The Bagrationi Dynasty – A Millennium of Christian Power
The Bagrationi (sometimes Hellenized as Bagratid) dynasty was the ruling dynasty of Georgia for over a millennium. This dynasty was founded during the Middle Ages and ruled the country until the early part of the 19th century, when its last king was overthrown by the Russians. Nevertheless, this was not the end of the Georgian royal house, as its members became prominent aristocrats in the Russian Empire.
This continued until the early 20th century, when the empire collapsed in 1917 and was replaced by the Soviet Union in 1922. As a consequence of this change in regime, many members of the Bagrationi family relocated to Western Europe.
Since then, the Bagrationi royal family has split into several branches. There has been talks about the restoration of the monarchy in Georgia, though it has yet to garner enough support in the country.
Early History of Georgia
Georgia is a country located in the Caucasus Mountains and situated at the crossroads between Asia and Europe. During the 1st century BC, Georgia was divided into two parts – the Kingdom of Colchis in the west, bordering the Black Sea , and the Kingdom of Iberia, known also as Kartli, in the east.
Additionally, in 65 BC, the Roman general Pompey launched a military campaign in Georgia, following the successful conclusion of the Third Mithridatic War in 63 BC. Colchis was conquered by the Romans and later became part of the province of Bithynia and Pontus. Although the Iberians were defeated by Pompey as well, their ruler submitted to the Romans, and became a client king of Rome.
Around 330 AD Iberia was Christianized. The conversion of the Iberians to Christianity is attributed to Saint Nino, who miraculously healed the queen, Nana, who was terminally ill. The king, Mirian III, however, was a pagan, and did not tolerate the arrival of this new religion.
The king plotted to kill the saint during a hunt, but the woods suddenly became dark and he could not see anything. Terrified, he prayed to the pagan gods, but to no avail.
Finally, he prayed to the Christian God and all returned to normal. Mirian immediately returned to his palace, renounced his pagan religion, and embraced Christianity.
The king, Mirian III, converts to Christianity. (Jaqeli / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
Georgia’s geographical position meant that the superpowers of the region frequently fought against each other in the hopes of bringing it into their sphere of influence. As a Christian state, Georgia was a natural ally of the Roman Empire.
In that part of the world, Rome’s greatest enemy was the Sassanian Empire, who believed in Zoroastrianism. The war with the Sassanians continued under the Byzantines, who were the eastern successors of the Roman Empire.
By playing one superpower against the other, Georgia was able to maintain its existence. Nevertheless, the protracted conflict between the Byzantines and the Sassanians not only weakened both powers, but Georgia as well.
During the 7th century AD, Islam was established in the Arabian Peninsula and its Caliphate became a threat to both the Byzantines and Sassanians. Muslim armies arrived in Georgia around 654 AD, and the Emirate of Tbilisi was established in 736 AD.
During the 810s AD, the Abbasid Caliphate (which was founded in 750 AD) was weakened by civil wars from within and wars with the Byzantines from without. It was during this period that the Bagrationis began to grow in prominence and influence.
The Beginning of the Bagrationi Dynasty
Most scholars today agree that the Bagrationis were originally from Speri (known today as Ispiri) in modern day Turkey. Their initial bases of power were Klarjeti and Samtskhe (the former also in modern day Turkey, while the latter is in Georgia). By expanding southwards, the Bagrationis conquered the region of Tao (now in Turkey) and established a polity referred today as Tao-Klarjeti.
Ashot I of Iberia was awarded the hereditary title of ‘Presiding Prince of Kartli’ by the Byzantines. He was the first Bagrationi to hold this title. In addition, Ashot was also given the title kourapalates (meaning ‘guardian of the palace’).
Coat of Arms of the Royal House of Bagrationi. (ComtesseDeMingrelie / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Interestingly, the Bagrationis have another version of their origin, which was generally accepted until the early 20th century. This traditional account traces the lineage of the Bagrationis to the biblical King David. The story goes that there were four sons of King Solomon who left Israel and traveled all the way to Kartli.
They settled there and one of them, whose name was Guaram, was chosen to be king. This Guaram is said to be the progenitor of the Bagrationi dynasty. Modern day scholars largely reject this origin story.
Although Ashot held the title of ‘Presiding Prince of Kartli’, he did not in fact rule the entire region, as the lands of Kartli were divided among various competing authorities. Moreover, the capital, Tbilisi, was held by the Muslims and remained so for a few more centuries.
After the death of Ashot, the Bagrationis were divided into three branches – the Kartli, Tao, and Klarjeti lines, who fought not only with neighboring rulers, but also among themselves. Ultimately, it was the Kartli line that triumphed.
Ashot’s successors took about a century and a half to unify Georgia. It was Bagrat III (reigned 975 – 1014 AD) who succeeded in unifying the eastern and western halves of Georgia, apart from Tbilisi, into one state.
The Bagrationi Dynasty Reclaims Its Capital
The capital of Georgia was finally reclaimed from the Muslims in 1122. During that period, Georgia was ruled by David IV (known also as David the Builder), who ascended the throne following the abdication of his father, George II, in 1089. Under David’s kingship, which lasted for over three decades, Georgia became the strongest state in the region.
In 1122, David won a decisive victory over the Seljuk Turks at the Battle of Didgori . The defeat of the Turks enabled the Georgians to capture Tbilisi, and David continued to expand his kingdom in the next two years, before dying in 1125. Apart from his military successes, David is also renowned for being a pious and wise ruler.
The aftermath of the Didgori Battle, won by the Bagrationi dynasty. (Georgiano / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
He is recorded to have spent his free time reading the Holy Scriptures and studying the sciences. His devotion to God is also evident in the construction of the Gelati Monastery in western Georgia, which David had initiated in 1106. The reign of David is traditionally regarded to be the beginning of Georgia’s Golden Age.
The Golden Age of the Bagrationi Dynasty
The Georgian Golden Age reached its peak during the reign of Queen Tamar, the great granddaughter of King David. Tamar became the queen of Georgia in 1184 and was the only woman to rule Georgia in her own right. She was the daughter of George III and was appointed as his co-ruler in 1178, when she was just 18 years old.
The king’s decision to do so was due to the fact that in the year before he had to deal with a rebellion by a group of his nobles, who intended to dethrone him, and have him replaced with his nephew, Demna, who was widely considered to be the legitimate successor of George’s assassinated father, David V. By crowning Tamar as his co-ruler, George intended to prevent any succession crisis from occurring after his death and to legitimize his family’s grip on the Georgian throne.
When her father died in 1184, Tamar became the sole ruler of Georgia. At the start of her reign, Tamar did not gain the full support of the nobility, who thought that as a woman, she would be a weak ruler. Eventually, however, Tamar made her position secure and even crushed a rebellion launched by the nobles who opposed her.
Queen Tamar of the Bagrationi dynasty. (ComtesseDeMingrelie / Public Domain )
It was during Tamar’s reign that Georgia reached its greatest territorial extent. Tamar’s greatest achievement in foreign policy, however, was the foundation of Empire of Trebizond in 1204. Tamar was the aunt of Alexios and David, the grandsons of the last Komnenos Byzantine emperor, Anronikos I, who was dethroned and killed in 1185.
His son, Manuel, was blinded and may have died from the mutilation. Alexios and David, however, were saved and taken to Tbilisi, as their mother was Rusudan, Tamar’s sister. In 1204, Constantinople, the Byzantine capital, fell to the Crusaders. Tamar seized this opportunity by equipping her nephew, Alexios, with an army to carve out a kingdom from the remnants of the Byzantine Empire.
Alexios captured Trebizond, Sinope, and Paphlagonia, Greek cities on the Black Sea coast, thus forming the Empire of Trebizond. Additionally, the period of Tamar’s reign saw a flourishing in the arts and culture of the kingdom. The many domed cathedrals built during this period were not only architectural achievements, but also highlighted the kingdom’s Christian faith.
Queen Tamar ruled Georgia until her death in 1213, which marked the end of Georgia’s Golden Age. In 1225, the kingdom was invaded by the Khwarezmians, while it was the turn of the Mongols in 1236. In the decades that followed, Georgia fell under the sway of the Mongols.
The Bagrationi Dynasty Fights off Invaders
In 1299, the new king, George V the Brilliant, succeeded in reviving the fortunes of the kingdom. Nevertheless, this was not to last. George died in 1346 and 40 years later the first invasion of Georgia was launched by the Timurid Empire .
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Territory of Georgia during the reign of King George V of the Bagrationi dynasty. (Levani110~commonswiki / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Between 1386 and 1403, Georgia was invaded eight times by Timur and was completely devastated by the end of it. Moreover, at the end of the 15th century, a united Georgian kingdom was no more, as it had broken into three smaller kingdoms – Kakheti (in the east), Kartli (in the center), and Imereti (in the west), each of which was led by a branch of the Bagrationi dynasty. Additionally, five independent principalities – Odishi, Guria, Abkhazia, Svaneti, and Samtskhe emerged from the fragmentation of the kingdom.
In the centuries that followed, Georgia did not wield the power and influence it once enjoyed during its Golden Age. In fact, the autonomy of the three fragmentary kingdoms was precarious, considering that the country was sandwiched between two Muslim superpowers – the Ottomans and Persians, both of whom were keen to add the territory to their respective empires. Nevertheless, the Georgian states managed to survive through these perilous times and a partial reunification was achieved in 1762.
In that year, the kingdoms of Kartli and Kaakheti were unified under the rule of King Heraclius II (the Latinised form of Erekle). Despite the unification of these two kingdoms, Heraclius was aware that the Ottomans and Persians were still a threat to Georgia. At the same time, the Russians were extending their influence in the Caucasus.
King Heraclius II ruled Kartli and Kaakheti, under the Bagrationi dynasty. (Carnby / Public Domain )
The Beginning of the End of the Bagrationi Dynasty
As the Russians were also Christians, the king felt that it would be more favorable to seek their aid. Therefore, in 1783, the Treaty of Georgievsk was signed between Russia and Georgia, which placed Georgia under Russian protection.
In spite of that, the Persians attacked and sacked Tbilisi once more in 1795 and 50,000 inhabitants were killed. Heraclius, who was by then 75 years, fought in the battle himself and narrowly escaped capture.
The king died three years later and was succeeded by his son, George XII, who ruled until the end of 1800. By this time, the Russians were eager to incorporate Georgia into their empire. Thus, George’s successor, David, was never confirmed by the Russians as king of Georgia, and within a year of the last king’s death, the Bagrationi dynasty was removed from the Georgian throne.
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George XII the last ruler of the Bagrationi dynasty. (Permaveli / Public Domain )
Although there was resistance by the Bagrationis they were divided and eventually many of them were arrested and deported. Still, the surviving members of the Bagrationi family became prominent aristocrats in the Russian Empire and were well-respected.
The Russian Revolution of 1917, however, saw the fall of the Russian Empire. In 1921, Tbilisi was captured by the Red Army and many Bagrationis opted to flee to Western Europe.
Today, there are three branches of the Bagrationi dynasty – the Mukhrani, Gruzinsky, and Imereti branches. In 2009, Anna, the daughter of Prince Nugzar Bagrationi Gruzinsky married a distant cousin, David Bagrationi Mukhraneli at the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Tbilisi. The marriage had been arranged by Patriarch Ilia II, the head of the Georgian Orthodox Church.
Although the couple divorced in 2013, their marriage produced a son, George, who was born in 2011. Some hope that, in time, there will be a restoration of the monarchy in Georgia, with George as its new king.
Top image: The Cathedral of the Dormition is an 11th century cathedral in Kutaisi, Georgia of the Bagrationi dynasty. Photo source: viii / Adobe Stock.
By Wu Mingren
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