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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.