Frontier System of Georgia: Problems of the Northern Borders in Antiquity

The defense system of Georgian borders has always faced serious political, social and economic challenges. In this respect of special importance are Georgia's northern borders. The purpose of this paper is to study the situation which existed in the ancient period on the northern border of present-day Georgia.

As far back as in proto-feudal epoch[1] two basic economic systems had been formed[2] on the territory of modern Georgia:

1. Colchis in the west which was mainly oriented to the Greek market;

2. East Iberian which due to the northern expansion (Scythians and earlier Cimmerians) connected the mentioned space and economically developed eastern world.

In case with Kartli/Iberia the northern expansion was to be neutralized by eastern technical means. The east with which Georgian economic space was actively connected was presented by Urartu, Mydia and Achaemenid Persian Kingdoms. Thus, the subject of our research is two economically independent spaces: northern borders of modern West and East Georgia.

In the epoch of proto-feudalism Likht-Imereti (West Georgia) was presented by Colchis political unit. As a result of expansion of the Southern Georgian ethnic element Koles (the same as Kolaxis/Koraxis) the upper mentioned space was united. The area of spreading Colchian axes shows the boundaries of Colchis political unit: in the west it is the Black Sea, in the east - Likhi ridge, in the north - main Caucasian ridge, in the south - Pontic and Lesser Caucasus ridges.

The data on the unsteadiness of the northern borders of the Colchis Kingdom are almost not found, although as it is supposed, at the mentioned borders the Svan tribes with tribal system lived which, as it is attested in the Greek-Roman sources had been subordinated to the Colchis King since older times. The mentioned region was presented with two principle provinces: Svaneti and Takveri. Later appeared Abkhazia [3].

The first serious menace from the north was followed by the Cimmerians incursion. The Cimmerians through Colchis-Meotida passing the Black Sea coast intruded around the twenties-thirties of the 8th century B.C, and put an end to the existence of the old Kingdom of Qolha [Georgian...1970:392-395].

Old Kolkha superstratum was soon substituted by Egri-Mingrelian population. The mentioned political unit was called Egrisi. The Egrisi Kingdom emerged on the ruins of the ancient Kolkha on the verge of the 7th and 6th centuries B.C., though it covered the territory of the present-day west Georgia. The mentioned space was economically strongly connected with the Hellenistic world; Georgian money called Colchian Tetri was in circulation. Politically Colchis was subjected to the influence of the Achaemenian Persia[4]. The northern border was controlled by the Svans known as fighter tribes who were in subordination to Egrisi [Strabo, 1957: IX, 2, 19].

Great changes were caused by the appearance of Alexander the Great and collapse of the Persian Empire. At that time politically free Colchis thanks to the Greek settlements was economically closely integrated with the west. After the death of Alexander the Great (323 B.C.) big civil war started in his empire which was lasted nearly 40 years. These wars changed political situation once more. The changes affect Colchis too. The controversy between Alexander's Diadochi: commanders Seleucus and Lysimachus appeared to be economically beneficial to the Caucasus. Later the Silk Road passed there.

The new Colchis Kingdom fell victim during the civil war in Macedonian Empire; it was conquered by the kingdom of Kartli. The local authorities - Skeptuchoi - subordinated to the king of Kartli and where their influence was not strong the process of settlement of the mountaineers started. Thus, at the northern frontier significant changes took place in the 3rd-1st centuries B.C. and on the mentioned territory (one part of Abkhazia and Sochi's adjacent area) Adige-Abkhaz tribes came from the North Caucasus: Aphshils, Abazgians, Achaeans, etc. settled. The ethnic picture significantly changed. The domination of Kartli and Skeptuchoi was substituted first by Pontus and later Roman protectorate was established[5].

In the 1st century A.D. on the territory of the west Georgia new political unit - Lazica emerged. Its superstratum was formed by the Laz tribe whose spoken language was Mengrelian and they considered themselves as legal successors of old Kolkha. The existence of Lazca did great service because it protected the northern-east boundary of the Roman Empire. Thus, the above mentioned tribes subjugated Lazica.

During the existence of the Kingdom of Lazica (during the 1st-7th centuries A.D.) no significant changes occurred on the northern frontier. The unification of Abazgia and Apshilia laid the foundation to the Abkhazian Kingdom. The conflict between Byzantium and Iran in the 6th century considerably affected Georgian section of the Great Silk Road but instead of it new road started functioning through Khazaria.

For the purpose of integration of Iberia and Colchis into their domain, the Sassanids built the key roadway between them. This road ties economically the territories situated in the east and west of Likhi Mountain that in future became one of the grounds for unification of Georgia [Bround, 1999:13-14].

Since the early Iron Age Kartli had created scattered space composed of quasi-states where according to the old renderings the so-called Mamasakhlisi was ruling. The mentioned political units later became constituent parts of the United Kingdom. They were: Javakheti (Zabakha), Odzrkhe (Widzerukhi), Hereti (Eriakhi), Kakheti, Kukheti, Uphlistzikhe (political centre of Shida Kartli), Klardjeti, etc. Georgia's northern border was occupied by the tribes inhabited in mountains who were at the stage of tribal system: Dvalis, Tsanarians, Tushi, Pkhoveli, Didoeli, etc. The mentioned picture was changed after the intrusion of Cimmerians and Scythians in the 8th and 7th centuries B.C.

The northern passages were taken first by Cimmerians then Scythians. The Scythians incursions made the Cimmerians to abandon the lowlands and seek the shelter in the mountains located in the central part. The upper mentioned territory was occupied by Treri related to Cimmerian tribes and according to their name the central part of Kartli is called Trialeti [Georgia...1970:393].

The Scythians incursion had permanent character. It covered not only the land settled by Georgian tribes but a number of territories of the Near East.  The Colchis Kingdom revived at the verge of 7th - 6th centuries again controls northern passages located in the west. Thus, from the 6th century onward Scythians mainly used Daryali and Derbent gates while moving from the North Caucasus to the South.

The expansion of Scythians lasted for three centuries. The influence of Achaemenids was also strong in Kartli, though this fact did not bring any changes in the northern border.

At the turn of the 4th-3rd centuries B.C., the Kingdom of Kartli was formed. The territories occupied by Scythians now were taken by monarch of Kartli. He also expanded his authority to the northern border. In spite of certain changes the subordination of the mountaineers by King, did not occur rapidly. This appeared to be rather long process. The rhythm of life in the mountains was determined by patrimonial societies which were arranged by communities but the communities themselves joined by khevi (minor region). Thus any kind of centralized structure which could conduct defense politics of the central government on the northern border was absent. The security of the border itself was connected with the security of the community which was exercised by the community itself.

During the same period a conflict sometimes started between neighboring communities or tribes. It could be of social-economic or domestic character. Confrontations of political type were not excluded. According to the Greek geographer Strabo, similar conflicts inside the country as well as between neighboring tribes or countries were settled down by the priestly caste of high priests (sometimes referred as Kurum by Georgian historiography). Concerning Strabo's classification this is the second class after the Royal family[6]. Numerous researches have been devoted to the study of the second class. The upper mentioned social group represented clerical enclave of the country which had to combine secular functions too. Their duties were as follows: to administer justice between local communities or khevi, conduct religious rituals, sacrifices, establish diplomatic relations with neighboring world, etc. What should be the reason to administer diplomatic relation and justice with country's domestic (between the communities) or foreign neighbors by high priests? First of all, the promotion of high priests social group indicates their privileged position in the antique society. They formed the layer of servants of heathen Gods. The communities located close to the country's frontiers prayed on them. The high priests had the right to solve the disputes existed between the communities by swearing on the deity (later it was substituted by the icon), if needed they could used the force, because, as we mentioned above, they represented the secular persons, who also had ecclesiastic functions too. From early feudal or late feudal Gerogian reality we know about the existence of such institutions as Khevisberi, Tavberi, Qorepiskopos, etc. These posts were institutionally formed in the epoch of proto-feudalism. In the mountains this system lived longer and continued its existence even when in the lowlands it became the part of history. It should be also mentioned that in the mountains the tradition of the khevisberi in a certain form has been preserved until now and as throughout the earlier ages in the ritual process along with secular functions also combines duties.

Thus the settlement of the relations and conflicts both with neighboring tribes and between the communities in Kartli was exclusively the prerogative of so-called high priests. At the same time it was not obligatory for the high priests to be recruited only from heathen clerical persons, moreover with account of the traditions existed in the mountains it can be said that secular persons were responsible for the managing of relations with local population in the northern border who like the high priests combine their functions and performed religious rituals. They were the secular leaders of their own community or khevi.

On the verge of the 4th-3rd centuries B.C. the threat from the north was less expected and a conflict between the tribes or communities residing at the border created less danger to Armazi Acropolis. The highlanders at that time had considerable autonomy and the central power never got around to it.

The royal authority tried to settle the relations with the tribes living in the north by means of negotiations. The Georgian king Pharnavaz married the daughter of Dzurdzukian nobleman. The next king of Kartli Saurmag used the Dzurdzukians and highlanders against insurgent nobles. It was due to their assistance that Saurmag managed to return the royal throne and in exchange for their service, the King granted the lands to Dzurdzukians in the north of Kartli [The Life of...1955:25-27].

According to the Georgian sources during the reign of King Mirian the situation was already messed up:  "The Dzurdzuks forgot the friendship of Pharnavaz and Saurmag, and the inhabitants of Dzurdzuketi invaded Kakheti and Bazaleti of Georgia"        [The Life of...1955:25-27]. King Mirian, however, built the Aragvi gates for which the builders used the heavy material of limestone. Later after the appearance of the Alans in the North Caucasus the mentioned fortress was called Daryali, the same as Darialani [The Life of...1955:25-27].

The same danger from the north made King Parnajom (the eighties-seventies of the 2nd century B.C.) build a fortress Zaden along with pagan idols with the same name at Mount of Zedazeni, on the right bank of the river Aragvi, at the northern approaches to Mtskheta [The Life of...1955:29]. The erection of the Zadeni fortress in case of fall of the Aragvi gate was necessary from the viewpoint of country's security purposes.

Thus, the fortification of the northern frontiers was conditioned by dangers coming from the tribes residing on the border area. The source names the Dzurdzukian uprising, though there must have been more complex problem, namely, with highlanders' resistance faced by the central authority in the process of their integration.

The fortification of the northern borders in the mountains comparatively strengthened the King's power. The King had to control Zedazeni-Aragvi gates section on his own. In the same section there was located Jhinvali which protected Mtskheta from the north and the south - the fortification located on the Nakulbakevi territory [Bround, 1994:130]. The Aragvi gates acquired special importance when new tribes appeared by means of Sarmatians in the North Caucasus. There was no unity among the Sarmatian tribes. Among them the Alans and Siraks occupied special place [Phiphia, 2008: 38-39]. The settlement of the upper mentioned tribes on Kartli's north created danger not only to the Near East but to the Kingdom of Kartli itself. Thus, one of the reasons for creating Aragvi gates and its fortification which later was termed as Alanian gates or Daryali, must be associated with the appearance of Alanian nomadic tribes and strengthening of highlanders at the North of Iberia.[7]   

The power of Alans and Siraks was spread up to the present day Republic of Alan-Ossetia. They could not manage to migrate to the south of the Caucasus which can be explained by the strength of the Kingdom of Kartli. This obstacle was also conditioned by the fact that northern passages must have been fortified by the Georgians before  Alanian penetration. In this case it was necessary to close two main directions - Aragvi and Dvaleti sides.

Unlike Aragvi gates (Daryali), the information on the fortification of the Dvaleti gates has not been found.  It is evidenced from the source that there existed "big gate at Oss and two in Dvaleti" [Conversion ... 1963:94-95] that besides Daryali indicates the existence of the Mamisoni and Roki passes which had the self-defense function in the northern frontiers. Proceeding from the natural specifics, the defense of the mentioned crossroads presented no difficulty. The Dval tribe lived around the Dvaleti pass. Therefore, for their protection Dvals were responsible.

The appearance of the Alans menaced not only Kartli but the tribes settled on both sides of its northern border. Naturally, the appearance of the Sarmatians must have strengthened the control over the whole tribes being under the King's subordination. In this case the self-defense from Alanians was conditioned by mutual interest. The settlement of the Alans in the Northern Caucasus is dated from the 1st century B.C.

In spite of the strong military force the Sarmatians managed neither consolidation nor settlement in the south Caucasus. This fact made the Alans and Siraks arrange the inroads to the frontier lands of Iberia either in the service of the King of Kartli or in agreement with him. In the Greek-Roman sources of the 1st and 2nd centuries the Alans are mentioned as mercenaries of the King of Iberia. They raided the territories of the Roman Empire, Parthia, Armenia, Albania and other countries[8].

Thus, the fortification of the northern borders, the creation of Daryali and Dvaleti gates not only protected the central districts of Kartli from the invasion of highlanders and nomadic tribes but strengthened the King's control over the highlanders settled at the northern borders.

The 3rd century was marked with the reign of King Amazasp. With accession to the throne he had to struggle against the Alans. This proves the fact that the passages in the Caucasus at the verge of the 2nd-3rd centuries appeared to be fallen into the Alans' hands. The result of the northern frontiers break was that the Alans struggled in the vicinity of Mtskheta. There was a danger of falling of the Iberian capital. King Amazaspir's active interference helped to avoid the Alanian threat but then with the assistance of his ally Armenian King marched to the Ossetia and returned the northern passes again. Amazasp's northern policy appeared successful but the eastern proved to be a failure. The King was defeated by his old allies Sassanids. Amazaspir's death was followed by the establishment of Persian domination [Sanadze, 2001:130].

The situation considerably changed in the north by the 4th century. A great part of the Alans as a result of the Hunes pressure had to abandon their own settlements and migrate to the west, in direction of the Black Sea northern littoral. The Huns raids laid the foundation to the "Great Migration of Peoples". One part of the Alans settled in the south, on the mountainous area of the Caucasus where they assimilated with the local population that determined the enthogenesis of the Ossetian people.

The threat from the side of the Alans was removed. Instead of this in the Northern Caucasus Turkish-speaking nomadic tribes Huns appeared. In response to reinforcement of Huns there were built the Derbent or Caspian gates named as Chor. Chor was built by the order of the Sassanid monarchs just to stop the Huns. The funds for the building Derbent gates must have been equally divided by Byzantine and Iranian rulers. After failing to get the promised amount, Shah used this fact as a reason to lead a campaign against the Eastern Roman Empire. According to Shah of Persia Kavadh's (488-531) statement the protection of the upper mentioned passage was equitable to the interest of both parties [Procopius, 1965: 58-60]. Albania appeared under Sassanid sovereignity and Georgian King Vakhtang after taking the Daryali gates and neutralizing the Huns and Ossetians settled to the north of it, was ranked as a Great King and the ruler of the Alans [Mitsishvili, 2003: 408-421].

Thus, the protection of the northern border in the 5th century was linked with the security of the two powerful empires in the Near East - Rome and Sassanid Persia.

Hence, it can be concluded that protection of the Caucasian watershed ridge passes which linked the Eurasian vast steppes with the advanced countries of the Near East was important not only for Georgian kingdoms but for neighboring empires of Rome (Byzantium) and Sassanid Iran. Thus, the issue of Georgia's northern borders was the focus of international attention in the ancient times like it is today.

[1] Here we mean the epoch prior to feudalism.

[2] On two economic spaces see: Dundua:1993; Dundua: 2003; Dundua: 1997.

[3] About Colchis King see: Georgia's 1970; Lomouri, 1968

[4] In connection with the mentioned question see: Inadze, 1999: 173-181; Dundua, 1997:268-273

[5] In connection with the mentioned question see:: Georgia's ...1970: 500-507; Lomouri, 1955:19-20

[6] The second [class] is of high priests who also concerns (besides court and military matters- L.T.) about law with neighbors" [Starbo, Geography, IX, 3, 6]

[7] In foreign sources this pass is called Dari Alan, or Alanian gate which indicates that the building of the mentioned fortress must have been happened with the purpose of their prevention. In accounts Daryali is also referred to as Sarmatian gates or Iberina itself (see: A. Alemany. 6th century Alania: between Byzantium, Sassanian Iran and the Turkish World, Webfestschrift Marshak, 2003, p.2,? 1)

[8] In connection with the appearance of the Sarmates  see: Lomouri, 1959; Georgian...2003


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