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Determined to restore the empire of his Mongolian ancestors, Timur swept through Central Asia and the Caucasus, laying waste to all that stood in his way. Though nominally a Muslim, his bloodthirsty devastation of Aleppo, Damascus and Baghdad had earned him condemnation from Islamic leaders, who labeled him an enemy of Islam.

Frustrated by the tenacity of the Georgians, Timur invaded the Georgian realm at least seven times. His armies pillaged its cities, ransacked its monasteries, razed its churches, leveled its villages and scorched its fields, orchards and vineyards. By 1405, Timur finally secured the tribute of the Georgian king, George VII, whose realm lay devastated. As a final punitive act, he flattened the Georgian capital of Tbilisi.

Georgia never recovered from its desolation at the hands of Timur the Lame, who died soon after subduing the kingdom. Though kings and catholicoi attempted to restore a unified state, it fragmented into rival principalities, which by the end of the 15th century mirrored the borders of the ancient kingdoms of Kartli and Egrisi. The unity, too, of the Georgian church evaporated, as a rival catholicosate was erected in Abkhazia (northwestern Georgia) sometime in the 15th century. Communion between the two rivals, however, was restored in the latter half of the 16th century.

Suppression. The cultural and intellectual creativity of the Georgian church smoldered for several centuries, though there were exceptional monks, priests and bishops who translated and analyzed ancient manuscripts, wrote biographies, recorded histories and published Scripture in the Georgian language. These leaders also deepened bonds with other churches, including the establishment of warm relationships with Franciscans, Dominicans, Theatines and Capuchins, all of whom had religious houses in the Georgian kingdoms.

The Georgian and Roman churches never formally parted ways after the Great Schism of 1054. Nevertheless, full communion between the two eventually ended and perhaps hardened after Byzantine Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453.

In the 18th century, a besieged Georgia turned to its northern neighbor, Orthodox Russia, for support. In 1783, the eastern Georgian kingdom of Kartli-Kakheti and Russia signed the Treaty of Georgievsk, which pledged Russian protection. Within three decades, a series of Russian decrees incorporated Georgia into the tsarist Russian Empire.

Almost without resistance, Georgia lost its autonomy. Ironically, the Orthodox tsar of Russia, not the Muslim sultan of Constantinople, eliminated the Orthodox Church of Georgia. The tsar annulled its autocephaly, abolished the catholicosate, reduced the number of eparchies and subordinated them to the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church. The synod later purged the Georgian church of its ancient practices received from the church of Jerusalem and brought it in line with contemporary Russian liturgical practices. The use of Georgian in the seminaries and in the celebration of the Divine Mysteries was replaced with Church Slavonic.

Nevertheless, the Georgian identity survived. When the empire of tsarist Russia finally unraveled during World War I, Georgia declared its independence.

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Tags: Cultural Identity Church history Georgian Orthodox Church Revival/restoration