Continuing with my interest in the history of the Tao-Klarjeti region, the story of King Ashot Kuropalates is a fascinating one. I have mentioned him before regarding his relationship with Saint Grigol. The first of the Bagrationi family to rule beyond regional boundaries, he developed an organised state incorporating most of Central and Western Georgia and parts of Turkey’s Northeast. He worked vigourously to free Georgia of Arab occupation.
In the year 786, Ashot, the son of Adarnerse, ascended the throne of Kartli. From the very beginning of his reign he fought fiercely for the reunification of Georgia. His first step was to take advantage of the Arab Muslims’ weariness and banish them from Tbilisi.
Three years passed and, under the leadership of a new ruler, the reinvigorated Muslims began to hunt for Ashot. The king was forced to flee after he delayed taking action against them. The enemy had again conquered Tbilisi.
Ashot was compelled to leave Kartli, and he departed for Byzantium with his family and small army. The refugees journeyed as far as Javakheti in southern Georgia and stopped near Lake Paravani for a rest. But while they were sleeping, a Saracen army assailed their camp. The king’s army was doomed, but God helped Ashot Kuropalates and his scant army. He bestowed power upon them, and they defeated an enemy that greatly outnumbered them. The king was deeply moved by God’s miraculous intervention and decided that, rather than journeying on to Byzantium as he had intended, he would remain in the region of Shavshet-Klarjeti.
At that time southern Georgia was suffering great calamities. A cholera epidemic intensified the struggles of a people devastated by a ruthless enemy. Very few had survived, but that powerless and wearied remnant gladly received Ashot Kuropalates as their new leader, and the king began to restore the region at once.
Ashot Kuropalates restored Artanuji Castle, which had originally been built by King Vakhtang Gorgasali and later ravaged by the Arab general Marwan “the Deaf.” Ashot founded a city nearby and proclaimed it the residence of the Bagrationi royal family of Klarjeti. He also constructed a church in honor of Sts. Peter and Paul. As it is written, “God granted Ashot Kuropalates great strength and many victories.”
The region of Klarjeti took on a new life, and through the efforts of St. Grigol of Khandzta and his companions, the former wasteland was transformed into a borough bustling with churches, monasteries, and schools. Georgian noblemen soon began traveling to Klarjeti to forge their nation’s future with King Ashot and the other God-fearing leaders.
Ashot Kuropalates was not only a leader who campaigned vigorously for the unification of Georgia—he was truly a godly-minded man. With great honor and joy he was the host of Fr. Grigol of Khandzta, a “heavenly man and an earthly angel.” Fr. Grigol blessed Ashot’s kingdom and his inheritance.
Upon those who labored at Khandzta Monastery, Ashot Kuropalates bestowed the best lands, including Shatberdi, to serve as rural estates, which would supply food for the monastery. His children, Adarnerse, Bagrat, and Guaram, would later contribute much of their own fortune to the revival of the monasteries in the KlarjetiWilderness. (Udabno in Georgian. Translated as “wilderness,” these deserted places where hermits made their abodes often attracted monks and pious laymen as the fame of these holy men spread. Over the centuries, with the foundation of numerous monasteries, these deserts became veritable cities and only retained the name “wilderness” in a figurative sense.)
The king prepared to return to Kartli. But his plans were foiled when a certain Muslim warrior named Khalil invaded, conquering the lands of Kartli, Hereti, and Kvemo Kartli.
Ashot sent his men to assemble an army, but before the troops had been gathered, the Saracens attacked and forced them to flee. The king then traveled to Nigali Gorge with the intent of enlarging his army. Some of the draftees turned out to be traitors, and when the king discovered the betrayal, it was already too late. He hid in a church, but the godless men found him and stabbed him to death in the sanctuary. “They murdered him on the altar, as though slaughtering a sacrificial lamb, and his blood remains there to this day,” writes Sumbat, the son of Davit, in his book Lives of the Bagrationis.
Thus the first Bagrationi king, “a believer, upon whom the inheritance of the Georgian people was established,” was also a martyr. Venerable Grigol and the Georgian people wept bitterly over the loss of their king and hope. St. Ashot’s holy relics were buried in the Church of Sts. Peter and Paul that he himself had built.
From “Lives of the Georgian Saints” by Archpriest Zakariah Machitadze. Saint Hermans Press