A boy king vanquished the Turks and ushered in a golden age.
In the late 11th century, the European nation-state of Georgia was on the brink of annihilation. Over the previous century Seljuk Turks had invaded and annexed much of the eastern part of the Christian-majority country. In 1089, with Turks plundering and ravaging Georgia proper, its king, George II, the fourth generation of the Bagrationi dynasty, was forced to resign in favor of his son.
Georgia needed a hero, and King David IV, just 16, took up the challenge. Over the next three decades, he would win back lost territories, strengthen the monarchy, revive trade, and usher in a golden age of Georgian arts and culture.
Nearly two decades before David came to the throne, the Seljuks beat the Byzantine army at the 1071 Battle of Manzikert, opening the way for their systematic conquest of Eastern Anatolia and the Caucasus. That left Georgia as the lone Christian power in the Near East and signaled the start of the so-called didi turkoba (the great Turkic troubles), when Turkish tribes – men raided Georgia, enslaved or drove off its people, destroyed farms, and turned cultivated lands into pastures. As one Georgian chronicler lamented, “The country became empty and turned into forest. And in the place of people, wild animals roamed.” To stop the ravaging, Georgia’s ruler had no choice but to submit to the Seljuk sultan and pay an annual tribute.
Shortly after David became king, however, the Turks became vulnerable. The great Seljuk sultan Malik Shah died in 1092 and European crusaders moved on the Holy Land in 1096. Encouraged by infighting among the sultan’s heirs, David stopped paying tribute and went to war against his powerful foe.
Leading small detachments, he conducted guerrilla raids against isolated Seljuk outposts, avoiding pitched battles in favor of constant harassment of the enemy. The first military successes helped him consolidate power and strengthen Georgia’s political, cultural, and commercial infrastructure. He reorganized the royal administration, concentrating authority in his hands, and created a wide network of agents to keep watch on potential challengers. When a powerful lord moved to side with the Seljuks, David carried out a surprise attack on his castle, imprisoning him and confiscating his property. In 1103, he reorganized the Georgian Orthodox Church, which had amassed vast land holdings and become a state within a state, frequently clashing with the royal authority. The new church council, presided over by the king himself, expelled rebellious clergy and asserted the state’s control.
Ultimately, it was David’s military prowess that made these reforms possible. Between 1105 and 1120, he waged war on encroaching Turks throughout Georgia. With limited forces, David relied on the element of surprise. But even as he enjoyed brilliant victories, his army remained a fragile coalition of royal troops and feudal levies led by lords. To limit the power of these noble men, David essentially created his own, super-loyal army between 1118 and 1120.
To do that he married the daughter of the chieftain of an allied tribe, the Kipchaks, then he moved the tribe from the southern Russian steppes to Georgia. Some 40,000 Kipchak families (approximately 200,000 people) ultimately settled in Georgia, each providing one soldier to David’s army.
According to the Georgian royal annals, the Kipchaks soon converted to Christianity and adopted the Georgian way of life, while the new army recruits provided David a critical core of experienced fighters.
Next David sought to expand his kingdom. With the strengthened army, he mounted raids on Armenia and Shirwan, in present-day Azerbaijan, alarming the neighboring Muslim powers. In 1121 the Seljuk sultan Mahmud II (1118– 1131) declared a holy war on Georgia and rallied a coalition led by the Muslim tribal chief Najm al-Din Ilghazi, who had just celebrated his momentous victory over the crusaders in the Battle of the Ager Sanguinis.
In midsummer, the Muslim troops invaded Georgia and bivouacked on a plain near Didgori, about a day’s march from the capital of Tbilisi. The size of the Muslim army is a matter of great debate, with estimates ranging from 100,000 to 600,000; David fielded 56,000 men, including a couple hundred crusaders.
David again relied on surprise—as well as a bit of treachery. On the morning of August 12 some 200 Georgian cavalrymen rode to the enemy and indicated they wanted to defect. When the opposing commanders gathered to meet them, the Georgians attacked, killing and wounding most of the Muslim leadership. Then King David ordered a general attack. In disarray, the Muslim defense collapsed and the army fled the field. The Battle of Didgori became famous in Georgia as “the miraculous victory.”
Following his triumph, David expanded his sphere of influence to Armenia, Shirwan, and parts of northern Caucasus, while ushering in a cultural renaissance known as the Golden Age of Georgia. Great cathedrals were built and romantic poetry and literature flourished. The king himself wrote Hymns of Repentance, free-verse psalms that illustrate his humility and faith.
By the time David died in 1125, Georgia had become one of the strongest states in the Near East. His reforms of the church and the state—administrative, judicial, and military—strengthened the crown and laid the foundation for the powerful Georgian kingdom that eventually controlled most of the territory between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea.
David’s accomplishments, unknown in the wider world, made him the most revered of Georgian rulers: His grateful nation canonized him and still hails him as aghmashenebeli, which means “reviver” or “rebuilder.”
Alexander Mikaberidze is a professor of history at Louisiana State University, specializing in the Napoleonic Wars.
Originally published in the Autumn 2012 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.