the bank of Mt’k’vari river

No doubt, Christianity and the church, together with the language and the alphabet, played a decisive role in the construction of the Georgian identity. Already in the chronicle of Ioane Sabanisdze, the Georgian church, with its prerogatives of autocephalia, is an important factor in the formation of a national conscience based on the Christian faith.

“In fact, not only the Greeks were able to obtain the faith from God, but also us, people in this far away country, as the Lord attests and says: “Many will come from east and west and sit at table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 8:11). You see: even Kartli has the faith, and it is called the Mother of Saints. Some of them lived here, others, however, are foreigners who came from far away lands and at different times. They proved to be saints through Jesus Christ, our Lord, to whom is the glory for ever and ever, amen.” [2003: 215]

The end of the old story, and the beginning of a new one for the Georgians of Kartli. And the martyrdom of St. Abo will be the foundation of the new.

L’icona di Cristo davanti alla cappella di Santo Abo

2. The Arab conquest

The seventh and eighth centuries bring great political and social upheavals for Kartli, just like for the entire Near East. The Persian and Byzantine empires collapse under the blows of the Arabs. Kartli, with its institutions, its church and churches, just like the neighboring Armenia, is involved on several occasions. First, around 640-643 the Arabs undertake only short raids, but in the eighth century they consolidate their rule.

In 654 the Arabs, led by ibn Maslamah, defeat the Byzantine army of Maurianus, and enter Kartli. According to the peace agreement, the “Kitāb Ṣulḥ”, that is, “the book of reconciliation”

“…the Georgians could not place themselves under the protection of āʿdaʿ Āllah, the “enemies of God.” The Arabs guaranteed the freedom of religion, while accepting all Christians eager to embrace Islam. In other words, the Georgians became ḏimmī, “protected”, members of a society recognized by the Arab state.
The agreement once again confirms the view that the main purpose of the caliphate was not to convert all people to Islam, but the conquest of more and more lands of the infidels. In this perpsective, religious freedom had a strong economic importance for both sides: for the Christians it meant a heavy financial burden, and for the Arabs a guaranteed tax revenue.” [2003: 97-99]

The agreement only lasted a couple of years. Various events, further Arab invasions and the arrival of the Khazars made the situation even more complicated. The small Georgian kingdoms had no ability to cope with the Arab power.

With the arrival of the Abbasids in 750, the situation of the Caucasian and Christian peoples worsened further, and the Arab domination became tougher. The persecution of the Christians has begun:

“They humiliated even those who passed to Islam: they had to behave is such as way as to highlight that, although professing the Prophet, they remained servants and losers, as they did not belong to the Arab race.”

The Emirate of Tiflis at its founding in 750, and hundred years later. Putzger historischer Weltatlas, 2005. From the article “Emirat von Tiflis”

3. The conversion of Abo

This is the period in which the story St. Abo takes place. We are in Kartli, namely in Tiflis, as it is described by the hagiographer Ioane Sabanisdze. A tragic era, from whose ruins, however, an epiphany is born.

“[…] Our masters, the rulers of this age (1Cor 2:6) […] in many ways tried us to stray from the path of truth, and to betray the Gospel of Christ; we, who live at the edge of the world, and who for more than five hundred years have entered the light of faith through the holy baptism of grace. […]. We, who remained faithful, were made slaves by force, and shackled by misery and poverty […] Fear has made us small (Dn 3, 37) and we were shaken like the reed by violent winds. And nevertheless, by the love and fear of Christ, we walked ahead on the path of the traditions of our homeland, enduring every misfortune, and not separating ourselves from the only-begotten Son of God. In such time appeared the holy martyr with his greatness ” [2003: 199-200]

The figure of Saint Abo Tbileli is described like this by Ioane Sabanisdze:

“He was born of the children of Abraham, and belonged to the lineage of the Saracens, the sons of Ishmael. He was therefore from no foreign seed, neither born from a foreign concubine, but he was completely Arab, on his father’s and mother’s lineage. His parents and brothers lived in the city of Baghdad of Babylon. He was young, eighteen or perhaps seventeen years old.
He became the servant of Prince Nerse, and wanted to accompany him. He also had a trade, knowing well the preparation of ointments, and was educated in the books of the Saracens, the Abramites, sons of Ishmael born to Hagar” [2003: 217-8]

St. Abo with the sword, a symbol of his martyrdom. Miniature, 18th c.

The conversion of St. Abo, like that of Abraham, St. Paul, or in Georgian history, St. Nino and King Mirian, sprang from a direct call of God. Therefore, the desire to undertake the journey to Kartli, the “Mother of Saints” in the retinue of Nerse, Prince of Kartli, who after three years of captivity in Baghdad returned to his country, was not his idea, but an indication of God.

“[…] For his virtue, he was beloved by all the people. He also learned to read and write in Georgian, and spoke it with ease.
Then he began to zealously study the holy scriptures of the Old and New Testament, because the Lord made him wise. He diligently went to the holy church to hear the readings of the holy gospel, the prophetic and apostolic letters, and carefully questioned the teachers of the faith. If someone challenged those teachings, it became for him a reason to further deepen his knowledge. Thus he became more and more perfect in the doctrine that is given by Christ to His Holy Catholic Church. […]
At this point he denied the law of Muhammad, and abandoned the way of praying usual in his homeland, and he loved Christ with all his heart, according to His words: godless men, who do not conform to thy law (Ps 119:85)

Modern icon of St. Abo

After his baptism he begins a journey that takes him up to Abkhazia, “a journey of three months, traveling day and night”. When the prince of Abkhazia heard that Abo had just been baptized, “he and his people rejoiced much”. And Abo said thanks to God in front of the Abkhazians for “having found a land full of the faith of Christ, and within whose borders there was no inhabitant without faith”. [2003: 224]

The prince of Abkhazia asks him to stay in his country and not return to Tiflis, where the Saracens might kill him for having converted to Christianity. Abo, however, decides to return and to preach:

“Now do not stop me, servant of God! […] I beg you, let me go, so I could openly announce my being Christian to those who hate Christ: nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. (Mt 5:15). Let your light so shine before men. (Mt 5:16) So why should I hide the light, with which Christ enlightened me?” [2003: 203]

The holy martyr Abo Tbileli. Religious publication of 1899. In the background, the church of Metekhi

4. Martyrdom of St. Abo

Here we quote in detail the report of Ioane Sabanisdze about the martyrdom of St. Abo, from the translation of Gaga Shurgaia (Martirio di Abo, ed. by Gaga Shurgaia in: La spiritualità georgiana. Ioane Sabanisdze, Studium, Rome, 2003).

“During the reing of our Lord Jesus Christ, in the 846th year of His passion and resurrection [in 786], when the Christians were ruled by Constantine, son of Leo in the great city of Constantinople, and the Saracens by the Emir Moses al-muʿminīn, son of Mahdī, the Catholicos of Kartli was Samoel, and its Prince St’epanoz, son of Gurgen. In the 6,389th year from creation, on the sixth day of January, a Friday, the feast of Theophany, we witnessed in the city of Tiflis the martyrdom and glorious struggle of the holy martyr Abo, which occurred as I will recount.
Before this happened, they came to arrest the blessed martyr of Christ, and after leading him to the judge, who was the Emir of the city of Tiflis, they cast him into prison, because he confessed Christ. However, a few days later St’epanoz, Prince of Kartli interceded for him, causing him to be released from prison.”

His opponents, however, go to the new emir, who has just arrived in Tiflis:

“They told him: “In this city, there is a young Saracen, who was born, raised and educated in the faith given to us by Muhammad, our apostle. He now ignores our faith and, declaring himself a Christian, he goes around the city without any fear, converting many of us to Christianity. Give order to arrest him, and to punish and torture him, until he confesses the faith of Muhammad, our apostle. And if he does not do so, let him be killed, lest the number of his followers multiplies.”

During the Muslim invasions, icons and treasures from the churches of Georgia were saved in the inaccessible valley of Svanetia, whose small medieval churches therefore amassed incredible treasures over the centuries. The following icons are from the churches of Ushguli. Above: The Madonna with Jesus and St. Barbara, 9th c.

The emir summons him, and tries to convince him to abandon his faith. Abo, however, defines Islam as a religion “created by men, composed of superstitions, whose wisdom comes from fairy tales”, and stays true to Christianity.

“While they so accused him, they were heard by some Christians, who immediately came to St. Abo, and told him: “Behold, they want to arrest you, to punish and torture you.” And they tried to convince him to withdraw and hide. He, however, replied to them: “I am ready not only to torture, but also to death in Christ.” And he left happily, going around in the neighborhoods without any fear. Then some servants came from the court, arrested him, and led him to the judge.
The judge told him: “What do I hear about you? You are a Saracen for generation and by blood, and now you have abandoned the faith of your forefathers, being led astray by the Christians? Now turn back in yourself, and pray in the faith in which your parents have educated you.”
Blessed Abo, however, full of the power of Christ, replied to the emir: “You said well, in fact I am Saracen by blood, I was born Saracen from my father and mother, I was in fact educated in the faith of Muhammad, and I have lived in it as long as I remained in ignorance. When God had mercy on me, choosing me among my brothers and relatives, and saving me through Jesus Christ, His Son and my God, and showed me the truth, I have abandoned that religion, created by men, composed of superstitions, whose wisdom comes from fairy tales, starting to be initiated in the true faith of the Holy Trinity given to us by Jesus Christ, in which I was finally baptized. Now I adore Him alone, because He is the only true God. Now I am Christian, so it is not a slander what they say about me.”
The judge said: “Stop this crazy idea. And if you have become a Christian because of your poverty, behold, I will give you even more gifts and wealth.”
The blessed Abo told him: “Keep your gold and silver for your downfall! I do not seek gifts from you, since I possess the gift of Christ, which is the crown of life, and the unfading eternal wealth in the heavens.”
Then the judge ordered them to tie his hands and feet with iron chains, and thus cast him into prison.
But the blessed Abo was joyful, and he said thanks to God, saying: “Thank you, Lord, our God and Savior, Jesus Christ, because you deemed me worthy to be tried and imprisoned for Your holy name.”
This happened in the twenty-seventh day of December, on a Tuesday, the day of commemoration of the Apostle of Christ, the first deacon St. Stephen, the first martyr and prince of all martyrs.”

Icon of the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste, 12th c.

The dates have a symbolic power in the martyrdom. As Abo was imprisoned on 27 December, the day of St. Stephen, the first martyr, so he will be martyred at the river Mt’k’vari on 6 January, the same day when Jesus was baptized in the Jordan.

“Meanwhile the blessed Abo was in prison, where he fasted and prayed, continuously chanting the psalms, day and night. He even managed to do good, selling everything he had, and distributing its price among the poor and the hungry who were imprisoned with him. […] The blessed was nine days in the prison, fasting from day to day, and keeping vigil at night until sunrise. On the ninth day he announced to all who were detained with him, Christians and non-Christians: “Tomorrow will be the day that I will leave this my flesh (Phil 1:23), and reach my Lord and God, Jesus Christ.” He said this because God had revealed it to him.

Then he stripped off his clothes, so they sold them to buy candles and incense, which he donated to all the churches of the city, so they burnt them for him. He asked the priests to pray for him, so he did not lack faith in Christ, and could therefore deserve the martyrdom for Him. On the eve of the holy feast he took two large candles in his hands, and stood in the middle of his cell, he remained there all the night, until dawn, when he finished reciting the psalms. The candles burned on his hands, which were chained with iron to his neck, and he, standing and without moving, said: I keep the Lord always before me, because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved” (Ps 16:8) and the words that follow.

When the tenth day, the feast of the baptism of the Savior, that is, the sixth of January, which fell on a Friday, had risen, the blessed said: “This is a great day for me, because I will see the double victory of my Lord Jesus Christ. On this wonderful day He laid aside his garments, and descended into the Jordan river to be baptized and with His power he crushed the head of the dragons hidden in the depth of the waters (Ps 74:13-14). Thus it is lawful to me to abandon any concern for my flesh, and to immerse myself in this city as if I were in the abyss of the sea, and be baptized with my own blood, with the fire and with the Spirit – as John, the Forerunner preached (Mt 3:11; Lk 3:16). I plunge into the waters, and I will seize the light, because today is the day when the Holy Spirit descended on the waters of the Jordan river, where the followers of Christ are baptized.”

Deesis, 13th c.

Even his sentence and his martyrdom follows the stations of that of Christ:

“Then he asked for water, washed his face, anointed his head, and said: “Once I myself prepared ointments, and I knew expertly the preparation of various kinds of fragrant oils, and today the oil serves me for burial. From now on I will not anoint myself with oils with vile odor, but as I learned from the wise Solomon in the Song of Songs: I run intoxicated to you, as your anointing oils are fragrant (Song 1:3). Christ, who filled me with the indestructible scent of your faith and your love, you know, my Lord, that I have loved You more than myself.”
Having said this, he sent someone to the holy church to bring him the holy sacraments, the flesh and blood of Christ. It was the third hour of the day of the great feast.

They led him out the way he was, with his hands and feet shackled with iron. And while they were leading him through the streets of the city, the Christians and those who knew him, saw him, and grieving shed tears over him. But the saint Abo told them: “Do not weep for me, but rather rejoice, because I am going to meet my Lord. Accompany me with your prayers, and the peace of the Lord will defend you.”

So he reached the Emir’s court. Upon arriving, boldly he made the sign of the cross on the door and on himself. They led him before the judge, who addressed him thus: “So, young man, what did you think of doing with yourself?”
The holy martyr then was filled with the Holy Spirit, and said: “I have thought about it. I am a Christian.”
The judge said to him: “So you have not abandoned your madness and ignorance?”
The blessed Abo said: “If I had been in ignorance and foolishness, I would not be worthy to follow Christ.”
The judge said to him: “Have not you understood that these words of you will cause your death?”
The blessed Abo replied to him: “If I die, I believe that I will live in Christ. But you, what are you waiting for? Do what you’re going to do, because just like the wall on which you lean, I am deaf to your evil words, since my mind is already with Christ in heaven.”
The judge asked him: “Which and how great a sweetness did you have from your Christ, so that you have no mercy upon yourself even on the threshold of death?”
Saint Abo told him: “If you want to know His sweetness, believe in Him, and be baptized in Him. Only then you will know His sweetness.”

At this point the emir became angry, and ordered him to be taken out and beheaded. The servants took him out in the courtyard of the palace, and they removed the iron from his feet and hands. The blessed quickly put down the clothes he was wearing, and once undressed, he made the sign of the cross on his face and chest, saying: “I thank you and bless you, Holy Trinity, for making me worthy to enter the ranks of Your holy martyrs.”
Having said this, he clasped his arms behind his back, as if it were the cross, and with his face lit with joy and his bold soul, he invoked Christ, and bowed his head under the sword. Three times they brandished the sword, hoping to separate him from Christ with the terror of death. But the holy martyr remained calm and silent, and entrusted his spirit to Christ.

Icona d’oro del Salvatore, 11º secolo

As the Jews had asked Pilate for soldiers to guard the body of Christ, so His disciples did not take him away and spreaded the news of His resurrection, so the Muslims ask the emir that the body of saint Abo be burned, so the Christians could not honor it as relics. The ashes will be scattered in the river.

“When those who fought against Christ, the accusers of the holy martyr, saw that the blessed was dead, firmly united with Christ, having fought the good fight and having defeated with his faith and patience their dotage, they got even more angry. They went to the tyrant, and said: “We know that it is the custom of the Christians, that if someone lets himself be killed for their Christ, they kidnap the body, they bury it with veneration, and then with lies they want to believe that it makes miracles, spreading among the people the superstition that the body is able to heal, and they divide among themselves his clothes, and the hair of his head, and his bones. […] So give order that the body be handed to us, so we could burn it in fire, and scatter his ashes in the wind, thus preventing the deception of the Christians. And so everyone who will see it, will be seized with fear, and maybe some of them will convert to us, and ours will also have fear to follow the teachings of the Christians.
At this point the emir said: “Take it where you want, and make whatever you want to do with it.”
Then they went out, lifted his precious body from the ground, and placed it together with his clothes in a bag. Then they took the earth mixed with his righteous blood, and collected it in a container, so that nothing was left of it. They placed the body of the saint on a cart, as happened to the forty bold saints, also because the place where they cut the head of the holy martyr was near to the door of the church dedicated to the forty holy saints, so it was fitting that he would have the same fate of the famous forty saints.
They brought the body of the saint out of the city, and went to a place called sagodebeli [i.e. place of mourning], because there is the cemetery of the inhabitants of the city. They took off the body from the cart, and laid it on the ground. Then they brought timber, straw and fuel, they poured it on the blessed, and lit a fire until it burned the flesh of the holy martyr.
This happened in a place to the east of the fortress dominating the city, called sadilego [i.e. prison], under the rock, where, to the east of the city, runs a great river called Mt’k’vari.

No Christian was allowed to come to that place until they had completely burnt the flesh of the holy martyr. As they could not burn his bones, they collected them in a sheepskin, which they then firmly closed with laces, and threw into the great river under the city bridge, above which a precious cross is erected. And the water of the river received his holy bones like a garment, and the abyss of the river became the tomb of the holy martyr, so that no one could approach him with irreverence.

Icon of Archangel Michael, 13th c.

However, the night a star shines above the place of the martyrdom, as the next night over the place where the river embraced the bones of the saint:

“When night fell on that site – it was the first hour of the night –, God caused a star to descend, shining like a lamp of fire, which remained steady over the place where they buried the body of the blessed martyr of Christ. And the star stood there until the third hour, and over night, emitting a glow not like the fire of this earth, but as a tremendous bolt of lightning.
All the inhabitants of the city saw this, the judge and all the people, Christians, Saracens and travelers from elsewhere.

The following night the water of the river emitted a wonderful light, which was even brighter than the previous day. While some considered the heavenly fire, which was suspended between earth and heaven, a mirage, thus trying to deny that miracle, now everyone saw that the water could not extinguish the light, and even the many violent eddies in the depths of the abyss were unable to extinguish it.
Where they threw the bones of the blessed martyr, sanctified by God, under the bridge, there appeared a splendid light in the form of a column, similar to a lightning bolt standing still. This light illuminated the surroundings of the river, the fortress, the precipice and the bridge, from earth to heaven. This happened in the sight of all the people of the city, so they all believed that he was truly a martyr of Jesus Christ, Son of God, and that all, believers in Christ and unbelievers alike, understood the truth of the words spoken by the Lord: "If any one serves me, the Father who is in heaven will honor him.” (Jn 12:26)

Here, at the foot of the Metekhi rock was built the small church, where Georgian Christians have revered the memory of St. Abo for twelve hundred years. The church, which was destroyed by the Soviet authorities in the 1950s, was reconstructed in the 1990s.

The small church of St. Abo under the rock of the Metekhi church to the left, at the bridgehead, on the view of N. G. Chernetsov (1832). At the other bridgehead is the Shiite mosque. From all these buildings almost nothing remained after the destruction of the 1950s.