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History of Iranian-Georgian Relations

part 1

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Between the Achaemenid era and the beginning of the 19th century, Persia played a significant and at times decisive role in the history of the Georgian people.

The Persian presence helped to shape political institutions, modified social structure and land holding, and enriched literature and culture. Persians also acted as a counterweight to other powerful forces in the region, notably the Romans (and Byzantines), the Ottoman Turks, and the Russians. (See map, Figure 2). But the Persian-Georgian relationship was by no means one-sided, for the Georgians contributed substantially to Persia’s military and administrative successes and even affected its social structure, especially under the Safavids.

Information about relations between the Achaemenids and the inhabitants of present-day Georgia is fragmentary. During the Achaemenid domination of eastern Anatolia and Transcaucasia (546-331 B.C.E.) proto-Georgian tribes were, according to Herodotus (3.94), included in the 18th and 19th satrapies (T. Kaukhchishvili, ed., pp. 10-11). Although the territory of present-day southern Georgia fell within the Achaemenid state, the Achaemenids apparently never brought those tribes living further to the north under their control. When they tried to do so their aggressiveness led to the formation of large associations of northern proto-Georgian tribes (Melikishvili, pp. 235, 273). Xenophon was aware of the changed conditions in 401-400 B.C.E. when he noted in the Anabasis that these tribes, including those of Colchis (q.v.), had ceased to be under Achaemenid rule (Mikeladze, ed., pp. 13-14). By this time proto-Georgians were moving into the Kura valley, where, merging with indigenous tribes, they eventually formed the Georgian people (Lang, 1966, pp. 57, 75-76; on political formations in eastern Georgia, see Melikishvili, ed., pp. 422-44).

Alexander the Great’s victory over Darius III in 331 B.C.E. gave impetus to the formation and consolidation of an independent Georgian monarchy in the following two centuries (on political and ethnic questions between the 3rd and 1st centuries B.C.E., see Melikishvili, ed., pp. 445-67). The first king of Iberia, the ancient name for the territory of present-day Kartli (Kartil) and Kakheti (Kaل¸µet), or eastern Georgia, was the half-legendary Parnavaz (S. Kaukhchishvili, ed., I, pp. 4-10, 26), who took Persian institutions as models in organizing his realm. The example set by the Persian state system in eastern Georgia was undoubtedly a consequence of the earlier influence exercised by tribal formations in southern Georgia. Long controlled by the Achaemenids, they extended Persian influence northward, as their aristocracies expanded their own power base.

Between the 3rd and 7th centuries C.E. Iberia maintained a precarious existence between the two great rivals for control of the Caucasus, namely Persia and Rome (later Byzantium). Georgian kings successfully played one off against the other and thereby preserved their freedom of action. But as they came to rely on Rome to uphold strong monarchical institutions, they became estranged from the great nobles, who sought support from Persia to thwart the centralizing ambitions of their kings.

Decisive for the evolution of the Georgian state was the foundation of the Sasanian Empire in 224. By replacing the weak Parthian realm with a strong, centralized state, it changed the political orientation of Iberia away from Rome. Iberia apparently became a part of the Sasanian state during the reign of SHapur I (240-70), who in his famous inscription at Kaba-ye Zardosht (l.3) listed Iberia (Wirzhan) as one of the lands that paid him tribute (Melikishvili, pp. 391-92). Relations between the two countries seem to have been friendly at first, as Iberia cooperated in Persian campaigns against Rome, and the Iberian ruler was a high dignitary of the Sasanian realm, not a vassal who had been subdued by force of arms (S. Kaukhchishvili, ed., I, p. 57). But the aggressive tendencies of the Sasanians were evident in their propagation of Zoroastrianism, which was probably established in Iberia between the 260s and 290s (Lukonin, p. 32).

In the contest for supremacy in the Caucasus, the advantage lay with Rome, whose armies defeated the Persians in a series of battles toward the end of the 3rd century. The Treaty of Nisibis in 298 assured Roman control of eastern Georgia (Kartli) for the next sixty years (Frye, pp. 130-31). Roman predominance proved crucial, since the Georgian king and leading nobles were converted to Christianity, probably in 330. By making Christianity the state religion, they erected what became an insurmountable barrier to Persian influence in the region.

In the 4th century the position of Iberia worsened, as its powerful neighbors became increasingly aggressive. Iberian kings chose Rome (Byzantium) as the least dangerous to their independence, but Persia became predominant after the defeat of the Roman armies before Ctesiphon in 363 (Frye, pp. 137-38). Rome ceded control of Kartli to Persia, and the king of Kartli, Varaz-Bakur II (363-65), became a Persian vassal, an outcome confirmed by the Peace of Acilisene in 387. Although a later ruler of Kartli, Pharsman IV (406-9), preserved his country’s autonomy and ceased to pay tribute to Persia (S. Kaukhchishvili, ed., I, p. 133), Persia prevailed, and Sasanian kings began to appoint a viceroy (pitiaxsh/bidaxsh) to keep watch on their vassal. They eventually made the office hereditary in the ruling house of Lower Kartli, thus inaugurating the Kartli pitiaxshat, which brought an extensive territory under its control. Although it remained a part of the kingdom of Kartli, its viceroys turned their domain into a center of Persian influence (Berdzenishvili et al, I, p. 109).

Sasanian rulers put the Christianity of the Georgians to a severe test. They promoted the teachings of Zoroaster, and by the middle of the 5th century Mazdaism had become a second official religion in eastern Georgia alongside Christianity. Yazdegerd II (438-57), convinced that a single religion would enhance the unity of his realm, issued a decree formally admonishing the peoples of the Caucasus to renounce Christianity and embrace Mazdaism and dispatched Zoroastrian magi to Kartli to take charge of conversion (Trever, pp. 203-5). The majority of Georgian nobles submitted, but their commitment to the new faith proved shallow. Efforts to convert the common people were even less successful, since Christianity appears to have struck deep roots among them.

To be continued ...


Other Links:

Eastern Iranian Languages: part 1

Eastern Iranian Languages: part 2

Eastern Iranian Languages: part 3

Eastern Iranian Languages: part 4

Jade in Iran

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