Timur's invasions of Georgia

Timur's invasions of Georgia

Georgia, a Christian kingdom in the Caucasus, was subjected, between 1386 and 1404, to several disastrous invasions by the Turco-Mongol conqueror Timur, whose vast empire stretched, at its greatest extent, from Central Asia into Anatolia. These conflicts were intimately linked with those between Timur and Tokhtamysh, the last khan of the Golden Horde and Timur’s major rival.

Georgians were one of the first non-Muslim peoples to suffer from Timur's onslaughts. In the first of at least seven invasions, Timur sacked Georgia's capital, Tbilisi, and captured the king Bagrat V in 1386. Georgians shortly fought back, prompting a renewed attack by the Turco-Mongol armies. Bagrat’s son and successor, George VII, put up a stiff resistance and had to spend much of his reign (1395-1405) fighting the Timurid invasions. Timur personally led most of these raids to subdue the recalcitrant Georgian monarch. Although he was not able to establish a firm control over Georgia, the country suffered a blow from which it never recovered. By the time when George VII was forced to accept Timur's terms of peace and agree to pay tribute, he was a master of little more than gutted towns, ravaged countryside, and a shattered monarchy.Suny, Ronald Grigor (1994), "The Making of the Georgian Nation", p. 45. Indiana University Press, ISBN 0253209153]


Amir Timur's first appearance in the Caucasus was a response to Tokhtamysh’s marauding inroad into Northern Iran through the Caucasian lands in 1385. This marked an outbreak of outright hostility between the two monarchs. Timur responded by launching a full-scale invasions of the countries which lay between the eastern frontiers of his emerging empire and Tokhtamysh’s khanate. After having overrun Azerbaijan and Kars, Timur marched into Georgia. The official history of his reign, "Zafarnama", represents his campaign in Georgia as a jihad. Timur set out from Kars and assailed Samtskhe, the southernmost principality within the Kingdom of Georgia later in 1386. From there, he marched against Tbilisi where the Georgian king Bagrat V had shut himself. The city fell on November 21, 1386. Bagrat V was captured and converted to Islam at sword point. The "Georgian Chronicle" and Thomas of Metsoph mention the apostasy of the king but represent it as a clever ruse which enabled him to earn a degree of trust of Timur. Bagrat was given some 12,000 troops to reestablish himself in Georgia whose government was run by Bagrat’s son and co-ruler George VII during his father’s absence at Timur’s court. The old king, however, entered in secret negotiations with George who ambushed Bagrat’s Turkic escort, and delivered his father.Minorsky, Vladimir, "Tiflis", in: M. Th. Houtsma, E. van Donzel (1993), "E. J. Brill's First Encyclopaedia of Islam, 1913-1936", p. 757. Brill, ISBN 9004082654.]

In the spring of 1387, Timur returned to Georgia to take revenge for his destroyed army. Bagrat and George managed to evacuate the population of frontier regions to the mountains and forests, and offered a resistance. Tokhtamysh’s reappearance in Iran forced Timur to withdraw. Once the Golden Horde was defeated, Timur attacked Georgia again. In 1394, he dispatched four generals to the province of Samtskhe in order to apply the law of ghaza. The same year, Timur in person chastised the mountainous Georgian communities in the Aragvi Valley whom the "Zafarnama" calls "Kara-Kalklanlik" ("with black bucklers”, i.e., the eastern Georgian mountaineers, the Pshavs and Khevsurs), and retuned via Tbilisi to Shekki upon hearing of yet another offensive by Tokhamysh.

In 1395 the Georgians allied themselves with Sidi Ali of Shekki and inflicted a crushing defeat on the troops of the Timurid Miran Shah who was besieging Alindjak (near Nakhichevan), and delivered the Jalayirid prince Tahir, who was shut up in it. This event brought about its reaction later in 1399 when Timur took Shekki and devastated the neighboring Georgian province of Kakheti. In the spring of 1400, Timur moved back to destroy Georgia once and for all. He demanded that George VII should hand over Tahir. George VII refused and met the amir at the Sagim River in Lower Kartli, but suffered a defeat and retreated deeper into the country, being relentlessly chased by Timur. The amir sacked Tbilisi, left a garrison there, and laid siege to Gori where George had entrenched. The king made a bold sortie westward, but having failed to thwart the enemy’s advance at the fortresses of Dzami and Savaneti, fled to the inaccessible forests of western Georgia where Timur did not decide to move in. He turned back in fury, and pillaged the rest of Georgia. This bloody campaign lasted for several months, with Timur’s hordes moving back and forth from province to province. Virtually all major cities and towns were destroyed; several villages turned to ashes; a number of monasteries and churches were razed to the ground; vineyards and orchards burnt. Many thousands were killed or died of hunger and disease, and 60,000 more enslaved and carried away by Timur's troops.

In late 1401, Timur returned to the Caucasus. George VII had to sue for peace, and sent his brother with the contributions. Timur was preparing for a major confrontation with the Ottoman dynasty and apparently wished to freeze the currently prevailing situation in Georgia until he could return to deal with it more decisively. Thus, he made peace with George on condition that the king of Georgia supplied him with troops and granted the Muslims special privileges. [Sicker, Martin (2000), "The Islamic World in Ascendancy: From the Arab Conquests to the Siege of Vienna", p. 155. Praeger, ISBN 0275968928.] Yet, the amir undertook some preventive measures and attacked the Georgian garrison of Tortumi, demolishing the citadel and looting the surrounding area. Once the Ottomans were defeated, Timur, back to Erzurum in 1402, decided to punish the king of Georgia for not having come to present his congratulations on his victory. George VII’s brother, Constantine, who was then on bad terms with his brother, arrived with gifts as did the king’s defiant vassal Iwane Jaqeli, prince of Samtskhe. Sheikh Ibrahim I of Shirvan went to estimate the revenues and expenses of Georgia. George sent new presents but Timur refused them and summoned George to appear in person. In the meantime, he himself laid siege to the impregnable fortress of Birtvisi fiercely defended by a tiny Georgian garrison. Having captured the fortress in August 1403, Timur sent his army to plunder the frontier regions of Georgia and set out in pursuit of the retreating king George VII as far as Abkhazia. The historian of Timur reports that 700 towns and villages were destroyed and their inhabitants massacred. [Grousset, René (1970), The Empire of the Steppes: A History of Central Asia, pp. 433-4. Rutgers University Press, ISBN 0813513049.]

Timur only stopped his army when the ulema and the mufti decided it was possible to grant the king of Georgia clemency ("aman"). George VII had to pay a huge tribute including 1,000 tankas of gold struck in the name of Timur, 1,000 horses, a ruby weighing 18 mithkals, etc. Timur then passed through Tbilisi, destroying the monasteries and churches on his way, and went to Beylagan early in 1404. All the territories from Beylagan to Trebizond were officially given by Timur as an appanage to his grandson Khalil Mirza. Timur then left the Caucasus and headed for Central Asia where he died on February 19, 1405.


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