December 30, 2013

Relic of Martyr Queen Ketevan Discovered in Goa

17th century depiction of Queen Ketevan

December 22, 2013
Past Horizons

DNA analysis has confirmed that a relic discovered by archaeologists amongst the ruins of St. Augustine’s Church in Goa, southeast India, is likely to be that of 17th century Queen Ketevan from the Kingdom of Kakheti in eastern Georgia.

Since 1989, various delegations from Georgia have worked together with the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) to locate Ketevan the Martyr’s relics within the Augustinian church which was founded in 1572. There have been several unsuccessful attempts at locating the relics, but finally the continued searching has paid dividends for the team.

In the year 1613, the emperor of Persia, Shah Abbas I led an army to conquer the Georgian kingdom and Queen Ketevan became his prisoner. The queen was held in Shiraz, southern Iran for approximately ten years, but in 1624, the emperor sent soldiers to convert her to the Islamic faith and to force her into his harem. However, she resisted his orders and as a consequence was tortured and strangled to death on 22 September 1624.

The royal citadel and Church of the Archangels is all that has survived from the 16th and 17th century city of Gremi, the capital of the Georgian Kingdom of Kakheti.

Remains taken to Goa

In 1623, a year before her death, two Augustinian friars had arrived in Shiraz to start up a mission and succeeded in gaining the queen’s trust, becoming her confessors. At some point after her death these same friars unearthed the remains of Ketevan and hid them. In 1627, some of these remains (the right arm) were taken to Goa and kept in a black box or stone sarcophagus on the second window along the Epistle side of the chapter chapel in the St. Augustine convent.

Over time the convent had been enlarged and rebuilt in places, but in 1835 the church underwent partial demolition, and in 1842 the main vault collapsed. After this episode, the convent rapidly became ruinous and valuable artefacts belonging to the religious complex had been either sold or lost.

Despite the fact that the exact location of the queen’s relics is mentioned in a Portuguese document, all efforts to find them had proved unsuccessful due to difficulties in the interpretation of the convent layout. However, a ground map of the convent was reconstructed on the basis of the literary sources and the help of local historians. After a topographical survey within the convent was carried out, the chapter chapel and window were finally located.

As per the literary sources, the relic box of Queen Ketevan was expected to be at the second window of the chapter chapel towards the Epistle side. Therefore, this area was systematically explored in 2004 for a stone sarcophagus, which was found broken into pieces due to the collapse of the wall. Whilst clearing the rubble the team also found an arm bone. Two other bone relics were recovered from outside the second window area, within intact stone boxes.

Ruined bell tower of the church of Our Lady of Grace within the St. Augustine convent in Goa. 

More proof

While the archaeological and historical data were consistent with the relic being the remains of Queen Ketevan, the archaeologists needed to somehow conclusively prove that the bone belonged to her. They approached the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) in Hyderabad who isolated DNA from the bone. Based on the sequence variation in the mitochondrial DNA, they assigned a haplogroup U1b to the sample.

After surveying the mitochondrial DNA sequence of 22,000 individuals from the Indian sub-continent, none of them belonged to U1b haplogroup. However, two out of 30 Georgians analysed have the same haplogroup, suggesting that the bone excavated in Goa is likely to be the remnant of Queen Ketevan of Georgia.