In the final part to my series on Russian colonialism, I looked at the the Russian efforts to colonize the Caucasus. In that discussion, I mentioned the country of Georgia. That mention led me to write about today’s topic: The medieval-era Kingdom of Georgia.


Tamar of Georgia. 12th/13th century mural by an unknown artist. Public domain, uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by User:Kober.

Georgia is a country in the Caucasus, along the Black Sea coast. Why Georgia is called Georgia in the English language is not fully known. Georgians themselves call their country Sakartvelo. The name “Georgia” seems to have some connection to St. George, who is now the country’s patron saint. This article isn’t concerned with the country that is now Georgia, but with the medieval kingdom.

The Kingdom of Georgia formed after Bagrat III, King of Abkhazia, also became King of Georgia, uniting the two kingdoms. He then worked to expand his control into nearby territories through a mixture of diplomacy and military campaigning. Bagrat’s empire would last less then a century, however, as it was shattered by the invasion of the Seljuq Turks in the 1070s and 1080s.

It did not take long for Georgia to recover from these losses. Under the rule of David IV, Georgian armies gradually began re-taking land from the Seljuqs. David IV also was determined to reduce foreign influence over Georgia – while the kingdom previously was a close ally with the Byzantine Empire, accepting royal titles from that empire and fighting alongside its armies, David IV, who had received a royal Byzantine title, refused to accept any further titles from that Empire. He helped develop a distinct version of Orthodoxy based on Georgian religious traditions. David’s son and grandson would continue Georgia’s military expansion and religious development.

Queen Tamar, the great granddaughter of  David IV, led the Kingdom of Georgia through its Golden Age. She managed to fend off Turkish armies as well as block a coup that her husband, who was Kievan Rus, attempted against her, as well as further expand Georgian territory. She formulated a progressive legal code, forbidding the use of torture and the death penalty. When the Byzantine Empire splintered apart after Venetian-led Crusaders sacked Constantinople in 1204, she lent armies to help establish the Empire of Trebizond, which claimed to be the legitimate continuation of the Byzantine Empire (there were two other major claimants – Nicaea and Epirus). With her own borders secure and internal unrest quelled, Tamar concerned herself mostly with protecting Georgian holy sites in the Levant.

Unfortunately, Tamar’s empire was torn apart by the Mongol armies during the reign of her son, George IV. George would die of wounds he sustained in battle against the Mongols, and his sister Rusudan took command. However, she lacked experience and thus also failed to resist the Mongol war machine. On the eve of the invasions, Georgia was planning to aid Latin Europe in the Crusades in the Levant, but the thousands of Georgian knights instead lay strewn across the hillsides, shot through with Mongol arrows. As with so many other empires, Georgia was forced to pay tribute and recognize the Mongols as overlords.

However, Georgia resisted, and throughout 13th century the kingdom suffered repeated desolation and war as its kings would rise up against their overlords only to be crushed by the brutal might of the Mongol Ilkhanate. Eventually, however, the Kingdom of Georgia returned to its pre-invasion glory. George V the Brilliant took advantage of the internal weaknesses which fissioned through the Ilhankate and reclaimed much the territory Georgia had lost to the Mongols. Once again, Georgia influenced the politics of the Empire of Trebizond, and George V established trade relations with the restored Byzantine Empire (Nicaea had emerged the victor out of the rival claims to the imperial throne) and with the Italian maritime empires of Genoa and Venice. And once more, Georgia worked to protect its religious interests in the Levant.

The revival cultivated George V did not long survive after his death. Toward the end of his reign, the Black Death arrived in the kingdom, and worked misery and death to the Georgian people. At the close of the 14th century, the warlord Timur invaded the country, and would continue to do so numerous times over the ensuing decades as he warred against his archenemy, the Mongol Golden Horde. By the late 1400s, Georgia was wracked by internal fighting, and broke apart into three smaller kingdoms – Kartli, Kakheti, and Imereti.