Georgians seek buried bones of martyred queen
By Luke Harding in New Delhi
June 25, 2000
She died a horrible death in Persia in 1624, was transported to Portugal,
and finally interred in a now ruined church in Goa.
For almost 400 years, the remains of Queen Ketevan, a Georgian martyr
and patriot, lay undisturbed somewhere in St Augustine Church. The challenge
for archaeologists is to find her. In an unusual diplomatic move, the Georgians
have now said they want their queen back and have asked the Indian government
to dig her up.
Georgia's Foreign Minister, Irakli Menagarishvili, flew into New Delhi
last month to press his case. He asked his opposite number, Jaswant Singh,
to try to locate her remains. The Indians agreed to help.
Archaeologists must now unravel one of the last great mysteries of the
Portuguese colonial era. While there is no doubt that Queen Ketevan is
buried in Goa, near the mummified remains of St Francis Xavier - whose
toeless corpse is in the Bom Jesus church down the road from St Augustine's
- the archives are vague on detail. They say she was interred 'to the right
of the altar' in the St Augustine Church.
'The problem is,' said Dr P.P. Shirodkar, who led the last excavation
of the church in 1998, 'if you stand facing the altar it becomes the right
side. If you stand at the altar, the right side becomes the left side.
It is a confusing mystery. There was a practice of burying VIPs in big
convents like this, so we are sure she is there somewhere. But so far we
have been unable to locate her.'
The church, built in 1602 by Augustinian friars, was originally part
of a larger monastic complex. The vault and most of the nave collapsed
long ago, leaving only a 46-metre bell tower and façade in the jungle.
Excavators in 1988 found 54 grave slabs - but none bore Ketevan's name.
Dr V. Rao of Goa's state-run archaeology unit said attempts to find
the queen would begin anew after the monsoon. 'The problem is there were
four altars, which makes things difficult,' he said. 'Several Georgians
have already come to try and find Ketevan, but have left empty-handed.'
Queen Ketevan was carried off to Shiraz, now in Iran, when the Persians,
led by Shah Abbas the Great, pillaged eastern Georgia. According to a contemporary
report by Augustinian fathers, the Shah asked her to convert to Islam and
become his wife (she was already a widowed grandmother). When she refused,
she was stripped to the waist, tortured with hot irons, crushed with a
flaming brazier and strangled.
Her body was taken to Lisbon by four Augustinian priests, then to Goa
in 1627, as Portugal's Asian empire began to crumble. Although she was
Greek Orthodox, Queen Ketevan was subsequently embraced by the Catholic
Church as a saint. Her original tomb was said to emit a mysterious light.
Merab Chachua, a Georgian government spokesman, said Georgia, which
gained independence in 1992, wanted to give Ketevan a full state funeral.
'Queen Ketevan has been declared a saint by the Georgian Church and she
is taught in schools. Many Georgian women are called Ketevan. We would
like to have her back,' he said.