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Posted on May 14, 2008 in War College

‘Miraculous Victory:’ Battle of Didgori, 1121

By Alexander Mikaberidze

King David Aghmashenebeli. Courtesy Alex Mikaberidze.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.

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Georgia lies in the rugged Caucaus region, between Russia to the north and Turkey to the south. Courtesy David Liuzzo. 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.[1] 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.[2] 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.”[3] 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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16 Comments

  1. Congratulations on this unique and valuable article! For some reason, Western historians have until now, with this article, totally ignored the great victory at Didgori, even though there was a significant contingent of Knights Templars who took part in it. This Major Georgian contribution to the Crusades is simply forgotten, even by eminent historians such as René Grousset among others. There is mention in Walther Gauthier’s “Bella Antiochene”, only accessible in English in an out of print version by Ashgate Publications.
    Anyone interested in Crusading history would do well to visit the site of the battle in the republic of Georgia. It is a most moving monument to the Christian faith of King Davit Aghmashenebeli, and more than well worth the trip and the hike from Tbilisi!

    • I think that part of temple knights in didgori war in not true. Because I think that when we have Georgians Who can fight with 10 seljuks together dont need temple knights for help. So as we can see in history we often fight with turks , persi , mongolian imper etc. So we have skills for fighting and I think that they would say like this to temple knights : Go and eat and drink , we will take care of them. This is part of our guest loving lifes.

      • right!?

    • I don’t know have you ever read something about the Templars, but it’s simply IMPOSSIBLE for them to participate in that clash, not to speak with “significant contingent”.

      • My dear fellow, “Simply impossible” is wrong — the Templars were founded in 1118. Hugues de Pays was sent by Baldwin II to France to collect support and funds for the Order. While, I agree, a bit unlikely that any Templar contingent, significant or otherwise, participated in the Battle of Didgori in 1121, it is not impossible that some Knights may have been part of the Frankish knights who very clearly did jin forces with the Georgians. In Georgia there is an oral tradition of the Franks having been Templars –reason why I mentioned them. But I must agree, it cannot have been a significant contingent. The oral tradition was taken up, by the way, by NIKOLOZ films, in their project for a movie which unfortunately never materialised, “Sword of the Messiah” was its subtitle — I forget the main title (Didgori 1121?).

  2. I fear I found a little mistake in this article. King David’s army consisted of up to 40.000 georgian soldiers and up to 20.000 cipchak warriors, with a few hundred Alan mercenaries and franksish crusaders. David asked for at least one soldier from every noble georgian family and all of the cipchak tribes.
    There was some kind of a relationship between the georgian rulers and some of the frankish partisipants of the crusades. That could explain why the little reinforcement arrived so quickly.

  3. Question for DerantW : Do you have a source for this “relationship” between the Georgian rulers and the Frankish participants? Do you have any more information on the actual composition of the “little reinforcement” ? Were they crusaders from a specific nation, or knights of an order? Do you have any references for this?

  4. David is still father of Georgians, though it existed 6000 years before David. This victory is more than just a battle for Georgians. David once defeated 100 000 Turks with 1500 soldiers. It’s a famous fact. He was incredible. Non-human man.

  5. Georgians adore David the Builder. He made a whole EMPIRE ON CAUCASUS. His successors Conquered Azerbaijan, Trabzon, north Turkey, Armenia, part of modern Russia. His great granddaughter even invaded Iran. Their influence was from Greece till Jerusalem. Later David’s dynasty conquered Afganistan, but its said that Afganistan was conquered by Iranians!!!

  6. Georgian:
    - not all georgians think what you beleive in. Those conquests were irianian conquests.

  7. This is one of the most important georgian war .. But it is a small part of .. We Georgians are not strong now, but hope get as dead as Lazarus rallyinging jesus rallying georgia s. … This will be very soon! I believe it!

  8. Let live in peace. no more wars and killings History give us lesson for this bad things when people was killing each other for lands what they didn’t need. Be friendly to each other be care full for People lives and never forget that we are all peoples and we can help each other in many things that someone can’t do. this is teaching us history!!! I love my Country that named Georgia.

  9. The interpretation of military “canning” of King David here is not
    what it simce. It is only prersumed that 200 knights offered to change sides to the leaders of Muslim armies.
    In reality it was always well known move of Georgians to fight with smaller force, that sometimes confused a much stronger enemy.
    Thus, another king, the “Patara Kahi”, defeited Persian army much later by simply stopping his guard and waiting for atcking him much larger army. They were confused too by a much smaller army that didn’t run and lost.

  10. i d like to contribute to the discussion on who Georgian army consisted of and reasons behind certain numbers.
    so as its widely agreed there was 40,000 Georgians, 15,000 Qipcaqs, 500 Allans and 100 European Crusaders.
    as you can see the majority of soldiers were Georgians, just about 70% of the whole army.
    as we know from the history David IV invited 40,000 Qipcaq families to live in Georgian land on the premise that they would produce 1 soldier per family when there’d be a need for it. So simple calculation tells us that David IV could have 40,000 Qipcaqs taking part in Didgori battle. But he simply didn’t allow it. And the reason behind it was that he knew that it was the Battle of Georgia and Georgian Christian culture and mindset against the ones of Muslim. Tbilisi was Georgian Jerusalem which was also under Muslim rule. So it was purely Georgian battle against Muslim coalition and David wanted it to be won by Georgians.
    From the strategic point of view you can argue why David risked so much and did not deploy all of its resources while difference in numbers was such high between Georgian and Muslim sides but all i can say about this is that firstly, David must have been very confident about his victory in this battle and on the other hand when you are facing the coalition of around a half million soldiers with 57,000 soldiers what you are thinking about is what sort of strategic moves tactical manoeuvres will take you to the victory rather than assuming that you could win with 25,000 extra soldiers which would make not so significant difference.

  11. as the georgian historians tell us, there were about 200 french cavalry-men and they did NOT get to fight becouse our king didn’t want them to fight, they were watching the battle the whole time. as of 200 georgian soldiers who went to the enemy as the traitos of georgia, it was a trick and enemy paid for it.

  12. Ok, i just want to say, that all this talk of Georgian fighter superiority seems a bit bogus to me. I grew up in Georgia and remember always hearing about these “legends” but from my point of view, that’s simply what they were. I mean we (Georgians) lost a lot more battles than we won so…. Don’t get me wrong, battle of Didgori was a great victory for Georgians and i do take pride in my heritage however, lets not get too carried away here. Obviously, overall strategy, tactics, and luck have a lot to do with the outcome of any engagment. I just feel a bit embarassed when i see some people boast about this supernatural abilities of Georgian fighters.

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