Georgia before the Mongols

Stephen H. Rapp Jr.

in Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Asian History

Published online March 2017 | e-ISBN: 9780190277727 | DOI:

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Nestled in one of Eurasia’s most energetic crossroads, Georgia has a long and multifaceted history. The remains of Homo georgicus excavated at Dmanisi in southern Georgia belong to the oldest hominids yet discovered outside Africa. They have been reliably dated to 1.8 million years ago. Subsequent Neolithic, Chalcolithic, and Bronze Age sites are distributed throughout the region between the Black and Caspian Seas. But it is not until the early 1st millennium bce that the immediate ancestors of modern Georgians emerge in the historical record. Their attestation sharpens in the Achaemenid and early Hellenistic epochs.

The peoples of Caucasia were thrust upon the Eurasian stage principally as a result of their associations with Iran. They were, at the same time, active members in the first Iranian Commonwealth, a massive cross-cultural enterprise stretching from Central Asia to the Balkans. Toward the end of the 4th century bce, the disruption triggered by Alexander’s conquest of Achaemenid Persia sparked the formation of a kingdom anchored in the eastern Georgian territory of Kʻartʻli (Iberia). Caucasia’s Iranian and especially Iranic (“Persianate”) cultures proved remarkably durable. The Irano-Caucasian nexus pushed into the medieval period, having endured the Christianization of the realms of Kʻartʻli, Armenia, and Caucasian Albania. As was the case elsewhere, Christianity’s long-term success hinged on its adaptation to the existing social pattern. Caucasia’s social landscape continued to be dominated by dynastic noble houses, but the hybrid Zoroastrianisms they had long favored were eclipsed by Christianity starting in the 4th century. Meanwhile, in western Georgia the polities based in Egrisi (cf. Greek Colchis) fell under the stronger influence of the Graeco-Roman Mediterranean. They too were brought into the Christian fold in late antiquity.

The Kʻartʻvelian monarchy was abolished by the Sasanians circa 580 and remained in abeyance until 888. In the afterglow of the interregnum, the ascendant Bagratid dynasty—following the “Byzantinizing” path blazed by the Georgian Church—consciously reoriented kingship from an Iranian to a Byzantine basis as it politically integrated eastern and western Georgia for the first time. Nevertheless, at the height of the all-Georgian kingdom, many aspects of Iranic culture flourished, including epic literature. Mongol hegemony across much of the 13th century marks a crucial turning point in Georgian history. Under Īlkhānid rule, Caucasia’s access to the Eurasian ecumene expanded significantly, but the political fragmentation of Georgia intensified. In the new phase of imperialism ushered by Timur (Tamerlane), the Irano-Caucasian nexus blossomed one last time under the Safavids before the isthmus fell under Russian and then Soviet control.

Keywords: Georgia; Kartli; Kʻartʻli; Caucasia; Caucasus; Armenia; Iran; Persia; Byzantium; Roman Empire

Article.  13781 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Central Asian History

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