This is the fascinating and miraculous story about the conversion of the Iberian (eastern Georgian) Kingdom to Christianity at the beginning of the fourth century. The missionary who converted the entire country was not a bishop supported by the royal government or an abbot from a great monastery. The conversion of Iberia is ascribed to a young itinerant female ascetic who came and settled in the capital city of Iberia. The legend of St. Nino relates how a young female ‘captive’ persuaded the king and the queen of this foreign land and their people to accept the teachings of Christ. However, this story is not only about Nino – it is about women. The major characters in the late antique and medieval accounts concerning Nino are female ascetics who not only compete with men, but overcome them with their spiritual strength and ascetic vigor.
Legend has it that Nino was born in Cappadocia into the family of a Roman soldier named Zabilon and his spouse Susana, the niece of a bishop (Georgian sources mention him as 'the Patriarch of Jerusalem'). In his youth, Zabilon pursued a military career. He journeyed to Rome and participated in Roman campaigns against the barbarians. During one of these battles, Zabilon showed great valor and defeated the barbarians (who are mentioned in The Life of St. Nino as Branji, probably a Georgian mispronunciation of the Franks). The Roman Emperor decided to behead the barbarian captives. When these captives learned of their fate, they appealed to Zabilon for baptism. Zabilon himself baptized them. They were now ready for execution, but Zabilon intervened on their behalf and implored the Emperor not to take their heads. The Emperor spared the newly-converted barbarians and allowed them to return home. Zabilon was beloved at the court of the Roman Emperor (whose name is not mentioned in the legend of St. Nino), but instead chose a life of Christian humility and simplicity. After a successful military career, he travelled to Jerusalem where he met the 'Patriarch of Jerusalem.’ The man whom legend mentions as the Patriarch offered Zabilon his niece to marry. Accordingly, Zabilon and Susana, two devoted Christians, married each other. They went from Jerusalem to the hometown of Susana Kolaste, where they settled and led a peaceful Christian life.
Asceticism and virginity were highly regarded virtues among Christians at that time. Many Christians (both men and women) chose to remain unmarried. They devoted their whole lives to Christ. Early Christian literature was saturated with the spirit of self-restraint and ascetic endeavors. Christian parents prepared their sons and daughters for eternal union with Christ. This was a time when Christian monasticism was on the rise, when countless small and large clusters of ascetics covered the entire Christian Mediterranean and reached beyond the borders of the Christian Empire. The notions of asceticism, rejection of marriage, missionary itinerary and pilgrimage became very popular and widespread among early Christians of the second, third and fourth centuries. The concept of a chaste life was so influential that many Christians completely rejected the ideas of sexual intercourse, child-bearing and reproduction. They deemed these aspects of human life to be evil. However, the official Church did not go this far. The Church Council even condemned the radical rejection of marriage and childbirth.
When Nino was twelve, her parents decided to travel to Jerusalem. Twelve was an age common among Christians to take vows of virginity. Zabilon and Susana took Nino to Jerusalem, where she would remain under the care of her uncle (the ‘Patriarch of Jerusalem’). Zabilon bade her farewell and left for the desert of Jordan, where hermits lived in the wilderness among lions and hyenas. Nino’s mother, Susana, became a deaconess and began to serve weak and infirm women – which was the essential function of the ecclesiastical office of deaconess (female deacon) in the ancient Church. In Jerusalem, Nino was brought up by an Armenian woman named Sara Niaphor. According to legend, Sara was a distinguished female teacher skilled in complicated theological issues, and renowned throughout the whole of Jerusalem. While in early Christianity women were not allowed to preach in Church (according to Orthodox tradition), they were permitted to privately instruct young women in the Holy Scripture and Christian teachings.
Nino was an avid pupil. She listened intently and studied everything that Sara told her and longed for even more knowledge. Nino was inflamed even more by the stories of saintly women who traveled and preached Christianity without fear and trepidation. Sara told her stories from the Gospel, stories about the martyrdom of Christian virgins who refused the foul desires of vile men, refused to be married, and did not submit to their fathers, brothers, or husbands, but chose instead freedom and the Kingdom of Heaven. Nino was inspired by the vigor of such female apostles. She dreamed of preaching the words of truth. She aspired to convert dozens of people to her Lord’s faith.
On one occasion Nino asked about the tunic of Christ and its fate, and Sara told her that the seamless robe had been taken by Roman soldiers and given to the Jews who came from the ‘northern land’ of Iberia. Nino became more interested in this question. This was the first time she had heard about this 'northern land.' As time passed, Nino was more and more inflamed with the desire to go and preach to this pagan people, to convert their lost souls. On another occasion, Sara and Nino met a woman in Jerusalem who came from Ephesus and who told them that the Roman Emperor and his family greatly desired to convert to Christianity. This was an excellent opportunity for Nino to fulfill the dream of her whole life. As legend recounts, Nino resolutely decided to travel to Rome and preach Christianity. After her uncle and Sara had blessed her, Nino traveled with this woman from Jerusalem through the towns and villages of Asia Minor, and eventually arrived in Ephesus. Here Nino met likeminded Christian virgins, including Ripsime – a noblewoman who had espoused chastity for Christ, Gaiane – her closest friend and assistant, and other virgins. However, during the journey Nino learned of the Roman Emperor’s conversion, so she did not continue on her way to Rome, but instead remained with Ripsime and her friends and spent two years fasting and praying. After some time, they went to the immediate neighboring country of the northern empire – Armenia, where they started to dwell in a vineyard and continued to live as Christian virgins until the King of Armenia learned of Ripsime’s beauty and decided to marry her. Yet Ripsime’s vows were much more important to her than becoming Queen and acquiring all kinds of earthly pleasures. The King of Armenia, Trdat, was furious when he heard that he had been rejected. He imprisoned Ripsime, Gaiane, and all their other companions. After subjecting them to horrendous torture, he had them all put to death. Nino managed to escape, and fleeing north she arrived in the northern land of Iberia.
To begin with, Nino entered the ancient Georgian land of Javakheti – a southern province of the Iberian Kingdom. She was frightened and confused: the countryside was strange for her. She saw endless windswept fields and bare, rugged hill-tops towered over by snow-capped mountains in the springtime. The road brought her to the great lake of Paravani, where she had a vision. A bold, middle-aged man appeared to her and instructed her to undertake a missionary trip. When Nino answered that she was a foreign and unskilled woman and did not know how to speak the local language, the man replied: ‘You are neither male nor female; you are all one.’
Javakheti was then used as pasture for herds. Shepherds roamed around the lake, fishing and herding flocks during the daytime, and spending the nights gathered around bonfires. Nino asked them the way to the capital city of Mtskheta, where she knew that the seamless robe of Christ was buried. The shepherds told her that they were going to the capital to attend the feast of the mighty gods of the Georgians – Armazi, Gats, and Gaim, and invited her to go with them. Nino grew fond of these simple peasants and accompanied them.
Nino and her companions arrived at the city of Urbnisi, an ancient, populous and noisy city of Iberia where Nino witnessed the worship of stones and fire. She then continued on the road heading to Mtskheta, and eventually came upon the capital city of Iberia. First of all, she visited the chambers of King Bratman (who had ruled Iberia during 44-72 A.D.) under a nettle tree. Here she was spotted by a member of the local Jewish community – Sidonia. Sidonia was a pious Jewish woman with deep knowledge of the Old Testament. Sidonia noticed the unknown young woman dressed in tattered garb. Nino walked into the city and came to the royal garden, which was so beautiful that she thought it resembled the Garden of Eden. Here Nino saw all kinds of strange flowers that were so beautiful she was in a daze. Small springs were bubbling in the fountains under the tall pine trees and cypresses. Birds were singing and white rabbits were jumping from the green bushes. By divine knowledge, Nino knew that this was the place where the tunic of the Lord was buried. Nino was by now starving and exhausted; she caught sight of a small hut with an open door and went straight inside.
The temple of the Life-Giving Pillar.
A woman was seated at a table weaving cloth. As soon as she saw Nino, the elderly woman immediately stood up and embraced her as a mother would greet her long-lost daughter, as if accepting this young child. The woman did not even ask anything of Nino, but fed her and let her rest. Nino slept better than she had ever slept before. By the time she woke up it was already evening. The air in her room was full of the fragrances coming from the garden. All was quiet. Birds were singing and flying in the garden. A bluebird flew into Nino's room and perched on her arm. Nino smiled. She thought that the bird was trying to tell her something, but she didn't understand the language of birds. She stood up and went to the main room, where there was a table full of food. She was hungry. Soon after, the elderly woman entered the room with greens and vegetables. They sat down to eat, and after supper Nino told her story to this woman, who turned out to be a gardener’s wife.
After this episode, Nino went to the outskirts of the town near a huge bramble bush, where she carved a cross and began to live as a strict ascetic. She brought a cross with her to the capital of Iberia. The legend says that the Holy Mother of God appeared to Nino while she was still in Jerusalem and gave her a cross made of grapevine. According to another version, Nino made the cross herself and bound it with her own hair. Subsequently, Nino’s cross became one of the most important and venerable holy relics of the Georgian Orthodox Church.
Grapevine Cross of St. Nino (photo from Tamila Mgaloblishvili, Two Jerusalems in Georgia (Tbilisi, 2014))
Day by day people noticed Nino and her lifestyle, which was quite bizarre for the pagans. They were amazed at her self-restraint. She ceaselessly prayed and fasted both day and night. People wondered where she had come from and who the god was that this young virgin served. Nino told everyone that she was a captive from the Roman Empire. The pagan Georgians were amazed when they learned that she could cure people with her prayers. Day after day people brought before her their sickly friends and relatives, and Nino cured them with her prayers.
During Nino's first years in Iberia, her name became well-known among the inhabitants of the capital. She even converted some members of the local Jewish community, who lived near her in small huts and prayed and fasted together with her. One of the distinguished members of this primitive ascetic community was Sidonia, who had first observed Nino under King Bratman’s nettle tree. She became very interested in Nino and her lifestyle, and approached her. Nino told her about the Jewish rabbi who conducted the greatest of miracles and raised the dead; who was the Son of God and deliverer of mankind from sin and the yoke of Satan. Nino explained to Sidonia the meaning of the New Testament in light of the Old Testament. During these deep theological discussions, Sidonia became one of Nino’s closest friends and disciples.
Nino continued her ascetic dwelling until her fame reached Queen Nana – the wife of King Mirian III (ca. 284-362). One day, Queen Nana became very ill. No one could cure her. Hope was almost lost, until a Persian noble – a friend of the Queen’s – told her about Nino. The Queen did not have much trust for this foreign lowborn captive until her condition greatly worsened, whereupon she sent for Nino but the latter refused to come to Nana. The Queen was furious, but close friends advised her to overcome her pride and visit this wondrous captive for the sake of her own life. Nana did so, and was carried by sedan to Nino’s bramble bush. Nino placed her hands on the Queen and began to pray. After several minutes the Queen’s pain and illness had vanished, and Nana managed to stand up by herself. In tears, the Queen embraced the captive girl and asked her to speak more about Jesus Christ – the Son of God and the God of Nino. Following the healing, the prayers and Nino’s preaching, the Iberian Queen was converted. This was a momentous success for Nino’s mission in this pagan northern land. Nana started to persuade her husband to accept Christ, but Mirian was not going to accept the new god so easily. He met Nino, the young woman who had cured his wife, and asked her to serve as nanny for his royal children. Mirian thought that this wondrous woman had been sent by the powerful gods of the Georgians, the gods of Parnavaz and Parsman the Brave, but Nino disappointed him. She preached another god – a god of humility, love, and sacrifice. She preached about strange things that had taken place three hundred years ago in Palestine. Mirian was familiar with Jews and had some knowledge of their religion. He was even interested in their teachings and had met some of the priests from their community, so he had a general idea of the things Nino was speaking about. Nevertheless, Mirian was a great admirer of his ancestors, and he had great faith in the old gods of the Georgians who brought his kingdom and his people victory over their foes, and who gave them everything they needed. Consequently, Mirian was hesitant. Furthermore, although he was very tolerant towards every faith confessed by the subjects in his kingdom, after some time he became irritated by Nino's worship and grew hostile towards her missionary activities.
One day, King Mirian decided to go hunting. He took his retinue and went to the heart of Iberia, to the mountain of Tkhoti. Nowadays this area is woodless and scrubby, but back in late antiquity and the early medieval period the mountain and its surroundings were covered with thick woods – an excellent place for hunting. While hunting, Mirian told his loyal, trustworthy people of his intention to be rid of Nino if she refused to accept the gods of Iberia. He was going to persecute anyone who converted to this strange new faith, and if they did not renounce it, he would execute them all. King Mirian was oddly rather resentful and embittered, very unlike his usual self. The members of his retinue were surprised by his cruel intentions, but after all he was their king, so they listened quietly and were forced to obey his orders. The hunting was not very successful, and the party went deeper into the forest. The sunlight pierced through the dense foliage of the trees. It was a good day, full of light and sunshine. But then everything started to go wrong – the hunters noticed the sunlight had begun to fade. At first they did not pay much attention, but then the darkness grew and like night covered almost everything. It truly seemed like the end of the world, terrifying to behold. The royal retinue dispersed in panic, and the King was left alone like a frightened little child. He dismounted from his horse, went down on his knees and cried out for the ancient gods of the Georgians. His prayers were unanswered, and the terrible darkness remained. The desperate King sensed that something dreadful lurked in that darkness – he could feel it with his own shivering body. When he had reached his limit of fear and despair, the helpless King stretched out his arms and cried out for this new God, the God of Nino. He felt that this was his last hope. And the God of Nino answered. The darkness dispersed so quickly that Mirian did not even realize that he was once again in the calm forest bathed in sunshine, the silence interrupted only by the singing of different birds hiding among the branches. Mirian began to cry, but these were tears of relief and atonement – so sweet that only a devoted man in repentance could know. He stood up, mounted his horse and rode until he reached the capital. A crowd of frightened people met him at the entrance of Mtskheta, but Mirian could not see Nino among them. 'Where is my deliverer and holy virgin Nino?!' – cried the King with joy and relief. He found Nino and embraced her as a father embraces his beloved daughter, but now it was the other way round: Nino was a spiritual parent to Mirian and his whole kingdom. And thus the conversion of Georgia began.
Samtavro Church built on the place where Georgians where baptized.
King Mirian sent envoys to Emperor Constantine, informing him of the conversion of his neighboring kingdom. The Emperor rejoiced, since besides the spiritual significance, this fact was also of great political importance for him. Following the Peace of Nisibis in 299, Georgia had been under Roman control. Now, when Christianization of the Roman Empire was already under way, the conversion of Iberia had a major relevance for Rome, as Christian Iberia would be a much better ally against Persia than the pagan kingdom it had previously been. The Emperor sent a bishop, priests and deacons to Iberia, as well as masons for construction of the first churches. After the arrival of the Christian clergy, the baptism of Iberia began. Of course, to begin with the worship rituals and liturgical books were in Greek. Due to the absence of a Georgian alphabet, the recitals had to be made by heart. People were baptized in the rivers of Mtkvari and Aragvi. Mirian was in haste to begin construction of the first church, and he asked Nino where she wished to lay the foundation of the first cross. The King wanted to build the church in place of the bramble bush where Nino had dwelt and preached during her stay in Iberia. But Nino told him that the first church should be built in the royal garden on the site where the seamless robe of Christ was buried.
The Place where the Legend claims that the Tunic of the Lord is burried (photo from Tamila Mgaloblishvili, Two Jerusalems in Georgia (Tbilisi, 2014))
The temple of the Life-Giving Pillar.
Accordingly, workers started building a wooden church with the help of the townspeople, and even the King himself. Construction of the church was going well and six columns had already been erected, but when the masons cut another column for the church from cedar and tried to erect it, they could not. Whichever way the masons tried to lift it, the column was impossible to move. The King and all the people were greatly saddened by this fact and they dispersed in tremendous grief after having attempted to erect the column the entire day. Later, at dusk, Nino entered the half-built church with her closest sister and started to pray. The miracle which took place that night is brilliantly described in The Life of Nino. An angel came down and erected the column. The virgins saw a vision of the defeat of Satan in Iberia, and the victory of light over darkness in this northern land. When the King, Queen, and townspeople returned the next day and beheld the erected column, they all rejoiced at the miracle. The column itself then began performing miracles. From these miraculous events derives the name of the most important Georgian church – Svetitskhoveli (Sveti – a column or pillar; Tskhoveli – something that is alive, full of life). It is often referred to in English as the Temple of the Life-giving Pillar.
After this wondrous event, another miracle took place. One evening, two stars descended on the hilltop in front of Mtskheta. One star moved to the east and another one headed west towards the mountain of Tkhoti. Nino explained the meaning of this vision. On the hilltop near Mtskheta they cut down an ancient holy tree, which for centuries had been worshipped by pagan Georgians. The vision symbolized the vanishing of paganism and the triumph of Christianity. They carved three crosses from this tree. One cross they erected on the same hilltop where the holy tree had stood (and where the Holy Cross Monastery was later constructed at the beginning of the seventh century, and still stands to this day on the edge of the hilltop), the second was erected in Ujarma, and the third on the mountain of Tkhoti, where King Mirian had had his miraculous vision and where he had accepted Jesus Christ.
Holly Cross Monastery of Mtskheta where the Tree was cut worshipped by the pagans.
After having baptized people from all over Iberia in Mtskehta, Nino went to the mountains where the highlanders still held their ancestral faith very firmly. Nino was accompanied by a royal official. Nino preached to the highlanders, but they did not wish to listen to her. After this, the royal official forced them to tear down their idols. In their bitter resentment, many highlanders from Pkhovi went to Tusheti (highland districts of the Iberian Kingdom). After her mission in the highlands, Nino came down to the eastern Iberian province of Kakheti, where she also relentlessly preached for several years. After this mission, during her trip back to Mtskheta Nino fell very ill. King Mirian told his servants to bring Nino to Mtskheta, but no one could move her from the village of Bodi (now known as Bodbe, where her grave and the convent of St. Nino are located). Nino bade farewell to her Christian friends. According to her Georgian Life, before her death she narrated the story of her life to her loyal disciples. She passed away in that small village from where the grand Alazani Valley and the icy Caucasian Mountains are visible. She was buried in that same village, and a church was constructed on the site of her holy grave. Her grave still is the object of pilgrimage in this beautiful countryside.
Fourteenth-Century Fresco of St. Nino (photo from Tamila Mgaloblishvili, Two Jerusalems in Georgia (Tbilisi, 2014))
The legend of St. Nino has lived on. It has remained engraved in the memory of Georgians over centuries. It has served as an inspiration for Georgian women, because the life of Nino taught them that there is no male or female but all are one in Christ. Nino was named as Equal to the Apostles and the Enlightener of Georgia. Her biography is filled with pious legends and folklore, and has been described in various late antique, medieval, as well as modern accounts. Her life story still inspires people, and gives hope that light will eventually overcome darkness.