Interview'There is a kind of dust over this history'

Georgia’s envoy warns his country’s heritage in Israel is at risk

Marking 30 years of his nation’s independence, Ambassador Lasha Zhvania says Georgians have never given up claims to key Jerusalem sites

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Georgia's ambassador to Israel Lasha Zhvania in his office, May 2021 (courtesy)
Georgia's ambassador to Israel Lasha Zhvania in his office, May 2021 (courtesy)

“Georgian cultural heritage in the Holy Land is in danger,” warned Georgia’s Ambassador to Israel Lasha Zhvania.

The idea that Georgia, a small, sparsely populated country in the Caucasian mountains between powerful neighbors Russia and Turkey, has significant history in Israel might be a surprise to some. Jerusalem is famous for its Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and Armenian shrines, and today there is not a single Georgian church to be found in all of Israel.

But for hundreds of years, Georgians were a ubiquitous, even dominant force among Christians in the Holy Land. Georgian monks and princes built dozens of churches,  and held some of Christianity’s most sacred sites.

As Georgia’s political power waned, its grip on Holy Land shrines slipped, and by  the Ottoman era, all its monasteries and churches were in the hands of more powerful communities. Ancient Georgian inscriptions and frescoes were neglected and even vandalized, a process that continued into modern times.

Speaking to The Times of Israel to mark the thirtieth anniversary of Georgia’s independence on May 26, Zhvania emphasized Georgia’s long heritage in Israel and especially in Jerusalem. Despite this legacy being obscured over the centuries by rival churches and stronger states, he remains optimistic that Georgian claims will someday be recognized.

“There is a kind of dust over this history. But the dust can be removed very easily.”

The Monastery of the Cross (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Forty lost churches

Georgians and Jews came into close contact thousands of years ago.

According to Georgian tradition, the first Jews migrated to the Caucasus region in the wake of the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. Written Georgian sources point to subsequent waves of Jews from Judea to Georgia, both of which had fallen under Roman rule, in the first centuries BCE and CE.

Jews from the Georgian city of Mtshketa are said to have brought (one of the versions of) the seamless robe that Jesus wore during his crucifixion to Georgia, where it sits today in the venerated Svetitskhoveli Cathedral.

Georgians headed in the other direction once Christianity took root in the region.

The icon of St. Nino at Svetitskhoveli cathedral, Mtskheta, Georgia (Kober, public domain)

Georgian tradition traces the conversion to Christianity of the ancient Georgian kingdom of Kartli to the 4th century. A Cappadocian woman named Nino – who some say was from Jerusalem – began preaching in the kingdom around the year 320. After initially persecuting Christians, including his wife, the pagan King Mirian III witnessed a miracle, then converted, declaring Christianity the official state religion.

Georgia was the second nation to convert to Christianity after Armenia, and Georgians became intensely interested in the Holy Land.

In the 5th century, a Georgian prince known as Murvan embarked on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. After becoming a monk and changing his name to Peter the Iberian, he founded monasteries in Bethlehem and on the Gaza coast, and is interred in Yavneh-Yam on Israel’s Mediterranean coast.

Over the centuries, the Georgian presence in the Palestine expanded, as rulers, nobles, and monks established monasteries around Jerusalem and in the Judean desert. The Holy Land became a cradle of Georgian civilization. The oldest inscriptions in a Georgian script were found at Bir el Qutt in the Judean Desert near Jerusalem. The first use of the ethnonym “Georgian” was also found in Palestine, centuries earlier than examples found in Georgia itself.

The heart of the Georgian presence in Jerusalem was the Monastery of the Cross, which sits today in the valley beneath the Israel Museum and the Knesset. As Georgian tradition has it, King Mirian purchased the land in the 4th century, and a 5th century ruler founded the first monastery on the site (though Greek Orthodox figures claim it was founded by their church).

The Shota Rustaveli fresco in the Monastery of the Cross in Jerusalem (courtesy)

The legend of the site reaches back to beginning of mankind in the biblical telling. Adam’s head is said to be buried in a cave there. Georgian pilgrims relate that Abraham’s nephew Lot planted three trees on the site – a cypress, a cedar, and a pine – which miraculously grew into one tree. King Solomon cut it down to use in the Temple construction, and the cross on which Jesus was crucified was crafted from the same tree.

According to written sources, the current fortress-like monastery was built by a Georgian monk named Prochore in the 11th century after the earlier structure was torn down in the Arab conquest of Palestine. Georgia’s preeminent national poet, Shota Rustaveli, is said to have been buried in the monastery.

The monastery was the first holy place in Jerusalem in Georgian hands. With time, Georgians held more than 40 churches and monasteries in the Holy Land – including ten in the Old City of Jerusalem alone – housing pilgrims and monks. The Georgian Orthodox Church was so prominent that it was in possession of the Tomb of Christ in Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the 14th-16th centuries.

The presence of churches in the Holy Land was often a reflection of European and Middle Eastern power politics, and as Georgia’s political fortunes ebbed, so did its hold over Christian sites. With the fall of  Byzantine Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453, the Georgians were left without their patron and were conquered by the Muslim Ottomans and Persians. In the Holy Land, more powerful and perhaps better connected Latin, Greek, and Armenian churches wrested control of the sites from the Georgians. The  Georgians lost the Monastery of the Cross to the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in 1685. The Greeks claim that the heavily indebted Georgian church sold them the site, but Georgians reject that claim, pointing out that a document recording the sale has never been produced. By the end of the 17th century, the Georgians had lost their presence in the Holy Sepulchre for good.

A picture taken at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem’s old city on March 20, 2017, shows the Edicule of the Tomb of Jesus (where his body is believed to have been laid). (AFP PHOTO / Gali TIBBON)

The annexation of eastern Georgia by the Russian Empire in 1801, and the subjugation of the Georgian Church to Russian Orthodox rule, led to a final decline of the Georgian presence in the Holy Land.

The status of the Monastery of the Cross, and the protection of Georgia’s past in Israel, continue to be among the most pressing issues in Israel for Georgian clergy and diplomats, including for the current envoy.

In 1987, the Georgian patriarch sent a letter to the Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem requesting that the monastery be restored to the Georgian church. To date, there has been no response to the request.

“As long as the heart of any Georgian beats,” Zhvania declared, “this heart in the Holy Land claims the Georgian monastery of the Holy Cross back to Georgians.”

This claim includes the more than 125 acres of land that belonged to the monastery, on which the Knesset, Israel Museum, and upscale Rehavia neighborhood sit today.

Frescoes of Moses and King David at the Monastery of the Cross in Jerusalem (courtesy)

“We try to keep our cultural heritage, which in recent decades has been damaged badly,” said Zhvania. But there are no practical steps being taken beyond making the claim itself.

Ancient Georgian inscriptions in Israel have been lost or defaced. Inside the Monastery of the Cross, Georgian inscriptions have been replaced by Greek ones.

The most high-profile and devastating modern instance of vandalism against Georgian heritage in Israel came in 2004, ahead of a visit by Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili. An unknown vandal defaced a fresco of Rustaveli – the only extant medieval depiction of the Georgian bard – inside the Monastery of the Holy Cross.

At the same time, said the Georgian diplomat, the Patriarchate and the Israeli authorities have improved their protection of Georgian cultural sites and artwork.

“It’s not only of Georgians,” he emphasized. “It belongs to the Holy Land, it belongs to Jerusalem.”

Today, according to the Georgian embassy, there are around 17,000 Georgian Christians in Israel, primarily foreign workers or those who are married to Jews. But they do not have any opportunity to worship in the Georgian language, as there is currently no Georgian Church in Israel.

When the time is right, said Zhvania, that will change.

‘Good food and very cheap’

Located at the crossroads of Western Asia and Eastern Europe, and bordered by the Black Sea, Russia, Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan, Georgia has attracted Israeli tourists for years.

Left to right, Liad Shemesh, an Israeli tourist, outside the Great Synagogue of Tbilisi with his wife, Einat, Adi Amram and Ortal Panehla on August 20, 2015. (Cnaan Liphshiz/JTA)

Over 205,000 Israelis visited Georgia in 2019, according to Georgian officials, since they starting seeking regional alternatives to Turkey after Jerusalem-Ankara ties fell apart over the last decade. Many of the Israelis are religious travelers looking for mountain treks and access to kosher food.

With Israel emerging from its Covid-19 restrictions, they are making their way to Georgia once again. More than 12,000 Israeli tourists visited in April, said Zhvania, and numbers rose further in May.

Israelis today don’t need to quarantine if they are vaccinated, nor do they need to take a PCR test.

“Israelis find themselves at home,” he said, “and enjoy the nature, the sightseeing, the cultural heritage, including the Jewish cultural heritage. Good food and very cheap.”

Some of the local architecture in Tbilisi, hidden among the side streets of the city (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

In 2008, when Zhvania left his first posting as ambassador to Israel, there was one daily flight between the countries. “Now you have three or four flights,” he said.

Georgian pilgrims regularly visited Israel before the coronavirus pandemic. “We are very devoted to the Holy Land over the centuries, so a special attachment is always kept in the Georgian community,” Zhvania said.

The first refuseniks

Georgian Jews began moving to Palestine in the middle of the 19th century, primarily near the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem. According to a 1915 census, more than 6 percent of the Jews in Jerusalem and almost a quarter of the Jews in the Old City were Georgian. They were forced to flee their homes for good during the 1929 Arab riots in Palestine.

Decades later, Georgian Jews in the Soviet Union sparked international solidarity with the refusenik movement pushing for authorities to permit Jewish emigration. On November 10, 1969, 18 heads of Georgian Jewish families smuggled a letter to Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir through the Dutch Embassy in Moscow, calling on the Soviets to allow them to move to Israel.

The eloquent letter, dramatically read out loud at the UN by Israel’s ambassador Joseph Tekoa, electrified the Jewish world and Soviet Jewry.

Women refuseniks and their children, Moscow, Ovrazhki, 1979. (Courtesy of Remember & Save)

“We will wait months and years,” it read. “If necessary, we will wait all our lives, but we will not renounce our faith and our hope. We believe: our prayers have reached God. Our appeal will reach people. For what we are asking for is little—let us go to the land of our forefathers.”

From that point – the first time the issue of Soviet Jewish emigration was raised at the UN – Israel began openly backing the cause.

Today, Georgia’s Jewish community is small, with only a few thousand Jews left, but they say they feel fully a part of Georgian society and do not experience antisemitism.

The Georgian Great Synagogue, built in the 1800s, and used until today by Tbilisi’s Jewish community (By Kober/Public domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

“I was always welcomed as a Jew in Georgia,” said Lika Lia Abgarova, a 25-year-old MA student at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, who left Tbilisi when she was 12. “My friends and neighbors always respected my religion, traditions and nationality. When I became Israeli, it became even more interesting because Georgians see in Israel a role model, in medicine, technology, and community development. I was always asked about life in Israel, the challenges and the experience of it.”

Georgian-Israelis maintain close ties with their country of birth. “They are very big patriots of Georgia,” said Zhvania. “They care about Georgia.”

Thousands have successfully obtained Georgian citizenship, with many buying property in Georgia.

“My identity is very Israeli,” Abgarova noted, “in the way of thinking, mentality and behavior. But with that being said, I always remember the foundation of the education I got at home, the elements of Georgian culture such as language, priorities, songs, cuisine and customs. Every Friday night, beside kiddush we also have a round of traditional Georgian speeches.”

Mikhail Mirilashvili (Courtesy of EAJC)

Members of the community have left their mark on Israel. Mikhail Mirilashvili, who was born in Georgia, controls a vast business empire that has included casinos, hotels, oil, real estate and Russia’s largest social network. Recently, his company Watergen, which produces clean drinking water from the air, signed a strategic partnership with the Emirati agriculture group Al Dahra to export the Israeli tech to the UAE and other regional countries.

At the same time, large sums of money earned by Israelis in the fraudulent binary options industry are reportedly wired to banks in Georgia.

Defense ties

Israel and Georgia established diplomatic ties shortly after the latter declared independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991.

Israel supported Tbilisi during its 2008 war with Russia and Russia-backed troops over the territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, saying it recognized the “territorial integrity of Georgia.” Georgia used the Israeli Spyder air defense system during the conflict, shooting down over a dozen helicopters and planes, said Zhvania.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman (right) and Georgian Defense Minister Levan Izoria attend an honor guard ceremony in Tbilisi, Georgia, on September 12, 2018. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

Over the years, Israel has sold a number of weapons systems to the Eastern European nation and has trained members of the Georgian armed forces. In 2018, the two countries signed counterterrorism and cybersecurity cooperation agreements. “On the issue of defense cooperation, we have set out four main objectives: cybersecurity, help in establishing a military reserves system, fighting terror and defending the homeland,” said then-defense minister Avigdor Liberman.

That same year, Israeli defense company Elbit Systems opened a factory in Tbilisi, which employs hundreds of workers producing airplane parts for civil aviation.
Israel has also upgraded Georgia’s tanks and drones.

With its massive Russian neighbor to the north, Georgia persists in its pro-Western policy. Thousands of Georgian troops served in Iraq and Afghanistan, supporting the US-led missions there, and hundreds remain in Afghanistan.

In this April 15, 2021, photo, US President Joe Biden speaks about Russia in the East Room of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

US President Joe Biden is seen as a reliable and knowledgeable supporter of Georgia. He visited Tbilisi early on in his tenure as vice president, pledging Washington’s continued support and calling on Russia to pull out of Georgian territories it continues to occupy.

“Biden was one of our great, great supporters,” said Zhvania, “and still is. He knows exactly what is Georgia for the United States, he knows exactly what the United States represents for Georgia.”

During Operation Guardian of the Walls in May, senior Georgian officials largely expressed solidarity with Israel and decried Hamas rocket attacks.

“Georgia strongly condemns violence and rocket attacks directed against civilians on the Israeli territory,” tweeted Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili. “Our condolences to the families of victims & a swift recovery to those injured.”

In an address on the conflict, Georgian Patriarch Ilia II prayed for peace without placing any blame on Israel. “Ongoing hostilities in the Holy Land is a great ordeal for locals and for the entire region, but it is also a deep sorrow for millions of people, including certainly in Georgia, as our spiritual lives were and are significantly linked to Jerusalem and the Holy Land.”

Jewish roots that cannot be cut

Zhvania, a fluent Hebrew speaker born to a Jewish mother and Christian father, visited Israel for the first time in 1988. His mother prayed that he would be able to study one day in Israel, and now in his second tenure as Georgia’s ambassador in Israel, he feels her prayers were answered.

He stressed that he believes deeply in Israel’s society and its ability to overcome the open strife that erupted in May as Israel and Hamas fought an 11-day conflict. “What we really have to do and how we have to raise our children is to give them an understanding that they have to care about this city and this country, which truly provides a fantastic possibility to be developed and to be integrated worldwide.”

Zhvania said that his connection to Israel is deep and an integral part of who he is.
“I am Georgian, completely Georgian, with Jewish roots that cannot be cut.”

“My heart beats in exactly the same manner when the plane arrives in Tbilisi or to Ben Gurion,” he said. “It’s the same feeling.”

President Reuven Rivlin (left) greets Georgian Ambassador Lasha Zhvania (courtesy)

Israelis with Georgian roots expressed similar sentiments, especially around Georgia’s 30th anniversary of its independence.

“I am very happy to celebrate the independence of Georgia,” said Abgarova. “So I’m happy to see that now Georgia and its people are independent in their land.”

“My identity is never complete if there are not both of the Israeli and Georgian cultures.”

Jessica Steinberg contributed to this report. 

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