Andrew Andersen





Most historians of the Caucasus as well as anthropologists, archeologists and linguists tend to agree that the ancestors of modern Georgians inhabited southern Caucasus and northern Asia Minor since neolith. Experts usually refer to them as Proto-Kartvelian tribes (from the word Kartveli which is the Georgians’ own name for themselves) whose origins are quite unclear. Some of European historians of the 19th century (eg, Humboldt, Krettschmer) came to the conclusion that  Proto-Kartvelians were closely related linguistically and culturally to Pre-Aryan (in thus context “Aryan” means Indo-European) aboriginal peoples of ancient Europe among them Etruscans and Proto-Basques.


Proto-Kartvelians were bordered by Zykh tribes to the north-west (those were Proto-Adygh ancestors of modern Adygh and Apsua ), Proto-Nakhs (ancestors of modern Chechens and some Daghestani peoples) to the north-east, Proto-Armenians to the south-east and Aramaeic-speaking tribes to the south and south-west.


Between 2100 and 750 B.C., the area survived the invasions by the Hittites, Celts, Medes, Proto-Persians and Cimmerians. At the same  period, the ethnic unity of Proto-Kartvelians broke up into several branches, among them Svanian, Zanyan and East-Kartvelian ones.


Click on the map

or the full-screen image


That finally led to the formation of modern Kartvelian languages: Georgian (originating from East Kartvelian vernaculars), Svan, Megrelian and Laz (the latter two originating from Zan dialects).


By that time Svans were dominant in modern Svanetia and Abkhazia while Zans inhabited modern Georgian province of Samegrelo, north-eastern coast of Turkey between the rivers of Coruh and Kizil-Irmak, and partially Georgian provinces of Imereti and Guria. As of today, most of Abkhazian Georgians speak Megrelian together with Georgian while those living in Kodori canyon, still speak Svan.


As a result of cultural and geographic delimitation, two core areas of future Georgian culture and statehood formed in western and eastern Georgia by the end of the 8th century B.C.  The first Georgian state was the Kingdom of Colchis that covered modern western Georgia (including Abkhazia) and modern Turkish provinces of Coruh & Rize. The Kingdom of Colchis has been mentioned in ancient chronicles at least since the middle of the 6th century B.C. 



There is little or no exact information about the ethnic composition of Colchis and Iberia. Since 2 000 B.C., north-western Colchis (modern Abkhazia and part of Krasnodar territory of Russia) was inhabited not only by the Svan and Zan/Sanygh but partially also by the Apsyl people whose origins are unclear. It is assumed but not proven that the Apsyls could be the ancestors of today’s Apsua (one of the ethnic groups of modern Abkhazia speaking distinct language belonging to Adygh group).  In any case though, the Apsyls made up less than a quarter of the whole population of north-western Colchis (modern Abkhazia) of that time.


Another important ethnic element of ancient Colchis were Greeks who between 1000 and 550 B.C., established quite a few trade colonies in the coastal area among them Naessus, Pitiys (modern resort town of  Pitsunda), Dioscurias, Guenos, Phasis (modern Poti), Apsaros and Rhizos (modern Rize in Turkey). Most of the local Greeks called Pontic Greeks, used to live in the coastal cities where they dominated culturally while their influence in the rural area was quite limited.


Between 653 and 333 B.C., both Colchis and Iberia were successfully surviving in fight against Median and later Persian empires. At the end of the 3d century, southern Iberia saw the armies of Alexander the Great who established a vast Greco-Macedonian empire to the south of the Caucasus dominating both west- and central Asia as well as Greece, Egypt and partially India. Neither Iberia, nor Colchis were incorporated into the empire of Alexander or any of the successor Ellinistic states of the Middle East. However, all ancient Georgian kingdoms especially Colchis, were greatly influenced by ancient Greek culture. Greek was widely spoken all over the country and for a while was one of the official languages.


Click on the maps for the full-screen image

Between the early 2nd century, B.C.and the late 2nd century A.D., the Kingdom of Colchis together with the neighbor countries, become an arena of long and devastating conflicts between major local powers Rome, Armenia and the short-lived Kingdom of Pontus.


Between 120 and 63 BC, King Mithridate VI Eupator of Pontus, conquered all the Colchis including modern Abkhazia, and incorporated it into his domain that for a while embraced a considerable part of Asia Minor as well as eastern and northern Black Sea coastal areas.


From 187 to 70 B.C., the coalition of greater Armenia and Pontus was actively expanding at the expense of Rome taking over its East Mediterranean possessions. However, the success of anti-Roman alliance did not last long.


As a result of brilliant Roman campaigns of Pompeus and Lucullus, the Kingdom of Pontus was completely destroyed by the Romans and all its territory including Colchis (with modern Abkhazia as its part), were incorporated into Roman Empire as her provinces.


The former Kingdom of Colchis was re-organized by the Romans into the province of Lazicum ruled by Roman legati. The Roman period was marked by further Hellenization of the country in terms of language, economy and especially culture.  For example, since the early 3d century, Greco-Latin Philosophical Academy of Phasis (present-day Poti) was quite famous all over the Roman Empire.



Click on the map for bigger image



The following 600 years of West Georgian/Abkhazian history were marked with manipulation between Rome and Parthia (Iran) who were fighting long wars against each other for the domination in the Middle East including Syria, Mesopotamia, Armenia, Albania (territory of modern Azerbaijan) Iberia and Lazicum.


Click on the map for the full image


Persian invasions of Georgian lands touched predominantly Iberia (Eastern Georgia) and less Lazicum (Western Georgia with Abkhazia) where Roman and later Byzantine (East Roman) positions were quite stable until the very end of the 3d century.


In the early 3d century, Roman province of Lazicum was given certain degree of autonomy that by the end of the century developed into full independence and formation  of a new Kingdom of Lazica-Egrisi on the basis of smaller principalities of Zans, Svans, Apsyls and Sanyghs. That new West-Georgian state survived more than 250 years until in 562 it was absorbed by East Roman (Byzantine) Empire.


In the middle of the 4h century, Lazica adopted Christianity as her official religion. That event was preceded by the arrival of St. Simon the Kananites (or Kananaios in Greek) who was preaching all over Lazica and met his death in Suaniri (Abkhazia). According to Moses of Chorene, the enemies of Christianity cut him in two halves with a saw.


The re-incorporation of Lazica with Abkhazia into East Roman Empire in 562 was followed by  ca 150 years of relative stability that ceased in the early 7th century when the Arabs appeared in the area as a new regional if not global power.