‘Miraculous Victory:’ Battle of Didgori, 1121
Forgotten Battle in the Kingdom of Georgia during the Age of the Crusades
We will rather die on the battlefield than run.
Contemplating the Age of Crusades, images of the sacked Jerusalem, exploits of Saladin and Richard the Lion Heart and the great victories at Hattin (see “Jihadi Victories” by Ralph Peters, July 2008 ACG) or Arsuf come to mind at once. The epic struggle between the West and East is well studied and its triumphs and defeats popularized. However, one important actor of this conflict is conspicuously absent in the histories of the Crusades, although the Georgian victory at Didgori in August of 1121 was no less dramatic than those of the Crusaders and had significant consequences for the regional geopolitics, establishing Georgia as the leading Christian power in the region for the next hundred years.
Georgia is located in southern Caucasia between the Black and the Caspian Seas. The country’s geopolitical location proved to be both a great advantage and a disadvantage. Located between Europe and Asia, Georgia served as a transit route for commerce, culture and religions over the last four millennia and was celebrated as the country of the Golden Fleece throughout the ancient world. However, the country also saw its share of conquerors vying for control over these lands. Emerging as a united kingdom in the 10th century, Georgia soon found itself engaged in unequal struggle against the Seljuk Turks, who began massive migration to Asia Minor and the Caucasus. After founding the Seljuk Sultanate in 1055, they expanded their sphere of influence to Iran, Iraq and Syria. In 1064, Seljuk Sultan Alp Arslan led a successful incursion into southern regions of Georgia and, four years later, he ravaged eastern Georgia and even reached Imereti in western Georgia. In 1071, the Seljuk victory over the Byzantine army at the crucial battle of Manzikert (see “Jihadi Victories” by Ralph Peters, July 2008 ACG) opened the way for their systematic conquest of the Caucasus. The year 1080 started the period known as the “Great Turkish Onslaught” (didi turkoba) in Georgia, when Turkic tribes arrived in large numbers to settle on Georgian lands and turned the occupied territory into pastures, undermining local agriculture and economy. King Giorgi II (1072-1089) of Georgia was forced to recognize their domination and pay tribute to the Seljuk sultan.
Seljuk dominance continued unchecked for almost a decade; the country had been ravaged by enemy invasions, internal dissent and natural disasters. King Giorgi II failed to rise to the occasion and the country needed a strong and energetic ruler to lead the struggle. In 1089, a bloodless coup d’etat forced King Giorgi II to abdicate in favor of his 16-year-old son David. The new king faced a daunting challenge of defeating a powerful enemy and rebuilding a devastated country. Despite his age, David proved to be a very able statesman and military commander. In 1089-1100, he led small detachments harassing and destroying isolated Seljuk troops and tried to revive devastated regions. In 1092, he took advantage of the death of Malik Shah of the Seljuks to cease the payment of annual tribute and stop the seasonal migration of the Turks into Georgia. Over the next ten years, he gradually liberated most of eastern Georgia.
In 1103, King David convened the Ruis-Urbnisi Church Council that reformed the Georgian Orthodox Church, which had a period of ascendancy in the 11th century and came into possession of vast land holdings, turning into “a state within a state” and clashing with the royal authority. The Ruisi-Urbnisi Church Council limited the Church’s authority, expelled rebellious clergy and expanded the royal administration. The office of the powerful Archbishop of Chqondidi was merged with that of Mtsignobartukhutsesi, chief adviser to the King on all state issues. The new office of Chqondideli-Mtsignobartukhutsesi introduced direct royal authority over the church, supervised a new court system (saajo kari) and directed police apparatus (mstovrebi) that spread royal authority throughout the kingdom. As part of his reform, in 1106, King David also began the construction of the Gelati Monastery and Academy that soon became a major educational and cultural center.
In 1110-1117, David continued his expansion throughout southern Transcaucasia, capturing key fortresses, including Samshvilde, Dzerna, Rustavi, Kaladzori, Lore, and Aragani. Seljuk invasions in 1105, 1110 and 1116 were all crushed. In 1118 – 1120, King David launched a major military reform. The Georgian crown possessed the mona spa royal troops of some 5,000 men, but it was dependent militarily on the troops supplied by feudal lords — who often defied the king. To solve this problem, King David came up with a brilliant solution. He married the daughter of the leader of the powerful Cuman-Qipcaqs residing in the northern Caucasus, and in 1118 he invited the entire Cuman-Qipcaq tribe, which was engaged in a bitter war with rising Russian principalities, to resettle in Georgia. David’s decision had long lasting consequences. Georgia was lacking in manpower as a consequence of the devastation brought by Turkish incursions. The royal authority was beset by troublesome nobility jealous of its privileges and apprehensive of an increasingly strong central government. Thus, Qipcaqs would provide the crown with a force that would be loyal to it alone, free of any connections with other vested interests in Georgia. Certainly, the decision to resettle and use a large foreign army was a daring move, which could have had disastrous effects on Georgia. But the gamble worked.
Between 1118 and 1119, King David moved some 40,000 Qipcaq families (approx. 200,000 men) from the northern Caucasus steppes to Kartli (central Georgia) and, to accelerate their assimilation into the Georgian population, they were dispersed over a number of places while retaining their clan structure. They were outfitted by the crown and granted lands to settle. In turn, they provided one soldier per each Qipcaq family, allowing King David to establish a 40,000-man strong standing army in addition to his royal troops. According to the Georgian chronicle, Kartlis Tskhovreba, King David’s policy was exceptionally successful as Qipcaqs soon converted to Christianity and adopted the Georgian way of life. The new army provided the crown with the necessary force to fight both external threats and internal discontent of powerful lords.
The royal chronicler of King David informs us that the Qipcaqs were immediately put to use as the Georgians “began to raid Persia, Shirwan and Great Armenia” and invariably returned home from these campaigns “laden with booty.” Describing King David’s success, the chronicler continues, “It is said that he resembled a swift, fleet-footed panther, by which the vision of Daniel described Alexander [the Great]. Our Alexander was no less than he, although younger, yet comparable in fortune.” The Georgian king soon asserted his authority over nearly the entire southern Transcaucasia, except for Tbilisi, and important regions of the North Caucasus. He established contact with the Crusaders in the Holy Land and there is evidence the two sides tried to coordinate their actions against the Muslims.
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