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Facing New Conquerors: 

Ottoman And Persian Empires

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


The 15th century brought dramatic changes to the geopolitical situation of Georgia, as a new powerful state of the Ottoman Turks emerged in Anatolia. In 1453, they finally captured Constantinople and destroyed the Byzantine Empire. Another Christian power and former Georgian ally, the Empire of Trebizond, fell in 1461 while the Khanate of the Crimea was established as an Ottoman vassal in 1475. Georgia thus found itself surrounded by hostile powers in every direction and was isolated from new international trade routes and direct contacts with European culture. Continuous raids and incursions destroyed the local economy, commerce and crafts fell into decay and some cities disappeared. The separatist tendencies of individual feudal lords increased and the disintegration process accelerated. In Western Georgia, the Kingdom of Imereti waned and the principalities of Odishi, Svaneti, Guria and Abkhazia emerged.

In the late 15th century, the powerful confederations of the Aq-Qoyunlu and Qara-Qoyunlu Turkman tribes launched numerous raids against Georgia that earned their leaders the title of ghazi and enormous wealth. However, internal dissension soon weakened them and the Aq-Qoyunlu were defeated by the Qizilbash led by Ismail Safavid in early 16th century. The new century saw Georgia once again in the precarious middle ground between two powerful enemies, the Ottoman Turks to the west and the Persian Safavids to the east. Shah Ismail I (1501-24), the founder of the Safavid dynasty of Persia, led many raiding expeditions into Georgia in 1510s. His successor Shah Tahmasp I (1524-76) fought four major campaigns against Georgia in 1540-1554 and began the systematic extension of his control over eastern Caucasia. King Luarsab I (1527-1556) of Kartli led local resistance and won an important victory over the Persian army at Garisi in 1556, although he personally died in action. Persian campaigns resulted in the resettlement of a large numbers of Georgians to Persia, whose subsequent role in the Persian army and civil administration led to significant changes in the character of Safavid society.

The Persian-Ottoman struggle for the control of the Caucasus was temporarily interrupted by the Treaty of Amassia in 1555. The peace agreement divided the region between the two rivals, with Kartli, Kakheti, and eastern Samtskhe in the Persian sphere of influence, and western Georgia and western Samtskhe under the Ottomans. Safavids tightened their predominance in eastern Georgia by imposing Persian social and political institutions and appointing Georgian converts to Islam to the leading positions in Kartli and Kakheti. King Simon I attempts to resist proved futile when he was betrayed and captured in 1569. He was released only nine years later when the Persians suffered reverses at the hands of the Ottomans. In 1578, Simonís energetic actions led to the liberation of key fortresses, including Tbilisi. In 1582, the Georgians routed a large Ottoman army on the Mukhrani Valley and, six years later, King Simon negotiated a peace treaty with the Ottomans, who recognized him as the Christian king of Kartli and pledged not to interfere in his affairs. Simon then turned to his quest of uniting Georgia and campaigned twice in Imereti in 1588-1590. Despite his initial successes, he ultimately failed in this ambition. In 1595, he joined an anti-Ottoman alliance, but was defeated and captured at Nakhiduri in 1600, spending the rest of his life at the Yedikule Kapi prison in Istanbul.

Meanwhile, the rulers of Kakheti preferred diplomatic solutions to conflicts and were prepared to make concessions and pay tribute to avoid open confrontation. King Alexander of Kakheti (1476-1511) negotiated with his enemies and often agreed to recognize their supremacy and pay a small tribute, saving his realm from destruction. He became the first Georgian ruler to establish formal diplomatic contacts with the Russian principalities when, in 1483 and 1491, he dispatched two embassies to Grand Duke Ivan III of Moscow. In 1563, King Levan of Kakheti (1518-1574) appealed to the Russian rulers to take his kingdom under their protection. Tsar Ivan the Terrible responded by sending a Russian detachment to Georgia, but Levan, pressured by Persia, had to turn these troops back. King Alexander II (1574-1605) also appealed for Russian support against the Persians and the Ottomans. In September 1587, he negotiated the Book of Pledge, forming an alliance between Georgian and Russian kingdoms. However, as the Times of Troubles began in Russia, Georgian principalities could not count on foreign assistance in their struggle for independence. 

Western Georgia was also in disarray with local principalities feuding with each other and often assisting the Ottomans in their conquests. Thus, Atabeg Mzechabuk of Samtskhe allowed the Ottoman troops to pass through his realm to attack his rival King Bagrat (1510-1565) of Imereti in 1510. The latter responded with a punitive expedition against Samtskhe in 1535, when he annexed this region to Imereti. Local nobles then invited the Ottomans to drive the Imeretians out of Samtskhe and King Bagrat was defeated in the decisive battle at Sokhoistas in 1545. The Turks began introducing Turkish customs and converting the local population of Samtskhe Saatabago, which soon turned into the Gurjistan vilayet of the Ottoman Empire. Thus, the Georgian regions of Samtskhe, Adjara and Chaneti remained under Ottoman dominance for the next three centuries.

In the 17th century, Persia emerged as a powerful state under the capable leadership of Shah Abbas I of the Safavid dynasty. Persians successfully engaged the Turks in southern Transcaucasia, gradually replacing the Ottoman yoke with that of Persia. Attempts of Giorgi Saakadze, the great mouravi of Kartli, to unite Georgian forces against foreign threats failed due to the internal feuds of nobility and he was forced to flee to Persia. In 1614-1617, Shah Abbas I launched several campaigns against Kakheti, razing numerous towns, fortresses and monasteries; some 200,000 Georgians were taken into captivity and resettled into Persia, where they helped to develop the local agriculture and industry. Shah Abbas sought to populate the eastern Georgian principalities with the Turkoman tribes and turn them into dependable bulwarks. In 1625, Giorgi Saakadze raised a rebellion in Kartli and annihilated a Persian army in the battle of Martkopi on 25 March. He then quickly captured Tbilisi and campaigned in Kakheti, Ganja-Karabagh and Akhaltsikhe. King Teimuraz I of Kakheti was invited to take the crown of Kartli and, thereby, both principalities were united. Although the Georgians suffered a defeat in the subsequent battle of Marabda in late 1625, Saakadze turned to guerrilla war, eliminating some 12,000 Persians in the Ksani Valley alone. His successful resistance frustrated Shah Abbasí plans of destroying the Georgian states and setting up Qizilbash khanates on Georgian territory. Failing to win a war, Shah Abbas turned to diplomacy, reviving feuds between the Georgian nobles, which led to a civil war in the fall of 1626.

From 1632 to 1744, the Persian shahs ruled Kartli through Georgian walis or viceroys, who established relative peace and prosperity in the country, especially during the reign of Rostom Khan (1634-1658), who was brought up in Persia, served as qullar-aghasi (commander of the Persian guard) and introduced many Persian manners and tradition to Kartli. He was succeeded by his son Vakhtang (Shah Nawaz I), who continued his fatherís Persophile policy. In Kakheti, the Persian policies of settling Qizilbash tribes soon backfired causing the Bakhtrioni rebellion led by Eristavs Shalva and Elizbar of Ksani and Prince Bidzina Choloqashvili in 1659-1660, which drove the Qizilbash tribes out of Kakheti. Meantime, the part played by the Georgians in the political and social life of Persia also increased. Shah Abbasí successors often owed their thrones to the support of the Georgians ghulams who occupied key military and court positions. 

In the 18th century, the political situation in Georgia improved relatively. During the reign of King Vakhtang VI (1703-1724) of Kartli, depopulated lands were resettled, irrigation canals and roads repaired and commerce and crafts revived and expanded. In 1709, a printing press - the first in the Transcaucasia - opened in Tbilisi. Three years later, Shota Rustaveliís epic poem The Knight in the Tigerís Skin was printed for the first time. The king was assisted in his reforms by Sulkhan-Saba Orbeliani (1658-1725), an outstanding figure in the history of Georgia, whose humanistic ideas left an indelible trace on the Georgian culture. Orbeliani produced the first dictionary of the Georgian language, Sitkvis kona, which still remains relevant today, and authored many didactic fables, including Sibrdzne Sitsruisa and Stsavlani. One of the greatest academic achievements of this period was the establishment of a commission of scholars to collect historical documents and manuscripts. The commission compiled documents on the history of Georgia from the 14th to the 18th century into Akhali Kartlis Tskovreba while Prince Vakhushti Bagrationís Description of Georgia laid foundation for the critical study of Georgian history. 

After the Afghan victory at Gulnabad in 1722, the Persian Shah Husayn sought help from King Vakhtang, but in November 1721, the latter negotiated a joint military operation against Persia with Tsar Peter the Great of Russia. The Russian army reached Darband but then returned to Russia, leaving Georgia to face Persian retaliation. The Ottomans, taking advantage of the turmoil in eastern Georgia, also marched into Kartli the same year. The deposed King Vakhtang fled to Russia with a retinue of 1,400 men in August 1724. The same year, the Russo-Turkish Treaty was concluded in Istanbul according to which Russia kept Daghestan and the narrow strip of the Caspian coastline, while Turkey obtained virtually all of Transcaucasia. In 1728, the Ottoman authorities divided Kartli between the Georgian nobles, whose constant feuding made it easy for the Ottomans to control them. The period of Turkish domination (1723-1735), known as Osmaloba in Georgia, resulted in a heavy tax burden on the population and led to a rapid deterioration of the local economy and cultural life.

In 1735, Nadir Khan, a maverick Persian commander, launched his conquest of Transcaucasia and was assisted by some Georgian nobles, among which Prince Teimuraz of Kakheti had the most importance and privileges. Georgian hopes of gaining independence by turning Persia against the Turks were dashed when Nadir, who crowned himself shah in 1736, began establishing a Persian administration in eastern Georgia. Thus, the Osmaloba was replaced by the Qizilbashoba or the Persian yoke. The exorbitant taxes, levied by Nadir Shah, soon provoked an uprising in Kartli and Kakheti, forcing the shah to make concessions. In 1744, he gave the throne of Kakheti to Teimuraz II and that of Kartli to his son Erekle II. On 1 October 1745, the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral held the first Christian coronation of a Georgian king in over a century.

The death of Nadir Shah in 1747 led to a civil war in Persia allowing Kings Teimuraz and Erekle to secure a respite for eastern Georgia. Their reign proved to be one of the more successful periods in the history of Georgia. Both kings conducted numerous expeditions into Transcaucasia and played an important role in the ongoing civil strife in Persia. In 1752, King Erekle routed the Afghan Azad Khan, a rival of the Persian Zand dynasty, near Yerivan and later captured him at Kazakh in 1760. Georgians successfully campaigned in Armenia in 1765, 1770 and 1780 and drove back the annual incursions of the raiding bands from Daghestan. In 1762, after the death of Teimuraz II, Erekle proclaimed himself King of Kartli and Kakheti, thereby uniting eastern Georgia. The reign of King Erekle revived the country, as measures were taken to settle the depopulated areas and restore industry and trade. Erekle strove to introduce Western-style industry in Georgia, inviting specialists from Europe and sending Georgians abroad to master various trades.

In spite of this success, the situation in Georgia remained precarious and Georgian monarchs continued to seek assistance from Russia. King Teimuraz traveled to Russia in 1760, but arrived a few days after the death of the Empress Elizabeth and could not negotiate in the ensuing turmoil at the Romanov court. King Erekle was more successful in his rapprochement with Russia. At the beginning of the Russo-Turkish War in 1769, a Russian force, under the command of General Totleben, arrived in Georgia and a joint Russo-Georgian campaign was planned to seize the Akhaltsikhe vilayet. In 1770, the Russian and Georgian troops besieged the Atskuri fortress but during the fighting Totleben deserted the Georgians on the battlefield and withdrew his troops. Nevertheless, on 20 April 1770, Erekle won a decisive victory over the Turks near Aspindza and, with King Solomon I of Imereti, he besieged the key fortress of Akhalkalaki. The Russo-Turkish Treaty of KŁčŁk-Kaynardja of 1774 brought no territorial change to the lands of Georgia, but the Porte renounced the tribute it collected from Georgia. To prevent any future foreign threats, King Erekle appealed to St. Petersburg for protectorate and the treaty between Georgia and Russia was signed on 24 July, 1783 at Georgievsk. According to this document, the Kingdom of Kartli-Kakheti recognized the supremacy of the Russian rulers, who, in turn, pledged to safeguard the unity of the kingdom. King Erekle II and his heirs were guaranteed the throne and the Georgian church was allowed to remain independent. 

The Russian orientation of Erekle II and the arrival of Russian troops in Georgia alarmed the neighboring powers. The Ottoman Empire sought to have the Treaty of Georgievsk annulled and instigated the devastating incursions of Omar Khan of Avaria in 1785. Two years later, the Porte presented Russia with an ultimatum, demanding the withdrawal of Russian troops from Georgia and later that year, it declared war. Russia faced a precarious situation, fighting on several fronts against Sweden, Turkey and Poland. In these circumstances, the St. Petersburg court was unable to fulfill the terms of the Treaty of Georgievsk and recalled Russian forces from Georgia.

During this period, the Qajar dynasty had ascended the throne of Persia and Agha Muhammad Khan brought most of the Persian lands under his sway. He demanded from King Erekle II to denounce the Treaty of Georgievsk and recognize Persian suzerainty. Erekle refused the Persian ultimatum, remaining faithful to the alliance with Russia. Nevertheless, the latter did not send any troops to support her ally and left the Georgians alone in the face of Persian aggression. In early fall of 1795, Agha Muhammad Khan attacked eastern Georgia, where King Erekle made a desperate attempt to halt the invaders but managed to rally only some 5,000 men against 35,000 Persians. In a pitched battle at Krtsanisi on 11 September 1795, the Georgian forces were defeated and Tbilisi was taken and pillaged in dreadful fashion. The Persian invasion was followed by the Daghestanian raids that further devastated Kartli-Kakheti. In response to Erekleís pleas for help, two Russian battalions finally arrived in Georgia in late 1795 and Russia declared war on Persia in March 1796. However, in November, Empress Catherine II died and her son Paul I recalled the Russian troops from Transcaucasia at once. Agha Muhammad Khan set out for Georgia again but was assassinated near Shusha in June 1797. 

The death of King Erekle on 23 January 1798 was a turning point in the history of eastern Georgia. His successor, King Giorgi XII, proved to be a feeble and incompetent ruler and dynastic intrigues undermined the crown. In September 1801, following the death of King Giorgi and in complete breach of the Treaty of Georgievsk, Emperor Alexander of Russia unilaterally abolished the Georgian kingdoms of Kartli-Kakheti and had them annexed to the empire as gubernias (province). The Bagrationi royal family was detained and exiled, and the autocephaly of the Georgian church abolished.

Western Georgia remained under the Ottoman influence throughout the 17th-18th century and Georgian rulers incessantly sought ways to reduce foreign encroachments. In 1703, a large Ottoman army occupied Imereti, Guria and Mingrelia but subsequent turmoil in the Ottoman empire helped the Georgian to drive them back. However, Ottoman garrisons remained in strategic places and along the coastline. In 1738, King Alexander V of Imereti unsuccessfully tried to gain military support from Russia. As the royal authority declined, grand nobles (tavadis) gained in power and their incessant intrigues and struggles only weakened western Georgian principalities. In 1752, Solomon I ascended the Imeretian throne. Surrounding himself with lesser tavadis and aznaurs, he sought to curb the power of great nobles and drive the Ottoman forces out of western Georgia. On 14 December 1757, he gained a decisive victory over the Ottoman army at Khresili, and the following year, he negotiated a military alliance with Kartli-Kakheti. In 1759, he prohibited the slave trade, perpetuated by many nobles, and ruthlessly persecuted any disobedient elements. 

Solomonís far-reaching policies soon produced results and led to a temporary peace with the Ottoman Empire in 1767. The following year, the Imeretian king appealed to Russia for help against the Turks. Although a Russian detachment under General Gotlib Totleben arrived in Imereti in late 1769, the Russian involvement produced no result by the time they left three years later. In 1770s, the united forces of Imereti and Mingrelia repelled several Ottoman invasions and celebrated victories at the Chkherimela River (1774) and Rukhi (1779). Solomon Iís death in 1784 led to a struggle for the crown that continued for five years and destabilized western Georgia. The new Imeretian king, Solomon II, faced serious problems both within his realm and from abroad. Great nobles continued to defy his authority and Solomon IIís attempts to extend his power to the rest of western Georgia only antagonized the powerful rulers of Mingrelia and Guria. In 1803-1809, the western Georgian principalities were annexed to the Russian Empire while the kingdom of Imereti was taken by force of arms in 1810, when the last Bagration ruler, King Solomon II, was forced into exile in the Ottoman Empire. The remaining principalities had no other choice but to enter the empire to preserve some vestiges of autonomy, with Guria until 1828, Mingrelia until 1857, Svaneti until 1858 and Abkhazia until 1864. 



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