St. Abo, Martyr and Convert From Islam, Pray For Us!

Abo of Tiflis was certain that Islam was the one true faith — until he studied the Holy Bible and found himself more convinced in Christianity than in Islam.

This mosaic of St. Abo appears in the Church of St. Abo of Tbilisi on the bank of the Kura river in Tbilisi, Georgia.
This mosaic of St. Abo appears in the Church of St. Abo of Tbilisi on the bank of the Kura river in Tbilisi, Georgia. (photo: Elena Odareeva / Shutterstock)

It was cold in the dungeon. The prisoner stood there in the middle of his dark cell. He held a candle in each of his hands. His fellow prisoners had ceased watching him hours ago and were sleeping all around him. Hot wax dripped down from the burning candles onto each of his shackled hands, which were chained to his neck, as he continued to recite the Psalms. 

“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” 

This was to be a night of prayer for Abo. An angel had revealed it to him that he was soon to be executed. 

“He makes me lie down in green pastures.”

Abo had not been consumed by fear upon hearing the angel’s message. Much in him had changed over the years since his baptism. Grace had gifted him with conviction worthy of martyrdom. Worldly men are very eager to kill those with conviction that would be disruptive to the order which they are familiar with, and so he was to die. And as he continued to pray, the memories of his past, of his salvation, of having landed in this dungeon, began to flood into his mind. 

“He leads me beside still waters.”

Abo was only a child when Baghdad was founded as the capital of the empire. His mother and father, both of Arab blood, had raised their children there as Muslims. He’d learned a trade as a young man, living in the capitol, that was highly sought after by the wealthy and the royal few: perfumer. 

A skilled perfumer could make acquaintance with men of rank. Abo met one such man of royal blood. He didn’t know at the time that his acquaintanceship with an earthly prince would set his feet on a path to follow the King of Kings. 

Prince Nerses, ruler of Kartli, a subjected land in the Caucasus, had fallen out of favor with the ruling Caliph. Confinement was the reason for his stay in Baghdad. He’d requested the services of a skilled perfumer during his three-year stay, and thus met Abo, whom he’d taken a liking to. But grudging emperors don’t live forever. Caliph Al-Mansur died in 775. Caliph Al-Mahdi, the new emperor, had agreed to release the captive prince. Nerses returned to his home in Tiflis, and invited the perfumer to join him.

“He restores my soul.”

Abo accompanied the prince, leaving his parents and siblings behind, and learned the language and customs of a strange land. He’d found it rather peculiar that so many of the Georgian people had remained Christians, despite the empire’s efforts to convert them to Islam. 

He was still young and impetuous, and felt certain that Islam must have been the one true faith. He’d had many opportunities to meet with the Georgian dignitaries, being an acquaintance of the prince. He used several of those opportunities to land himself in heated arguments with priests, or sometimes even bishops, over finer religious matters. But unlike most impulsive young men, he was likewise receptive to hearing his opponents’ arguments, and he’d bothered to read their Sacred Scriptures so that he could prove them wrong. His initial efforts to persuade those priests and bishops of their folly had gradually led to an unforeseen result: Abo had become more convinced in Christianity than in Islam.

Abo knew that open conversion to Christianity, while living in a land under Islamic rule, would reap consequences. He dreaded such consequences. He discarded the Islamic practice of the five daily prayers instead, and quietly began to practice fasting and prayer in Christian manners.

“He leads me in the path of righteousness for his name’s sake.” 

Prince Nerses had managed to displease his overlord yet again. They said that he was too defiant. He fled the Caliphate, seeking shelter from a pursuing army in Khazaria, a land north of the empire’s mighty grasp. Abo was among those chosen to be in his escort. They were welcomed in Khazaria as refugees.

Abo, free at last from the Caliphate’s rule, was baptized in the year 779.

“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”

Khazaria, though it had been beyond the empire’s domain, still hadn’t been immune to Arab raids. Prince Nerses took flight again, settling in Abkhazia, where he could safely be reunited with his wife and children. Abo accompanied the prince again. 

Good company does wonders for a person’s faith. The piety which Abo had witnessed amongst the people throughout Abkhazia had left a deep impression upon him. He devoted himself more zealously to fasting and prayer. He emulated the disciplines of Desert Father St. Anthony the Great, despite living in a city, and spent three months without having uttered a single word to another person in conversation. The piety of this urban hermit, and friend of the refugee-prince, even caught the attention of Leon II, King of Abkhazia.

The Caliph meanwhile had appointed Prince Stephen, Nerses’ nephew, as the new ruler of Kartli. Prince Nerses, having been deposed, requested safe-passage back to his home in Tiflis. The Caliph granted it to him. King Leon, fearing what would happen to Abo if he were to return, had requested that the urban hermit remain in with him Abkhazia. 

The thought of remaining in Abkhazia made Abo restless. The fear which once had seized him, and prevented him from being baptized in Kartli, had lost its grip. A sense of mission had arisen in its place. What merit would it have been to remain there, in safety, when he’d had the opportunity to risk all for Christ instead? 

Abo returned to Tiflis in 782. 

“You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.”

For three years, Abo openly declared his faith in Tiflis. He preached to fortify his fellow Christians’ faith, and to convert his fellow Arabs that were living there. Being ignored, or warned, or mocked, or even threatened, wasn’t enough to dampen his zeal. In 785 he was finally arrested, and brought before the emir, and cast into a prison. He was released soon afterward at the request of Prince Stephen, his old friend’s nephew.

Caliph Al-Mahdi died in 785. The brief reign of Caliph Al-Hadi had begun. Abo’s fellow Christians heard whispers that a new viceroy had sought to capture Abo. They’d warned him to conceal his identity, but to no avail. Abo was arrested again.

Abo was dragged before the judge. The judge tried to entice the perfumer with titles and rewards, if only he would return to the faith of his ancestors. Though there had once been a day in which such enticements could have worked, Abo declined. He knew that a brief life that dwelt in truth was greater than many years spent in darkness. What profit would it be for a man to gain the world while forfeiting his soul?

The judge ordered Abo’s hands and feet to be fettered in chains, and that he be cast into the dungeon. That was on Dec. 27, 785.

Abo spent his days in prison fasting. He spent the nights in vigil up until dawn. He did what he could to help his fellow prisoners meet their needs. He asked his fellow Christians to sell his clothes and use the money to buy candles and incense for the local churches. And finally, the angel visited him, and revealed the message to him.

“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

The candles were burned down to the nubs. His hands were covered in dry wax. The door to the cell swung open. The prison guard called his name. 

On that Friday Abo washed his face and anointed his head with holy oil. The guards escorted him to the church, where he partook in the Lord’s Supper for one last time. He urged the faithful Christians surrounding him not to weep, but to rejoice instead.

The guards brought him to the palace courtyard. The judge offered him another chance to deny his faith in Christ. He declined. The prison guards removed the iron shackles from his hands and feet. He placed his arms on his breast in the form of a cross and bowed his head beneath the sword being wielded by the executioner. 

The executioner swung the sword and struck Abo’s neck with the blunt end. Abo looked upon the sword in courageous silence, still refusing to deny his faith. The executioner swung the sword and struck his neck with the blunt end a second time, and then a third. Abo had still refused to deny his faith. The executioner was finally given the signal. Abo was beheaded on Jan. 6, 786. 

It was known that the remains of martyrs invigorated the faith of the Christians. Abo’s body, his garments, and even the earth which had been soaked by his blood, were tossed into a sack. His remains were burned next to the Mtkvari River. The ashes were wrapped in sheepskin and then cast into the river. 

A shining star hung over the river that evening. Its bright light reflected over the water next to the Metekhi Cliff, where the remains of the martyr had been resting. A chapel was later built there, on the bank of the river, and remains there to this very day in Tbilisi, Georgia.

Saint Abo of Tiflis, pray for us!