MTSKHETA, Georgia -- Residents of Mtskheta are heaving a sigh of relief as visitors finally trickle out of their city. Rumors of a holy apparition had drawn hordes of pilgrims from across the country to the ancient Georgian town.
The pilgrimage to Mtskheta, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, began last week. A nun was reported to have had a vision that Father Gabriel, an Orthodox monk buried at a local monastery and canonized in 2012, would grant two wishes to all those who visited his grave before Orthodox Christmas on January 7.
Thousands of faithful quickly streamed to the town some 20 kilometers north of Tbilisi, creating chaos on the roads and a giant queue in front of the grave.
Local police were deployed to ease road traffic and prevent stampedes, ordering pilgrims to move on after briefly touching the tombstone.
According to the nun, Mother Paraskeva, Father Gabriel appeared to her as she prayed at his grave days before Orthodox Christmas. "When I prayed at the grave of Father Gabriel, I had a vision that he would fulfill the wishes of all those who come here to ask for his benediction," she said. "This miracle happened, and this is why so many people have come here."
But she played down reports that she had advised visiting the grave before Christmas, saying that Orthodox followers were welcome any time in Mtskheta and that the saint would grant wishes for everyone in Georgia.
Pilgrims, however, firmly stuck to initial reports of Mother Paraskeva's prophecy. "The grave of Father Gabriel is very holy," one pilgrim told RFE/RL. "We came here to receive this holiness. We were told that Mother Paraskeva had a vision that we must all come here before Christmas and that Father Gabriel will fulfill two of our wishes."
Observers have blamed both the media and some clerics for helping spread reports of Mother Paraskeva's alleged vision. "People who hold such mystical beliefs are looking for the help they are not receiving in real life. It's easy to call people obscurantist and uneducated," philosopher Lela Gaprindashvili said. "But news of this vision spread so widely that even people from [the western Georgian port city of] Poti came. Obviously, people within church circles actively propagated this idea."
The Georgian Orthodox Church itself has warned its followers against lending credence to the rumors.
In a statement released on January 6, the patriarchate cautioned that "God grants only virtuous requests" and stressed that "Father Gabriel's intercession for the worshippers before the Lord" will continue after January 7.
Written by Claire Bigg based on reporting by Jimsher Rekhviashvili in Mtskheta