‘Miraculous Victory:’ Battle of Didgori, 1121
The Muslim powers became increasingly concerned about the rapid rise of this Christian state in the southern Caucasus and considered it a greater threat than the Crusaders in Palestine, whom they contained to the Mediterranean coastline. In 1121, Sultan Mahmud b. Muhammad (1118-1131) declared a holy war on Georgia and rallied a large coalition of Muslim states led by the Artuqid Najm al-din El-ğazi and Toğrul b. Muhammad, the Seljuqid ruler of Arran and Nakhichevan; the coalition was also supported by lesser but important local rulers, including “king of the Arabs” Dubays b. Sadaqa (1108-1135), and Tughan-Arslan, lord of Arzin, Bidlis and Dvin. Najm al-din El-ğazi had just celebrated his great victory over the Crusaders under King Roger of Antioch at Balat in 1119 and enjoyed a reputation as a highly experienced Muslim commander. The size of the Muslim army is still a matter of debate with numbers ranging from a fantastic 800,000 men (“Bella Antiochena”, Galterii Cancelarii), 600,000 Turks (Matthew of Edessa) to 400,000 (Smbat Sparapet’s Chronicle) while the estimates of modern Georgian historians vary between 100,000-250,000 men. Although the larger numbers certainly seem exaggerated, all sources indicate that Muslims made massive preparations, gathered an army that was many times larger than any engaged in the Holy Land and vastly outnumbered the Georgians. In mid-summer 1121, the Muslim troops advanced along various routes, with part of them passing the provinces of Arsan al Rum (Erserum) and al-Ghars (Kars), while Sultan Toğrul moved through Ganja and Tughan-Arslan the Hunchback marched from Dvin. Entering Georgian territory, they proceeded by the Manglisi-Didgori valley towards Tiflis. By August 10, 1121, the enormous Muslim army bivouacked on a vast field near Didgori, about a day’s march (40 kilometers) west of Tbilisi.
The Georgians were well aware of the Muslim preparations and took necessary precautions. King David evacuated the regions along the Muslim invasion route and called up his troops. Georgians mustered some 56,000 men, including five hundred Alans, and two hundred Crusaders who arrived from the Holy Land. On August 11, 1121, King David led his army along the Nichbisi Valley from the ancient capital Mtskheta and divided them into two parts, with a larger group under his personal command and a smaller detachment under his son, Prince Demetre, that was to occupy secretly the nearby heights and strike the enemy flank at a signal. On the royal order, the Nichbisi Valley, behind the Georgian troops, was blockaded with fallen trees, leaving no other choice for the Georgian troops but to fight to the death. According to the French knight and historian Galterii, King David appealed to his warriors just before the battle: “Soldiers of Christ! If we fight with abandon, defending the faith of our Lord, we shall not only overcome the countless servants of Satan, but the Devil himself. I will only advise you one thing that will add to our honor and our profit: raising our hands to Heaven we will all swear to our Lord that in the name of love to Him, we will rather die on the battlefield than run….”
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The Georgian battle plan involved a cunning move. In the morning of August 12, some 200 cavalrymen departed the Georgian camp and rode to the enemy side, indicating they wanted to defect. The Muslim commanders, surprisingly, not only allowed them into the camp but also gathered to meet them. At a signal, the Georgians suddenly unsheathed their swords and attacked their new hosts, killing and wounding most of them. Observing confusion in the enemy camp, King David ordered general attack on the enemy positions while his son Prince Demetre charged the enemy flank. With their leadership in disarray, the Muslims in the frontline failed to organize any resistance, while those in the back soon became so disorganized that the entire battle lasted only three hours before the enemy army fled in disorder. According to a Georgian chronicler, King David’s troops pursued them for three days “putting all of them to the sword and leaving them to the carnivorous beasts and birds of the mountains and plains” of the Manglisi Valley. Armenian historian Mateos of Urfa wrote that “terrible and savage slaughter of the enemy troops ensued and the [enemy] corpses filled up the rivers and covered all valleys and cliffs,” and claimed that less than hundred men survived from every thousand. Muslim chronicler Ibn al-Asir lamented that “most of the Muslim host perished on the battlefield.” Muslim commander-in-chief El-ğazi himself was wounded and fled with only twenty men while his son-in-law Dubays b. Sadaqa barely escaped after having his necklace torn from his neck (it was later donated to the Gelati Monastery). Georgians captured the entire enemy camp and the fabulous riches it contained.
The triumphant victory at Didgori captured the imagination of future generations. A contemporary chronicler marveled, “What tongue can relate the wonders which our sustaining Christ gave us on that day? And what are the narrations of Homer and Aristotle to me about the Trojan War and the bravery of Achilles or Josephus’ writings about the valor of the Maccabees or Alexander and Titus at Jerusalem?” The battle entered Georgian national consciences as a “miraculous victory” (dzlevai sakvirveli) and is without doubt one of the apogees of Georgian history. It signaled the emergence of Georgia as a great military power in the late 11-12th centuries and shifted the balance scales in favor of Georgian cultural as well as political supremacy in eastern Asia Minor.
Following his success, King David captured Tbilisi, the last Muslim enclave remaining from the Arab occupation, in 1122 and moved the Georgian capital here. A well-educated man, he preached tolerance and acceptance of other religions. Muslim historian Ibn al-Azraq noted, “[David] granted aman to [Muslim] people and soothed their hearts and left them alone in all goodness. For that year, he abrogated their taxes and services…. He guaranteed to the Muslim everything they wished… He granted to them the call to prayer, the prayers and the reading [of the Quran] in public … he honored the scholars and Sufis by respecting their stature and [granting them] what they do not enjoy even among the Muslims.”
In 1123-1124, Georgian armies were victorious in the neighboring territories of Armenia, Shirwan and the northern Caucasus, greatly expanding Georgia’s sphere of influence. King David’s daughters were married to Shirwan Shah Akhsitan and Prince Alexios, the son of Byzantine Emperor Nikephoros IV. Thus, by the time of King David’s death on January 24, 1125, Georgia became one of the most powerful states in all of Asia Minor. King David’s successful campaigns inspired the Georgian people, gave them confidence in their own strength and hope for a final victory over the enemy. The country enjoyed revival in agriculture and industry and Georgia’s cities flourished. For his contributions, King David was hailed by a grateful nation as aghmashenebeli (reviver, rebuilder) and canonized as a saint. His massive equestrian statue stands today on one of Tbilisi’s hills, still keeping watch over his people.
Alexander Mikaberidze, PhD, is assistant professor of European history at Louisiana State University in Shreveport. He holds a degree in international law from Tbilisi State University (1999) and a PhD in history from Florida State University (2003). He has taught European and Middle Eastern history at Florida State and Mississippi State Universities and lectured on strategy and policy for the U.S. Naval War College. He was the recipient of a Ben Weider Scholarship and has written and edited seven books, including the acclaimed The Battle of Borodino: Napoleon versus Kutuzov (2007), Historical Dictionary of Georgia (2007), and The Russian Officer Corps in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, 1792-1815 (2004; winner of the 2005 Literary Prize of the International Napoleonic Society).
Kartlis Tskhovreba [Life of Kartli], ed. S. Kaukhchishvili (Tbilisi, 1955-1973)
Sh. Meskhia, Didgorskaya bitva [Battle at Didgori] Tbilisi, 1974)
R. Metreveli, Davit Aghmashenebeli [David the Builder] (Tbilisi, 1990)
Iv. Javakhishvili, Kartveli eris istoria [History of the Georgian People] (Tbilisi, 1965), vol. II.
V. Minorsky, “Caucasica in the History of Mayyafariqin,” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies (13(1949): 27-35.
W. E. Allen, A history of the Georgian people: From the beginning down to the Russian conquest in the nineteenth century, (New York, 1971)
I. Brosset, Histoire de la Géorgie: depuis l’antiquité jusqu’au XIXe siècle (St. Petersburg, 1857), 2 vols.
 Kartlis Tskhovreba, IV, 158-159
 Kartlis Tskhovreba, I, 335-337
 Kartlis Tskhovreba, I, 337-338, 340.
 Record of the administration of Najm al-din El-Ghazi in Minorsky, Caucasica in the History of Mayyafariqin, 32.
 Ibid., 32.
 Brosset, i/1, 366.
 Record of the administration of Najm al-din El-Ghazi in Minorsky, Caucasica in the History of Mayyafariqin, 34-35
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