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The Right Hand of the Grand Master

Prepared by Levan Abramishvili
Thursday, April 25
Konstantine Gamsakhurdia was a Georgian writer and public figure, who, along with Mikheil Javakhishvili, is considered to be one of the most influential Georgian novelists of the 20th century.

The Right Hand of the Grand Master is a historical novel which was first published it in 1939 in a literary magazine Mnatobi. It is considered a magnum opus of Gamsakhurdia. Subtitled "knightly novel" by the author, the book received critical acclaim in Georgia and in Soviet Union as a whole, selling 700,000 copies of 12 publications of its Russian-translated version in the author's lifetime alone. A two-episode feature film The Right Hand of the Grand Master based on the novel premiered in 1969.

The historical fiction novel is set in the 12th century Georgia. The novel explores the semi-legendary story of building of the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral (Cathedral of the Living Pillar) which was to be built by the dedicated architect Konstantine Arsakidze as per orders of the King Giorgi I. We hope our readers will enjoy the first chapter of this magnificent historical novel.


That very year when Parsman the Persian, at orders of King Giorgi,* completed building the third church in Samtskheh, Georgia was infested by rook.

Like a thundercloud they darkened the East. Coming from Shirvan, they spread over Lower Kartli, swept up the river Kura and laid waste the crops as far as Basiani.

The King summoned Pans main and charged him to exterminate the birds.

At that time Tbilisi was in the hands of the Saracens. Parsman had lived there at the court of the Emir and had been brought from there as a war prisoner by Bagrat Kuropalat, Giorgi's father.

Parsman, the head of the stone-cutters and masons, was skilled in the occult sciences, deeply versed in the alchemy of the Arabs, an incomparable astronomer, a remarkable physician, and a wonderful prophet.

Dark stories were linked with his name by the superstitious. It was even said that he possessed a bridled serpent and astride it used to fly like the wind through the groves along the Aragvi.

For four weeks Parsman the Persian and his underlings were preparing drugs. When at last a certain magic potion had been made up, it was distributed among the village elders, who were told to have carrion soaked in it and tang in the trees.

The ravenous birds fell on the putrefying flesh and died.

Thereafter until the end of the year peace reigned in all the provinces of the country. A peace treaty was signed with the Byzantine Emperor. Padlon, Emir of Ganja, who had several times been defeated by Bagrat Kuropalat, began to pay tribute to the King. The Emir of Tbilisi, warned by that example, kept quiet. The Saracens still held precarious sway over the castle of Shuri.

Giorgi took heart and went on inspection tours to, Abkhazia, Samtskheh and Kartli, built fortified towns and summer residences, and during the short period of peace made arrangements for waging prolonged wars.

On the first of September, New Year's Day, Giorgi was in Mtskheta with his retinue. Ere it was dawn the Catholicos of Georgia brought the King New Year greetings. He went to the King's bedchamber carrying a round wooden tray heaped high with gold, silver and garnets. Then he presented the King with a precious icon and the Holy Life-Giving Cross, brought from Klarjeti in a bejewelled reliquary.

From morning high officials of state kept passing into the presence of the King eristavis or governors of provinces, the Commander-in-Chief Zviad, the master of ceremonies, the secretary of state, the chief justice, the King's chaplain, his treasurer and his butler.

The chief falconer made him a present of three steel-coloured hawks, seven falcons from Lazistan and the gilded head of a wild boar. The master of the horse and the three eristavis each brought seven horses. Besides the horses, the eristavis presented the King with quivers containing various kinds of arrows: large ones for big game and others for beasts of prey and birds.

The shaggy-haired Eristavi Mamamzeh, who was called "Man Lion" because of his giant build and great courage, took a bundle of arrows, and fixing his keen eyes—greenish-grey like unripe grapes—on him who sat on the throne, said:

"May the Creator make long your reign, O King, and let these arrows pierce the hearts of those who are treacherous to your dominion! Accursed be the evilminded and those who plot treason against your throne!"

Taciturn by nature, Giorgi was a shrewd observer. His glance, like a sword-thrust, parried the stare of those grey eyes, and they wavered and leapt aside under the bushy white eyebrows like a pair of squirrels. Then the King turned his eyes to Zviad, the commander-in-chief.

With bowed head and unruffled brow Zviad stood listening to Mamamzeh's words. Lost in secret thoughts he stared down at the brick floor. His hairy right hand clasped the hilt of a huge sword. All others at the audience were without arms, only he wore a sword of damascened steel.

As soon as the levee had broken up and the banquet had begun, the King's game keeper, falconer and beater drove the horses presented by the eristavis to the King's reserve.

In pursuance of an ancient rite observed on New Year's Day, the horses were beheaded and the inclosure locked.

Night overtook the revellers. The link-bearers lit the torches, the lamp-lighters brought into the banqueting-chamber tallow and wicks of silk for cressets.

The King was desirous of making merry that evening but the moody silence of his commander-in-chief put him out of humour.

The assembly of the nobles and dignitaries dissolved when it was past midnight. Two link-bearers with lighted torches led the way for Catholicos Melkisedek, and one went before each of the three eristavis.

The King wished the guests good night, dismissed the torch-bearers and motioned Zviad to a nearby seat.

Deep silence brooded in the hall. The waxen tapers feebly flickered in the niches. The cheeks of the young King were flushed after the feasting but wine had failed to raise his low spirits.

For a while both were silent. From the palace garden came the screech of an owl. The sentinels were calling stridently in the starless night.

Giorgi lifted his head, looked hard at the lowered black eyebrows of the commander-in¬chief and asked him about the cause of his ill-humour.

Zviad pleaded that he had been reluctant to be the bearer of evil tidings to the King on New Year's Day, but now that it was already past midnight he might break the news brought by his spies the day before.

Talagva Kolonkelidze, he said, the heathenish eristavi of the province of Kvetari, had forced the mountain tribes of Pkhovi and Dido to worship his gods. The Dzurdzukians and other tribes had followed suit. Their combined forces had invaded the Aragvi Gorge, unexpectedly besieged the castles there and made their commandants surrender without fighting because the idolaters had their partisans inside each one.

Eristavi Mamamzeh's only son Chiaberi, having fought on the side of Kolonkelidze in the gorge of Gudamakari, had retreated without any losses and locked himself with a small force in the castle of Korsatevela.

Zviad did not conceal from the King that during the encounter only thirteen Pkhovians and seven Aragvians had been slightly wounded with arrows.

Thereafter Kolonkelidze was said to have raided the Aragvi Gorge with his troops, burned down the churches, smashed the holy images, hanged the Christian priests and monks from the belfries, and set pagan idols up on the hills. The inhabitants of the Aragvi Gorge had joined the Pkhovians and their followers and had spent the whole night worshipping the idols and sacrificing their sons and daughters according to the most ancient rites.

The mob, besotted with beer, was said to have been dancing before the idols and celebrating victory for three days and nights. This had been going on on the very day that Eristavi Mamamzeh set out for Mtskheta to attend the King's audience.

These latest actions of the rebels worried the spasalar not for their own sake—he was convinced that the King could easily deal with the situation. But the uprising interfered with the realization of some far-reaching plans Zviad had been cherishing—to fight the Saracens for Tbilisi in alliance with the Byzantines and thus to unite all Georgia under one sceptre. ... And now Chiaberi, who was known and respected in Byzantium, was among the rebels.

On hearing the news King Giorgi bowed his head. In his mind's eye he saw the false twinkle in Mamamzeh's eyes, greenish-grey like unripe grapes. How transformed he seemed to the King that instant! Was it Mamamzeh's old self, or Satan himself in Mamamzeh's body? Could he be a traitor? The man who had been the closest friend of Bagrat Kuropalat in his wars against the Emir Padlon? The man who had endured so many hardships with Giorgi himself in the battle of Shirimni?

Had Mamamzeh not been at Giorgi's elbow when the country of Heret-Kakhetia had refused to help him and when the treason of the aznauris* had found so many supporters among the eristavis?

Eventually Giorgi recalled the first night of the battle against the Byzantines on the plain of Niali. The youthful King hewed down their commander, but no sooner did he turn his horse than a Greek trooper killed the armoured stallion under him and speared the calf of his right leg. Down jumped Mamamzeh from his horse, caught up the youth like a child in his mighty arms, placed him on his own horse, drew his sword and put the enemy to flight as a hawk scatters a flock of daws.

And on New Year's Day the same Mamamzeh, holding a bundle of arrows in his hand, had shamelessly sworn his allegiance to Giorgi.

He had long since been aware that neither Mamamzeh nor his son Chiaberi were true Christians at heart.

For the sake of appearance, to deceive the King, they had decked their castle of Korsatevela and its chapel with icons and crucifixes. For themselves, they had pagan shrines erected amidst oak forests in inaccessible mountains, and at them they used to make their devotions.

The spies had likewise communicated to the commander-in-chief the intelligence that Kolonkelidze, governor of Kvetari, Mamamzeh and Chiaberi had concluded a secret alliance against King Giorgi.

However, it could not yet be established who was behind them: the Emir of the Saracens in Tbilisi, or somebody else.

It was also reported to Giorgi that Talagva Kolonkelidze's only daughter, the fair-faced Shorena, had been betrothed while yet in the cradle to Mamamzeh's son Chiaberi.

The destruction of Christian churches was only preliminary, carried out to see how the land lay. In the spring, Chiaberi and Talagva Kolonkelidze would become father and son-in-law and with their united forces besiege Uplistsikheh.

Giorgi perceived clearly that in this case the religion of Christ would be his support.

And yet his own faith was wavering.

His hawks were being trained by Arab falconers. During his nightly talks with Parsman the Persian he listened eagerly to the teachings of Plato.

At night the King would observe the stars. Who knows, he thought, perchance they were the souls of those whose sun had set for ever.

Nevertheless, Giorgi was considered to be the defender of Christianity. "King of Kings Giorgi—Sword of the Messiah" was inscribed on the silver coins stamped at his mint.

* * *

King Giorgi and Zviad now understood the true purpose behind Mamamzeh's appearance at the audience.

This honoured guest had been sent by his son as a scout. Giorgi might have ordered his eyes to be put out, and have sent troops against Chiaberi and Kolonkelidze before the first snowflakes whitened the mountains, but the trouble was that Chiaberi had recently returned from Constantinople with a golden helmet and the title of "Archegos" conferred on him by the Byzantine Caesar for his assistance in the war against the Saracens.

Immediately after his return from Constantinople he had caused the King of the Ossetians to be poisoned and had forced the Ossetians to do homage to himself. He was famed throughout the Caucasus as a matchless warrior and horseman.

Spasalar Zviad was a cautious counsellor, nor was it Giorgi's habit to take hasty decisions on important issues, and they therefore agreed to have a talk with Miamamzeh the next day.

Moreover, they decided to dispatch disguised monks to Pkhovi to find out whether it was the Saracen Emir or the hypocritical Byzantine Emperor who had had a hand in the recent happenings.
(Translated by Vakhtang Eristavi)