Progressive Georgian Kings

Progressive Georgian Kings

Many people can take the throne, but posterity will only show its respect and gratitude to the very best. Georgia, with its modest geographical area and small population, has had kings whose intelligence, bravery, and progressiveness would be a boon to any large country with a far larger population.
Table of contents

Vakhtang Gorgasali

Vakhtang Gorgasali reigned during the middle of the 5th century CE. At that time, the Persians ruled in Kartli, and the Alans and Huns ruled to the north, while large parts of western Georgia had been conquered by the Byzantines. 

Vakhtang set himself the task of getting Georgian lands back one after the other. First of all, he campaigned in the North Caucasus, retaking Dariali and other fortresses. After that, he passed on from the North Caucasus to Egrisi Kingdom (currently western Georgia), freeing the land annexed by the Byzantines and completely uniting Egrisi and Kartli. He also joined the southwestern provinces that had been taken by the Byzantines to it.  

On the initiative of Vakhtang Gorgasali, the center of the country was moved from Mtskheta to Tbilisi. With that, he started the development of Tbilisi as the most significant economic and political center in the South Caucasus. His reign is associated with the building of churches and monasteries, such as Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, Bolnisi Cathedral, the churches of Artanuji, Ujarma, and Chileti, and the creation of monastic rules. A number of Byzantine works were translated into Georgian during his rule. For instance, The Martyrdom of Saint Shushanik, an immortal masterpiece of Georgian hagiography, was written during this time. 

King Vakhtang Gorgasali died at the age of 60. According to legend, he was the victim of an act of betrayal. In 502, during a battle with the Persians, a secret came out that the king’s armor could not protect his armpit. It was there that he was pierced by a poison arrow. The king was then taken to Ujarma, where he died soon after. 

Vakhtang Gorgasali is buried in Mtskheta, in Svetitskhoveli Cathedral. He has since been canonized as a saint by the Georgian Church. 

Bagrat III

Bagrat III was the first king who was able to unite Georgia. He was active from 961 to 1014. Uniting Georgia, which had been separated into feudal principalities, was a difficult process, demanding that the king take many unpopular steps. For example, Bagrat III took the lives of his own relatives, the descendants of the Klarjeti Bagrationis, who were opposed to the unification of the country. 

Bagrat III was, by birth, the heir to three kingdoms. He was the grandson of the Bagrat Bagrationi, called the king of the Georgians; the son of Gurgen, king of kings; the nephew of the childless king Theodosius; and the adopted son of the King of Tao, David III Kuropalates. This was an additional source of strength and a legitimate basis for him on his path to completing his immense mission. His main sources of support were the leading nobles, the intermediate and petty nobility, and the merchant class. 

Through battles and diplomacy, Bagrat III first brought Shida Kartli under his control, then he subdued the rebellious Duchy of Kldekari, finally joining Tao, Shavsheti, Klarjeti, Samtskhe, and Javakheti to them. One useful step was to bring together Kakheti and Hereti, which ended the primary stage of the unification of feudal Georgia. After that, one of Bagrat III’s major issues was ending the raids of the emir of Ganja, who would not leave the country in peace. Bagrat campaigned in Ganja along with the king of Ani. The coalition took Shamkir Fortress, which was followed by the offer of a peace treaty from their opponents, which Bagrat accepted. 

The capital city of unified Georgia was proclaimed to be Kutaisi, while Bagrat’s official title was as follows: King of the Abkhazians, Caucasian Albanians, and Kakhetians, Kuropalates. The country also developed culturally during his reign. He built many churches, including Bagrati Cathedral, a symbol of the unification of the country, Nikortsminda, and Bedia Monastery. After his death, the king was buried there, at Bedia Monastery. This cultural monument of national significance is in Ochamchire, within occupied Abkhazia (Apkhazeti). Sadly, the Georgian ornamentation, inscriptions, and frescos of Bagrat III were removed from the walls of the monastery in 2012. 

The Church of Georgia has canonized King Bagrat III, the unifier of Georgia, as a saint.

David the Builder

The name of the Georgian reformer-king, David the Builder (Aghmashenebeli), is associated with the reunification of the country, which had once again separated into principalities, and with its rebuilding. During his 56-year reign, David was able to reunite the feudal country and turn Georgia into a great state, whose borders stretched from Nicopsis to Derbent.

This young man, who ascended the throne in 1089 to reign along with his father, Giorgi the Second, was left with a heavy inheritance. The king began his preparation for uniting the kingdom by getting his domestic enemies in check. The reforms he introduced into the army, court, and church yielded results, and from 1118 to 1120, Davit resettled 40,000 Kipchak families from the North Caucasus to Georgia, creating a permanent army, and making the best of them his personal guard, the “Mona-Spa”. 

David’s church reforms were especially risky steps, but the king took them anyway. 

In 1099, David IV stopped paying tribute to the Seljuk Turks, which led to the independence of the country and its economic and cultural development. In 1103, he took Zedazeni, and in 1104 he brought Hereti and Kakheti back under control. 

In August 1121, the Georgians campaigned against a coalition of Muslims. The battle took place near Didgori. The 55,000-man Georgian army faced an army of 300,000 Seljuk Turks. The Georgians lured their enemies into a ravine and routed them. The day has gone down in Georgian history as one of the existentially important.

In 1124, David subdued Shirvan, and in 1123 he took a large number of cities in Armenia. 

During David’s reign, new coins were minted which featured both Arabic and Georgian script. The educated king considered the development of culture and art to be very important. In 1106, construction started on Gelati Cathedral, where an observation was built. Gelati Academy was also founded at that time. King David left an outstanding exemplar of hymnography, being his own work Hymns of Repentance, to posterity. Both Georgian and foreign writers, scientists, and philosophers, including Arsen Iqaltoeli and Ioane Petritsi, worked at the Gelati, Iqalto, and Gremi academies, which he founded. 

King David the Builder died in 1125, at the age of 52. He is buried at the southern entrance of Gelati. In the 15th century, his holy relics were transferred to the altar of the church. The king’s fresco, dating to the 12th century, is inside the same church.

The king, who has been called “the Builder” by the Georgian people, has been canonized as a saint by the Church of Georgia. 

Queen Tamar

Queen Tamar is the only female ruler in the world to be mentioned in Georgian as King and not Queen. Her reign is called “the Golden Age”. And it truly was for life in Georgia. “King of the Abkhazians, Georgians, Caucasian Albanians, Kakhetians, and Armenians; Shirvanshah and Shahanshah, Autocrat of All the East and the West” was Queen Tamar’s title. Historians believe that her personality united charm, wisdom, fairness, and mercy. 

Tamar became the monarch of Georgia in 1184, at the age of 20. Her father, George III, was the son of the famous king, David the Builder. Her mother, Burdukhan, was the daughter of Khuddan, the King of Alania. King George proclaimed Tamar as co-regent. The people greeted her coronation with joy, but the nobles rebelled against her. In 1184, King George died, and, for the first time in Georgian history, a woman ascended the throne. In 1185, the feudal aristocracy, contrary to her wishes, married her to Yuri, the son of Andrei Bogolyubsky, who is known in Georgian historical sources as “Russian Giorgi”. Two years later, Tamar divorced him and he was expelled from Georgia. Tamar then married David Soslan as her second husband. 

The Queen continued the policies of her esteemed grandfather and father, in both domestic and foreign affairs. In 1195, the ruler of the kingdom of Eldiguzid Azerbaijan, Abu Bakr, suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of Georgia during the Battle of Shamkor. In 1202, the Sultan of Rum, Rukn ad-Din, was defeated at the Battle of Basiani. In the same year, Tamar marched to the southeastern territories of the Black Sea and created the subordinate Empire of Trebizond (nowadays Trabzon). 

It was during Tamar’s reign, in the 12th and 13th centuries that secular writing developed significantly. During this time, Shota Rustaveli wrote The Knight in the Panther’s Skin, a treasure of world literature. There were many schools of rhetoric in Georgia then, with special buildings intended as schools attached to Georgian monasteries. The unique architectural monument of Vardzia, a city carved into a cliff, was built during Tamar’s reign, which is also associated with the construction of the Pitareti, Kvatakhevi, and Betania churches and monasteries, and more. The holy king made sure to adorn lavras and monasteries in Palestine, Cyprus, Mount Sinai, Greece, Mount Athos, Petritsoni, Macedonia, the Black Mountain, Thrace, Romania, and Constantinople. Tamar’s frescos have been preserved in Vardzia, Betania, Kintsvisi, and Bertubani. 

The story of Queen Tamar’s burial is shrouded in mystery. She was at her summer residence of Nacharmagevi when she was overcome by a serious illness. The Queen was quickly taken to Tbilisi, and then to Azeula (Kojori) Fortress, near the capital, which is where she died. Her body had to be brought to Gelati to be buried, but it is still a mystery as to where Tamar was actually interred. 

George V the Brilliant

George the Fifth (1318-1346) enjoys an outstanding place in Georgian history, and far beyond. He was the son of Demetrius II the Self-Sacrificing and was raised at the court of his maternal grandfather, Beka Jakeli, in Samtskhe. In 1299, Ghazan Khan involved the young George in his battle against George’s own brother, David VIII, proclaiming him king, although his authority did not extend beyond Tbilisi, which is why he was called “the King of Tbilisi”. 

In 1318, after the death of David VIII and Vakhtang III, George V became king, whereupon he inherited an economically weakened and politically fragmented country. 

George V was an intelligent politician and, at first, preferred a cautious and peaceful relationship with the Mongols to outright war. He was on friendly terms with the chief vizier of the Ilkhanate, Choban, which allowed him to improve the domestic situation in the country. He set about energetically fixing the domestic issues of the country, driving, with the help of the Mongols, the Alans out of Shida Kartli, where they had settled and were causing significant damage through raids on the populace, subduing the unruly feudal lords, managing to truly unite Georgia, which had fractured into three parts, putting into order a system of rule that had been disturbed under the Mongols, and developing the judicial and legal branches of government. 

After uniting and strengthening the country, George the Brilliant drove the Mongols out of Georgia, ending their nearly century-long rule. However, what truly makes George V a world-class politician is his foreign diplomacy. The king of Georgia had an active relationship with the sultan of Egypt. As a result, the Georgians recovered Jvari Monastery, which had been appropriated from them, and restored their right, along with all Christians, to enter Jerusalem on horseback with banners unfurled. During the reign of this brilliant king, Georgians also had the key to Jerusalem. 

George V also helped to strengthen relations with Europe, especially with the Italian factions on the Black Sea. During his reign, the Pope moved an episcopal see from Smyrna to Tbilisi. A letter, sent by Pope John XXII to George the Brilliant in 1322, contains some interesting information. The king also had an active correspondence with Philip VI, the king of France. The Georgian king wrote to the king of France, saying that he had 30,000 soldiers ready to participate in retaking the holy lands of Syria and Palestine. Ambassadors from France were respectfully received at the king’s court in 1332 and 1333. 

George V died in 1346. He is buried in Gelati. The grateful Georgian people have given him the nickname “the Brilliant”. 

King Heraclius (Erekle) II

Heraclius (Erekle) II, King of Kartli and Kakheti, was born on 7 November 1720, in Telavi. During his reign he achieved many victories and became a legend. He first participated in a battle at the age of 15, and appeared to be a great warrior despite of being not tall or too athletic, which is why the people lovingly referred to him as “The Little Kakhetian”. 

In Georgia, thrown into chaos by conquest, there had not been a Christian king on the throne of Kartli since 1632, about a century before, when, on the first day of October in 1745, Erekle’s father, Teimuraz II, was crowned King of Kartli in Svetitskhoveli. Erekle II was proclaimed King of Kakheti.  

In 1748, Erekle liberated Tbilisi from its Iranian conquerors and installed a Georgian garrison there. In 1751, he defeated a 18,000-man army with only 3,000 soldiers, near Kirkhbulakh. 

After the death of Teimuraz II in 1762, Erekle united Kartli and Kakheti kingdoms. 

In 1768, the Russo-Turkish War began. Erekle decided to capitalize on it by getting back the lands taken by Turkey. Along with the Russian army, commanded by General Totleben, he marched towards Akhaltsikhe, but, on 19 April 1770, near Aspindza Fortress, Totleben abandoned Erekle and returned to Kartli. Erekle managed to defeat his enemies, but was then forced to return to Kartli. 

In spite of that betrayal, and because of his inability to secure effective assistance from Europe despite numerous requests, Erekle finally decided that the fate of his country rested with the Russia Empire. On the 24th of July, 1783, at the Georgievsk Fortress in the North Caucasus, he signed a protectorate treaty. It was supposed to guarantee the preservation of the Bagrationi throne and non-interference in internal affairs, as well as the provision of assistance in times of war, but Russian offered no help to Georgian neither when Omar Khan invaded in 1783, nor when Agha Mohammed Khan crushed the Georgians in the Battle of Krtsanisi and sacked Tbilisi. 

The 75-year-old king fought with no concern for himself. The defeat was a crushing blow to both the king personally and to the kingdom. Erekle II died on 11 January 1798, in his own palace in Telavi, in the same room where he was brought into the world. 

The grateful nation buried him in Svetitskhoveli Cathedral.

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