The St Katevan legend and the million dollar bone fragment

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Mario, the great cartoonist and Goan resident got me started on this, with his chapter (in his book ‘Legends of Goa’) ‘An unsolved mystery’ which ended in a question about some ancient relics. Time passed since I read it and in the meanwhile, matters of the relics had come to a head, with the question being answered once and for all, earlier this year. The story which started and ‘kind of’ ended far away in Georgia in the mid 1620’s, moved later to Persia and finally trickled down to Goa in India. Fittingly a closure was applied by an Indian scientist, but with a ghoulish price tag – a million dollars (as stated in news articles, but not substantiated!). Two things triggered the story in my mind recently, one was the chance meeting of an American of Iranian descent from Shiraz at a Persian restaurant (while eating some succulent Kobide kebabs) and the other being a completion of my study of migration  and how genetic analysis helped in determining some conclusions about it. Time is I suppose right to get back to this marvelous story. It is important to get some background on the order of Augustine and the church itself, for we are going to Goa at the end of the story, once again…

From Augnet - Augustine incidentally was a saint who lived in Italy and Africa between 383-430AD. In his spiritual tradition all good things come back to the one thing: love, the very center of Christian existence. The heart, which artists have often portrayed Augustine holding, is a key to this spiritual tradition. For Augustine the heart is a metaphor for all that is deepest, truest and personal in every individual person. Around 1535, two friars Villa Franca and Montoya with Dom Joao’s support preached the virtues of this particular order and brought about the golden age of the Portuguese Augustinians 1569-1630. The Order of Saint Augustine began to send men from Portugal to Goa in 1572 and this became the center for members of the Order until its decline around 1834.  The Augustinians initiated the construction of the Convent and Church of St. Augustine on the Holy Hill soon after. This new Augustinian monastery, became the richest monastery in Goa, and next to it was the massive Church - the largest church in Goa. This tall church was a great sight and the Italian architect ensured that it was solid by firing cannon balls at it.  The Augustinians are soon busy with conversions and rescue of child slaves being shipped to Persia and Arabia.

The Church of St. Augustine, was a very spacious building, with its facade looking to the west. A
long and beautiful staircase led up to it. It had two towers which were very high, and contained bells of enormous size. It had a nave, with a vault which was the best constructed in Goa, and was therefore admired by strangers. Captain Franklin says that the building of the choir belonged to the Gothic style. The edifice had eleven altars, all richly adorned, but the main altar is said to have been a masterpiece of workmanship. This beautiful church was erected almost at the same time as the convent; and there is a curious tradition about it. An Italian architect, who was entrusted with the construction of its vault, twice built it, but his labors were on both occasions rendered fruitless by its fall. Being reduced to despair, he rebuilt it a third time, and to try its stability placed himself and his only son directly under it and ordered a heavy cannon to be fired near the building, choosing rather to lose his life in the event of the vault falling through than to undergo a fresh disappointment. Fortunately the vault resisted the shock; he was satisfied as to the durability of the work, and received a suitable remuneration for his pains.

An important event occurred towards the end of the 16th century in Persia for Hamza Mirza, the heir to the throne fell critically ill and recovered after his Christian wife from Georgia brought him back to normalcy with Christian prayers. His promise was that he and his nation would convert and this message reached Goa through an Armenian who was living in Persia. Recall also that Cappadocia in Turkey was home for many Christian monks and Georgia had adopted it as a stage region early on. Priests reporting to Rome could be seen until early 16th century after which internal strife resulted in the local post at Georgian Tibilisi becoming vacant. The events which followed come from the religiously colored eyewitness account of an Augustinian missionary present at Shiraz and published as recently as 1982.

Shah Abbas, the Shehenshah of Iran came to the throne during a troubled time when the neighbors the Ottomans and Uzbeks were busy taking over parts of the country after a weak rule by his father. In 1588, Murshid Qli Khan a Qizilbash leader, overthrew Shah Mohammed in a coup and placed the 16-year-old Abbas on the throne, but the wily kid took over control quickly. To get rid of the Qizilbash prevalent powerbase, he used Georgians, Armenians and other Ghulams who were brought in and placed in court employment, after due conversion to Islam. As you can imagine, these Georgians and other new groups were already heavily vying with the Qizilbash for power and were often involved in complex court intrigues.

In Georgia meanwhile, Queen Ketevan gets married to Prince David of Kakheti. David’s father, King Alexander II had two other sons, George and Constantine. Constantine was converted to Islam and was raised in the court of the Shah Abbas I.  However, the young king David who has risen to the throne, dies suddenly, survived by Ketevan, and two children, Teimuraz, and Elene. At this point Constantine is asked by Shah Abbas to get rid of Alexander. He goes on to kill his father and brother and decides to take Queen Ketevan as his wife. The people finally revolt and kill Constantine. Teimuraz grows up, he and Shah Abbas become friends, Teimuraz’s wife Ana dies of throat cancer, and eventually he and the Persian Monarch are no longer friends, but Teimuraz takes over the throne.  In 1614 Shah Abbas informs Georgian King Teimuraz that his son would be taken hostage, and Teimuraz is forced to send his sons and mother Ketevan to Persia.

Now those who have studied the history of that region will remember that the Shah was aligned to the British and had expelled the Portuguese from Bahrain and Kisijhne. By 1622 the Portuguese had relinquished Homruz to the British who gave it back to the Persians. When the Portuguese requested the Shah’s help to restart their relations afresh, the Shah asked for Portuguese for forces to fight the Turks, but the Portuguese then under Spanish yoke could not provide it.

We now head to Fars, one of Iran’s 30 provinces; its capital city is Shiraz. As the story goes, the queen is finally on her way back to Georgia, and while at Shiraz, demanded the release of her compatriots imprisoned by the Shah. Various other reasons are attributed to the subsequent imprisonment of the queen (such as spying, support for Russians etc) and the castration and conversion of her grandsons, but eventually we see queen Ketevan in prison in Shiraz, and there she remained behind bars for a long period of 11 years. After five years of exile, the princes Alexander and Levan are separated from Ketevan and castrated. Alexander who could not endure the suffering died, while Levan went mad.

After some time Shah Abbas decided to convert Ketevan to Islam, and he also announced his intention to marry her. In case she agreed, she was to be honored as a queen, and case she refused, she was to be subjected to public torture.

What happened is narrated by the eyewitness, an Augustinian friar Ambrosio dos Anjos who had in 1623 been given permission to start a small hospice and church in Shiraz. Interestingly accounts mention that there were many Indians also living in Shiraz, even Brahmins!

What was Anjos doing in Shiraz? It seems a good number of Christians had moved to Shiraz after Hormuz was captured by the Shah in 1622. To take care of these Christians, the prior of Isfahan’s Augustinian convent, Sebastiao de Jesus, sent two clergymen to Shiraz, Ambrósio dos Anjos and Manuel da Madre de Deus. The contended Anjos states – “In Esfahan, Basrah and this one in Shiraz, the divine offices are celebrated with as much tranquility as in Goa”.

Ketevan clung on to her faith and exhorted everybody else to do so, refusing to convert or marry the Shah, infuriating the governor of Shiraz and also the Shah headquartered in Isfahan. Whether it due to Teimuraz’s affinity or involvement with Russians vying for territory or some other petty reason is not clear but the Shah had enough of Ketavan and her meddling in his affairs. Matters came to a head when the Russians sent an emissary on behalf of her son Teimuraz asking for her release.

The Persians tried hard to convince Ketevan that she could name her price to convert, but she would not. Finally the two torturers who were waiting in the courtyard were summoned. The rest of the graphic description is difficult to stomach these days, but I presume it was common stuff in Persia and up north.Bringing in two braziers filled with burning coals, they tied her hands, placed a heated copper bowl on her head and slowly tore off flesh from her with red hot tongs working their way down from her face. She is then horribly mutilated, killed and finally her dead body is bound up in a sack and buried in a deep pit nearby without any headstones.

Anjos, three Portuguese captives and Pedros dos Santos recovered the body some months later in Jan 1625. Anjos faithfully recorded the queen’s devotion with a plan to get her beatified. They brought the relics to the church and placed the bones in a small urn. Of the body itself, only the right hand and left foot remained, with flesh as white and beautiful as if the person was alive! They decided that it was not safe to keep this treasure in Shiraz (as the Carmelites wanted it for themselves) and moved it to the Augustinian convent at Isfahan in the care of Manuel da Madre de Deus.

In 1626, the Augustinians faced the latest wrath of the volatile Shah and had to flee. Anjos fled to Goa, but Deus could travel to Goa only ten months later. The right hand and a bone from the dead queen’s arm were carried to Goa with an intention to hand them over to Pietro Della Valle in Rome.

Remember Pietro Della Valle? He was a traveler who ended up marrying a Persian woman and lived for a while serving at Abbas’s court. He then went on to tour India, and was at Calicut as well. But why was he the consignee? Because he understood the region, the politics and because he was a gentleman of the bedchamber, appointed by Pope Urban VIII. As it occurred, the friars in Goa decided to retain the relics in Goa and sent only the lower mandible of the Queen to Della Valle who was happy with it. It is presumed that this is interred in the crypt in St Peter’s basilica.

Church politics was of course at play here and the Augustinians wanted to expand and establish a church in Georgia. To ensure that this went smoothly Anjos would be deputed to Georgia with the precious bones of the martyred queen. Eventually Anjos, Pedro and party reached Teimuraz in May 1628 and handed over Ketevans foot to Teimuraz. Teimuraz gladly gave the consent to the Augustinians to build a church in Gori. After the holy mission was accomplished, Pedro returned to Goa. Now the remaining task was only the canonization of the martyred queen, but that got stalled for a while as a question about her Catholicism and obedience to the pope was not quickly clarified. Even though records (Silva Regos works) stated – Guativanda Deadapoli has been instructed in the Christian faith by Friar Ambrosio dod Anjos and swearing obedience to the Roman Church encouraged by other religions, she renounced her marriage with the king of Persia (was she married briefly to Shah Abbas?) and for this reason she was tortured and finally put to death by her executioners on Sept 22 1624. Queen Ketevan was finally canonized by Patriarch Zachary of Georgia (1613–1630)

Sometime in the 18th century, the tiled scenes depicting the martyrdom of the queen were exhibited
in Lisbon, where you can still see them. At Gori things went well until 1634 when an attack of plague killed most of the mission except for our friend Anjos, who survived. Pedro had earlier gone back to Goa in 1633 did not return to Gori but stopped in Isfahan and later in 1639 had to sell off the convent after seeing the condition it was in. Anjos traveled again to Goa, returned to Rome but died in a shipwreck while going home to Lisbon.

Now we come to the relics themselves. The fragments provided to Teimuraz by Anjos were lost when his horse fell into a river. Those buried in Ispahan were never found. Those which landed up in a Russian monastery were returned to the Georgians. But the bits that were still left in Goa were still there until the archeologists hit a black box. The Goans friars, had preserved the bones in a black stone box which was displayed near the window in the church of Nossa Senhora da Graca.

The church of St Augustine in the meantime was on its decline. The end of Portuguese government funding to religious orders in 1832 meant that these things had to be closed or consolidated. As it happened, the buildings fell into neglect, and gradually became dilapidated, their ruin being precipitated by the fall of the sumptuous vault of the church, on the 8th September 1842, which buried under its debris the colossal image of St. Augustine, founder of the order, and that of Nossa Senhora da Grafa, patroness of the church. The Council of the Public Treasury ordered the sale of the materials in the following year. This church was closed along with the convent; the valuable articles belonging to both were sold or lost, and the principal bell, which weighed 4,800 lbs., was removed to the fortress of Agoada.

When it was completed in the 16th century, the grand Nossa Senhora da Graca Church was recognized as one of the three great Augustinian churches in the Iberian world, the other two being the Basilica of the Escorial in Spain, St. Vincente de Fora in Lisbon. But the church did not stand the test of time though it withstood the cannon barrage by the Italian architect who built it. Only a lone tower and parts of the faced remained.

Goatourism states -The tower is one of the four towers of St. Augustine Church that once stood at the
site. Initially built of laterite and colossal in size, almost forty-six meters high, it had four stories. The Tower was meant to serve as a belfry and the Church had eight richly adorned chapels and four altars and a convent with numerous cells attached to it. This remnant, the renowned St. Augustine's tower is all that remains of what was once one of the largest buildings in Goa -- The Augustinian Monastery

And as all that happened, the bones of Queen Ketavan rested near it…undisturbed…until now…

The importance of Queen Ketevan for the Georgian people led to hunt for this relic during the last decade, notably in Goa. Since 1989, various delegations coming from Georgia worked with M Taher of the Archaeological Survey of India to try to locate Ketevan's grave within the ruins of the Augustinian convent. In 2000-2001 Dr Kenchoshville of Georgia obtained permission from the Indian government and spent weeks excavating somewhere near the second window, but reached nowhere. In May 2004, the Chapter Chapel and window mentioned in the sources were finally discovered. Although the stone urn itself was missing, it’s coping stone and a number of bone fragments were found close to the window mentioned in the Portuguese sources.

Dr. Niraj Rai of the CSIR-Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad, India carried out DNA analysis on these human bone remains excavated from the St. Augustine convent by sequencing and genotyping of the Mitochondrial DNA. The investigations of the remains revealed an unusual mtDNA haplogroup U1b, which is absent in India, but present in Georgia and surrounding regions. Since the genetic analysis corroborates archaeological and literary evidence, it is likely that the excavated bone belongs to Queen Ketevan of Georgia.

However as the scientific paper on the DNA analysis states - it is important to keep in mind that Ketevan's palm and arm bone fragments were kept in the same urn as the complete remains of two European missionaries, Friar Jerónimo da Cruz and Friar Guilherme de Santo Agostinho. Therefore, it would be crucial to determine the sex and the kind of bone of the fragments tested in order to have conclusive results.

The Huffungton post article concludes with a geneticist’s views -The study is well done and honest, Jean-Jacques Cassiman, a geneticist at the University of Leuven in Belgium who was not involved in the study, wrote in an email.”It is a bone presumed to be of the queen and will remain so until its DNA can be compared to that of preferably living relatives and if not available dead relatives," Cassiman said, referring to nuclear DNA that is in all the body's cells. But until that point, the conclusion is based on statistics. Those statistics strengthen the idea that the bone belongs to St. Ketevan, but aren't strong enough to positively identify the remnant, Cassiman said. The Georgia news article puts a million dollar price tag, but it does not corroborate it.

I do not know if the relics finally found their way back to Georgia.

The mission of the Portuguese Augustinians to Persia and beyond (1602-1747) – John M Flannery
The martyrdom of Queen Ketevan in seventeenth century Iran: an episode in relations between the Georgian Church and Rome – John Flannery
A Historical and Archaeological Sketch of the City of Goa: By José Nicolau da Fonseca
Edge of Empires: A History of Georgia - Donald Rayfield

1.       It seems the movie Gunnam – the suspense thriller was shot near this church! Strange isn’t it, also to note that a singer of Goan origin (from the Mangeshi village) Lata Mangeshkar is singing the spooky song - Gunam hai koyi remember ti?? You can even see the ruins of this very church in the movie

2.       Gori incidentally is also popular for being Stalin’s birth place!