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Updated: Nov 3, 2020

On our latest Drive Somewhere Weekend, we were still hoping to catch the last changing leaves, so we decided upon the Monument at Didgori. Not too far from Tbilisi, it’s another one of those hard-to-get-to-without-a-car places that neither of us had ever been. Which is something of a tragedy, considering how important the location is to the history of Georgia.

The Battle of Didgori signaled the development and rise of the Kingdom of Georgia. Where last week I lied about Vakhtang Gorgasali being the most famous king of Georgia, I’ll tell you now who it really was: David the Builder (or Tamar, depending on if you’re considering her a “king” due to some linguistic funny business, more on her on my Vardzia blog).

A short history

Of course, to understand the significance of Didgori on Georgia, one first has to understand what was happening in the neighborhood at the time. So a short run down before I continue on to the monument and the Battle of Didgori itself.

The Seljuks and the Byzantines

The greatest mistake of the Persian Samanid Empire was similar to that of the Western Roman Empire that fell not long before it. Just as the Romans began using German auxiliaries – a move that made the legions less effective and loyal and exported Roman military culture – the Samanids were doing the same with the Turks in Central Asia. They regularly took slave captives of children and raised them into their armies. These armies of slaves, called “mamluks”, eventually rebelled and overthrew the empire, leading to the rise of successive hosts of brutal Turkish conquerors.

Didgori Georgia
On route to the monument

First were the Ghaznavids, who rose up against the Samanids and managed to wrest control for a short time, but proved ultimately as failures both in governing and maintaining military action. Almost immediately they found themselves at odds with another Samanid mamluk army, the Seljuks, who after the ultimate demise of the Persian Empire were nipping at the Ghaznavids at every angle. In the 1040s they were quick to sweep across the collapsed Samanid Empire and pick up the Western remains that the Ghaznavids were unable to hold.

The military prowess of the Seljuk leadership was unparalleled, and their momentum would soon bring them against the greatest empire of the land, the Roman Empire (hereafter the Byzantine Empire, as that’s the name most people call them once they’re based out of Constantinople/Byzantium). The Byzantines at that time still held all of Anatolia, along with lands down the Mediterranean coast. They had long been at odds with the rise of the Arab Caliphate: A Christian Empire versus an empire of this new upstart religion, Islam.

The Byzantines had been ceding lands to the Arabs for nearly 400 years. But due to the Caliphate overstretching itself, along with the problems against the Persians and a new, superior dynasty to take power in the Byzantine Empire, the Arab grab for power was at last collapsing.

Didgori David the Builder
Looking towards the main Didgori monument from the David the Builder monument

The Byzantines were able to recover the former Christian kingdom of Kilikia (Armenia), Armenia proper, and much of their own former coastal lands (modern Syria) and almost all the way to Jerusalem before falling to another civil war. When the Byzantines finally stabilized, it looked like they were set to reclaim their lands throughout the Middle East.

It was in this climate that the Seljuks swept in, decimating a Persian Empire already mired in civil war, and striking from the rear an Arab Caliphate that was overstretched and being eaten away by a revived Byzantine Empire.

Seljuk-Byzantine Wars

As the Seljuks gathered their power, they looked to devour the collapsed Islamic lands of the Caliphate. But the Byzantines were also looking to those lands, seeing their own history there. The Kingdom of Georgia was right to fear the oncoming Seljuks, and quickly drew up battle lines with their long-time frenemies, the Byzantines. The Georgians had only recently lost a war to the Byzantines, ceding a bunch of their Anatolian territories, but still preferred a Christian Byzantine menace to a Muslim Turk menace.

At the time, most of the Byzantine troops had been disbanded or moved to other parts of the Empire, inexplicably not seeing an immediate threat anymore on their Eastern frontier. The arrival of the Seljuk horde at their doorstep proved them wrong.

Looking out from the monument

The Byzantines, unable to muster up a force in time, secured aid from the Georgians, who rode down and fought alongside the few that were against the Seljuks at Kapetron. The Seljuk army was annihilated, but had managed to capture the Georgian king as they fled. The following engagement and return of the Georgian king led to embassies being established between the Byzantines and the Seljuks and a truce set to last until 1064.

It’s important to keep in mind though that the Seljuks at this point were still gathering their own political power. Various tribes were migrating to the West from Central Asia, and they had little political unity. The recognition of their power by the Byzantines, their continued military success against other Turkish tribes, and after their defeat at Kapetron made the leaders of the various tribes realize that they had to unite under the Seljuks or face being destroyed.

Manzikert and the First Crusade

The Seljuks were now a united and powerful empire, ready to test their might properly against the Byzantines. Immediately after the truce ended, the Seljuks attacked under Alp Arslan. First they took Ani, slaughtering their entire population and taking control of the surrounding territories, including into Georgia. The Fatimids in Egypt were distracting his attention though, so when the Byzantines sent for a renewed truce, he accepted.

The Byzantines under Romanos IV Diogenes had no interest in honoring their truce. He gathered an army as fast as he could and slammed into the Seljuk frontiers, seeking to regain the lost Byzantine territory. After successive strategic blunders, the superior Byzantine force was destroyed by the Seljuks at Manzikert. This battle signaled to everybody that the Byzantines could not stop the Seljuk advance. Turkish tribes continued to swarm in, raiding where they could, and the Seljuks looked at their remaining frontiers: further into Anatolia to the West and to the Caucasus Mountains in the North (leading even to an attempt at placation as the Georgian king offered his daughter's hand in marriage to Alp Arslan).

In response to the loss at Manzikert, the Byzantines made a terminal plea to Rome, asking for any help that could be mustered by their Western kin. The Pope at Rome called for a Crusade, which quickly organized and supported the Byzantines, re-establishing the Byzantine frontiers throughout Anatolia. Meanwhile, the Crusaders went along the coastline and carved out their own small kingdoms – former Byzantine lands – as payment for their conquest.

The First Crusade temporarily halted the Seljuk advance Westward. Unable to subdue such a force, they worked on solidifying their frontiers against the Greater Caucasus and carving out more tribute states, which Georgian historians refer to as the Didi Turkoba, loosely translated as the Big Turkish Party.

Kingdom of Georgia

A united land of Georgia (or Sakartvelo in Georgian, that is, Land of the Kartvelians) didn’t exist until 1008, when the various lands of the Kartvelian peoples (and friends) were finally united under the crown of Bagrat III. The different kingdoms had been allied with each other, or outsiders, and loyalties had bounced around since before there were Georgians until finally the perfect hand of Kartvelian politics was dealt to Bagrat. He was, with cooperation from the Armenians, finally able to drive out any lasting Arab influence throughout the lands.

Georgians are never so unhappy whenever things are going well. So when the reigns of the monarchy passed to the underage Giorgi, many quickly rebelled and fractured the kingdom. The next king, Bagrat IV, kept trying to reclaim the lost territories, but again, there’s nothing Georgians like more than fighting with each other, and it continued as such well into the reign of David IV, leading various Georgian lands to be gulped up by the guzzling of the Seljuks.

By the time David IV ascended the throne, it had nearly been 100 years since the dream of a united Georgia faded and the Seljuks had been decimating Georgian provinces one after the other. However, with the Crusades, the Seljuk expansion had slowed down, and David was able to retake key territories, re-establishing the rule of the Georgian crown throughout Eastern Georgia.

Didgori monument
Approaching Didgori

To repopulate the areas massacred by the Seljuks, he invited in a Kipchak tribe from the Northern Caucasus, and then initiated a levy to rebuild his military. With this reinvigorated military, he expanded the Georgian Kingdom into modern Azerbaijan and Armenia, pushing hard against the Seljuk frontier. Finally, in 1121, it was time to retaliate. Sultan Mahmud bin Muhammad declared a jihad against Georgia.

About 400,000 men from the Sultan’s army met against a force of 56,000 Georgian men at the hills of Didgori on August 12, 1121. The Sultan’s army was routed in a gigantic, humiliating defeat against David’s military prowess. With the oncoming army, he had been able to choose the battlefield, and the steep, unforgiving foothills allowed him to chop up the Sultan’s army, destroying the Seljuks’ numerical superiority.


Listen to my sexy voice as we stroll together

down the street named after David


David would go on to liberate Tbilisi and Dmanisi, ushering in Georgia’s Golden Age. Georgia was now fully unified and expanded, and their principal rival completely expelled from their territories.

Monument at Didgori

The monument is composed of four sections. The main, principal monument on the peak of a hill, where swords in a field serve as gravestones in honor of those fallen in the battle. The single, huge structure at the summit is in the shape of an even larger stone sword with a broken hilt. Next to it is a bell to ring and meditate upon. Below it is a small pantheon-auditorium, with an array of seats, next to which on the left is a bronze owl, as though Athena is watching over all the processions. Beyond the pantheon is a stand of bells that chime cryptically in the wind.

On two sides of the monument are fields of bronze soldiers in various positions, resembling moves found in Georgian dance.

Finally, a few kilometers away towards Armazi Valley is a 30-meter-tall statue of David the Builder himself, blowing a horn, signaling his troops to battle.

The monument was erected in the early 90s, though it has the feel that its been there for centuries, and undoubtedly it will be there for centuries to come.

Every year on August 13, there’s a big celebration at the monument, commemorating the victory. I imagine next year should be a spectacular event, given it will be the 900th anniversary.

Getting there

It’s impossible to get there by public transit, you’ll have to take a taxi or rent a car. Luckily, it’s a well-paved road for the entire way in both directions (except for a very short bit that they’re working on in Kvemo Nichbisi) and in either direction takes a little over an hour.


One of the best car rental experiences in Georgia you can have


There’s also very little traffic, so it could be a pleasant bike ride coming down in either direction (probably easier up from the Manglisi direction). You can get there by hiking from the village of Didgori as well (refer to OpenStreetMap for the route), and it should take you two days from Didgori or Manglisi to a village on the other side of the range that's serviced by a marshrutka.

Updated: Oct 29, 2020

Vakhtang Gorgasali is perhaps the most famous king of Georgia, more famous than any George who has ruled the land. As a visitor, the story everyone tells you is about how he ruled from Mtskheta in the 5th century. One day, he had gone hunting with his falcon. His falcon circled high in the sky and suddenly divebombed some unseen prey. Vakhtang and his party pushed through the brush and found the falcon sitting on top of a cooked boar. The boar had evidently fallen into some hot springs and attempted to escape, but died, having been mostly cooked (or at least enough for Vakhtang’s avian friend).

Vakhtang Gorgasali at Metekhi
Vakhtang saying "Gamarjoba!" from Metekhi

Gorgasali means “wolf’s head”, and it’s probably no coincidence that both his last name and the old Persian name of Georgia was called, “Land of the Wolves”. Was their a connection? Possibly. Vakhtang had become king of a nation that was subservient to the lower nobility where the king was powerless. Not only that, but most of the lower nobility paid heed to the Sassanid Persians. Vakhtang worked most of his life to solidify control over the nobility, gathering them under the head of one king of Kartli and Kakheti (the Georgian words for regions in Georgia). This, obviously brought him into the attention of the shahansha (king of kings) of the Persians.


Check out my Audiotour of Tbilisi only on Voicemap:


Vakhtang at Ujarma

For a base on his expeditions in Kakheti, and as a primary front against the Sassanids, Vakhtang built up the small town of Ujarma, founded a few centuries before. He built his castle over it and fortified the area with curtain walls and towers. This is where he would spend much of his time, looking out at the frontier and pondering the defenses of his lands.

It’s said that there were two things Vakhtang suffered from the most at Ujarma. One was the Persians, and the other was his wife.

While away to India (perhaps Jandaba, near Bangladesh, which means in Georgian somewhere so far in the way your basically screwed), his wife had become enamored by one ploughman. She’s sit at the castle wall every evening, watching him work. One day, he finally saw her attention and secretly climbed up the castle walls, where he continued his work as a ploughman.

When Vakhtang returned, he discovered this love affair. Instead of killing the ploughman though, he sent him away to Javakheti, a Georgian land on the other side of the realm. Apparently though, all of Kartli and Kakheti’s crops went with him, and for several seasons they suffered from a famine. The king went to Javakheti and begged him to come back. “Not without the love of your wife,” the ploughman replied. So the king did not allow him to come back, but ploughman took mercy and sent some wheat.

With the seeds of the wheat, they planted across Kakheti and received an enormous wealth in crops. They never had to worry about food again.

Vakhtang’s wife was not happy though. Her lover had been banished, and her husband – too busy ruling things and conquering – basically ignored her needs, and her hatred of him grew darker.

When the Sassanids finally had enough of Vakhtang scooping up their tribute lands, they decided to invade. The shahansha himself had come to lead the armies and rid himself of the pest that was this frontier king. He sent emissaries ahead of him to negotiate. Would Vakhtang bow down?

He would not.

But before the emissary left, his wife took him aside. “Your king will never defeat Vakhtang in battle. But let’s make this simple. I’ll feed his horse salt the night before the battle. He’ll have to cross the river to engage. At the river the horse will stop and drink water, being as thirsty as it is from the salt. There attack. He is most vulnerable under his arms, everywhere else he wears heavy armor. When he pulls at the bridle of the horse, the horse will rear, and his arms will be exposed. Strike there!”


Read horror stories about Georgia and other places in my latest collection


It happened as she said. An arrow smashed under Vakhtang’s arm and he was brought back to Ujarma, where he died two days later. The Persians overwhelmed the Georgian defenses and took the Georgian lands back under the control of the king of kings.

When the Persian shahansha met Vakhtang’s wife though, he had no words of thanks for her. “You are an unfaithful wife, and betrayed your husband,” he spat. “How could I ever trust your loyalty?” He then had tied to the tail of Vakhtang’s horse and gave it a good slap on the rear.


There’s no interior left of the 12th century citadel (it had been rebuilt later by King George III, so it’s hard to say what part was from Vakhtang’s era). However the walls still stand, as well as a few of the towers. The ruins are impressive, and the government is busy with a development project there, where they’re installing walkways throughout the grounds, and stabilizing walls, and building a path that follows the tower line and old city walls down to the river below (not yet finished). The ruins of the once bustling town have all been overgrown, and unfortunately with a baby strapped on my back I couldn’t get down and dirty exploring what might be there, so I can’t tell you. Perhaps when you're there, the path might be finished. You can access it via some stone stairs down, across from the church.

From the parking lot, it's a short walk up the hill to the castle (not handicapped accessible, though there are not that many steps to take up). Inside the castle, there are the ruins both to the left and right. There's a church as well, St. Nino's, where it's said she stored her famous grapevine cross just after putting it together there.

Ujarma Georgia Vakhtang Gorgasali
The path to the castle

Getting to Ujarma

Ujarma Fortress is about a one-hour drive from Tbilisi, just off the Telavi highway. The highway is well-paved, so any sort of car can access it, and the marshrutkas going to and from Telavi pass it as well. Since we recently bought a car, we’ve been making more and more trips, and naturally we had to visit the castle where our son’s namesake died.

Telavi Kakheti Ujarma mountain highway
The Telavi Highway

It’s definitely worth a visit though if you have a car. By marshrutka it’d be easy to get to, but as most marshrutkas don’t leave until they’re full, it’d be much harder to get back. You could also hire a taxi to Telavi at Isani or Samgori metro stations. I’m sure they’d be happy to either come back to Tbilisi or drive you on to Telavi, with a few other stops on the way.

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