21 January 2009

'I ran in the savour of Thy good ointments'--St Abo the Perfumer of Baghdad

Today, 8 January according to the Church’s calendar, we commemorate the Martyr Abo (აბო თბილელი, ჰაბო ტფილელი), the Perfumer of Baghdad, who suffered at Tbilisi, Georgia in 786, when that country was under the dominion of the Abbasid Caliphate. St Abo’s Martyrdom was recorded by a contemporary, John, son of Saban (Ioane Sabanisdze), who makes much of the fact that St Abo was an Arab and thus, a descendant of the Patriarch Abraham, like him, called by God to leave his native land. By trade a maker of perfumes, and ‘educated in the religion of Muhammed’, when he was 17 or 18 St Abo went as a servant to Tbilisi with Nerses, the ruler of Eastern Georgia who had been imprisoned in Baghdad by the Caliph, Muhammad ibn Mansur al-Mahdi, from 772 to 775.

In Tbilisi, St Abo learned to speak Georgian and became renowned for his virtues. Gaining more and more acquaintance with the Scriptures and Divine Services of the Orthodox Christian Faith, he at first quarrelled with the Christian clergy and teachers. But the blessed Martyr was gradually won over, ‘became estranged from the faith of Muhammad’, and ‘began to love Christ with all his heart, being inspired by the words, “They related to me the creed of the heathen; but it was not like unto Thy law.”’ He delayed baptism, however, and at first kept his faith a secret for fear of the Muslims. According to David Lang’s introduction to St Abo’s Martyrdom, ‘The Caliphs had spared no effort to turn the Georgians into Muhammadans; force, cunning and economic coercion, complains John [Sabanisdze], had all been brought into play . . .’

Soon Nerses was forced to flee the Arabs and take refuge in the land of the Khazars (featured in Milorad Pavić’s fascinating Dictionary!), bringing St Abo with him. There, the latter was able at last to receive Holy Baptism, and ‘was henceforth evermore filled by Christ's grace, and able to devote himself without hindrance to fasting and prayer’. But soon, both joined Nerses’s family in Abkhazia (at that time an autonomous principality of the East Roman Empire), where St Abo was pleased to find himself among so many Christians. According to his hagiographer:

When the blessed Abo saw the exceptional devoutness of the local people and their assiduity in prayer, he was filled with a fever of emulation, remembering the words of the holy apostle, ‘It is always good to imitate excellence.’ In that wintry season, on the 17th of January, the commemoration of our holy father Antony, he began to emulate Antony's severe exertions. Though living an urban life he struggled against man's enemy the devil as if he were out in the wilderness. By vigil and fasting he subdued his youthful flesh so that he was able to quench all the fiery darts of the evil one.

In 779 or 780, the Caliph placed Nerses’s nephew, Stephen III, in charge of Eastern Georgia, and in 782, Nerses, satisfied to retire from politics, decided to return to his homeland. Before he left, however, the prince of Abkhazia told St Abo that he feared that, as a convert to Christianity, the Muslims would force him to revert back to Islam on pain of death. But St Abo zealously replied, ‘Nothing will make me hide from the risk of death, for I have learnt from the holy apostle that “the faint-hearted cannot inherit the kingdom of God.” Therefore I am not afraid of death, since I look for the kingdom of Christ.’

For a few years, all was well, but in 785 St Abo was denounced, arrested, and imprisoned. He was at first released through the intercession of Stephen, but his denouncers persisted and finally persuaded a second magistrate to attempt to force him back into Islam. St Abo was warned, but refused to be cowed. Upon finally being brought before the magistrate, the holy Martyr confessed—

‘But when the Almighty had mercy on me and selected me from among my brothers and relatives and saved me through His Son Jesus Christ my God, and granted me a more perfect understanding, then I quitted my former faith, as being a manmade creed based on fables thought up by human subtlety and invention. So now I cling to the true faith of the Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Ghost, as revealed to us by Jesus Christ.’

Sent back to prison on 27 December, the Feastday of St Stephen the Protomartyr, St Abo ‘stayed in his dungeon fasting and praying and singing psalms incessantly day and night’. When some of the Muslims tried to persuade him to come back to their religion, he ‘paid no attention to them, but went on praying and singing psalms silently in his mind’. Finally, after nine days of prayer, fasting, and vigil, St Abo anounced to the other Christians that the day of his martyrdom had come, and asked that prayers be said that he remain firm and not betray Christ.

Then, ‘In the reign of our Lord Jesus Christ, in that year after His Passion and Resurrection when Constantine, son of Leo, was reigning over the Christians in the great city of Constantinople, when Mousa, son of Mahdi, Commander of the Faithful, was reigning among the Saracens, in the pontificate of Samuel, Catholicos of Georgia, when Stephen, son of Gurgen, was Duke of Georgia, in the year 6424 from the Creation, on Friday, January 6th,’ the Feast of the Holy Theophany, St Abo said:

‘This is a great day for me, for I see the twofold victory of my Lord Jesus Christ, since it was on this day that He went down unclothed into the river Jordan to be baptized; and the heads of the monster hidden in those deep waters He annihilated by divine power. Now it is my turn today to vanquish the fears which beset my soul's fleshly covering, and go down into the city as into the sacred waters to be baptized in my own blood by fire and spirit, as John the Baptist preached.

. . .

‘Once upon a time I myself was a skilled perfumer and mixer of fragrant oils. But today this is my anointing for the grave. From now on I shall no longer be anointed with this perishable oil of my petty nature, but as Solomon the Wise taught me in his Song of Songs, "I ran in the savour of Thy good ointments," O Christ, who filled me with the imperishable perfume of Thy faith and love. Thou knowest, O Lord, that I have loved Thee more than I have loved myself.’

Having received the Holy Mysteries in prison, St Abo was taken once again before the magistrate. As he remained steadfast in the Faith, he was beheaded with the sword, and his precious relics were taken by his denouncers, thinking that they could destroy them and prevent their veneration. They tried to burn the body, and then tied it up and dumped it into the Mtkvari River. Our Lord, however, revealed the place where they tried to burn the relics with a ‘flaming star like a fiery torch’, and the place where the relics were dumped into the river with ‘light in the form of a pillar like a lightning flash’. As He thus honoured the earthly remains of His holy Martyr, concludes the hagiographer, ‘how much more shall we not see [the Martyr] honoured at the resurrection of the just, when he is crowned imperishably among the angels in glory and exaltation?’

On a personal note, I became interested in doing this post on St Abo when I saw him described as ‘the Perfumer of Baghdad’ on the Holy Trinity calendar (I discovered that most other sources seem to refer to him as ‘Martyr Abo of Tiflis [Tbilisi]’). I have had a sort of fascination with old Baghdad ever since high school, when I read Neil Gaiman’s story ‘Ramadan’ in the Sandman collection, Fables and Reflections (NY: DC Comics, 1993), pp. 226-58. The story concerns the legendary Caliph, Harun al-Rashid (هارون الرشيد, ‘Aaron the Just’), the ‘Golden Age’ figure who plays so prominent a rôle in many of the stories in The Book of One Thousand and One Nights. It occurred to me, I know so little about the history of the Islamic world, that I had no idea when Harun’s reign was, or whether it was anywhere close in time to the martyrdom of St Abo. It turns out St Abo was martyred in January of 786, under Harun’s brother, nine months before Harun took over the Caliphate in September of that year. It’s nice to know that the second most famous ‘Aaron’ didn’t martyr St Abo.


The Ochlophobist said...

I just read about St. Abo in Lives of the Georgian Saints from St. Herman's Press, and was delighted to read this supplementary material.

It seems that all men of letters spend time with Milorad Pavić in their twenties. He is fascinating.

aaronandbrighid said...

I suppose you're right about Pavić. I'm now in my thirties, and I haven't spent much time with him since completing that 3rd decade! I still recall excitedly tracking down the difference between the male and female editions of the 'Dictionary', only to have a 'Be sure to drink your Ovaltine'-moment when I finally found it. I never did finish 'Landscape Painted with Tea'...