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Struggle For Survival

(Material is from A. Mikaberidze, Historical Dictionary of Georgia (2007) and is copyrighted so please do not use it without explicit written permission)


Georgia’s golden age ended in the early 13th century with the arrival of the Mongol hordes led by Chenghiz Khan. Following their conquest of China and southeastern Asian states, the Mongols attacked Khwarazm in Central Asia. Chenghiz Khan then dispatched a Mongolian corps on a reconnaissance mission to the east. The Georgian army under King Giorgi IV Lasha, the son of Queen Tamar, suffered a defeat but it had no immediate effect because the Mongols quickly left Georgia and moved across the Caucasus Mountains. More significant in its consequences was the arrival of Prince Jalal al-Din, the son of the last ruler of Khwarazm, who was defeated by the Mongols and now led his Khwarasmian army to Transcaucasia. 

The Kingdom of Georgia itself was torn by internal dissent and was unprepared for such an ordeal. The struggle between the nobility and the crown increased. In 1222, King Giorgi appointed his sister Rusudan as a co-regent and died later that year. Queen Rusudan (1223-1245) proved a less capable ruler and domestic discord intensified on the eve of foreign invasion. In 1225, at the head of an army of some 200,000 Turkmens and various mercenaries, Jalal al-Din invaded Georgia and defeated the 70,000 strong Georgian-Armenian army commanded by Ivane Mkhargrdzeli at Garhni in November 1225. This was followed by the capture of Tbilisi, where a frightful massacre of tens of thousands of Christians ensued. Jalal al-Din continued devastating Georgian and Armenian regions until 1230, when the Mongols finally defeated him. His continuous raids and devastations brought not only mass destruction of human life and property, but also famine and pestilence which seriously weakened Georgia and left it without any resources to defend itself from attackers at the very moment when it was needed the most. 

In 1235-1236, Mongol forces, unlike their first raid in 1221, appeared with the sole purpose of conquest and occupation and easily overran the already devastated principalities of Armenia and Georgia. Queen Rusudan fled to the security of western Georgia, while the nobles secluded themselves in their fortresses. The Mongol conquest of eastern Georgia continued until 1242, when Georgian rulers finally gave in and accepted the Mongol yoke. The Mongols initially kept the Georgian monarchy and local administration intact but imposed monetary taxes and military duty. Following the death of Queen Rusudan in 1245, they reorganized the administrative division of Georgia and the neighboring countries. The south Caucasia formed a single administrative unit composed of five vilayets, with Georgia constituting the first or Gurjistani (Georgian) vilayet of eight tumans or districts, each required to provide 10,000 soldiers. 

The Georgian aristocracy was discontented with the foreign oppression, but a conspiracy organized at Kokhtastavi had failed. The situation was further worsened by the lack of strong leadership because two candidates – the sons of King Lasha-Giorgi and Queen Rususan, both named David – claimed their rights to the Georgian throne. The Mongols took advantage of this circumstance to weaken Georgian opposition and recognized both candidates, appointing David, the son of King Giorgi IV, as ulu or senior and David, the son of Queen Rusudan, as narin or junior ruler. 

After the accession of the Great Khan Mongke (1251-39), a thorough census was made of all parts of the empire in 1252-57 and Georgia was ordered to provide one soldier per nine souls for a total of 90,000 soldiers. New taxes were imposed on agriculture and industry. The establishment of the Mongol Il-Khanid state in 1256 brought another change to Georgia. Georgians were obliged to participate in military ventures of the Il-Khans on a regular basis, providing a specified number of troops. Georgian, and Armenian contingents fought in all the major Mongol campaigns in Syria, Iraq and Palestine from 1256 onward, distinguishing themselves during the assault on Baghdad in 1258 and in the campaigns against the Mamluks in 1259-1260s. This forced participation resulted in the deaths of thousands of Georgians and their absence from Georgia, where they were needed to protect their families and native land from persistent raids.

Heavy taxation and the burden of military service naturally led to disgruntlement and rebellion. Several uprisings, led by both Georgian kings, occurred between 1259 and 1261, but the Mongols suppressed all of them; King David Narin fled the persecution to western Georgia, where he established an independent kingdom, splitting the Georgian realm in half. Simultaneously, Georgia became a theater of war between the Il-Khans and yet another Mongol state, the Golden Horde, centered in the lower Volga. In 1265, Berke Khan (1257-66) of the Golden Horde invaded Georgia and ravaged the Iori and Mtkvari valleys as the Georgian troops fought for the Il-Khans against him. 

The death of King David Ulu set in motion the nominal partition of Georgia into several principalities. King David Narin already claimed royal authority in western Georgia. The Mongols appointed David Ulu’s son Demetre II (1270-1289) as the king of eastern Georgia, but they also carved out the region of Samtskhe (in southwestern Georgia) and placed it under the direct control of the Il-Khans. In 1289, when Arghun Khan crushed a plot against him, he summoned King Demetre II, who had been wrongly implicated in the conspiracy. To avert destruction of his native land that was imminent if he refused, King Demetre rejected suggestions to flee to western Georgia and appeared in front of the khan, who had him tortured and executed on 12 March 1289. Such devotion to the national cause earned the king the title of tavdadebuli (self-sacrificing). 

In the first half of the 14th century, King Giorgi V Brtskinvale (the Resplendent) (1314-1346) pursued a shrewd and flexible policy aimed at throwing off the Mongol yoke and restoring the Georgian kingdom. He established close relations with the Mongol khans and succeeded in acquiring authority to personally collect taxes on their behalf. Using Mongol force to his advantage, he suppressed defiant feudal lords and restored royal authority in western Georgia in 1329 and in Samtskhe five years later. He took advantage of the civil war in the Il-Khanate, where several khans were overthrown between 1335 and 1344, and drove the last remaining Mongol troops out of Georgia. 

The respite from the foreign invasion proved to be brief. Barely recovering after the horror of the Black Death, Georgia was subjected to one of the most dreadful invasions yet as the Mongol warlord Timur (Tamerlane) began carving out his empire and invaded Georgia eight times in 1386-87, 1394-96 and 1399-1403. During the first Timurid invasion of 1386-87, Tbilisi was sacked and King Bagrat V (1360-1393) captured. The country had hardly recovered when Timur returned in 1394 and devastated central Kartli, despite efforts of the new King Giorgi VII (1393-1407). Two years later, King Georgi VII helped the neighboring Armenians and earned the wrath of Timur, who began the systematic destruction of southern Georgia in 1399. Tens of thousands of Georgians and Armenians were pressed into slavery and some Georgian regions were completely depopulated. However, the Georgians continued their struggle and King Giorgi VII refused to submit. Following his victory over the rising Ottoman state in 1402, Timur returned to Georgia again in 1403, spreading death and destruction to the already desolate countryside. Later that year, peace was finally signed between King Giorgi VII and Timur, removing the Mongolian warlord from Georgia for the last time. 

Timur’s campaigns in Georgia wrought destruction on an unprecedented scale. Major cities lay in ruins and tens of thousands of Georgians were massacred or taken into captivity; incalculable losses were inflicted on property and livestock, while society was in disarray and the royal authority weakened. The burden of rebuilding the country fell on the shoulders of King Alexander I (1412-1442). He overcame the initial opposition of the powerful lords of Dadiani, Jakeli and Sharvashidze in 1412-1415, revived many towns and repaired monasteries and churches, including the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral and the Ruisi Monastery. In 1425, he established a temporary tax that remained in force for the next 15 years and helped to fund the rebuilding process. To increase the population of his realm, he encouraged the immigration of the Armenians, who enjoyed trading privileges in Georgia. He reorganized the Georgian Orthodox Church and provided large subsidies to repair and maintain Georgian monasteries in the Holy Land. King Alexander also pursued an aggressive foreign policy aimed at recovering the lost territories, expanding his sphere of influence into southern Armenia by 1435. However, his most crucial mistake was in appointing his sons to principal positions in the kingdom. These crown princes soon gained too much power and became surrounded by feuding factions of nobles who intrigued for the ultimate prize of placing their candidate on the throne. The last king of the united Kingdom of Georgia, Giorgi VIII (1446-1466), faced successive uprisings of powerful lords, most notable among them Atabeg Kvarkvare of Samtskhe and Eristavi Bagrat of Imereti, who defeated the royal armies at Chikhori (1463) and the Paravani Lake (1465). The last battle was particularly consequential because King Giorgi VIII himself was captured, an event that accelerated the breaking up of the united kingdom into separate principalities. Thus, by late 15th century, Georgia was split yet again into the three kingdoms of Kartli, Imereti and Kakheti and the independent Samtskhe Saatabago.




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