Jul 10, 2006

Book Review: The Last Years of the Georgian Monarchy, 1658-1832

St. George slaying the dragon - Georgian plaqueLeft: 15th-century plaque portraying St. George slaying the Dragon

Lang, David Marshall

New York: Columbia University Press, 1957, 333 pages

Lang was Professor Emeritus of Caucasian Studies, School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. specializing in Georgian, Armenian and Bulgarian history. He was fluent in a dozen languages, and served an officer in Iran during the Second World War; he was appointed acting Vice-Consul in Tabriz in 1944. Lang’s monograph, however, is much more than the mere political history suggested in its title, as the text delves into social, economic, and cultural history of the kingdom of Georgia.

The author divides the period being studied into three distinct phases: the period of the Mukhranian dynasty (1658-1723), the period of Turko-Persian rule (1723-1747), and the period in which Russian domination occurred (1747-1832). Lang acknowledged, however, that the monarchy’s ability to exert control over many regions was limited, and that local feudal lords remained largely autonomous in many cases.

Throughout the book the author also noted the geographical and political cleavage dating to antiquity that occurred along the Suram Range, dividing Georgia into its eastern and western halves. The Greeks and Romans were aware of the distinct Georgian provinces, and these areas were known as Colchis (western Georgia) and Iberia (eastern Georgia) in the classic period.

Lang argued that early modern Gerogian rulers such as Erekele II, Giorgi XI, and Rostom were doomed in their efforts to reunite the once-formidable kingdom. The presence of powerful southern imperial powers in the Ottoman Turks and the Persians ensured that the eastern and western halves of the kingdom would become pawns in Transcaucasian chess match, and the rise of imperial Russia to the north meant that the Georgians were surrounded by political entities for whom the agricultural bounty and strategic geography of Georgia were tempting morsels. Lang argued that Georgia’s position between imperial powers ultimately stifled its development:
Georgia’s political and social evolution was artificially hampered by the division of the country into Turkish and Persian spheres of influence, by constant struggles against invaders, and by internecine feuds between the different kingdoms and prinipalities. Economic decline and general impoverishment, especially in Western Georgia, led to flagarant abuses such as the slave trade.
Lang provided detalied information about the palace intrigues among Georgian rulers during the period. In order to maintain their autonomy the kings of Kartl-Kakheti were forced to pledge loyalty and subservience to the shah of Persia, while western kings owed fealty to the sultan of the Ottoman Empire. The Bagratid kings often converted to Islam as a precursor to their acceptance by the imperial states, although Lang argued that many did so simply out of political necessity.

Russian interests in the Caucasus region date back several centuries before the focus of this book, but Lang pointed to the reign of Wakhtang IV as the period in which Russo-Georgian relations began to inch closer to a merger. Fearing the Turks and Persians to the south Wakhtang looked north for protection; a 1724 Russo-Turkish alliance, however, prevented the Russians from interfering with Turkey’s advances into Georgia during the power vacuum of the collapse of the Persian empire at the hands of Afghan usurper Mahmud. Lang argued that, despite the temporary setback of the Turkish invasion of Georgia, the exiled Wakhtang and his large entourage created positive sentiments between the Russians and Georgians. Many of the Georgian nobles wed Russian women during the period of exile, numerous Georgian Orthodox churches opened in Moscow, and Georgian communities rose in St. Petersburg, Astrakhan, and in Ukrainian cities.

Map of the kingdom of GeorgiaLeft: The kingdom of Georgia at the height of its power in the 12th century

The Russians began to become more closely involved in Georgian affairs during the reconquest of eastern Georgia from the Turks by the Persian military leader Nadir (1729-44). They supplied the Persians with military and economic support during the lengthy war, although the Russians maintained an official policy of neutrality. The French, however, were the first of the European powers to make diplomatic overtures to the Georgians after finally reasserting their independence in 1762. In 1783 Russia began the formal process of establishing relations, as the eastern Georgian kingdom of Kartl-Kakheti signed the Treaty of Georgievsk. According to the treaty Kartl-Kakheti was to receive Russian protection, although this did not prevent the capital city of Tiflis from being attacked by the Persians in 1795.

The death of King Giorgi XII in 1800 marked an opportunity for imperial-minded Russia to effect greater control over Georgia. Russian general Lazarev, acting under orders from Tzar Paul, announced that no Georgian monarch would be installed, and a temporary Russian administration was instead set up. Lang termed this period the “Liquidation of the Monarchy,” as Russian operatives simply stalled on recognizing a new Georgian king until the death of heir Solomon in 1810, while Russian forces crushed any attempts at noble-led uprisings.

Lang avoided composing a work built entirely upon traditional political and military history, and he wove elements of social, cultural, linguistic, and economic history into his monograph. Readers learn that entertainment for the Georgian nobility revolved around “hunting, polo in the hippodrome, as well as mounted archery contests and other feats of skill.” Burghers carried on thriving commercial activities in Georgian towns, with wine, silk, linen, and linseed oil being among the most profitable items for trade.

Georgian society in the period under review operated much like feudal European regions, with hereditary lords being granted land tenure by the grace of the sovereign. The peasant class made up the bulk of the population, and lord-vassal relationships were similar to those found throughout late medieval Europe. The changes wrought by the Mongol invasions weakened the power of Georgian monarchs, and later fiefdoms existed with a fairly high degree of political and economic autonomy.

There were a considerable number of sub-classes of peasants in feudal Georgian society. The sakhaso were peasants who were designated as laborers who belonged directly to the king, while memanuleebis qmebi belonged to private estates. There also existed two classes of privileged peasants in Georgian society: the t’arkhani, who were exempt from some types of taxes and personal servitude, and the khizani, who were free peasants permitted to roam and strike rental agreements with landed proprietors.

Lang described the Mukhranian era as a renaissance, or a “Silver Age,” for Georgian culture, especially in literature. Georgia, of course, has a rich literary tradition that extends back to the fifth century CE, and the first known Georgian script dates back to that time. The modern alphabet, called mkhedruli , first appeared in the eleventh century. It was used for non-religious purposes up until the eighteenth century, when it completely replaced the church script khutsuri.

Lang also provided readers with an in-text annotated bibliography of the first printed Georgian books. The Dittionario Giorgiano e Italiano, produced in 1629, contained over three thousand words, and was a joint venture between Italian and Georgian missionaries in Rome. King Wakhtang IV (1703-11) was one of the monarchs most responsible for the rebirth of Georgian litearture, and he supervised the re-editing of the Georgian historical annals, Life of Georgia. His son Prince Wakhusht, however, Lang credited with being a “remarkably accurate and fair-minded historian,” and the Prince also composed a definitive geographical guide to Georgia (posthumously published in 1842).

While Lang’s work has been superseded by the research of historians who followed him, The Last Years of the Georgian Monarchy remains an important work for scholars in the field of Georgian and Transcaucasian history. The text includes chronological tables of the monarchs of the various Georgian kingdoms, as well as a list of the catolicos-patriarchs of the Georgian Orthodox Church. The author wrote with an eye toward organization, and the detailed index provides readers with easy access to particular subjects. Of special interest to researchers is the lengthy list of archival materials, drawing from Georgian, Russian, Turkish, Persian, and European sources. Lang also provided a list of sources from Soviet collections that were not available to Western historians until the Gorbachev era; this list also benefits researchers who do not have the means to travel to Russia.

1 comment:

Hooda Thunkit said...

Georgia and the Caucuses, as I recall, are home to large groups of people known for their longevity, with many living well into their hundreds.

They say that it is due to the diet and the clean living, but I'll put my money on their genetic predisposition to longer life/lives.