Georgia has the dubious distinction of being one of the most invaded nations on Earth. As a nation at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, it has been marked by war for ages. From the I century BC to the XVIII century AD the Greeks, Romans, Persians, Arabs, Ottomans and Russians have all attempted to possess this beautiful land, but none have ever conquered it completely or permanently.
As a result, our history became one of the skilled survivals – preserving our culture against overwhelming odds again and again. To protect against invaders an elaborate system of watchtowers (many of which still exist) alerted the people to an attack, and precious religious icons and relics would disappear into caves and hidden mountain fortresses. Villages in the most remote mountain valleys would escape the invaders attention entirely, thus some of the oldest and most superlative frescoes are found in the highlands.
The recently discovered Dmanisi hominid in the foothills of the lesser Caucasus provides a remarkable 1.8 million year old link with humankind’s first transition from Africa to Europe and then Asia. It is no surprise to find numerous Stone Age settlements and archaeological sites spread through the Georgian Heartland.
The fabulously wealthy land of Colchis, centered on modern Poti, was originally a Greek colony and known for its famous School of Rhetoric and Philosophy. Many other settlements were subsequently founded up and down on the Black Sea coast by this famed civilization. Later the historian Herodotus mentions Georgian troops forming part of the infamous army of Xerxes during the invasion of Greece, and describes their weapons and outfits.
Jason and the Argonauts
The first European tourists, the Argonauts, came to Georgia to search for the legendary Golden Fleece, approximately before 1000 BC. It is thought that the Golden Fleece may have been referred to the practice of using sheep’s hides to pan for gold in Georgia’s mountain streams, a practice still known to this day.
It is not known if there was a real Medea, but at this time Georgia was well known for its metal skill, linens, wine and herbal remedies.
The Silk Road began in the XIII century BC, when emissaries of the Han Dynasty of China made contact with kingdoms in central Asia. This East-West trade route would profoundly affect world history, from silk to spices to inventions such as gunpowder, printing blocks, and the water wheel.
It became the best and the most valued channel of the civilization. Of the two primary routes, the Northern goes directly through Georgia. Indeed somewhere here is where traders got off their riverboats and began to walk by mule and camel.
The Roman Empire
After the Romans pushed into Persia, they set their eyes on Georgia as well. Sending famed general Pompey in 66 BC to tame the local tribes, he is famous here for building a stone bridge during his siege of Mtskheta.
The bridge was used until quite recently, and its remains can still be seen. Soon all of Caucasia fell under Roman rule, but it did not last long, and by the I century BC Georgia was considered as an ally not a subject state.
The Adoption of Christianity
Georgia was the second country in the world to adopt Christianity as a state religion. According to the legend, Saint Nino of Cappadocia introduced Christianity to the Georgian people in 330 AD, although parts of the country around the Black Sea had already converted to Christianity two centuries before.
As the legend goes, Saint Nino bound a cross from grape vines with her own hair; Saint Nino’s cross has remained as a symbol of the Georgian Church (and can still be seen in Sioni Cathedral, Tbilisi). Georgia’s early adoption of Christianity had huge implications on how the future would have developed for Georgians, as it permanently oriented the country to the West, to Rome, and later to Europe as a whole.
After the death of Muhammad in 632, Arab armies swept northwards through Iran, captured Tbilisi in 645 and established an emirate here. While not being interested in colonizing Eastern Georgia, they forced King Stepanoz II to pay tribute and obey their commands.
Georgian culture was continuing to develop uninterrupted, and the Silk Road was meanwhile flourishing. By the X century Arab rule in Western Georgia had weakened and the Byzantine Empire was rapidly expanding. Byzantine Emperor Basil II was able to retake most of Georgia and unite east and west as one nation.
David the Builder
Despite its turbulent history and powerful neighbors, Georgia managed to unite itself into a strong kingdom by the XII century. David the Builder (1089-1125) was Georgia’s most prominent king, and almost single-handedly initiated the country’s Golden Age.
His war against the Turks fortuitously coincided with the Crusades. He was able to stop paying tribute in 1096 and defeated the Turks completely in 1121.
Human treatment of Muslims during this period set a standard for tolerance that was unique in those times and was a hallmark of his enlightened rule. Using his military acumen David was able to vastly expand his Kingdom into modern day Armenia and eastward toward the Caspian Sea.
Georgia reached its zenith during the rule of Queen Tamar (she was referred as King because of her incredible power). She was the grand-daughter of David the Builder, and during her reign Georgians enjoyed a cultural renaissance, evidenced by monastery building and a fresco and ornamental design art movements.
Richly appointed churches sprang up across the newly formed empire, many atop mountains and still in place today. Georgian culture grew exponentially in this golden age. Schools, bridges and monasteries were built and a literary tradition began.
Exactly to the Queen Tamar Shota Rustaveli dedicated his epic poem “The Knight in the Panther Skin”, which is still taught in Georgian high-schools nowadays.
Georgia was the first European country to suffer at the hands of the Mongol invasions of the XIII century. This disaster was followed centuries later by the great Mongol leader Tamerlane, who invaded Georgia not less than eight times, starting in 1386. The huge armies were undefeatable and surrender was the only option for Georgians.
Dividing the kingdom into three principalities, the new overlords played the nobles off against each other and the king, and collected tribute from all. Georgian knights were then enlisted in the Mongol army and their technology and tactics were instrumental in the terrifying siege of Baghdad.
Persian and Ottoman Invasions
During the XVI century Georgia found itself trapped between two expanding empires, the Ottoman Turks from the West and the Persians from the East. The fall of Constantinople and the corresponding change in trade routes greatly weakened Georgia and its future was in grave peril.
The Persian Shah Tahmasp invaded Georgia four times and Tbilisi was captured and many slaves were taken (Georgian women were very valued for their beauty and men were valued as economic advisors). Eventually the kingdom was divided into two spheres of influence, the West to the Turks and the East to the Persians. For the next 250 years Georgia was unable to regain the independence.
Only in the XVIII century under the dynasty of Bagrationi Georgia was able to become independent again, and the rebuilding of the nation could commence. Despite rebellious princes, occupying armies and raiding parties from the North, they were able to forge a strong new kingdom.
Convinced that Georgia could not survive on its own, they turned to Catherine the Great of Russia and forged an alliance. In 1783 a treaty was signed making Georgia a protectorate of the Russian Empire