The tradition of St. Nina’s story among the Georgians is based on ancient historical documents. Rufinus wrote about her in the fifth century in his church history, and she is also mentioned in the Georgian Chronicle, an ancient document concerning the history of Georgia, which relates Nina’s history from her point of view.
The original tradition says that Nina was a simple slave girl, who lived during or just after Constantine’s time, after Diocletian and a full century before the particular Patriarch of Jerusalem who was supposed to be her uncle.
However, the sources tend to agree on the actual conversion of the Georgians, and relating the later accounts can teach us not only about St. Nina and her work, but also about how other times saw her and interpreted her actions in the light of their lives.
Most accounts now say that she was the only daughter of the Roman general Zabulon and the Georgian woman Susanna, and who was, through Zabulon’s side of the family, related to St. George. It’s also said that Nina’s mother was the sister of the Patriarch of Jerusalem. Nina was born in Cappadocia in the late third century and the entire family were devout Christians. When she was twelve, her parents left the area and moved to Jerusalem, where they became monastics. Nina, or Nino as she is sometimes known, was left in the care of Nianafora, a pious older woman.
Nina was devout and loved the Gospel, being particularly drawn to the accounts of the Crucifixion, and to the fate of Christ’s robe. Her guardian told her that robe had been taken to Iberia (Georgia) and had been left in the city of Mtskheta. She added that the people there, the Kartlians and the Armenians, were still pagans and had not yet accepted the good news of the Gospel.
Desperately wanting to see the robe, Nina prayed to the Theotokos, and dreamed that the Mother of God appeared to her. She told Nina that she was blessed to go to Georgia and give the people there the good news of Christ. She would, the Theotokos said, be a shield for Nina. As a token of her love and protection, the Lady gave Nina a cross, made of grapevines tied with her own hair. When the young woman awoke, she clutched the cross she’d seen in the dream.
After obtaining a blessing for the mission from her uncle, the Patriarch, Nina left Jerusalem in the company of Princess Ripsimia and her women, fifty-three virgins, all of whom had vowed chastity to Christ. The princess was fleeing from Rome, for she had attracted the attention of the emperor Diocletian, who desired her. They arrived in Vagarshapat, the capital of Armenia and were welcomed by its ruler, the pagan Tiridat, who in his turn, fell in love with Ripsimia. He, however, was enraged when the princess refused his suit, and had her and her companions tortured and put to death. Nina alone was able to escape.
She took refuge in a grove of wild rose bushes which had not flowered that year. Shaken, frightened and alone, she turned to prayer and saw in the air above her an angel wearing a shining stole. Holding sweet incense, he descended to her and she watched as the souls of her companions, new martyrs, rose to meet him and a heavenly host who appeared to welcome them. Aching with longing, she cried, “O Lord, Lord, why do you leave me alone among these vipers and serpents?”
The angel replied, “Do not grieve, but wait a little, for you also will be received into the Kingdom of the Lord of glory. This will occur when the prickly, wild rose which now surrounds you is covered with fragrant blossoms like a rose which has been planted and cultivated in a garden. But now, rise and go north where a great harvest is ripening, but where there are no harvesters.”
Nina set out on her journey, and arrived at the bank of a river. She asked the shepherds she met, who shared their meal with her, if they knew where Mtskheta was located. They pointed to the river and told her that a great distance down the river stood the great city.
Nina continued her journey, but it was a long and lonely trip. She began to wonder where the Lord was leading her, and what good could come of her travels. Perhaps, she thought, it was all in vain. Who was she, a young girl, alone in the world and without money or influence, to think she could do the job asked of her?
Tired after her long, hard road, she fell asleep and dreamed of a majestic-looking man. He held a scroll in his hands and gave it to Nina, telling her to read it. It contained the following Gospel verses:
- Verily I say unto you, Wheresoever this gospel shall be preached in the whole world, there shall also this, that this woman hath done, be told for a memorial of her (Matt.26:13).
- There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Gal.3:28).
- Then said Jesus unto them (the women), Be not afraid: go tell my brethren… (Matt.28:10).
- He that receives you receives me, and he that receives me receives him that sent me (Matt.10:40).
- For I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which all your adversaries shall not be able to gainsay nor resist (Luke 21:15).
- And when they bring you unto the synagogues, and unto magistrates, and powers, take no thought how or what thing you shall answer, or what you shall say: for the Holy Spirit shall teach you in the same hour what you ought to say (Luke 12:11-12).
- And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul… (Matt.10:28).
- Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Sprint: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world (Matt.28:19-20).
Heartened by the dream and the verses, Nina continued her trek until she reached the city of Urbnisi, where she lived with the Jewish people for about a month, studying their manners, customs, and language. While she was with them, the men of the city were to make a pilgrimage to Mtskheta to worship their gods, and Nina decided to go with them. On the journey, they met the entourage of King Mirian and Queen Nana, who were journeying to a nearby mountain to worship the idol Armazi. Caught up by the crowd, Nina was borne along to the altar. As she witnessed their rites, she was seized with a zeal worthy of Elias and prayed to God to deliver the souls of these people from their blindness and to open their eyes to the understanding of the salvation that only He could bring.
Storm clouds gathered before she finished, and the king and his people fled. Nina herself hid in the cleft of a rock as the storm broke overhead. The intensity of the storm destroyed the idols, the building, and swept the remnants over the cliff to the river below.
The next day, the people searched in vain for the temple and the idol as Nina continued toward Mtskheta. When she finally reached the city, she encountered the royal gardener’s wife, who greeted her as a long-lost friend, and brought her into their house, washed her feet and anointed her with oil, then offered her some food. Anastasia, the wife, invited Nina to live with them, treating her as a sister, because they were childless and very lonely. They built Nina a hut near them, in which she placed the cross the Theotokos had given her, and in which she spent her time in prayer and singing psalms.
Word of the holy woman spread once Anastasia conceived and bore a child due to Nina’s prayers on her behalf. She and her husband were the first of the Georgians to become Christian. The cross was lent to a child who was dying, but through Nina’s prayers recovered and returned to his mother alive and well. As word spread, the miracles and deeds multiplied, and Nina began to preach openly of her faith and the joy Christ brought. The crowds included the daughters of the Jewish high priest. He himself came to see Nina and the two struck up a friendship, spending many hours in each other’s company, and eventually Abiathar converted to the true faith. It was he who told her more about the Lord’s Robe. It seems that his ancestors had known of the birth of Christ, and of his maturity. Abiathar’s great-grandfather had been invited to Jerusalem to see the execution of Jesus, but was warned away by his mother, who told him that this was the Saviour, the One foretold by the Prophets. The great-grandfather did journey to Jerusalem to see the trial and execution, and it was he who obtained the Robe from the Roman soldier who’d won it at the Crucifixion. He brought it back, and told his sister of its history. She, filled with sorrow, took the robe, and held it close, kissing it and crying, then suddenly died, overcome with emotion. The great-grandfather, unable to take the robe from the dead woman’s arms, buried her secretly with the robe, and its location was unknown, since the old man never disclosed where he’d buried her. However, many suspected that it was at the centre of the royal garden, where a cedar tree grew. Nina spent a lot of time near the cedar tree, but wasn’t convinced that the grave was there, even though she had visions which told her that the place was holy.
Nina and her disciples continued to preach the gospel, and the King himself began to be swayed toward the faith. He knew of it, since at that time, Georgia was under Roman rule, and he had heard of St. Constantine’s victories in the name of God. But his wife would not be swayed, and refused to entertain the idea of becoming Christian. She fell ill, and the more effort the doctors put toward curing her, the sicker she became, until they feared for her life. Her women pleaded with her to call for Nina, whose prayers had effected many healings, and finally, despairing of her life, the queen ordered Nina to attend her.
Nina, though, told the servant that if the queen wanted to be healed, she would have to come to Nina’s hut, and the queen complied. Carried in a litter to the garden, she met Nina, who had the queen put on her own bed of leaves, then knelt beside her and prayed for the queen’s healing. She took her cross and touched it to the sick woman’s head, feet, and shoulders, upon which the queen recovered, and embraced the faith.
The king, however, back pedaled and clung ever more fiercely to his old beliefs. He had as a guest a relative of the Persian king, who was possessed by a demon. Terrified of the Persian king’s anger should the relative return home in such a state, the king pleaded with Nina to pray for the man. She requested that the man be brought to the cedar tree in the centre of the King’s garden, and there she instructed the man to renounce Satan and embrace Christ. He did, and returned to Persia a Christian. This terrified the king even more, and for a time, he contemplated executing Nina and the other Christians in Georgia. On a hunt one day, he resolved to do so, just as he reached the summit of Tkhoti Mountain. A storm, as fierce as that which had destroyed his temple years ago, rose up, and a flash of lightning blinded him. In despair, he called out to his gods to help, but they remained silent. Then he called on Christ to heal him and promised if it happened, he would confess and glorify God. The storm abated, his eyesight returned, and true to his word, he embraced the faith.
Soon after his baptism, Nina left the city and settled in Bodbe in eastern Georgia, where she died soon after her arrival. In gratitude and to honour her, King Mirian had a church and monastery built on the site of her grave, which can still be seen today.
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