At the end of the eleventh century, Georgia was in a disastrous situation. Devastating incursions by Turkish troops had desolated vast areas of the Georgian Kingdom. The peasants had ceased all agricultural work and fled to the densely-forested mountains; towns were destroyed, and the vineyards and arable lands became pastures for the herds owned by Turkish warriors. In the second half of the eleventh century, the Seljuk Empire was in its prime. It had conquered the thriving lands of the Middle East and Caucasus. The Seljuk Turks became the dominant force in the Islamic world. They were dangerous and restless rivals of the weakened and diminished Byzantine Empire. The Byzantines suffered a disastrous defeat at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071.
After his enthronement, King George II of Georgia (1072-1089) fiercely resisted the Turkish oppression. At the beginning of his reign, the Georgian king even managed to defeat and banish the Seljuk Turks at the Battle of Partskhisi in 1074. However, the Turks were too numerous and powerful. They returned over and over again. George was forced to attend the court of the Turkish Sultan, where he sued for peace. George agreed to pay tributes for this peace. He returned to Georgia in the hope that his visit to the Sultan would bring peace to his country. However, the Turkish herdsmen, who did not care much for the Sultan’s orders, continued to devastate Georgia. In 1080 their invasions became permanent. They would come here during the summertime and leave at the end of autumn. The Georgian crown could not repel their constant invasions. At that time, the Georgian royal court was located in western Georgia – in Kutaisi (one of the capital cities of medieval Georgia). The members of the royal house and retinue could not even leave western Georgia and visit the eastern part of their kingdom. Since George was unable to solve the major problems that Georgia was facing, he abdicated and placed the crown on the head of his sixteen-year-old son, David. This young man represented new hope for the Georgian Kingdom. The once glorious kingdom was now completely helpless, and lay in ruins.
The new king was not going to tolerate this situation. At this young age he already showed his ability to deal with severe problems. He gathered his demoralized troops and began to train them. David started with guerilla tactics: at that point he did not possess a powerful army, so he decided to harass the enemies with constant small-scale attacks. His strategy succeeded. The Turkish hordes now considered him to be a serious threat to their ‘peaceful’ life in Georgia. External affairs at the time were also favorable for Georgia. In 1092 the great Seljuk Sultan Malik-Shah died, causing anarchy to erupt among the Seljuks. David used this situation as his opportunity to take back the lands occupied by the Turks. However, he was clever enough not to cause serious hostility from the court of the Sultan. For this reason, during the first decade of his reign (from 1089 to 1099) he continued paying tributes to the Seljuks. In 1099, the Crusaders captured Jerusalem. This was a signal for King David to implement a more active and aggressive strategy against the Turks. He refused to pay tributes and began an even more aggressive guerilla campaign against the Seljuks. The Turks suffered crushing defeats at the hands of the young Georgian king. These victorious battles brought back to Georgians the faith that their kingdom would rise again. And they were not disappointed. David made connections with the Crusaders as fellow Christians. Legend claims that even Baldwin I, the first king of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, visited Georgia.
King David depicted on the Fresco of Gelati Church (on the right edge of the Fresco). Photo by Archpriest Ilia Chighladze
David’s military endeavors did not only imply constant guerilla attacks. He began a fundamental reorganization of the Georgian army. He created a major Georgian military force known as Mona-Spa. These were the troops who were most trusted by the king and directly responsible for his safety. David established a harsh discipline among the soldiers, which increased the military potential of the royal army. Besides this, David invited the northern Turkish tribes of Kipchaks to settle at the borders of Georgia. The Kipchaks were warriors roaming the vast lands in what is now southern Russia. This fresh new force certainly assisted David in his military success.
Nevertheless, before he would take decisive steps towards implementation of his major plans (the unification of Georgia and complete banishment of the Seljuks), David had to deal with his most dangerous internal rivals. He was not going to succumb to all the whims and wishes of the great Georgian lords as his father had done. He dealt with the two most powerful Georgian noble houses – the House of Liparitisdze and the House of Abuletisdze. First, he imprisoned the head of the House Liparitisdze – Rati. However, Rati still struggled against the king. Then David captured him and sent him to exile in Byzantium. He took all the lands that had once belonged to this great house, and incorporated them in the royal domain. He dealt with the house of Abuletisdze in a similar way. The heads of this house – the brothers Dzagan and Modistos – did not wish to kneel before the crown (some scholars think that the two brothers belonged to another, unknown noble house). David captured both of them. We do not know exactly what happened to the brothers after they were captured: they were either exiled or put to death.
David also initiated some important judicial and administrative reforms. He established a new office, which was a combination of two influential offices, one ecclesiastical and the other secular– the Bishop of Chqondidi (one of the major bishoprics in western Georgia) and Chancellor (Mtsignobartukhutsesi in Georgian). The holder of this office had great power in his hands. David appointed his tutor and pastor George to this office. George played an enormous role in the strengthening of royal power. Besides this, David also managed to reorganize the royal court, and appointed new judges. Prior to this, all complaints were considered by the king himself. After the reforms, separate judges would accept the complaints and judge according to the royal law. This gave the king a great deal of time for other urgent tasks and military expeditions.
One of King David’s major plans was the ultimate unification of Georgia. The easternmost part of Georgia – Kakheti – existed as an independent kingdom under an independent branch of the Bagrationi House. To begin with, David captured the important fortress of Zedazeni on the border of the Kakhetian Kingdom. This paved his way to the heart of the breakaway kingdom. Then David attacked the last Kakhetian King Aghsartan, crushing him at the Battle of Ertsukhi in 1104. Kakheti was now finally incorporated into Georgia.
Iron Gates Brought from the City of Ganja by King Demetre I Son of King David. Photo by Kukuri Metreveli
After the Battle of Ertsukhi, David was able to find the time to deal with another major problem that was seriously hindering his plans of centralizing royal power: the Georgian Church. To this end, David summoned an ecclesiastical council in Kartli, the central province of Georgia – somewhere between the villages of Ruisi and Urbnisi. Accordingly, the name of this council was the council of Ruis-Urbnisi, and it is one of the most important ecclesiastical councils in the history of Georgia. The Ruis-Urbnisi council implemented necessary reforms in the Georgian Church. The council banished clergymen of noble birth who restlessly opposed the crown. It issued canons that regulated ecclesiastical life and ensured the maintenance of a decent and proper Christian life. This council proved to be a great victory for royal politics.
While David dealt with his internal enemies, he also reactivated his military campaign against the Seljuks who occupied castles and fortresses in Georgia and in neighboring countries. In 1110, Georgia won two great victories. David’s forces took the important fortified city of Samshvilde in the southern Georgian region of Kvemo Kartli. In the same year he crushed a huge Turkish army in Trialeti. In 1115, David recaptured another important Georgian city – Rustavi. Between 1116 and 1118, Georgians won major battles one after another. The Seljuks fled in panic. The Muslims felt harassed and appealed to the Seljuk Sultan. They asked for deliverance from the hands of Georgians.
King David the Restorer. Photo by Giorgi Meskhi
The Muslims decided to gather a huge coalition against David. This became possible after they had finally defeated the Crusaders. In 1119, the great Muslim general Najm ad-Din Ilghazi destroyed the European forces in the battle known as The Battle of the Field of Blood, and he was now a true star of the Islamic world. After he had crushed the Crusaders, Ilghazi decided to destroy another great Christian power – the Georgian Kingdom – and thus began to gather Muslim troops. In August 1121, several thousand Muslim warriors invaded Georgia. This was a crucial moment in David’s reign, and in the history of Georgia in general. On 12th August 1121, Georgians (aided by the Kipchaks and European knights) crushed the powerful Muslim coalition in Didgori valley near Tbilisi. It was a decisive victory, and one of the foremost military achievements of the medieval Georgian monarchy.
Following this, in 1122 King David laid siege to Tbilisi and took back the Georgian capital, which had been under Muslim rule for one hundred years. David also liberated northern Armenia (for which he was much loved by the Armenians). In 1124 he occupied Sharvan (in the territory of modern Azerbaijan). As such, Georgia became a great Caucasian empire, and one of the major defenders of Christianity in the east.
Gelati Monastery. Photo by Kukuri Metreveli
However, David’s personality was not only remarkable for his political and military achievements, he was also an unusually open-minded and tolerant king for his times. Even though he fought against the Muslims throughout his entire life, he was extremely tolerant towards them. The king was familiar with the teachings of the Koran, and he often engaged in friendly theological discussions with Muslim theologians. He was famous for his love of reading: he read books extensively, and not only Christian ones. He was interested in all the fields of medieval science and scholarship. In 1106, David laid the foundations for Gelati monastery. Gelati was not only a dwelling place for Christian ascetics, it was an academia. The building of the academia still stands near the main church of the Holy Mother of God in Gelati. In this building, students were taught all the major scientific subjects of that time, including arithmetic, astronomy and geometry. King David invited famous Georgian philosophers and theologians to the academy. The famous Georgian theologian Arsenius of Iqalto, who composed the acts of the Ruis-Urbnisi council and translated dozens of theological works from Greek to Georgian, and the great Georgian Neo-Platonist philosopher John Petritsi both lived and worked in Gelati academy. Gelati became one of the major centers of medieval Georgian cultural life until the country was annexed by the Russian Empire.
Sundial in Gelati Monastery. Photo by Kukuri Metreveli
David passed away in 1125. When he ascended to the throne as a young boy, the Georgian Kingdom lay in ruins and was badly bleeding. When he died at the age of 52, the great Georgian King left Georgia as one of the most powerful political actors in the Caucasus and the Middle East.