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).
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.
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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!”
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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.
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.
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.