5. Persecution of Christians in Zegani, Devekhili, and Machakhela
EVIDENCE OF MARTYRS AND CONFESSORS COLLECTED BY ZACHARY CHICHINADZE 5. Persecution of Christians in Zegani, Devekhili, and Machakhela
Now Zegani is called the locality partly in the south of modern Adjara, the Machakhela National Park area (below in the text of Machakhela), and partly in the Artvin region of Turkey. However, a hundred years ago, today's Khulo municipality and adjacent territories were ranked as such.
There is the district center (municipality center) of Keda at 38 kilometers from Batumi. During Chichinadze this town was still a village. The head of this village, Ahmed Helipashvili told Zachary Chichinadze about the Islamization of these places:
"In the old days, no region voluntarily accepted Islam, wherever the people accepted Islam, it was done by force. The Zeganis suffered no less than the Adjarians, half of Zeganis died in the battle of Potskhvi and Kvabliani because they did not want to accept Islam. Dandalo also refused to accept Islam and people from there died as well. (Dandalo is 54 kilometers from Batumi along the route towards Khulo is known today for the unique medieval bridge). "Following Dandalo, much blood was spilled in Adjara".
"Kherkheulidze remembers well the time when Adjarians were Christians. Kherkheulidze was a deep old man, 90 years old, he said that his father's first converted to Islam - writes Chichinadze:
"He was 20 years old, they rebelled against the Turks, one of his father's relatives had his head cut off, some were hanged, his father was frightened and converted to Islam. It happened somewhere in the 1770s.
When they decided to destroy the church in the village of Khulo, then people were very worried and angry, they came to the local Pasha and asked him not leave the church:
- Pasha! We beg you on our knees, do not destroy the church built by our ancestors, it is a great pity for it, we beg you!!
An angry Pasha accused the people of betrayal, of secret Christianity, of decapitating the petitioners. The church was destroyed, a house for Pasha was built from the stones of the church, the walls of the cemetery were built with stones, they were also used for the foundation of the mosque, and laid the walls of a wellspring. The Skhalta church (the unique preserved monument of the Georgian medieval temple architecture, located in the current Skhalta monastery, before reaching Khulo) when converted to a mosque, I first brought people there for prayer, I first prayed from the minaret Muhammad's Prayer. When the frescoes of the walls of the Skhalta Church were burned with fire, many of the old people were unhappy and offended. Machakhela also spilled a lot of blood. After Islamization of Adjaria, Machekhela did not know either Islam or Osman for another 50 years. They did not pay tribute to anyone, they were good gunsmiths and were able to fight bravely. They adopted Islam gradually, after the rest of Adjara, the Ottomans could not cope with them. The complete Islamization of Machakhela occurred somewhere in the 1790-1805 years".
Chichinadze cites the story told to him by the residents of Petruli village by the Georgian Muslim Eyyub, his old father, and other Muslims, testifying about the miracles and signs of God that occurred during the Islamization:
"The Deveskhili Gorge begins from Liban, stretches in the direction to the southeast. There are very beautiful places but the roads are very bad. Previously, there were up to twenty villages in the Gorge, and now almost as much. Previously, there was a small but beautiful church in the village of Petrula, where people from all surrounding villages gathered for common prayer and a general holiday once a year.¹ The population of this Gorge was healthy and cheerful people. The Ottomans proceeded to the deification of Machahela and Deveskhili after the occupation of the Liban Gorge. Machakhela stubbornly resisted, a lot of blood was spilled, many people died. Deveskhili also resisted persistently. The villages have deserted, the population has decreased halfway but the Ottomans have not achieved success. The Ottomans stopped the war and temporarily retreated. Soon the people let out a rumor that the Ottomans will no longer force the Georgians to accept Islam. Everyone praised the Muslims for this news. But soon the Ottomans again started the war in order to seize the Deveskhili Gorge and its subsequent Islamization. Despite armed resistance, the Ottomans managed to block the entrance and exit from the Gorge. After this military success, the Ottomans issued an order that only those who accepted Islam could be saved, and all others will be brutally exterminated. So people began to accept Islam and finally, all of the Deveskhili Gorge became Muslim.
At that time, there were still one or two Christian priests who taught people how to pray in Christianity. However, it could not continue any longer, therefore, they were forbidden to serve and expelled from the Gorge. Those who agreed to accept Islam were left. There was an elderly priest who continued to pray in Christianity in the village of Petrula. He remained alone to all the churches of this gorge, he watched them and courted them as much as possible. The people respected the old man and listened to every word he said despite the fact that they were already Muslim. The leaders also did not disturb him, since he was a deep old man, and he did not show any danger for them. When he died, all the traces of the Christian priesthood were completely destroyed in the Deveskhili. But although there were no more priests, the people still continued to secretly pray in Christianity, mainly in the village of Petrula. The old priest also came from this village. When he died, Muslims buried there. After the death of the priest, Muslims paid special attention to the people, forbade them to pray in a Christian manner, forbade them to come to church, but secret Christianity continued. And the more bans were, the greater the opposition of the people and their love for Christianity was. At the same time, the number of genuine, faithful Georgian Muslims has increased. Muslims were convinced that they would not be able to continue Islamization so quickly that all the people will not abandon their customs and traditions so easily. They gathered and asked for help in Batumi, reported there that the Deveskhili Muslims remained secret Christians, asking what to do about it and how to deal with it.
The order came: To destroy all the ancient churches and strictly forbid people going to church and praying in Christianity. To execute the order, the army was sent out, and the following was announced to the people: the order of the government, it is forbidden to pray in a Christian way from today on, under pain of death.
"We are Muslims," the people replied, "we pray in Islam in accordance with all laws and regulations, we do not violate anything if we prayed about something else, then who cares?"
-This is by no means possible, it is forbidden, that is the order, the Muslims answered. Then, after conferred with the military, they stated: Well, who is a real Muslim? Go and break the Petrula church.
-We are real Muslims, but we will not break the Petrula Church, it is built by our ancestors for us, and we will not be right if we destroy it. But the Muslims repeated that the church must necessarily be destroyed.
It came to the use of force, people were accused of double-dealing, they said, you are not real Muslims, if you do not want to destroy the church, this church is to blame for the fact that until now Christianity has been preserved in the Deveskhili Gorge. The old men and women were very worried, they were weeping but they could not do anything about this evil power.
Then a few people came out of the converts of Muslims and said: we will destroy, we are supposed to be real Muslims and we have nothing to fear. Pleased Muslims agreed with delight. Soon they brought all the working tools, shovels, picks, and began to break down the church. One of the local Muslims wan in charge of all this. One of the newly-born Muslims took a pick, climbed to the roof of the church, first struck the pick on the cross, the cross fell, but a man who had lost his balance also fell. He was barely alive and they took him home. The people shouted: God does not want the destruction of the church. But the Muslims continued to persist, saying that they will destroy the church themselves. Another Muslim climbed on the roof, but a similar story happened to him, both of the victims were taken home and laid in bed. One of the participants in the defeat of the church took home some church things but a serious illness happened to him, he suffered greatly. One night he had such a dream: "I am made by the hands of your ancestors, I am decorated by them, your ancestors prayed in me. Today you break me and smash me. What have I done to you? At least put my things next to me! Listen to my word, otherwise, you will regret it bitterly and you will not recover." A man took followed his dream, quickly took these things and put them near the church. Soon he recovered. He told everyone his story and the people were very surprised. Another person brought a pin from the church, the next day he became ill and soon began to go crazy. Then he saw a dream where the church of Petrula complained and asked not to destroy it. A man was frightened, so he took this pin back to the place and then gradually recovered. The people were very surprised by these facts. In the end, everyone was convinced that the church has some power, even the Muslims were convinced, and they did not destroy the church, they left it alone. Everyone was allowed to pray in the church even Muslims who came there. People went to the church for a long time, but eventually, it was forgotten, because Islam strengthened, and new Muslims observed all the precepts of Islam.
We all became Muslims, true Muslims, but we do not forget the history of this church, we do not take a pebble from there, and we tell everyone to not bring anything from there, otherwise it will be bad. This was the reason that in 1890 our Muslims made new doors for the church and hung them at the entrance. In this church, the secret Christian ministry lasted until the 1830s. The complete eradication of Christianity and Christian customs date back to approximately these years."
Chichinadze writes another story in the villages of Bazreti and Dznelieti from the words of the old Muslim man named Dzneladze and other Muslim old people:
"Machakheli Gorge became completely Muslim, only residents of the village of Ephrath remained Christians for a long time. They did not obey the Ottomans for a long time because they received a covenant about the rejection of Islam from their ancestors. They said that there was the residence of Queen Tamara and there was a large church here in the old days. Queen Tamara was buried in that church and therefore, the deviation from Christianity is a great sin and God will not forgive them. In addition, there is the Karchhal mountain where, according to legend, the mountain spirits, devas live, many lions and eagles are tied with chains and if the people decide to retreat from Christianity, they will be destroyed. They will also destroy both the Ottomans and all the apostates. Muslim Georgians did not touch the Ephrath. After a while, the Ottomans sent many people here and seized Ephrath. Having violently humiliated people, the Ottomans seized the Karchkhal mountain, discovered the palace of Queen Tamara that towered over the entire gorge, also found treasures, houses, and a lake. The Ottomans returned back after destroying everything. Many local Georgians were worried about this, but they could not do anything about it. This is how the Ottomans forcibly brought Islam to the Machakhela Gorge. Despite the general adoption of Islam, there were secret Christians for a long time in the Ephrath. But after their elders were summoned to Batumi Pasha and greatly frightened, Christianity began to decline. Under the fear of the death penalty, people disaccustomed to the old faith. Many say that most of the blood was spilled during the Islamization of Machakhela Gorge. Adjaria, Zagan, Liban, or other parts of Georgia did not have as many victims as here. There were not so many forced refugees from their native places nowhere else. Some said that Machakhela that forcibly turned to Islam will return Christianity. There is a folk legend that tells that Machakhela will necessarily become Christian. The legend also tells one story that during the great church festival (Easter?), the Ottomans attacked the people gathered in the Herchevis church and all were killed at night. They say that people gathered for prayer openly, lit candles and prayed for Christians not being afraid of the Ottoman. They say about this: "For the sake of a red egg, a hundred of our ancestors were killed by Ottomans."
From Lazistan, the Ottomans crossed over to Libani, and from there to Machakhela. Machakhela met them bravely and without fear. Machakkela people were very strong and unbroken. They did not surrender without a fight to the Ottomans, continued a long war against Islam, but the forces were not equal at all and eventually, they succumbed to Islamization."
¹Probably, they talk about the Easter.