At the end of the 8th century AD, Leon II, king of Abkhazia, transferred his capital here from Anakopia. One of his successors, Bagrat II, inherited the eastern Georgian kingdom of Kartli in the early 11th century, uniting western and eastern Georgia and becoming Bagrat III of Georgia. His descendant David the Builder was crowned Georgian king in Kutaisi in 1089. Kutaisi remained the political and cultural centre of Georgia until 1122, when it was replaced by Tbilisi.

Kutaisi resumed as capital of western Georgia in the 15th century when the country was divided after the Mongol and Timurid invasions. It was occupied by the Ottomans in 1669, then captured by Georgian and Russian forces in 1770. In Soviet times it became Georgia’s second most important industrial centre. Post-Soviet industrial collapse sent many local people migrating to Russia, Greece and elsewhere.

Jason & the Golden Fleece

In the Ancient Greek myth of the golden fleece, Jason, a prince of Thessaly, responds to his uncle Pelias’ challenge to go to the land of Colchis to find the golden fleece. (Colchis was a historical kingdom occupying most of western Georgia in antiquity.) Jason had a special ship, the Argo, built to carry him and 49 other adventurous young Greek rowers (the Argonauts). After various tribulations, they reached Colchis and sailed up the Phasis River (present-day Rioni), where they were received by King Aeëtes in his capital (possibly Vani or Kutaisi). Aeëtes agreed to give up the fleece if Jason could yoke two fire-breathing bulls to a plough, and then sow the teeth of a dragon from which a crop of armed men would spring. Jason was helped by Aeëtes’ daughter Medea, who had conceived a violent passion for him: he promised to marry her in return for help from her skills in magic. Medea gave Jason a charm which enabled him to survive Aeëtes’ tests and to take the fleece from the dragon that guarded it.

The golden fleece itself is related to real Georgian mountain traditions: in Svaneti and Racha, people sifted for gold in mountain rivers by placing a sheepskin across the rocks to collect tiny nuggets. The legend is still widely commemorated in Georgia, not least by Argo beer, brewed in Tbilisi and drunk Georgia-wide.