Atchara has been a Christian stronghold since apostolic times. It was through this region that St. Andrew the First-Called entered Georgia, preaching the Gospel for the first time in the Iberian land. On this land, in the village of Gonio, the holy relics of the martyred Apostle Matthias are buried.
Since the 16th century, Atchara had been subject to constant assaults by the Turks. Having attained a victory in the Ottoman-Persian War, the Turks gained a large part of southern and western Georgia – Samtskhe, Atchara, and Chaneti were declared Turkish provinces. The invaders knew that in order to completely conquer the Georgian people, it was necessary to uproot Christianity. They therefore instituted a systematic campaign of forced conversion to Islam.
When they failed to achieve their goal with bribery and deception, they resorted to violence. In his work, The Islamization of Georgia, the renowned early 20th-century scholar Zakaria Chichinadze retold a story he had heard from one elderly Atcharan man:
“In Atchara, in 1790, the implanting of Islam faced powerful opposition. Many of the elderly men and the majority of women stood firmly by their Christian Faith, and even challenged and debated the Turkish mullahs.… The number of these aged men in Atchara was considerably high. In the end an order was issued: to arrest all dissidents, forcibly convert them to Islam, and execute those who resisted. Before long all the elderly Christians of Atchara were arrested and cast into prison. They were then led to the River Atcharistsqali, to a 12th-century bridge known as the ‘Bridge of Queen Tamar.’ On that bridge the Ottomans had erected a guillotine. They chopped off the heads of the elderly, sent the ends of their tongues to the pasha, and threw their bodies into the river.”
Gallows and guillotines were also erected in the villages of Atcharistsqali, Keda, Chakvi, Khulo, Machakhela, and Gonio. The documents preserved in the manuscript collection at Akhaltsikhe Museum describe in even more horrific detail the martyrdom of the Atcharan Christians:
“The human tongue is powerless to describe the tortures that the Georgians suffered in those years for confessing Christianity. While they were still alive, their flesh was stripped and their bodies quartered; they were slashed to pieces with swords, their bellies ripped open; and they were roasted over campfires. They were pierced with flaming rods, thrown into cauldrons of boiling water; molten lead was poured down their throats; and they were tossed into pools of hot lime.…”
The Georgian Apostolic Church has numbered among the saints all the holy fathers and mothers of Atchara who sacrificed their lives in defense of the Christian Faith.
By permission of the Orthodox Church in America (www.oca.org )