Indian researchers also confirmed that the queen was indeed strangulated to death under Shah Abbas, something Iran tries to deny.
by Daniela Bovolenta
Gestures of friendship may contribute to promoting religious liberty. Sometimes, they even shed light on historical mysteries. But the light may have political consequences.
All these elements came together when earlier this month India’s Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar gave back to the people of Georgia in Tbilisi relics of the saint queen Ketevan that had been kept for centuries in Goa. A part of the relics remains in Goa, and should be put on display there soon.
The Second Kingdom of Kakheti was a monarchy in Eastern Georgia. Ketevan, born around 1560, married King David I. She became involved in the turbulent politics of Kakheti, where different parties accepted or rejected the control of the kingdom by Shah Abbas I of Persia. Ketevan had been regent of Kakheti during the minority of her son King Teimuraz I between 1605 and 1614. In 1614, she went to negotiate with Shah Abbas I, who kept her hostage in Shiraz for ten years. In 1624, when Persia’s relations with Teimuraz I were deteriorating, Abbas ordered Ketevan to convert to Islam. She refused, and was tortured and strangulated to death, which led to her almost immediate canonization as a martyr by the Georgian Orthodox Church.
Or so said the Catholic Augustinian missionaries, who were in Shiraz at that time, had served as confessors of Ketevan (although she was Orthodox and they were Catholics), became eyewitnesses to the martyrdom, and took Ketevan’s relics to the Portuguese enclave of Goa in India. They were placed in Saint Augustine’s Catholic Church, which collapsed in 1842. The relics were declared as lost, and without their exams confirming the Augustinians’ story was impossible. Some Islamic scholars dismissed the martyrdom tale as Christian propaganda, a position officially endorsed by contemporary Iran.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, independent Georgia became very much interested in Ketevan’s relics, which Indian archaeologists of Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) believed to have found in 2005. But the identity of the relics had to be confirmed. It took several years for scientists at the Indian Centre For Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) with their colleague Gyaneshwer Chaubey from Estonian Biocentre, in Estonia, to extract the relevant mitochondrial DNA, compare it with samples in Georgia, and confirm that the bones were indeed Queen Ketevan’s. Since historical documents attested how the bones had traveled from Shiraz to Goa, the scientists and the archeologists also concluded that the tale of her martyrdom by the Augustinians was believable.
The discovery will likely generate negative reactions in Iran, but the work of ASI and the scientists should be celebrated as a significant contribution to history and devotion, just as India’s gesture of returning the relics to Tbilisi contributes to international interreligious dialogue.