The Kingdom of Georgia, long considered the Golden Age of the Georgian people, existed for nearly 500 years at the crossroads of Central Asia. A bastion of Christianity, Georgia developed a distinctive, brilliant literary culture and art, and their unique alphabet is still used today. It was a diplomatic player in the affairs of the Holy Lands and Rus, an important ally of the Byzantine Empire, and the protector of a coterie of vassal states.
The rise of the Kingdom of Georgia is inextricable from the rise of the Bagrationi dynasty, one of the oldest and longest-lasting royal families of Christendom. The Bagrationi claim descent from King David of Israel (their coat of arms features both the sling and harp), through a descendant named Bagrat. Their family name has been associated with rulers of Caucasian Iberia since at least the 6th Century. As the Sassanid Persian and Abbasid empires waned in power, the Bagrationi gained territory until they formed the kingdom of Tao-Klarjeti, and Bagrat III was able to incorporate the Kingdom of Abkhazia into his holdings near the end of the 9th Century.
What followed was a series of political unifications and military campaigns against the Seljuks, conducted by Bagrationi kings, including David IV, the Builder. Wisely, the successor to the king would often serve as co-regent prior to ascending to the throne, giving both Demetrius I and Tamar practical experience in serving as monarch before having to take on the job full-time.
But the monarch did not always sit easily on the throne. A strong noble class would occasionally break out into revolt, or plot to unseat the ruler, and though these were often unsuccessful, the nobles could curtail the power of the monarch, or force the monarch to accede to their demands. A prime example is Tamar’s acceptance of Rus Prince Yuri as her first husband, at the insistence of the nobility (that story is detailed elsewhere.)
The Kingdom reached its zenith during the reign of Tamar, becoming a true Transcaucasian empire, with a ring of allies and vassals surrounding it. Georgia achieved a flourishing of architecture, painting, and poetry akin to the achievements of Europe during the High Middle Ages. During her reign, the epic poem “The Knight in the Panther’s Skin” was written, a poem so central to Georgian culture that copies were traditionally part of dowries until the 20th century.
Georgian armies were often afield against their Seljuk neighbors, with Georgian generals (including the King Consort) adding territory through conquest. The Empire of Trebizond on the Black Sea was established from territory formerly under Byzantine control. Placed under the rulership of Byzantine princes—who also happened to be Tamar’s relatives—Trebizond represented Georgia asserting itself into the Middle East, especially as the Crusaders lost to Saladin and the Byzantine Empire continued to crumble. Georgia also asserted claims to monasteries in the Holy Land (some of which are still held today), including ones in Jerusalem.
But after the death of Tamar in 1213, Georgia began a period of decline more meteoric than its ascent. The Fourth Crusade resulted in the sack of Constantinople, and with that, Georgia lost the power of its greatest ally. At the same time, the Mongols invaded Georgia, overwhelming the nation and monarch George IV, Tamar’s son. Tamar’s daughter Rusudan assumed the throne, but was unable to drive back the Mongols and was forced to flee to Western Georgia, leaving the Eastern portion under Mongol control. Anti-Mongol uprisings defined the next few generations, resulting in widespread destruction of the countryside.
Eventually the power of the Khans weakened, and Georgian monarchs were able to regain some of their old glory under the George V, the Brilliant. George V was able to reconquer Georgian territory, stopped the payment of tribute to the Mongols, and established diplomatic ties with Byzantium, Genoa, and Venice. But this flourishing was short-lived. Georgian soldiers returning from campaign brought the Black Death with them, killing millions in Georgia just as it had throughout the rest of Europe and the Middle East.
Weakened by conquest and plague, Georgia was essentially prostrate when Timur began his campaigns of conquest in 1386. Less than a century later, Georgia would dissolve on the death of George VIII into three smaller kingdoms, each led by a branch of Bagrationi dynasty. And each branch of that great house was now a rival of the other.
But the legacy of that kingdom would always remain central to Georgian cultural identity. Georgia had been a Christian kingdom, indeed the far Eastern edge of Christendom, and it had been surrounded by religious enemies and opposing cultures. Politically, it had influence in the key theaters of the age. Its armies had conquered in the name of their ruler. Georgia was as much a part of the great cultural flourishing of the High Middle Ages as any kingdom in continental Europe, but with its own unique perspective on issues of chivalry, love, beauty, art, and religion. The surviving monasteries, poems, and artwork bear witness to that glory today.