Georgians live and breathe their history as a vital key to their identities today. In few countries in the world will you find people so familiar with, and so proud, of their country's past.
In classical times the two principal kingdoms on the territory were Colchis in the west (site of Greek colonies), and Kartli (also known as Iveria or Iberia) in the east and south and some areas in modern Turkey and Armenia.
When St Nino converted King Mirian and Queen Nana of Kartli to Christianity in the early 4th century, Georgia became the world's second kingdom to adopt this faith, a quarter-century after Armenia. In the 5th century, western Georgia became tied to the Byzantine Empire, while Kartli fell under Persian control. King Vakhtang Gorgasali of Kartli (c 447–502) drove the Persians out and set up his capital at Tbilisi. But the Persians soon returned, to be replaced in 654 by the Arabs, who set up an emirate at Tbilisi.
Georgia & St George
St George (Tsminda Giorgi in Georgian) is Georgia’s patron saint (as well as England’s, Portugal’s, Bulgaria’s and Malta’s) – but the legendary dragon slayer was almost certainly not responsible for the country name Georgia. Georgians know their country as Saqartvelo (land of the Kartvelebi), tracing their origins to Noah’s great-great-grandson Kartlos. The English word ‘Georgia’ might stem from the Persian name for Georgians, gurj, which was picked up by medieval crusaders.
According to widely accepted accounts, St George was a senior officer in the Roman army who was executed in AD 303 in Nicomedia, Turkey, for standing up against emperor Diocletian’s persecution of Christians. He soon became venerated as a Christian martyr and it was St Nino, the bringer of Christianity to Georgia in the 320s, who first popularised him among Georgians. Today Georgia celebrates two St George’s Days each year – 6 May, the anniversary of his execution, and 23 November, commemorating his torture on a wheel of swords.
The Golden Age
Resistance to the Arabs was spearheaded by the Bagrationi dynasty of Tao-Klarjeti, a collection of Christian principalities straddling what are now southwest Georgia and northeast Turkey. They later added Kartli to their possessions, and when these were inherited by King Bagrat of Abkhazia (northwest Georgia) in the early 11th century, most of Georgia became united under one rule. King Davit Aghmashenebeli (David the Builder; 1089–1125) made Georgia the major Caucasian power and a centre of Christian culture. It reached its zenith under Davit's great-granddaughter Queen Tamar (1184–1213), whose writ extended over much of present-day Azerbaijan and Armenia, plus parts of Turkey and southern Russia. Tamar is still so revered that Georgians today call her, without irony, King Tamar.
Death, Destruction & Division
The golden age ended violently with the arrival of the Mongols in the 1220s. King Giorgi the Brilliant (1314–46) shook off the Mongol yoke, but then came the Black Death, followed by the Central Asian destroyer Timur (Tamerlane), who attacked eight times between 1386 and 1403.
Devastated Georgia split into four main kingdoms: Kartli and Kakheti in the east, Imereti in the northwest and Samtskhe in the southwest. From the 16th to 18th centuries western Georgian statelets generally fell under Ottoman Turkish dominion, while eastern ones were subject to the Persian Safavids. In 1744 a new Persian conqueror, Nader Shah, installed local Bagratid princes as kings of Kartli and Kakheti. One of these, Erekle II, ruled both kingdoms as a semi-independent state from 1762.
Russian troops crossed the Caucasus for the first time in 1770 to get involved in Imereti’s liberation from the Turks. At the Treaty of Georgievsk (1783), Erekle II accepted Russian suzerainty over eastern Georgia in return for protection against his Muslim enemies. Russia went on to annex all the Georgian kingdoms and princedoms during the 19th century, and built the recognisable centres of many contemporary Georgian towns during this time.
In the wake of the 1917 Russian Revolution, Georgia was briefly independent, but was invaded by the Red Army in 1921 and incorporated into the new Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in 1922. During the 1930s, like everywhere else in the USSR, Georgia suffered from the Great Terror unleashed by Joseph Stalin, a cobbler’s son from the Georgian town of Gori who had ruthlessly taken control of the largest country on earth.
Stalin died in 1953, and the 1960s and ‘70s are looked back on with nostalgia by older Georgians as a time of public order, peace and high living standards. Yet by the mid-1980s Mikhail Gorbachev began his policies of reform and the USSR disintegrated in just seven years.
Independence From Dream to Nightmare
Georgia’s bubbling independence movement became an unstoppable force after the deaths of 19 hunger strikers when Soviet troops broke up a protest in Tbilisi on 9 April 1989. Georgia’s now anti-communist government, led by the nationalist Zviad Gamsakhurdia, declared independence on 9 April 1991. Almost immediately Georgia descended into chaos and civil war. Gamsakhurdia was replaced by a military council, which gained an international respectability when Eduard Shevardnadze, the Georgian who had been Gorbachev’s foreign minister, agreed to lead it.
But internal conflicts got worse. A truce in June 1992 halted a separatist conflict in the region of South Ossetia, but an even more serious separatist conflict engulfed Abkhazia, where in September 1993 Georgia suffered a comprehensive defeat, leaving Abkhazia as well as South Ossetia de facto independent. Virtually all Abkhazia’s ethnic Georgian population, about 230,000 people, was driven out of the territory, becoming internally displaced people.
The Rose Revolution
For a decade after the Abkhazia disaster, Georgia oscillated between periods of relative peace and security and terrible crime waves, gang warfare, infrastructure collapse and rampant corruption. Georgians eventually lost faith in President Shevardnadze and flawed parliamentary elections in 2003 were the focus for a mass protest movement that turned into a bloodless coup, named the Rose Revolution after the flowers carried by demonstrators. Led by Mikheil 'Misha' Saakashvili, a US-educated lawyer heading the opposition United National Movement (UNM), protestors invaded the parliament building in Tbilisi on 22 November, and Shevardnadze resigned the next morning.
The 36-year-old Saakashvili won presidential elections in January 2004 by a landslide, appointed a team of young, outward-looking ministers and set about modernising the country, slashing taxes, regulations and bureaucracy, and launching 'zero-tolerance' campaigns against crime and corruption. Within months, the entire notoriously corrupt traffic police force was sacked and replaced with better paid, better trained, unbribeable officers. Within a few years crime almost disappeared and Georgia was one of the safest countries on the planet. Foreign aid and investment helped the economy, roads and railways were improved, and endemic electricity shortages ended.
But industry had died a death in the 1990s, and levels of poverty and unemployment stayed high. In response to growing protests, Saakashvili called a snap presidential election for January 2008, and won it with 53% of the vote.
War with Russia
The Saakashvili government had a strong pro-Western stance, with ambitions to join NATO and the EU. This spooked a Russia led by ex-KGB officer Vladimir Putin, who was quoted as saying he would ‘hang Saakashvili by the balls’. Saakashvili began manoeuvring to bring the Russian-backed breakaway regions Abkhazia and South Ossetia back under Tbilisi’s control. After a period of mounting tensions and sporadic violence in South Ossetia, Georgian forces started shelling the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, on 7 August 2008, and entered the town the next day. But in two days they were driven out of South Ossetia by rapidly arriving Russian forces, which moved on to bomb or occupy Georgian military airfields and bases as well as the towns of Gori, Zugdidi, Poti and Senaki. The Russians halted just 45km short of Tbilisi. French President Nicolas Sarkozy negotiated a ceasefire, but the ethnic cleansing of most of South Ossetia’s 20,000 ethnic-Georgian population continued into November. The 'Five Day War' claimed about 850 lives (half of them civilians).
Before 2008 was over, Russia recognised both South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states. It went on to station missile systems and thousand of troops in both territories. By 2011 Russia was providing about half of Abkhazia’s budget and virtually all of South Ossetia’s, and both territories were very much Russian satellites, to the anger of Georgians, who considered them illegally occupied by a foreign power.
Souring on Saakashvili
The Saakashvili government carried on with its project to transform Georgia into a modern, Westward-looking country, renovating shabby Old Town centres, building schools, opening a new parliament in the city of Kutaisi and giving the country a seaside resort, Batumi, worthy of the name. International tourists began to arrive in increasing numbers.
But more and more Georgians began to feel alienated from the government and its path. Many felt too much power was wielded by a small, autocratic circle of politicians and their allies. Protesters frequently blocked Tbilisi’s main avenue, Rustaveli. Perhaps most of all, it was the inequities of the justice system that turned people away from Saakashvili. Crime had been eradicated through a draconian court system where acquittals were almost nonexistent and plea bargaining was many accused's only hope of a relatively lenient sentence, whether or not they were really guilty of the crime of which they were accused. Critics say these same tactics came to be used not just against supposed criminals but also against others who opposed Saakashvili and his circle for one reason or another, be they political protesters, opponents in the media or citizens who objected to an infrastructure project.
In September 2012, shortly before a parliamentary election, videos showing violent abuse of prisoners in a Georgian jail appeared on national TV – a disaster for Saakashvili. The election was won by the Georgian Dream coalition, an alliance of disparate groups held together chiefly by their dislike of Saakashvili, and led by Bidzina Ivanishvili, a Georgian multi-billionaire who had made his fortune in business dealings in Russia in the 1990s.
After 10 helter-skelter years of reform and modernisation, Mikheil Saakashvili and his United National Movement were out. Bidzina Ivanishvili, Georgia's richest man, became prime minister in 2012, but stepped down after a year and handed the reins to his protégés, though he remained very much in power behind the scenes. Sometimes it seemed Georgian Dream's main objective was simply to reverse the things it didn't like about the Saakashvili administration. It called a halt to the spending on grand showpiece infrastructure projects, and it gave the judiciary greater independence, addressing a widespread grievance against the previously severe court system. Yet it also launched a wave of court cases against former officials from the previous administration. Saakashvili himself went into self-imposed exile in 2015, from which he has never returned. Still regarded with contempt by most Georgians today, Saakashvili nevertheless enabled Georgia to turn an important corner during his decade in power. Inheriting a country riddled with corruption, crime, gang violence and on the brink of infrastructural collapse, he left it a place vastly changed for the better, with low crime rates, massively improved transparency, a burgeoning tourist industry and an aspirant EU and NATO member.