Throughout the centuries, Its geographic location made Georgia a cultural melting pot. Travelers, merchants and preachers came here from all the ends of the great silk road. With them they brought knowledge, trade and religion. Thus Georgian Religion has changed over the course of time.
Idol Worship & Zoroastrianism in Georgia
At the very beginning the tribes living on Georgian territory were Pagan. They mostly worshiped nature or animal cults. Like the cult of the sun, cult of the moon and many others. These deities were mostly in connection with agriculture as people living here were mostly involved with working the land.
A new religion started spreading in the Kingdom of Iberia(Older name of Georgia) in the 2nd Century BC , King Parnajom of Iberia was trying to win the heart of the strong neighbor – Persia, so he started promoting Zoroastrianism. In couple of centuries Zoroastrianism became the main religion for the country. People also started worshiping idols.
Christianity in Georgia
First steps of Christianity in Georgia were taken in the first century. In the 1st Century, Shortly after the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, first preachers of Christianity Andrea, Simon and Matata visited Georgia. However, they didn’t succeed at spreading Christianity on a massive scale. Locals were still very loyal to Zoroastrian beliefs.
In the 4th century, 16 year old girl called Nino came to Georgia from Cappadocia, according to the legend Nino had a vision where Virgin Mary told her to go to Iberia and preach Christianity. This is why she decided to make her way to Mtskheta and settle here. At this time, Mtskheta was both the political and the religious center of the kingdom. At this time King Mirian and Queen Nana ruled Mtskheta.
It was Queen Nana, who became the first convert into Christianity. According to the legend, Mirian converted soon after, because of a hunting incident: According to the legend, during one of the hunts, Mirian found himself in complete darkness. He prayed to his idols and it didn’t work, so he decided to give the god of Nino a chance. The sun came shining and King Mirian decided to convert himself and also the kingdom of Iberia.
This is according to the legend, however, historians are more inclined to believe that this was more of a political move from Mirians side. By changing the main religion, he managed to rob the pagan priests of their wealth and influences, by this strengthening his own influence.
Georgia officially became Christian in 327 (or 337) depending on different sources. As for the independence of the Georgian church, it starts from 453 – Vakhtang Gorgasali managed to get the right for the church to make their own holy oil – which is the symbol of the independence.
Islam in Georgia
Starting from the VII Century, as the Arab Empire grew strong, they started expanding their borders. Georgia was also conquered by the Arabs and Islam spread throughout the country. However, not all of the people became Muslim, Arabs let people keep their religion if they payed the taxes. This period continued till the end of the XI Century. Throughout the times, tension between religions was evident. Christian Georgian rulers managed to overthrow the Arabian Rule in the XI Century. This lead to the Golden Age of Georgia in XI-XII Centuries. However, at the end of the XII Century various Muslim invaders started invading Georgia with huge numbers. Georgia didn’t stand a chance. Invaders Forcefully converted people. One’s that didn’t convert became martyrs.
It was only centuries after these invasions that Georgia started returning to Christianity. About 10 Percent of Georgian’s are Muslim today. As this number is pretty low, amazing things happen – in the Juma Mosque which is located in Tbilisi old-town, Shiites and Sunis go together, which is a fact that doesn’t happen in many other places.
Georgian Religion Today
In today’s Georgia, almost 90% of Georgians identify as a part of Georgian Orthodox Church. Christianity has been the main pillar for the development of Georgian culture and you’ll find the religious elements in abundance everywhere. It’s common to see Icons or crosses decorating cars and sometimes even public transport. Most common names in Georgia George (Giorgi), David (Davit), Mary (Mariam), Nino became popular because of the saints.
The youth of Georgia has remained very loyal to Christianity and there’s only a slight decrease of churchgoers in the new generations. It’s common to hear ringing bells in the city as this is a way of summoning people to attend the services which usually take place on Saturday Evenings and Sunday Mornings.
If you’re planning to visit churches in Georgia, we recommend that you read the Georgian Church Dress-code guide.