This is part two, of four, in a series of primers on Georgian History. Previously, we talked about Georgia’s ancient history until the time of its Christian conversion. In this part we will get into one of the country’s most beloved eras, The Medieval Golden Era. Georgia’s Medieval Era spans a little more than 500 years and is a constant jewel in the aggregate, glossy memory of drunk Georgian men at supras. Every country has a fabled era where everything was good and right: Americans have the Post-Revolutionary Colonial period where the country’s possibilities were exciting, new, and full of promise, The Brits have the Elizabethan Era and glory days of an empire upon which “the sun never set”. These legendary, almost mythic times are a part of every nationality and culture which give clues as to what matters to them in their collective identity.

The Fall of Kartli

Ancient map of Georgia by Giacobo de’ Gastaldi Piamontese
Photo Source:

The ancestors of Georgia, as a nation, were the Kingdoms of Kolkhis (Colchis) and Kartli (Iberia). Started in the 6th Century BCE both kingdoms established themselves as the forebearers of Georgian ethnographic development. However, eventually Kartli became a stronger player in the region and eventually absorbed much of area of it’s western cousin who’s remaining independent lands later became known as the Kingdom of Abkhazia. Eventhough Kartli was strong, it could not compete with the world superpowers that vied for control of Transcaucasia and the Silk Road that traversed through it. Often having to make deals between the empires of the Romans, Byzantium, Persians, Armenians, Arabs, and Seleucids. Kartli was forced into relationships that made it anything from an independent ally, to a subservient fiefdom depending on who was the dominus and Kartli’s relative strength at the time. For about 400 years Kartli was passed around from one great empire to another like a ten year old Nokia in a family of twenty children: a strong, useful tool but nothing too important that couldn’t be easily given away. Generally, aside from losing many of its far western holdings in what is now Northeastern Turkey, the kingdom was able to hold together a relative, internal stability until it was torn in half by a truce deal made between Byzantium and Persia in 591 CE.

The Same Old Song and Dance

Tao Klarjeti Today
Photo Source: ecofact

Much of the Georgian history, especially during its medieval period, can be described in one of two ways:

  • Game of Thrones: Live – Fratricide, intrigue, and a long lost relative comes to the rescue minus the dragons.
  • A kid trying to build sandcastles as two or more beach-bullies stomp over her creations as they give each other black eyes, with little to no regard for her.

All throughout this period a common pattern would emerge. A large, world power would see the strategic importance of holding Transcaucasia for both the natural resources and its proximity to the trade routes along the Silk Road. If the power didn’t dominate them by force directly, it would play off the Georgian king as a buffer against the other world power(s), also wanting to control the region. These rival empires would naturally punch and stab each other at various times with Georgia taking on the crossfire coming from all sides.

Sometime later, either when the dominating power was in decline or a Georgian leader had enough, a strong sovereign would emerge and throw off the chains of their submission. The sovereign would then slowly grow in power and influence, increasing Georgia’s territory giving it a time of peace and stability. Then one day, he would be worshiping in a church and suddenly find himself dead; stabbed or poisoned. His heirs and or family would split the kingdom up and slowly weaken it through petty squabbles. During that time another world power would walk in and start the cycle all over again. Ashot I Kuropalates, a cousin of the ruling Bagratis in Armenia, came to power in Tao-Klarjeti in 813 and had successfully consolidated the holdings of his father which consisted of much of the old Kartli Kingdom. He eventually took from the Arabs a large swath of land that, today, covers much of Eastern Turkey and made a good attempt at taking Tbilisi back, retaking it at first, but ultimately losing Tbilisi in 827 and assassinated three years later while praying at an altar. His kingdom was left divided between his three sons: Bagrat I, Adarnase II, and Guaram; and the region’s stability quickly went to pot.

A few generations later another Tao sovereign, David III, was successful in retaking much of the lost Tao-Klarjeti regions and was the strongman in many inter-family disputes, earning him a lot of power and influence in Transcaucasia. Heirless, he adopted the Abkhasian prince, Bagrat III, after defeating his rebellious father. He then placed him in the care of the Kartli king to act as his regent. David III encountered a hitch though when returning home in 1000, as his communion wine was spiked with a poison from his nobles. According to a previous agreement, David III’s estate was ceded back to Emperor Basil II. In a bid to play the Georgians against each other, he returned David III’s title and lands to the young Bagrat III giving his Kartli regent a subservient title.

But to Basil II’s chagrin, the Bagratis would settle down for the next 8 years allowing Bagrat III to become the first king of a united Saqartvelo, controlling all of her known lands excluding Kakheti from his capital in Kutaisi. Their exceptionalism would not last long for in 1010, after a two year campaign, Bagrat III annexed Kakheti and extended his western reach beyond the current eastern borders of Azerbaijan. Now, all of Saqartvelo was under a single Kartveli crown and would soon see an emergence of art and culture, beyond political influence, that would come to be known as Georgia’s Medieval Golden Age

(Re)Building a Nation

Davit Agmashenebeli fresco
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Outside patronage and internal investment was always part of a Bagrati king’s platform. From as far back as Ashot I, their investment into the church and its monasteries helped legitimize and engender the public to their rule. Arshot I rebuilt the broken fortress of Artanuji and invested support in Saint Gregory of Khandzta’s monastic movement. David III of Tao oversaw the construction of the Oshki Monastery and much needed infrastructure investments. Bagrati III funded the massive works of Bagrati, Bedia, and Nikortsminda Cathedrals. Georgia struggled for almost 100 years against the Salugid Turks that were wreaking havoc all across the region, naming this period Didi Turkoba (The Great Turk Event). The Turks decimated the kingdom and left only the mountain settlements of Abkhazia, Svaneti, Racha, and Khevi–Khevsureti untouched. Giorgi II was unable to deal with the implosion of his kingdom and control and eventually abdicated the throne to his son, David IV, in 1089 giving him the reigns to what little there was left to rule. Known eponymously as David the Great and David the Builder, the king spent as much of his time fighting the Turks as he did trying to rebuild his kingdom.

David IV had either great luck or great timing because his mobilization against the Turks happened during an internal power vacuum, at the same time, fighting off invaders from the First Crusade. These circumstances allowed him to take advantage of a multifront war against a crumbling enemy, and pushed them back all the way to the shores of the Caspian Sea and south, beyond Yerevan, to present day Jofa in Iran. On August 12, 1121 David IV pooled a force of about 55,600 , including a regiment of French Crusader cavalry from the King of Jerusalem, against a Turkish coalition force of about 250,000 (give or take 100k depending on the historian) in Didgori to retake Tbilisi which had been out of Georgian hands for over 400 years. Through some underhanded tactics and good planning, King David won a decisive victory decimating 70% of his foes and putting him in great position to retake Tbilisi itself the next year. The battle is still celebrated 900 years later in the festival of Didgorba.

King David IV didn’t just build Georgia’s borders, but also solidified Georgia’s independence. He was the first king in centuries to reject a Byzantine title and formed the independent academy at Gelati and later added another academy to the Ikalto Monastery where the legend believes the writer Shota Rustaveli, Georgia’s “Chaucer”, studied. He also focused on infrastructure and invested heavily into the various towns and villages to rebuild what was left in ruin previously or destroyed in the collateral damage of his liberation campaigns. He founded the city of Gori with Armenian merchant refugees. He consolidated the church’s power under the crown making the Bishop of Tchqondid into a prime ministerial role and reformed the kingdom’s judicial system. King David the Builder died on January 24, 1125 and, while not in church when it happened, it was his wish to be entombed in the floor of the Gelati Monastery.

King Looks Like a Lady

King Tamar & King George III (fresco)
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King David’s son, Demetre, took over and continued his father’s work maintaining a time of general peace and continuing the work of rebuilding. His progeny however continued the age old cycle of internal power squabbles nearly losing the progress of their grandfathers. Demetre was forced to abdicate by his oldest son David V then was reinstated 6 months upon his death. He had a son, Demna, who would return to take over the throne from his uncle Georgi III supported by the Orbeliani and Torelis nobles. King Giorgi III routed the rebellion, executed the nobles, and castrated Demna to ensure no more lineage issues would come up. To further this, he crowned his daughter Tamar as king while he was still alive and co-ruled with her until his death in 1184. No, that was not a typo. Tamar, a woman, was (and is still) known as King Tamar. It’s an honorific that is exclusively given to male sovereigns. Georgia is a fiercely patriarchal society so handing such a title to woman shows just how strong of a leader she was: though it didn’t start out that way.

When Giorgi III died many people tried to take advantage of what they perceived as weaknesses to Tamar’s reign. Some tried to capitalize on her youth and inexperience. Others were incredulous that a woman could effectively rule a large kingdom on her own. During the first decade or so her critics seemed right. The Bagrati Nobles were able to pressure her to promote the patriarch Michael IV, a strong oppositional leader, to Chancellor which make him the head of all things religious and domestic. They also were able to push out many of the non-kindred nobels that Giorgi II had brought in to dilute Bagarti influence after dealing with Demna’s revolt. They were even able to have her take on the Russian prince, Yury Bogolyubsky, as spouse in order to make her “legitimate” to lead the army.

When Patriarch Michael IV died in 1186 she finally had enough. Tamar place an old aly, Anton Glonistavisdze, in the vacant Chancellor position and routed her addictive, alcoholic, sodimy engaging husband out of the kingdom. She thwarted his two unsuccessful coup attempts, removed his supporting nobles, and married a North Ossetian prince who would later be the muscle behind her kingdom’s military might. Once she was able to take full control of her kingdom, King Tamar was able to engage in nation-building and exert influence in areas that laid far outside her own borders. Through her help, her sister Rusudan and her husband were able to establish the Trebizond Empire in Northeastern Turkey establishing a buffer-zone between her and Constantinople. With her husband’s leadership she was able to be a formidable opposition to the Saracens and creating a reputation guaranteeing security for her country’s numerous monasteries and pilgrims traveling to Palestine Holy Land. Jacques de Vitry, the French chronicler and Patriarch of Jerusalem at that time, wrote:

“There is also in the East another Christian people, who are very warlike and valiant in battle, being strong in body and powerful in the countless numbers of their warriors… Being entirely surrounded by infidel nations… these men are called Georgians, because they especially revere and worship St. George… Whenever they come on pilgrimage to the Lord’s Sepulchre, they march into the Holy City… without paying tribute to anyone, for the Saracens dare in no wise molest them…” Being an outstanding leader, states (wo)man, and defender of Christ has allowed Tamar to earn the respect and title of “King” that Georgian men still eagerly put upon her. Georgia’s Medieval age is the shining jewel in crown of Georgia’s identity and Tamar Mephe reign is the perfect example of Georgia’s ambition, perseverance, and optimism that is so ingrained in its people’s worldview.

Next time we will take a look at Georgia’s many occupations how it adapted to its many uninvited guests.