Georgians have lived in the valleys of the Çoruh, Tortum, Kura and Berta rivers, now in Turkey, since the Bronze Age. Like the neighbouring Armenians, they were among the first Near Eastern nations to be evangelized, and were converted rapidly to Christianity by St Nino of Cappadocia in the mid-fourth century. Unlike the Armenians, they never broke with the Orthodox Patriarchate in Constantinople, and maintained good relations with Byzantium.
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The Georgian kingdoms
An effective Georgian state only entered the local stage early in the ninth century, under the auspices of the Bagratid dynasty. This clan contributed rulers to both the Georgian and Armenian lines – hence the partial overlap in the medieval history of the two kingdoms. They claimed direct descent from David and Bathsheba, which explains a preponderance of kings named David, a coat of arms laden with Old Testament symbols, and curiously Judaic stars of David embossed on many of their churches.
Ashot I Kuropalates began the first stages of territorial expansion and church-building in the area, under the guidance of the monk Gregory Khantzeli. Ashot’s descendants included David “the Great” Magistros of Oltu, as well as Bagrat III, who in 1008 succeeded in unifying the various Georgian principalities into one kingdom. The Selçuks arrived in 1064, ravaging Georgia and all of eastern Anatolia, but as soon as they turned to confront the Crusaders a Bagratid revival began. David the Restorer managed to expel the Selçuks by 1125, moved the Bagratid court to newly captured Tblisi, then reunited the various feuding principalities ruled by minor Bagratid warlords.
Under the rule of David’s great-granddaughter Tamara, medieval Georgia acquired its greatest extent and prestige, controlling most of modern Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, as well as the ancestral Georgian valleys. A formidable military strategist and shrewd diplomat, the queen displayed a humanity and tolerance unusual for the era. Many churches and monasteries were repaired or re-endowed under Tamara; despite being a woman and a non-Muslim, her name still elicits respect from local Turks.
After Tamara died, the Georgian kingdom began a slow but steady decline, effectively partitioned between the Ottoman and Persian empires. The rise of imperial Russia signalled the end of any viable Georgian state, and the last semi-independent king effectively surrendered to Catherine the Great in 1783.
The Bagratids were a prolific bunch, who erected castles on just about every height; generally you’ll have to be satisfied with a passing glance, since access to many of these eyries has long been impossible other than for technical climbers. The most remarkable examples are the early Bagratid monastic churches, all dating from before the move northeast to the Caucasus proper, and most sited amid oases at the heads of remote valleys. The Georgians borrowed many of the architectural features of Armenian churches. It takes a trained eye to distinguish the two styles, though in general the Georgians rarely attempted the rotundas or multi-lobed domed squares beloved of the Armenians.
There’s not been nearly the degree of official stonewalling about Georgian Christians as there is concerning Armenians, and the churches have become recognized as tourist attractions. Almost all have suffered damage from dynamite- and pickaxe-wielding treasure-hunters: the locals have an unshakeable conviction that all the Christians who left the area in 1923 secreted precious items in or under their churches, in the mistaken belief that they’d eventually be able to return.