David Marshall Lang (excerpt from the book”A Modern History of Georgia”/NY/1962)
     Maps: Andrew Andersen / 2003-2007






The invasions of Transcaucasia by the Mongols from A.D. 1220 onwards brought the Golden Age of Georgia to an abrupt end. The country was reduced to vassalage under the Mongol Il-khans of the line of Hulagu Khan. In the fourteenth century, there were signs of a national revival. The onslaughts of Tamerlane created great havoc in Georgia's economic and cultural life, from which the kingdom never fully recovered. The countryside was strewn with the ruins of churches, castles and towns, the people fled to the hills, and once busy roads were overgrown with grass and bushes.

The last king of united Georgia was Alexander I (1412-43), under whose sons the realm split up into squabbling princedoms. The disintegration of the monarchy was further aggravated by the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, and the resulting isolation of Georgia from Western Christendom. The Black Sea became a Turkish lake, and the land routes from the Caucasus to the Mediterranean and the West through Anatolia and Syria were all in enemy hands.





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The Bagratid royal family was now divided into three branches. The senior line ruled at Tbilisi over the kingdom of Kartli; a second ruled over Western Georgia or Imereti--'the land on the far side'; a third possessed Kakheti, Georgia's most easterly province. Five princely families took advantage of this break-down of the central monarchy to set themselves up as independent dynasts on their own. These were the Jaqelis of Samtskhe in the south-west; the Dadianis of Mingrelia, which comprised a large part of ancient Colchis; the Gurielis in Guria, on the Black Sea immediately south of Mingrelia; the Sharvashidzes in Abkhazia, on Georgia's north-western Black Sea fringe; and the Gelovanis in highland Svaneti among the peaks of the Caucasus range.




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Ottoman Turkey and Safavi Persia

This political fragmentation rendered Georgia powerless to resist the designs of Ottoman Turkey and Safavi Persia, who now vied for control over Caucasia. In 1510 the Turks invaded Imereti and sacked the capital, Kutaisi. Not long afterwards, Shah Ismail Safavi of Iran invaded Kartli--a foretaste of many onslaughts which the land was to suffer at the hands of this dynasty of Persian rulers.

From the north, the Grand Princes of Muscovy had already begun their drive towards the Caspian Sea and the North Caucasian steppe. In 1492, King Alexander of Kakheti sent an embassy of friendship to Ivan III of Moscow. After Kazan and Astrakhan had fallen to Ivan the Terrible in 1552 and 1556 respectively, the Tsar sent King Levan of Kakheti a Cossack bodyguard and took him under Russian protection. Threats and protests from the Shah of Persia soon led to the Cossacks being withdrawn. However, the Grebensky and Terek Cossack settlements in the North Caucasian steppe became an important factor in Caucasian politics. In 1594, Tsar Fedor Ivanovich sent an army to seize the strategic fortress of Tarku in Daghestan, capital of the dynasty of the Shamkhals. This, and subsequent expeditions, ended in disaster for the Russians. However, a further Russian advance into Caucasia was only a matter of time and opportunity.

During the closing decades of the sixteenth century, a period of anarchy in Persia enabled the Ottoman Turks to overrun the whole of Transcaucasia and Persian Azerbaijan. Their triumph was short-lived. The Safavi dynasty in Persia soon rose to new heights of power under the brilliant and ruthless Shah 'Abbas I ( 1587-1629). The expulsion of the Turks from Eastern Georgia by Shah 'Abbas was followed by a reign of terror instituted by the Shah with a view to eliminating the more vigorous Georgian princes, and turning the land into a Persian province. Many thousands of the Christian population were deported to distant regions of Iran, where their descendants live to this day. The Dowager Queen of Kakheti, Ketevan, was given the choice of abandoning the Christian faith and entering the Shah's harem, or of a cruel martyrdom. She chose the latter fate, and is numbered among the saints of the Georgian Church.

It was only with the arrival in Tbilisi of Khusrau-Mirza, an illegitimate, renegade scion of the Bagratid royal line, that the country's wounds began to heal. King Rostom, as Khusrau was styled within Georgia, was an elderly politician with an excellent knowledge of diplomacy and considerable influence at the Persian court. Himself a Muslim, Rostom took to wife the daughter of a leading Georgian aristocrat, and was married according to both Christian and Muslim rites. The patriotic extremists, of course, regarded Rostom as a traitor and resented his introduction of Persian ways--'luxury and high living, dissipation and unchastity, dishonesty, love of pleasure, baths and unseemly attire, lute and flute players', the historian Prince Vakhushti disapprovingly termed them. However, Rostom pursued undeterred his policy of conciliation. 'Everywhere', as the French traveller Chardin records, 'he reestablished peace and order, and governed with much clemency and justice.' 16





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While the Persians were establishing their rule over Eastern Georgia, the Turks dominated Imereti and the minor principalities of Western Georgia. Without actually annexing these regions, they maintained a loose suzerainty over them. From time to time, they would stage an invasion to dethrone some disobedient prince and remind the people of the nearness of Ottoman power. Otherwise they left the people of Imereti, Mingrelia and Guria very much to their own devices, apart from levying a frequent tribute of male and female Georgian slaves, who were highly prized in Turkey. Being mostly engaged in civil wars among themselves, these minor kings and princes of Western Georgia presented little danger to Turkey's eastern frontiers.


Rapprochement with Russia

During the reign of King Rostom ( 1632-58) and his immediate successors, the Russian court avoided becoming embroiled in military intervention in the Caucasus. At the Kremlin, Tsar Alexis had plenty to occupy him in the way of tumult, religious schism, and wars with his European neighbours. Russia was also loth to relinquish the flourishing trade which she carried on with Persia via the Caspian Sea. This did not mean that Russia lost interest in Georgian affairs. Peaceful penetration was intense. The Dadian or reigning prince of Mingrelia and the King of Imereti, both within the Turkish zone of influence, were taken under nominal Russian suzerainty. Several embassies were exchanged with King Teimuraz I of Kakheti, son of the martyred Queen Ketevan, who visited Moscow to appeal for Russian aid against the Persians. Community of faith led the Russians, as the great Orthodox power in the East, to lend a sympathetic ear to the pleas of the Georgians, while the latter, like the Balkan Slavs, looked confidently to Christian Muscovy as a certain deliverer from the Muslim yoke.

The consequences of this touching but misguided confidence were seen most clearly during the reign of King Vakhtang VI of Kartli, who governed at Tbilisi as regent from 1703 until 1711, and then as king, with interruptions, until 1723. Vakhtang was one of the most gifted monarchs Georgia has produced; as patron of the arts and sciences, he may be compared with the Renaissance princes of Italy. He codified the laws, set up a commission to edit the national chronicles, installed a printing press at Tbilisi, built palaces, restored churches, dug canals for irrigation purposes, and generally improved Georgia's economic and social position. In 1721, the Caucasus was suddenly affected by an international crisis. The Afghans of Qandahar had revolted against the King of Persia, Shah Sultan Husayn, and marched on Isfahan from the east. From the north, Peter the Great of Russia cast covetous eyes on Persia's Caspian provinces and sent messengers to Tbilisi to rally the Georgians to his banner. King Vakhtang VI, whom the Shah had coerced into abjuring Christianity and embracing Islam, responded with alacrity to the Tsar's overtures. When the Shah sent to him for military help, Vakhtang refused, with the result that Isfahan fell to the Afghans in 1722 after a protracted siege in which scores of thousands perished from hunger and wounds. Seeing Persia in chaos, the Turks invaded from the west in 1723, Occupying Tbilisi. The Ottoman sultan threatened war if the Russians sent help to the Georgians or entered the Turkish occupation zone. Driven from his capital, Vakhtang soon lost all hope of effective Russian support: 'While Peter plans to succour Paul, Paul is being skinned.' Eventually, the Russians offered Vakhtang and his followers asylum; the Georgian king died in exile at Astrakhan in 1737.




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This setback curtailed Russian influence in Georgia for many years. The next serious rapprochement took place during the reign of Erekle II (1744-98), a remarkable man who played in his youth a leading role in the campaigns of the Persian conqueror Nadir Shah, whom he accompanied on his expedition to India between 1737 and 1740. Nadir rewarded him in 1744 with the throne of Kakheti, while his father, Teimuraz II, became King of Kartli. In 1762, Teimuraz II died while on a diplomatic mission to the court of St. Petersburg. Erekle now combined Kartli and Kakheti into one East Georgian kingdom. 'Nervous, brittle and intelligent in his small tumbling world,' to use W. E. D. Allen's graphic phrase, the king 'felt out this way and that for the bricks of some stability.' 17 He strove to enlist the support of European powers, and to attract Western scientists and technicians to give his country the benefit of the latest military and industrial techniques. His vigilance in the care of his people knew no bounds. On campaign, he would sit up at night watching for the enemy, while in time of peace, he spent his life in transacting business of state or in religious exercises, and devoted but a few hours to sleep.


Collapse of the monarchy

The great scourge which afflicted Georgia during Erekle's reign was the insecurity which resulted from raids by Muslim tribesmen of Daghestan, the Lezghis. These marauders were egged on by their Turkish co-religionists just over the border. Georgian peasants could not work at any distance from their dwellings for fear of attack by these ruthless mountaineers, who pounced on their victims in the fields, or dragged them from their huts to sell to the Turks and Persians. It has been reckoned that these raids, together with the various local wars which took place in Georgia, reduced the population by as much as a half during the eighteenth century. By 1800, the combined population of Eastern and Western Georgia had sunk to less than half a million.

This state of affairs had a paralysing effect on the development of industry. When Erekle tried to start an iron foundry in the Borchalo district, he had to close it down owing to the onslaughts of the Lezghis. Caravans of merchants were constantly being waylaid and robbed. The economic situation was also adversely affected by hostility between the Armenian moneyed class and the improvident Georgian gentry. There was a steady outflow of much-needed capital from Georgia as the wealthier Armenian merchants left Tbilisi and Gori to make their headquarters in Moscow or Astrakhan.

In 1768, war broke out between Russia and Turkey. Catherine the Great decided to stage a military diversion against the Ottoman Empire's frontier provinces in the Caucasus. She sent to Georgia an expeditionary force, commanded by a swashbuckling German adventurer named Count von Todtleben. In conjunction with Erekle II and the King of Imereti, Solomon I, the Russians scored a few successes over the Turks. However, Todtleben quarrelled with the Georgian rulers, whom he despised as ignorant orientals, and left them to bear the brunt of the fighting themselves. Relations between Georgia and Russia were subjected to great strain.




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The Russians take over

The estrangement between the courts of Tbilisi and St. Petersburg was eventually patched up, thanks largely to the vision of Catherine's favourite, Prince Gregory Potemkin. The empress and her lover were aware of the important role which the Christian Georgians might be made to play in furthering Russian designs to partition Persia and the Ottoman Empire. The Georgians on their side entertained high hopes of Russian military and economic aid. In 1783, a treaty between Russia and the Georgian kingdom of Kartlo-Kakheti was signed at Georgievsk.


King Erekle (left)  Royal Arms (right) and the Treaty of Georgievsk (Below)



In signing the Treaty of Georgievsk, Erekle undertook to renounce all dependence on Persia or any other power but Russia; he and his posterity were solemnly confirmed forever in possession of all territories under their sway; the kings of Georgia, on succeeding to the throne, would request and receive from St. Petersburg their insignia of investiture; Erekle was to conduct negotiations with foreign powers only after securing the approval of the Russian authorities; the empress and her heirs were pledged to treat Georgia's foes as those of Russia; there was to be no interference in the internal affairs of Georgia; the Georgian Catholicos-Patriarch was given the eighth place among the Russian prelates, and made a member of the Holy Synod; the Georgian nobility were to have the same prerogatives as the Russian aristocracy; special facilities were to be afforded to Russian traders in Georgia and to Georgian merchants in Russia. The treaty was to remain in force permanently, and any modification was to be made only by the voluntary consent of both parties. Four additional articles were appended to the treaty. These provided among other things for the stationing in Georgia of two battalions of Russian infantry with four cannon, and the eventual recovery by force of arms of Georgia's ancient territories now in the hands of the Ottoman Turks. In making these grandiose promises, Catherine and Potemkin overreached themselves. The only line of direct communication between Georgia and Russia was the precarious military road over the main Caucasus range via the Daryal pass, a route infested by hostile tribes. The Turks and their allies, the Muslim warriors of Circassia and Daghestan, were still entrenched in large areas of North Caucasia. When Catherine's second Turkish war broke out in 1787, it was decided, despite frantic protests from the Georgians, that the Russian expeditionary force should be withdrawn, and the Georgians left to their own devices.


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Georgian soldiers of the late 18th century


The dire consequence of this decision was seen a few years later, when a new dynasty, that of the Qajars, seized power in Persia. The head of this royal house, the eunuch Agha Muhammad Khan, resolved to turn Georgia once more into a province of Persia. In vain did Erekle send appeal after appeal to the Empress Catherine at St. Petersburg. The Russians, confronted with the French Revolution and the resulting wars and upheavals in Europe, had other problems to occupy their minds. In 1795, Agha Muhammad and his savage hordes swooped down on Tbilisi. King Erekle, in spite of his seventyfive years, took part in the furious battle which raged before the gates of the city. The Georgians fought like lions at bay, but were decimated and had to give way at last before the overwhelming numbers of the foe. The king narrowly escaped capture, while Tbilisi was sacked and burned by the triumphant Persians. To quote a contemporary, Sir John Malcolm:

'The conquerors entered Teflis: a scene of carnage and rapine ensued pleasing to one who desired to make this city an example for such as dared to contemn his authority. The Mahomedan historian of Aga Mohamed Khan, after describing the barbarous and horrid excesses, observes, "that on this glorious occasion the valiant warriors of Persia gave to the unbelievers of Georgia a specimen of what they were to expect on the day of judgement". It is not easy to calculate the number who perished. Bigotry inflamed the brutal rage of the soldier. The churches were levelled to the ground; every priest was put to death. Youth and beauty were alone spared for slavery. Fifteen thousand captives were led into bondage; and the army marched back laden with spoil.' 18

The destruction of his capital city was a death blow to Erekle's dream of establishing, with Russian protection, a strong and united Georgian kingdom, into which Imereti and the lost provinces under Turkish rule would all eventually be drawn. The old king died early in 1798.

The next three years were a time of muddle and confusion. Georgian affairs were subjected to the imponderable whims of Tsar Paul I, the crazy autocrat of Russia, who had succeeded his mother Catherine in 1796. At Tbilisi little more than nominal power was exercised by Erekle's son, King Giorgi XII. This invalid monarch was beset by the intrigues of his stepmother, the Dowager Queen Darejan, whose aim was to deprive Giorgi of the throne in favour of one of her own numerous progeny. The king thus lived in constant fear of being deposed or even murdered by his half-brothers, or of seeing yet another Persian army invading his kingdom. In these circumstances, Giorgi was forced to the conclusion that something more than a formal Russian protectorate was needed to ensure the kingdom's survival. In September 1799, he sent an embassy to St. Petersburg with instructions to surrender the realm of Eastern Georgia into the care of Tsar Paul--'not under his protection, but into his full authority' --provided only that the royal dignity should be preserved for ever in the Georgian royal family of the Bagratids. He was asking, that is to say, for a status comparable to that of native rajahs under the British empire in India, or that enjoyed by many sheikhs, amirs and sultans during the French and British dominion over the Near and Middle East.



King Giorgi XII of Georgia


But even this modest remnant of autonomy was to be denied to the Georgian kings and their subjects. Tsar Paul, it is true, at first promised to guarantee certain privileges to King Giorgi and the Georgian royal family. However, in November 1800, the emperor wrote to the Russian general in command on the Caucasian front: 'The weakening of the king's health gives ground for expecting his decease; you are therefore immediately to despatch, as soon as this occurs, a proclamation in Our name that until Our consent is received no action should be taken even to nominate an heir to the Georgian throne.' 19 The following month, Paul signed a manifesto declaring the kingdom of Kartlo-Kakheti annexed to the Russian crown.

Neither Tsar Paul nor King Giorgi were fated to see these measures put into effect. On 28 December 1800, before his emissaries had returned from St. Petersburg, Giorgi XII died. The commandant of Russian troops in Tbilisi set up a temporary administration, but on 15 January 1801, Giorgi's eldest son, Prince David, declared himself Regent of Georgia. Before the succession problem could be finally settled, Tsar Paul was himself assassinated in St. Petersburg during the night of 11-12 March 1801.



David Bagrationi, the last independent ruler of Georgia before the Russian annexation


The Georgian question confronted the new emperor, Alexander I, with something of a dilemma. His more liberal advisers urged him to repudiate his despotic father's policy of unilateral annexation which, as they justly reminded him, contravened the Russo-Georgian treaty of 1783. In their view, the perpetration of so flagrant a wrong against the Georgian royal house would be a blot on the emperor's honour. The difficulty was that the Georgians themselves were bitterly divided on the succession to the throne. At Tbilisi, the Dowager Queen Darejan incited her own sons to open revolt against the Prince-Regent David, her stepson; one of Darejan's sons, Alexander Batonishvili, even fled the country and offered his services to the new Shah of Persia, Fath-'Ali, successor of the eunuch Agha Muhammad who had ravaged Georgia only five years previously. This violent discord within the Bagratid house was adroitly utilized by some of Tsar Alexander's less scrupulous intimates, who focused his attention on the rich mineral resources of Georgia, on the country's vital military position as a springboard for invasion of the Middle East, and strongly urged him not to miss this unique opportunity of joining the land to the Russian empire.

After much high-minded vacillation, Alexander decided to throw scruples to the winds. A manifesto couched in grandiose terms was drawn up, announcing Eastern Georgia's annexation, and repudiating any suggestion of self-interest on the Russian side. The Tsar cited the defenceless state of Georgia, the menace of civil war, the unanimous appeals which had been received from the Christian population for protection against the Persians and Turks. Alexander undertook to turn over the country's entire revenues to its own use, and to preserve the rights and prerogatives of all classes of the community, except, of course, those of the dethroned royal house. Each social order would have the opportunity of taking an oath of allegiance to the emperor. This manifesto was published in Moscow on 12 September 1801, three days before Alexander's coronation. For over two hundred years, the Tsars of Russia had styled themselves 'Lords of the Iberian land and the Georgian kings'. Now this honorific title had become reality with a vengeance; having entered voluntarily into the bear's embrace, the kings of Georgia now found the breath hugged out of them altogether.

Following the abolition of the Bagratid monarchy of Kartlo-Kakheti in Eastern Georgia, the liquidation of the branch of the dynasty ruling in Western Georgia was only a matter of time. King Solomon II of Imereti defended his independence as long as he was able. Taken under Russian suzerainty in 1804, Solomon later revolted and was deposed and captured by armed force in 1810. The smaller independent principalities of Western Georgia were gradually absorbed into the administrative framework of the Caucasian Viceroyalty. Guria was taken over in 1829, Mingrelia in 1857, Svaneti in 1858 and Abkhazia in 1864.

The decision of Tsars Paul and Alexander to destroy the independence of a vassal monarchy which they were pledged to maintain was morally indefensible, and was also to prove highly inexpedient in the longer term. Nevertheless, it is certain that Georgia in 1801 was in no position to stand on her own feet. With a population of only 500,000 or less, there was no prospect of a resurrection of the old pan-Georgian monarchy of David the Builder and Queen Tamar. With the royal family of Kartlo-Kakheti convulsed by dynastic feuds and Western Georgia perpetually agitated by civil strife, the disintegration of the state had reached an advanced stage. The raids of the Lezghian tribesmen and the depredations of the Persians and Turks rendered it impossible to build up a viable national economy. Some form of close association with Russia --though not necessarily outright annexation--was clearly essential for the sake of corporate physical survival. The Russia of Alexander I was not, by Western standards, a liberal or a progressive state. But it was a European power, with a European administration of sorts. Russian occupation turned the eyes of the Georgians away from Muslim Asia and gave them a window on to Europe, with all the opportunities which that implied, while the population of their country, surrounded by a ring of Russian bayonets, increased eight-fold in a century and a half.