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Georgia: History

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Updated: 14.11.2003

The latest findings of archaeology make it possible to trace the origins of human society on the territory of modern Georgia back to the early Palaeolithic and Neolithic periods. A number of Neolithic sites have been excavated in the low-lying Kolkhida (Colchis) Lowland, in the Khrami River valley in central Georgia, and in South Ossetia; they were occupied by settled tribes engaged in cattle raising and agriculture. The cultivation of grain in Georgia during the Neolithic Period is attested by finds of saddle querns and flint sickles; the earth was tilled with stone mattocks.

The Caucasus was regarded in ancient times as the primeval home of metallurgy. The start of the 3rd millennium BC witnessed the beginning of Georgia's Bronze Age. Remarkable finds in Trialeti show that central Georgia was inhabited during the 2nd millennium BC by cattle-raising tribes whose chieftains were men of wealth and power. Their burial mounds have yielded finely wrought vessels in gold and silver; a few are engraved with ritual scenes suggesting Asiatic cult influence.

Origins of the Georgian nation

Early in the 1st millennium BC the ancestors of the Georgian nation emerge in the annals of Assyria and, later, of Urartu (Armenia). Among these were the Diauhi (Diaeni) nation, ancestors of the Taokhoi, who later domiciled in the south-western Georgian province of Tao, and the Kulkha, forerunners of the Colchians, who held sway over large territories at the eastern end of the Black Sea. The fabled wealth of Colchis became known quite early to the Greeks and found symbolic expression in the legend of Medea and the Golden Fleece.

Following the influx of tribes driven from the direction of Anatolia by the Cimmerian invasion of the 7th century BC and their fusion with the aboriginal population of the Kura valley, the centuries immediately preceding the Christian era witnessed the growth of the important kingdom of Iberia, the region that now makes up modern Kartli and Kakheti, with Samtskhe and adjoining regions of southwestern Georgia. Colchis was colonised by Greek settlers from Miletus and subsequently fell under the sway of Mithradates the Great, king of Pontus. The campaigns of Pompey led in 66 BC to the establishment of Roman hegemony over Iberia and to direct Roman rule over Colchis and the rest of Georgia's Black Sea littoral.

Medieval Georgia

Georgia embraced Christianity about the year 330; its conversion is attributed to a holy captive woman, St. Nino. During the next three centuries, Georgia was involved in the conflict between the Byzantine and Persian empires. Lazica on the Black Sea (incorporating the ancient Colchis) became closely bound to Byzantium. Iberia passed under Iranian control, though toward the end of the 5th century a hero arose in the person of King Vakhtang Gorgaslani, a ruler of legendary valour who for a time reasserted Georgia's national sovereignty. The Simian monarch Khosrow I (reigned 531-579) abolished the Iberian monarchy, however. For the next three centuries, local authority was exercised by the magnates of each province, vassals successively of Iran, of Byzantium, and, after AD 654, of the Arab caliphs, who established an emirate in Tbilisi.

Toward the end of the 9th century, the Bagratid Ashot I the Great settled at Artanuji in Tao (south-western Georgia), receiving from the Byzantine emperor the title of kuropalates ("guardian of the palace"). In due course, Ashot profited from the weakness of the Byzantine emperors and the Arab caliphs and set himself up as hereditary prince in Iberia. King Bagrat III (975-1014) later united all the principalities of eastern and western Georgia into one state. Tbilisi, however, was not recovered from the Muslims until 1122, when it fell to King David II Aghmashenebeli ("the Builder"; reigned 1089-1125).

The zenith of Georgia's power and prestige was reached in the reign (1184-1213) of Queen Tamara, whose realm stretched from Azerbaijan to the borders of Cherkessia, from Erzurum to Ganja, forming a pan-Caucasian empire, with Shirvan and Trabzon as vassals and allies.

The invasions of Transcaucasia by the Mongols from 1220 onward, however, brought Georgia's golden age to an end. Eastern Georgia was reduced to vassalage under the Mongol il-khans of the line of Hulegu, while Imereti, as the land to the west of the Suram range was called, remained independent under a separate line of Bagratid rulers. There was a partial resurgence during the reign (1314-46) of King Giorgi V of Georgia, known as "the Brilliant," but the onslaughts of Timur between 1386 and 1403 dealt blows to Georgia's economic and cultural life from which the kingdom never recovered. The last king of united Georgia was Alexander I (1412-43), under whose sons the realm was divided into squabbling princedoms.

Turkish and Persian domination

The fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 isolated Georgia from western Christendom. In 1510 the Turks invaded Imereti and sacked the capital, Kutaisi. Soon afterward, Shah Esmail of Iran invaded Kartli. Ivan IV the Terrible and other Muscovite tsars showed interestin the little Christian kingdoms of Georgia, but the Russians were powerless to stop the Muslim powers from partitioning the country and oppressing the inhabitants.

In 1578 the Turks overran the whole of Transcaucasia and seized Tbilisi, but they were subsequently driven out by Shah Abbas I (reigned 1587-1629), who deported many thousands of the Christian population to distant regions of Iran.

There was a period of respite under the viceroys of the house of Mukhran, who governed at Tbilisi under the aegis of the shahs from 1658 until 1723. The most notable Mukhranian ruler was Vakhtang VI, regent of Kartli from 1703 to 1711 and then king, with intervals, until 1723. Vakhtang was eminent as a lawgiver and introduced printing to Georgia; he had the Georgian annals edited by a commission of scholars.

The collapse of the Shafavid dynasty in 1722, however, led to a fresh Ottoman invasion of Georgia. The Turks were expelled by the Persian conqueror Nader Shah, who gave Kartli to Teimuraz II (1744-62), one of the Kakhian line of the Bagratids. When Teimuraz died, his son Erekle II reunited the kingdoms of Kartli and Kakheti and made a brave attempt at erecting a Caucasian multinational state based on Georgia. Imereti under King Solomon I (1752-84) succeeded in throwing off Turkish domination.

Raids by Lezgian mountaineers from Dagestan, economic stringency, and other difficulties impelled Erekle to adopt a pro-Russian orientation. On July 24, 1783, he concluded with Catherine II the Great the Treaty of Georgievsk, whereby Russia guaranteed Georgia's independence and territorial integrity in return for Erekle's acceptance of Russian suzerainty. Yet Georgia alone faced the Persian eunuch Agha Mohammad Khan Qajar. Tbilisi was sacked in 1795, and Erekle died in 1798. His invalid son Giorgi XII sought to hand over the kingdom unconditionally into the care of the Russian emperor Paul I, but both rulers died before this could be implemented.

In 1801 Alexander I reaffirmed Paul's decision to incorporate Kartli and Kakheti into the Russian Empire. Despite the treaty of 1783, the Bagratid line was deposed and replaced by Russian military governors who deported the surviving members of the royal house and provoked several popular uprisings. Imereti was annexed in 1810, followed by Guria, Mingrelia, Svaneti, and Abkhazia in 1829, 1857, 1858, and 1864, respectively. The Black Sea ports of Poti and Batumi and areas of southwestern Georgia under Ottoman rule were wrested from Turkey in successive wars by 1877-78.

National revival

By waging war on the Lezgian clansmen of Dagestan and on Iran and Turkey, the Russians ensured the corporate survival of the Georgian nation. Under Prince M.S. Vorontsov, who served with distinction as viceroy (1845-54), commerce and trade flourished. Following the liberation of the Russian serfs in 1861, the Georgian peasants also received freedom from 1864 onward, though on terms regarded as burdensome. The decay of patriarchy was accelerated by the spread of education and European influences.

A railway linked Tbilisi with Poti from 1872, and mines, factories, and plantations were developed by Russian, Armenian, and Western entrepreneurs. Peasant discontent, the growth of an urban working class, and the deliberate policy of Russification and forced assimilation of minorities practiced by Emperor Alexander III (1881-94) fostered radical agitation among the workers and nationalism among the intelligentsia. The tsarist system permitted no organized political activity, but social issues were debated in journals, works of fiction, and local assemblies.

The leader of the national revival in Georgia was Prince Ilia Chavchavadze, leader of a literary and social movement dubbed the Pirveli Dasi, or First Group. The Meore Dasi, or Second Group, led by Giorgi Tsereteli, was more liberal in its convictions, but it paled before the Mesame Dasi, or Third Group, an illegal Social Democratic party founded in 1893. The Third Group professed Marxist doctrines; from 1898 it included Joseph Dzhugashvili (Stalin). When the Mensheviks gained control of the group, Stalin left Georgia.

The 1905 Revolution in Russia led to widespread disturbances and guerrilla fighting in Georgia, later suppressed by Cossacks with indiscriminate brutality.

After the Revolution of February 1917 the Transcaucasian region - Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan - was ruled from Petrograd (now St. Petersburg) and known as the Ozakom. The Bolshevik coup later that year forced the predominantly Menshevik politicians of Transcaucasia to reluctantly secede from Russia and form the Transcaucasian Commissariat. The local nationalisms, combined with a Turkish advance from the west, brought about the breakdown of the Transcaucasian federation.

On May 26, 1918, Georgia set up an independent state and placed itself under German protection, but the collapse of the Central Powers at the end of 1918 led to a British occupation of Georgia. The Georgians viewed Anton Denikin's counterrevolutionary White Russians, who enjoyed British support, as more dangerous than the Bolsheviks. They refused to cooperate in the effort to restore the tsarist imperial order, and British forces evacuated Batumi in July 1920.

Georgia's independence was recognized de facto by the Allies in January 1920, and the Russo-Georgian treaty of May 1920 briefly resulted in Soviet-Georgian cooperation.

Incorporation into the USSR

Refused entry into the League of Nations, Georgia gained de jure recognition from the Allies in January 1921. Within a month the Red Army, without Lenin's approval but under the orders of two Georgian Bolsheviks, Stalin and G.K. Ordzhonikidze, entered Georgia and installed a Soviet regime.

After Georgia was established as a Soviet republic, Stalin and Ordzhonikidze incorporated it into the Transcaucasian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic. The still popular Georgian Social Democrats organised a rebellion in 1924 that was brutally suppressed by Stalin.

During Stalin's despotic rule (1928-53), Georgia suffered from repression of all expressions of nationalism, the forced collectivisation of peasantagriculture, and the purging of those communists who had led the Soviet republic in its first decade. Stalin installed his Georgian comrade Lavrenty Beria as party chief, first in Georgia and later over all of Transcaucasia. Even after Beria was transferred to Moscow to head the secret police, the republic was tightly controlled from the Kremlin.

In the Soviet period, Georgia changed from an overwhelmingly agrarian country to a largely industrial, urban society. Georgian language and literature were promoted, and a national intelligentsia grew in number and influence. After Stalin's death, a freewheeling "second economy" developed, which supplied goods and services not otherwise available.

Under the reforms of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980s, Georgia moved swiftly toward independence. The former dissident Zviad Gamsakhurdia led a coalition called the Round Table to victory in parliamentary elections in October 1990. After Georgia declared independenceon April 9, 1991, Gamsakhurdia was elected president. But Gamsakhurdia's policies soon drove many of his supporters into opposition, and in late 1991 civil war broke out.

In January 1992 Gamsakhurdia was deposed and replaced by the Military Council, which subsequently gave power to the State Council headed by Eduard Shevardnadze, former Soviet foreign minister and one-time first secretary of the Communist Party of Georgia. In October, 95 percent of voters elected Shevardnadze to serve as chair of the Supreme Council, Georgia's legislature, a position then tantamount to the country's president.

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