Saturday, November 5, 2016

The Search for the Bones of Queen Ketevan

TheA look at the world of politics, statecraft, diplomacy and books

The Ruins of the Agustinian Church

On September 22, 1624, Shah Abbas I, the Safavid ruler of Persia had Queen Ketevan killed and subjecting her to horrific unspeakable torture. She died firm in her belief in her faith, and she was canonized  by the Roman Catholic Church in 1824. Her life and, more importantly, her afterlife is stirring and evokes a sense of awe/ Was her apparent "martyrdom" a political act designed to strengthen her son.s tenuous hold on the throne of Kekhetia, one of the warring principalities of medieval Georgia. Or was it an act of supreme defiance a la Antigone: whose law is supreme--the Law of one Conscience or the Dictates of an earthly ruler. We will never know the answer and probably, the Queen herself may not have been able to answer this question. The fact is that several centuries after her terrible death,an apotheosis is underway and the Queen is emerging as a symbol of Georgian Nation and her death is now being appropriated to push forward a national identity.
The Belfry of the Church
The Tower
Medieval Georgia was a shimmering mirage of quarreling "little kings"and politically ambitious monks and priests. Ketevan herself seems to have been instrumental in using her family to have the reigning king of Kakhetia, Konstantine assasinated and this led to her son Teimuraz I ascending the throne. King Teimuraz I (1589-1663)wrote a poem on his mother.s martyrdom, ThePassion of Queen Ketevanwhich is generally regarded as a National Epic of Georgia. His turbulent reign saw the killing of his two sons at the hands of Shah Abbas I (1587-1629) and the execution of his mother and in a sudden unexpected efflorescence of poetic inspiration composed the poem which recounts in great detail and feeling the treatment meted out to his mother. Interestingly, the tone and persona adopted by the King-Poet was one of irony and he does not condemn either the Governor of Shiraz, theImam Quli Khan who carried out the order of the Shah or the Safavid ruler himself. And this absence of rancour has raised this poem to the ranks on one of the great poetical compositions of medieval world literature.

The Tower that I have illustrated on the left is the only standing structure of the Augustinian Church which was constructed in the early seventeenth century in Goa. The last few years of her life, Queen Ketevan  had tqo Augustinian friars who acted as her confessors. It is certain that after her execution these two priests smuggled her relics to Goa and had them interred in the transept next to the Altar on what was referred to as the Epistle side of the Altar.
Goa State and Central Library

The Augustinan Church and its associated complex of buildings were regarded asthe most magnificent buildings in Goa. They were constructed atop the Holy Hill, close to the Office of the Grand Inquisitor who carried out his nefarious work from the Se Cathedral. After the religious orders were disbanded in Goa, the building was abandoned and by 1850 it lay in ruin. The Altar was overlaid with vegetation and the whole building covered with bushes, rubble and fallen masonry. Locating the Altar, the Transept and the Window to the right of the Altar was not easy as there was no plan of the structure. The original building plan and other documents were destroyed in the Great Fire of Lisbon in 1755 after the Earthquake which devastated the Kingdom.

Fortunately a historian called Antonio da Silva Rego had made detailed record of the tombstones in the Cathedral based on two earlier chronicles of the Augustinian Church. The complete set of documents are preserved with great care in the Goa State and Central Library. The Curator of the Portuguese Collection, Dr Carlos Fernandes is a man of great erudition and dedication and he shared the collection with me. In volume XII pg 92, this chronicler of the Salarzarist regime has faiffully recorded that the bones of "Reino Ghatiavanda" were located on the second window to the right of the Altar.

In 1998 after the collapse of the Soviet Union and when Georgia became independent, the then Government approached the Government of India for help in locating the bones of Queen Ketevan. The Archaelogical Survey of India, Goa Circle, under Mohammad Taher conducted the excavations and close to the exact spot mentioned in the records of Sila Rego were found the bones of a woman. A long femur wasuncovered and DNA analysis has shown that the bones belonged to a woman from Central Asia. The exact DNA is shared by less than one percent of the Indian population and more than 35% of the Georgian Population. Of course there can be no 100% identication unless the DNA is matched with that of a living descendant of the Queen.

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