The Golden Age Of Georgia

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

Seljuk dominance persisted unchecked for almost a decade as the country continued to be devastated by the enemy invasions, internal dissent and natural disasters. King Giorgi II failed to rise to the occasion and the people needed a strong and energetic ruler to lead the struggle. In 1089, a bloodless coup forced the king to abdicate in favor of his 16-year-old son David. The new king faced the daunting challenge of defeating powerful enemy and rebuilding a devastated country. Despite his young age, Kind David IV proved to be a capable statesman and military commander. In 1089-1100, he organized small detachments to harass and destroy isolated Seljuk troops and began resettlement of desolate regions. In 1092, he ceased the payment of annual tribute to the Seljuk sultan and, over the next 10 years, he gradually liberated most of eastern Georgia. King David reformed the Georgian Orthodox Church and strengthened the royal authority throughout the kingdom. In 1110-1117, he continued his conquests throughout southern Transcaucasia, defeating the Seljuk invasions in 1105, 1110 and 1116. To strengthen his army, King David launched a major military reform in 1118 – 1120 and resettled some 40,000 Qipchak families (approx. 200,000 men) from the northern Caucasus steppes to Kartli; recruiting one soldier per each family, David raised a 45,000-men strong standing Qipchak army in addition to Georgian feudal troops. The new army provided the king with a much needed force to fight both external threats and internal discontent of powerful lords.

Starting in 1120, King David began a more aggressive policy of expansion. He established contact with the Crusaders in the Holy Land and there is evidence that the two sides tried to coordinate their actions against the Muslims. In 1121, he achieved his greatest victory as the Georgian army routed a massive Muslim coalition in the Didgori Valley, near Tbilisi, on 12 August. The battle is widely known as “dzlevai sakvirveli” (incredible victory) in Georgia and is considered an apogee of Georgian military history. Following his triumph, King David captured Tbilisi, the last Muslim enclave remaining from the Arab occupation, in 1122 and declared it the capital of the Kingdom of Georgia. In 1123-1124, Georgian armies were victorious in neighboring territories of Armenia, Shirwan and northern Caucasus, greatly expanding the Georgian sphere of influence. By the time of King David’s death on 24 January 1125, Georgia became one of the most powerful states in all of the Near East. King David’s successful campaigns inspired the Georgian people and gave them confidence in their own strength. The country enjoyed a revival in agriculture and industry as well as in literature and arts. For his contributions, King David was hailed as aghmashenebeli (reviver, [re]builder) and canonized as a saint.

The reign of King David ushered in the “Golden Age” of Georgian history, which in many ways was facilitated by the Crusaders, whose successful campaigns in Palestine diverted the Muslim resources and enabled Georgia to open a victorious campaign in the north. During the reign of King Demetre I (1125-1156), Georgia continued to dominate southern Caucasia and contiguous territories. Georgian kings established a close relation with the neighboring states though many dynastic marriages. One of King David Aghmashenebeli’s daughters, Kata, was married the Byzantine prince Alexius Bryennius-Comnenus, the son of the famous Anna Comnena, while the other, Tamar, became the wife of Shirwan Shah Akhsitan (Aghsartan). Later, King Demetre secured an alliance with the Kievan Rus through the marriage of his daughter with Prince Izyaslav II of Kiev.

Under King Giorgi III (1156-1184), a new wave of Georgian expansion was initiated as Georgian armies seized the Armenian capital of Ani in 1161 and conquered Shirwan in 1167. However, internal dissent among the nobles grew as the king aged, especially after it became apparent that he would be succeeded by his daughter Tamar. In 1177, the nobles rose in rebellion but were suppressed. The following year, King Giorgi III ceded the throne to his daughter Tamar, but remained coregnant until his death in 1184. Powerful lords took advantage of the king’s passing to reassert themselves. Queen Tamar was forced to agree to the second coronation that emphasized the role of the nobility in investing her with royal power. The nobility then demanded the establishment of the karavi, a political body with legislative and judicial power. Tamar’s refusal to satisfy these demands brought the Georgian monarchy to the verge of a civil war that was averted through negotiations. In the end, royal authority was significantly limited and the responsibilities of the royal council, dominated by the nobles, expanded. 

Despite internal dissent, Georgia remained a powerful kingdom and enjoyed major successes in its foreign policy. In 1195, a large Muslim coalition was crushed in the battle at Shamkhor, and another one at Basian in 1203. The Georgians annexed Arran and Duin in 1203, and, in 1209, their armies captured the Emirate of Kars while the mighty Armen-Shahs, the emirs of Erzurum and Erzinjan as well as the north Caucasian tribes became the vassals. Georgian influence also extended to the southern coastline of the Black Sea, populated by a large Georgian-speaking population. The Empire of Trebizond, a Georgian vassal state, was established here in 1204 and soon turned into a major trading emporium surviving for over 250 years. Georgians then carried war into Azerbaijan and northern Persia in 1208-1210. These victories brought Georgia to the summit of its power and glory, establishing a pan-Caucasian Georgian empire stretching from the Black Sea to the Caspian and from the Caucasus Mountains to the Lake Van. 

The rise of Georgia as a great power was accompanied by an expansion of its religious and cultural presence throughout Asia Minor. Centralized royal power facilitated the growth of cities and towns and development of trade and crafts. A sophisticated irrigation system in Samgori and the Alazani valleys covered some 53,000 hectares of land. Changes in agricultural technology led to the development of a large “Georgian plough,” which improved cultivation of land and increased productivity. Tbilisi, with a population of up to 100,000, became a center of regional and international trade, with one of the routes of the famous Silk Road, linking China, Central Asia and the West, passing through it. The period also witnessed a renaissance of Georgian sciences and art. Georgian craftsmen, especially Beshken and Beka Opizari, gained fame for their unique goldsmith works. Numerous scholarly and literary works (Amiran-Darejaniani, Abdulmesia, Tamariani, etc.) were produced both within Georgia and abroad, while the art of illumination of manuscripts and miniature painting reached its zenith. Georgian architecture rose to a new level and is well represented in the Gelati Cathedral, the domed church at Tighva, the churches of Ikorta and Betania and the rock-carved monastic complexes of David Gareja and Vardzia. Georgian monasteries were also constructed and flourished throughout the Holy Land and Antioch, including the Gethsemane, Golgotha, Karpana and the Holy Cross monasteries in Jerusalem, the Mangana and Trianflios in Constantinople, the Alexandrian in Kilikia, the Petritsoni in Bulgaria, St. Athanasios and the Iviron on Mt. Athos and others. Georgian philosophers and scholars - Giorgi Atoneli, Eprem Mtsire (Epraim the Letter), Giorgi Mtsire (the Lesser), Arsen Ikaltoeli and others - enjoyed international eminence. Finally, Shota Rustaveli’s epic poem Vepkhistkaosani (The Knight in the Tiger’s Skin) remains the greatest cultural achievement of this age. 

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