Today marks the 891st anniversary of the “Miraculous Victory” (dzlevai sakvirveli) of Georgian forces under King David the Builder (Davit Aghmashenebeli) against the Seljuk Turks at the Battle of Didgori.
In the 11the century, the Seljuk Turks of Central Asia had migrated westwards, established their own Sultanate in 1055 and commencing invasions of much of Georgia in 1064. In 1071, the Seljuk victory over the Eastern Roman Empire at Manzikert marked the beginning of the end for the Byzantine Empire, with much of eastern Anatolia overrun by Turks with the exception of Greek and Georgian enclaves on the Black Sea coast, known to Greeks as Trebizond and Georgians as Lazeti.
From 1080 to 1089, the Seljuks conquered most of Georgia, forced local rulers to accept seasonal migration of Seljuk herds and flocks each year from Anatolia and Central Asia, and demanded heavy tribute. Replacing his father in a bloodless coup, the 16 year-old King David commenced small scale raids throughout Georgia to force the Seljuks to withdraw, and he engaged in such guerrilla warfare from 1080-1102, by which time the Seljuks had been expelled from most of Eastern and Central Georgia. Between 1110-1118, he added much of today’s Armernia, Azerbaijan, Turkey’s Pontus region and Russia’s Black Sea Coast to Georgia’s territory.
In 1118, King David took a very significant gamble. He had a Royal Guard of 5000 troops but no additional standing army, depending on feudal lords for additional conscripts. Many of these lords had been in the pay of the Seljuks in the past and treachery was a common problem, so relying on their exclusive loyalty was risky. Instead, King David invited 200,000 Kipchak Turks from the southern steppes of Russia to settle in Georgia in exchange for military service. Garrisoned throughout the country, many of these Turkic animists converted to Orthodox Christianity and it is assumed that many intermarried with local people. This provided the Georgian State with a large, well- trained standing army that was independent of feudal loyalties.
At this time, Tbilisi was still under Arab occupation. The development of a large Christian power that interrupted communication between Turk territories in Anatolia, Turk and Persian territories on the Caspian and Arab forces in the south threatened their Muslim neighbours. A consortium of forces from throughout the Middle East, led by the Seljuk Turks, was assembled after jihad was called, with the express purpose of extinguishing the Georgian State and Church, and the enslavement of the Georgian people.
An army of over 250,000 men was mustered by the Turks and marched towards Mtshketa from the west, and camped on the pastures of Didgori, about 40 km west of Tbilisi. King David was able to assemble a force of 56,000 men including 500 Alans (Ossetians) and many thousands of Kipchaks and Georgians. A cunning ruse resulted in the assassination of most of the Muslim High Command, leaving the huge enemy forces confused and poorly led.
King David addressed his troops prior to the battle thus: ““Soldiers of Christ! If we fight with abandon, defending the faith of our Lord, we shall not only overcome the countless servants of Satan, but the Devil himself. I will only advise you one thing that will add to our honor and our profit: raising our hands to Heaven we will all swear to our Lord that in the name of love to Him, we will rather die on the battlefield than run….”
Despite being outumbered more than five to one, the Georgian forces routed the Muslim forces and killed more than 90% of the troops facing them. The victory is still seen as a God-given miracle and celebrated by the church annually as a deliverance from persecution. It is also a secular nationalistic celebration.
It is particularly interesting that King David, having driven Muslim troops and government structures out of his country thoroughly, then proceeded to treat the Muslim inhabitants of Georgia in a very magnanimous and humane fashion. These Muslims would presumably have been of Arab, Turk and Persian origin, as well as local converts. Muslims were permitted to build and operate mosques, and engage in all areas of normal civil society. In addition, some Muslim sects that were harshly persecuted in the Arab world were tolerated in Georgia, such as the Sufis. This would have been considered completely unthinkable in Western Europe or the Eastern Roman Empire. King David hence had a solid grasp of the concept that, while one must defend one’s own religion, one must appreciate that God confers the gift of freedom of choice on us all, and respect must be given to those that choose a different path. He created a sound model that is now emulated by modern Georgian society, in developing a robust state with Orthodox sensibilities, that respects and cherishes its Muslim and Jewish compatriots. King David the Builder is considered a saint in Georgia. While he did remove substantial power from the Georgian Church, he is still seen in a very positive manner as a defender of the Georgian Church from Islamic persecution.