Located among the mountains of Transcaucasia between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, Georgia has a long history dating back to the second millennium B.C. Christianity was introduced in the region in the first century and became the state religion in 337. After the country was overrun by the Arabs in the seventh century, Georgian principalities gradually emerged under the leadership of the Bagratid dynasty, which succeeded in uniting eastern and western Georgia into one kingdom by 1010.
The eleventh century was marked by Georgian-Byzantine rivalry, which was interrupted by the arrival of the Turkish Saljûq tribes. The Saljûqs raided Georgia in 1064-1068 and then began massive migration into the southern Caucasus, where they devastated the Georgian principalities and occupied large expanses of territory. King Giorgi II (1072-1089) was forced to recognize their supremacy and paid tribute to the Great Saljûqs, whose dominance continued unchecked for almost a decade. During this period the country was ravaged by invasions, internal dissent, and natural disasters. In 1089, a bloodless coup d’état forced King Giorgi II to resign his throne in favor of his sixteen-year-old son David. The new king faced a daunting challenge of defeating a powerful enemy and rebuilding his devastated country. Despite his age, David proved to be a capable statesman and military commander. In 1089-1100, he organized small detachments to harass and destroy isolatedSaljûq troops and began resettlement of devastated regions.
King David took advantage of the arrival of the First Crusade in Syria and Palestine (1096-1099) and ceased paying annual tribute to the Great Saljûqs. Over the next ten years, he gradually liberated most of eastern Georgia. He also turned his attention to domestic problems. In 1103, the Ruis- Urbnisi church council reformed the Georgian Orthodox Church, limiting its authority and expelling rebellious clergy. The office of the powerful archbishop of Chqondidi was merged with that of mtsignobartukhutsesi (chief royal adviser), and the new office became the second highest in the realm, introducing direct royal authority into the church. King David then organized a new court system (Georg. saajo kari) and police apparatus (Georg. mstovrebi). As part of his reforms, he also began the construction of a monastery and academy at Gelati in 1106, which developed into a major educational and cultural center.
In 1110-1117, King David continued his conquests throughout southern Transcaucasia, capturing the key fortresses of Samshvilde, Rustavi, Lore, and others. Saljûq invasions in 1105, 1110, and 1116 were all crushed. To strengthen his army, King David launched a major military reform in 1118-1120. After marrying the daughter of a Qipchaq (Polovtsian) tribal leader, he resettled some 40,000 Qipchaq families from the northern Caucasus steppes to Kartli and recruited one soldier from each family, securing a steady supply of manpower. The new army provided the king with much needed force to fight both external threats and the internal discontent of powerful lords.
In 1120, King David began a more aggressive policy of expansion. He established contact with the Franks in the Holy Land, and the two sides tried to coordinate their actions against the Muslims. In 1121, King David faced the most trying moment of his reign. Sultan Mahmûd declared a holy war on Georgia and rallied a large coalition of Muslim countries against Georgia. A battle fought in the Didgori Valley, near Tbilisi, on 12 August 1121, ended in complete annihilation of the Muslim force. Following this triumph, King David captured Tbilisi, the last Muslim enclave remaining from the Arab occupation (1122), and declared it the capital of a united kingdom of Georgia. In 1123-1124, Georgian armies were victorious in neighboring territories of Armenia, Shirwan, and the northern Caucasus. By the time of King David’s death (24 January 1125), Georgia was one of the most powerful states in the region.
During the reign of David’s son Demetre I (1125-1156), Georgia continued to dominate southern Transcaucasia and neighboring territories. In 1138, Georgians captured the strategic fortress of Gandja (in mod. Azerbaijan); a trophy of this expedition was the city’s iron gate, which is still kept in the Gelati monastery. However, Demetre also had to make concessions in his relations with the Saljûqs, relinquishing the Armenian capital of Ani.
Under King Giorgi III (1156-1184), a new wave of Georgian expansion was initiated, as his armies restored Georgian control over Ani in 1161 and conquered Shirwan in 1167. However, internal dissent among the nobles grew as the king grew older and it became apparent that he would be succeeded by his daughter Tamar. In 1177, the nobles, led by the powerful Prince Demna (Demetre) and Lord Ioane Orbeli, rose in rebellion but were suppressed. The following year, King Giorgi III ceded the throne to Tamar but remained coruler until his death in 1184. Powerful lords took advantage of the passing of the king to reassert themselves. Queen Tamar was forced to agree to a second coronation that emphasized the role of noble families 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 civil war, but 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, and the characteristic trait of Tamar’s rule was her successful policy. The Bagratid dynasty enjoyed close relations with the Byzantine Empire and Kievan Rus’ after Tamar’s great aunt Kata (a daughter of David IV) was married to Alexios Bryennios-Komnenos, and her aunt (sister of Giorgi III) wed Prince Izyaslav II of Kiev. After its crushing defeat in 1176 by Qilij Arslān II, Saljûq sultan of Rûm (1156-1188), the Byzantine Empire entered the dark period of the Angeloi, which eventually led to the fall of Constantinople in 1204. The sultanate of Rûm enjoyed the leading political position in Asia Minor, but Georgia under Tamar successfully contained the neighboring Muslim states and expanded her own sphere of influence. In 1195, a large Muslim coalition was crushed in the battle at Shamkhor. In 1203, Tamar achieved another triumphant victory when the sultan of Rûm was crushed at Basiani. The Georgians annexed Ani, Arran, and Duin in 1201-1203, and, in 1209 captured the emirate of Kars, while the mighty Armen-Shahs, the emirs of Erzurum and Erzincan, and the north Caucasian tribes became vassals of the kingdom.
Tamar was also involved indirectly in the events of the Fourth Crusade (1202-1204) and in the establishment of the empire of Trebizond. In 1185, a violent revolution resulted in the death of Emperor Andronikos I Komnenos. However, his two infant grandsons Alexios and David, sons of the sebastokrator Manuel and a Georgian princess, were saved through Georgian intervention and taken to Tbilisi, where they were raised at the court of Tamar. In 1203, Tamar donated large sums of money to the Georgian monasteries in Antioch and Mount Athos. However, Emperor Alexios III Angelos confiscated Tamar’s donation; infuriated by this action, Tamar used this hostile act as a pretext for her expansion along the southwestern coastline of the Black Sea. In 1204, as the Fourth Crusade attacked the Byzantine capital, a Georgian army under the command of Alexios and David Komnenos attacked the Byzantine realm from the east and seized the city of Trebizond (mod. Trabzon, Turkey), where they established a pro-Georgian state. The following year, David Komnenos commanded the Georgian troops in a successful campaign that resulted in the conquest of territory between Trebizond and Herakleia Pontike (mod. Eregli, Turkey). David even threatened the Niceaean Empire, but was beaten back by Theodore Laskaris in 1205. In the meantime, Tamar carried war into Azerbaijan, and her troops advanced into Persia (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 Sea and from the Caucasus Mountains to Lake Van. Centralized royal power facilitated the growth of cities and towns and the development of trade and crafts. A sophisticated irrigation system in the Samgori and Alazani valleys covered some 53,000 hectares of land. Changes in agricultural technology led to the invention of a large “Georgian plough,” which improved cultivation of land and increased productivity. Tbilisi, with a population of some 100,000, became a center of regional and international trade, with one of the routes of the Silk Road, linking China, Central Asia, and the West, passing through it [Sakartvelos istoria, ed. N. Asatiani, pp. 160-165].
The period also witnessed a renaissance of Georgian sciences and art. Georgian craftsmen, notably Beshken and Beka Opizari, gained fame for their unique goldsmithery. Georgian architecture rose to a new level and is well represented in Gelati cathedral, the domed church at Tighva, the churches of Ikorta and Betania, and the rock-cut monastic complexes of David Gareja and Vardzia. Georgian monasteries were constructed and flourished beyond Georgian territory: they included the monasteries of Gethsemane, Golgotha, Karpana, and the Holy Cross in Jerusalem, the Mangana and Trianflios in Constantinople, the Petritsoni in Bulgaria, and St. Athanasios and the Iveron on Mount Athos. Numerous scholarly and literary works (such as Amiran- Darejaniani, Abdulmesia, and Tamariani) were produced both within Georgia and abroad, while the art of illumination of manuscripts and miniature painting reached its zenith. Georgian philosophers and scholars such as Giorgi Mtatsmindeli, Eprem Mtsire, Giorgi Khutsesmonazoni (Mtsire), Arsen Ikaltoeli, and others enjoyed international eminence, while Shota Rustaveli wrote his epic poem The Knight in the Panther’s Skin, the greatest cultural achievement of this age, which combined cultural, philosophical, and moral values of the East and the West.
Tamar died in 1213 and was succeeded by her son Lasha-Giorgi. In the late 1210s, according to the Georgian chronicles, he began making preparations for a campaign in the Holy Land to support the Franks. However, his plans were cut short by fateful events. The Mongols raided Georgia in 1220, followed by the Khwarâzm-Shah Jalal al-Dīn, who spread death and destruction in eastern Transcaucasia. The shroud of Mongol domination thus fell on Georgia.