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THE PASSION OF SHUSHANIK BY JAKOB


THE PRIEST
Summary
The Passion of Shushanik is the earliest extant monument of original Georgian literature.
It was written at the 470s by Jakob the Priest who served at the court of the pitiakhsh, i. e. ruler,
of Gugareti, a frontier province of Georgia.
The Passion has come down to us in two versions: Georgian and Armenian, each
language version of the work has been preserved in two redactions all based on a long
Georgian version written by Jakob the Priest; the oldest MS dating from the tenth century. The
extant text is slightly defective, with some indications of later redaction.

The present publication in Russian of the extensive version of Jacobs Passion of


Shushanik was translated by the late Professor V. Dondua, an eminent Georgian student of
Caucasian history. The translation is based on the text critically established by Prof. I. Abuladze
(in 1938).
The Passion describes the tragedy in the family of the pitiakhsh of Kartli narrated
against the background of the political and ideological relations between Georgia and Iran in the
60 70s of the fifth century. The following is the plot in brief.
In order to court favour with the king of Persia and thereby gain full independence for his
province from the king of Kartli Varsken, a Kartli pitiakhsh, renounced Christianity and
embraced Zoroastrianism. His wife Shushanik took her husbands act as betrayal of the faith of
their sires and country. She' disobeyed her husbands will and left the palace to live in seclusion.
The conflict between husband and wife lasted eight years. Varsken tried by every means to
induce his wife to return to his family, but in vain. Finally, the desperate husband tortured her
cruelly and put her in prison, where she died through long fasting and exhaustion.
Shushanik was Armenian by descent the daughter of Vardan Mamikonian, hero of the
451 Armenian uprising against Persia. She spent most of her life in Georgia, where she died as a
martyr and was buried. For the Georgians the Armenian woman became a symbol of Georgias
national independence and dedication to Georgian religion. Therefore the Georgian Church
reckoned her among its national saints.
The Passion of Shushanik is a masterpiece of medieval Georgian literary thinking. The
fact that hagiographic writing in fifth-century Georgia was still in its teens and the characteristic
stereotypes of the genre had not yet been established allowed for less rigidity in expression, this
enabling Jakob the Priest to attain a high literary and historical veracity. The language of the
work is singularly natural, laconic and couched in stylistically impeccable Georgian.
Unfortunately, the translation must inevitably fail in conveying fully the moderate
expressiveness of phrase and implication of the original.
The narration is in the first person, the reader always being aware of the author's visible or
invisible presence. The abundance and exactness of personal details, genuineness of amotions,
correct chronology, clarity in the description of the environment and situations all this
indicates that the description of the passion of Shushanik from the standpoint of a witness is not
only a literary device for Jakob the Priest. He was in fact a witness and participant of
Shushaniks life. This not only enhances the readers confidence in the work; it also involves
him in the plot, making him experience the tragedy of the characters with the same intensity as
felt by Jakob himself.
The high artistic level of the work, the clear-cut individuality and straightforwardness of its
characters, and lack of metaphrastic features point to its authenticity. Its high literary standard
suggests also that Jacobs could not have been the first literary work in Georgian literature.
The importance of the Passion of Shushanik for Georgian studies does not end with its
perfection of form. The facts and relations described in it are exact historically, permitting the
historian to use Jacobs work as a primary source in the reconstruction of the earliest stage in the
feudal period of Georgian history. It contains ample material for the study of Georgias political,
social, and ideological developments, the structure of the Church and feudal houses, family life,
common law and other questions in the second half of the 5th century.