Written by Vladimir Moss



     Georgia, the lot of the Most Holy Mother of God, had played only a minor role in Orthodox history since her baptism by St. Nina in the fourth century. However, in 1008 a political and ecclesiastical unification took place between the kingdom of Abkhazia (much larger then than now, with its capital at Kutaisi) and Kartli (with its capital in Uplistsikhe) under the authority of King Bagrat III, who was now called “the king of kings of All Georgia”.

     Since the western kingdom contained two metropolias under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the Byzantine Emperor Basil II sent an army into Georgia in 1014, but it was soundly beaten. In 1021-1022, however, the Byzantine army, strengthened by the presence of Varangians (probably Russians from Kievan Rus’) overcame the Georgians. But the Byzantines wisely did not crush the Georgian state system, which gradually strengthened under Byzantine tutelage.

     Moreover, in the course of the next two centuries Byzantine influence in general became stronger, and Byzantine liturgical practice became the norm throughout the autocephalous Church of Georgia…[1]

     It is from the moment of the union of 1008, writes Aristides Papadakis, “that we may speak of Georgia…

     “The new unity… brought Church and State closer together. The ecclesiastical hierarchy were doubtless advocates of national unity and in this sense were of the greatest benefit to Georgia’s Bagratid rulers. The catholicus on the other hand retained control of ecclesiastical affairs and administration, and was even formally recognised as the spiritual king of the nation. However, the Georgian primate along with all major bishops and abbots were temporal princes of the realm as well, and actually sat on the council of state or Darbazi together with the feudal princes of Georgia…

     “Arguably, the two most important members of the new Caucasian monarchy were David II (1089-1125) and Queen Tamar (1184-1212). Both of these Bagratid sovereigns were in the end canonized as saints by the Georgian Orthodox Church. By extending Georgia’s power far beyond its historic frontiers, these rulers were in the final analysis responsible for creating a genuine Georgian hegemony not only over Georgians but over Muslims and Armenians as well. David II was surnamed by contemporaries the Restorer or Rebuilder (aghmashenebeli) for good reason…His reign constitutes a genuine ‘epic period’ in the history of medieval Georgia. David’s victories against the Muslims were especially important since they paved the way for the Transcaucasian multinational empire of his successors. In 1122 he was able to gain control of Tiflis (it had been for centuries an Islamic town) and to reestablish it as Georgia’s capital. But his great triumph was without doubt his decisively humilating defeat of the Seljuks a year earlier at the battle of Didgori (12 August).[2] Georgians to this day celebrate the victory annually as a holiday in August.

     “In addition to a strengthened monarchy and a magnified Georgia, David II also bequeathed to his descendants a reformed Church. The attention he was willing to devote to the welfare of the Church as a whole, was doubtlessly genuine. He was also evidently concerned with Christian unity and repeatedly labored to convince the separated Armenian community to return to the unity of the Orthodox Church by accepting Chalcedonian Christology and by renouncing schism. His vigorous efforts to establish ecclesiastical discipline, eliminate abused, and reorganize the Church, culminated in 1103 at the synod of Ruisi-Urbinisi. This meeting – one of the most famous in Georgian history – was presided over by the king who had also convened it…

     “It was during [Queen Tamar’s] rule that the great golden age of Georgian history and culture reached its summit. There is no denying the multinational nature of her kingdom by the dawn of the thirteenth century. By then Georgia was one of the most powerful states in the Near East. As a result of Queen Tamar’s numerous campaigns, which took her armies to the shores of the Black Sea, Paphlagonia and further east into Iranian territory, the Georgian state extended far beyond its original borders. By 1212 the entire Caucasus, the southern coast of the Black Sea, most of Armenia and Iranian Azerbaijan, had in fact been annexed to the Georgian state….


     “[The queen was in general friendly towards] Saladin, who was actually responsible in the end for the return to the Georgians in the Holy City of properties that had once belonged to them. In contrast, Tamar’s relations with the Latins in the crusader states… were rarely courteous or fraternal. The Orthodox Georgians never actually directly involved themselves with the crusades. This may have been at the root of the friendship Muslims felt for them.”[3]

     However, Tamar defeated the Turks when they tried to conquer Georgia. “During two terrible battles she herself saw the finger of God directing her to the fight, and, with her soldiers, witnessed the miraculous conversion of one of the Mohammedan generals who was made prisoner.”[4]

     The Georgians in this, their golden age, saw themselves as sons of the Byzantines. Thus Antony Eastmond writes: “The two hundred years before Tamar’s reign saw a very marked change in the depiction of power in Georgia in an attempt to establish an effective form of royal presentation. The Georgian monarchy came increasingly to model itself on imperial rule in Byzantium. The Bagrat’ioni kings began to see themselves as inheritors of Byzantine royal traditions, and displayed themselves as the descendants of Constantine the Great, rather than their own Georgian ancestors, such as Vakhtang Gorgasalan (the great Georgian king who ruled c. 446-510). Between the ninth and twelfth centuries it is possible to trace the way the Bagrat’ionis began to adopt more and more of the trappings of Byzantine political ideas. In the ninth century, Ashot’ I the Great (786-826), the first Bagrat’ioni ruler, showed his dependence on Byzantine ideas by accepting the title of Kouropalates; although the only surviving image of the king shows him in a very abstract, indistinguishable form of dress. By the tenth century the Georgians had adopted a more positive Byzantine identity. At the church of Oshk’i (built 963-73), the two founder brothers, Davit and Bagrat’ are shown in a donor relief on the exterior wearing very ornate, ‘orientalized’, Byzantine costume. All earlier royal images in Georgia, as well as the contemporary image of the rival King Leo III of Abkhazia (a neighbouring Georgian Christian kingdom) in the church of K’umurdo (built 964), had shown the rulers in less distinct, or clearly local forms of dress. The choice of dress at Oshk’I showed the outward adherence of the Bagrat’ionis to the Byzantine political system… 

     “This gradual process of Byzantinization continued throughout the eleventh century, becoming increasingly dominant. It was encouraged by closer links between the Georgian and Byzantine royal families. Bagrat’ IV (1027-72) married Helena, the niece of Romanos III Agyros in 1032; and his daughter, Maria ‘of Alania’ married two successive Byzantine emperors (Michael VII Doukas and Nikephoros III Botaneiates).

     “By the beginning of the twelfth century, there had been a transformation in the whole presentation of the Georgian royal family. In addition to Byzantine court dress, all aspects of the royal environment became ‘Byzantinized’. In the royal churches standard Byzantine forms were adopted…

     “At Gelati, built between 1106 and 1130 by Davit IV and his son Demet’re (1125-54), this Byzantinization reaches its peak… The point of strongest Byzantine influence at Gelati comes in the fresco scenes in the narthex. These show the earliest surviving monumental images of the seven ecumenical councils… Davit IV himself convened and presided at two sets of church councils in his reign, and clearly saw himself as a successor to the early Byzantine emperors and their domination of the church: Davit IV’s biographer even calls him a second Constantine…”[5]

     The most striking example of Georgia’s filial relationship to Byzantium can be seen after the capture of Constantinople by the Crusaders in 1204, when “a Georgian army immediately took Trebizond and handed it over to a relative of the queen [Tamara], Alexis Comnenus. He became the first emperor of Trebizond. The empire of the Great Comneni, which at first existed under the vassalage of Georgia, continued to exist for almost three hundred years, outlasting Constantinople, and was destroyed by the Turks only in 1461.”[6]

     As we ponder why little Georgia should have fared so prosperously and heroically at a time when the Byzantine Empire was being defeated by her enemies, we should remember two factors.

     One was the internal unity of the State under its strong and pious rulers. A second was its strictness in relation to heresy. Thus the Georgians were much firmer in relation to the heretical Armenians than the Byzantines were in relation to the heretical Latins during the same period. This refusal to make concessions on the faith for the sake of political gains reaped both spiritual and material fruits for the Georgians.

     Thus the Synod of Ruisi-Urbnisis decreed that “an Orthodox Christian was not authorized to contract a marriage either with a heretic or an infidel… Armenians and other monophysite dissidents upon returning to the unity of the Orthodox faith were legally compelled to be rebaptized.”[7]

     In Tamara’s reign there was an official debate between the Georgians and Armenians at which a great miracle took place: a dog fled in fear from the Orthodox Mysteries of the Georgians, but immediately devoured the sacrifice of the Armenians. As a result, the Armenian nobleman John Mkhargradzeli accepted Orthodoxy and was baptized by Patriarch John.[8]

     The unity of the kingdom was not achieved without a struggle, even a struggle, at one point, against a form of parliamentary democracy! Thus “in the first year of Tamara’s reign, an officer of the royal court, Kurltu-Arslan, whose dream was to become the Minister of Defense, insisted that a parliament be established in Iani, where, according to his plan, all internal and external problems of the country were to be discussed, and only after that was a notice to be sent to the king for approval. The Isani Parliament was planned to appropriate the legislative power and leave the monarch a symbolic right to approve decisions already made and give orders to carry out the will of the members of this parliament. Thus, the very foundations of the royal institution blessed by God Himself were shaken and the country found itself face to face with the danger of civil war.

     “Tamara ordered that Kurlu-Arslan be arrested, but his followers, bearing arms, demanded the release of their leader. In order to avoid imminent bloodshed, Tamara came to a most wise and noble solution, sending to the camp of the rebels as negotiators two of the most respectable and revered ladies: Huashak Tsokali, the mother of the Prince Rati, and Kravai Jakeli. The intermediation of the two noble mothers had such an effect on the conspirators that they ‘obeyed the orders of their mistress and knelt in repentance before her envoys and swore to serve the queen loyally.’ The country felt the strong arm of the king. Tamara appointed her loyal servants to key government posts…”[9]


     Queen Tamara is called a second Constantine, a David and a Solomon in the chronicles.[10] She deserves both titles as having been great in both peace and war, and having defended Orthodox autocracy against the threat of constitutionalism…

     The contrast between Georgia and Bulgaria is instructive: the Georgian kings saw themselves as sons of the Byzantines, and prospered, whereas the Bulgarian tsars saw themselves as rivals, and were brought low…


[1] V.M. Lurye, “Tysiacha let Gruzinskogo Imperializma” (One Thousand Years of Georgian Imperialism), Russkij Zhurnal (Russian Journal), August, 2008; Alexander Dvorkin, Ocherki po Istorii Vselenskoj Pravoslavnoj Istorii (Sketches on the History of the Universal Orthodox Church), Nizhni- Novgorod, 2006, pp. 824-825.

[2] “On his own testimony, while meeting an attack from the Turks, both he and his enemies saw S. George protecting him; and on another occasion, he was saved from instant death by a special act of faith, when a thunderbolt falling upon him was prevented from hurting him by the golden image of the Archangel Michael which he wore on his breast” (P. Ioseliani, A Short History of the Georgian Church, Jordanville, NY: Holy Trinity Monastery, 1983, p. 115). (V.M.)

[3] Papadakis, The Orthodox East and the Rise of the Papacy, Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1994, pp. 139, 140, 141, 143-144.

[4] Ioseliani, op. cit., p. 122.

[5] Eastwood, “Royal renewal in Georgia: the case of Queen Tamar”, in Paul Magdalino (ed.), New Constantines: the Rhythm of Imperial Renewal in Byzantium, 4th-13th Centuries, Aldershot: Variorum, 1994, pp. 284, 285, 286.

[6] Dvorkin, op. cit., p. 828.

[7] Papadakis, op. cit., p. 142.

[8] The Life of St. Tamara.

[9] “Holy Righteous Queen Tamara of Georgia”, Orthodox Life, vol. 53, 2, March-April, 2003, p. 9.

[10] Eastwood, op. cit., p. 289.

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