Cultural History: Georgia: Medieval Period
Georgia’s medieval culture was greatly influenced by eastern Christianity and the Georgian Orthodox Apostolic Church, which promoted and often sponsored the creation of many works of religious devotion. During the 5th century AD, Peter the Iberian (or Peter of Iberia), a Georgian Orthodox saint and prominent figure in early Christianity, founded Bethlehem, the first Georgian monastery outside Georgia. During this period, Sassanian kings conquered the neighboring countries and appointed a viceroy in Kartli who promoted the teachings of Zoroaster. However, efforts to convert the common Georgian people were generally unsuccessful.
In the second half of the 5th century AD, King Vakhtang Gorgasali successfully unified the people of the Transcaucasus against the Sassanid dynasty. He is associated with the founding of Tbilisi. In the early 6th century AD, Vakhtang Gorgasali was killed in the struggle against the Persians; by the end of the century Sassanian kings abolished the monarchy in Kartli, making it a Persian province. From the beginning of the 7th century AD, Byzantium predominated in western and eastern Georgia, until the Arabs invaded the Caucasus. Arab invaders reached Kartli in the mid-7th century AD and forced its prince to recognize the Caliph as his suzerain. At the beginning of the 9th century AD, Prince Ashot Bagrationi, the first of a new, local Bagrationi Dynasty, established himself as hereditary Prince of Iberia.
Throughout the Early Medieval Period, Georgian Christian literature and architecture, mainly religious, flourished. Commendable examples of the cultural life of Georgia in this period are the Holy Cross Church in Mtskheta (6th century AD), the monastic complex of Davit Gareji, and the oldest surviving work of Georgian literature, “The Passion of Saint Shushanik” by Jakob Tsurtaveli, written between 476 and 483. In the 9th century AD, a prominent Georgian ecclesiastic, St. Grigol Khanzteli (Gregory of Khandzta) founded numerous monastic communities in Tao-Klarjeti in southwest Georgia. These monasteries and their scriptoria functioned as centers of knowledge for centuries and played an important role in the formation of the Georgian state.
In the late 10th and early 11th centuries AD, King Bagrat III brought the various principalities of Georgia together to form a united Georgian state. In 1121, near Didgori, King David IV defeated the coalition of Seljuk Turk troops. King David, often referred to as David the Builder, spared no effort to strengthen the country. He reformed the army, regenerated the economy, altered the activities of the church, and strengthened the governmental system. When he died in 1125, he left Georgia as a strong regional power.
The most glorious sovereign of Georgia was Queen Tamar (1184-1213), and in Georgia the period from the 12th-13th centuries AD is known as “The Golden Age.” The country’s militarypolitical strength relied on a diverse economy. The main centers of trade and handicraft were cities, including Tbilisi, where approximately 100,000 people lived at the beginning of the 13th century. Centers of education, including the celebrated Gelati and Ikalto monasteries, created academies that taught philosophy, astronomy, mathematics, rhetoric, and music. A collection of Georgian historical essays entitled Kartlis Tskhovreba, created in the 12th century, chronicles the lives of authors from the 8th-12th centuries AD and became the authoritative description of the history of Georgia until the time when new essays were added to the original volume. One masterpiece of Georgian medieval literature is the romantic epic by Shota Rustaveli called “Knight in the Panther’s Skin.” Completed at the end of the 12th century, Rustaveli’s poem is imbued with humanistic thoughts and feelings.
The Bagrationi Dynasty ruled Georgia until the 19th century AD, when the Russian Empire annexed Georgia.
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