Urban life in feudal Georgia reached its peak in the 12th and early 13th centuries. As a result, craftsmanship and trade developed.
By Apolon Tabuashvili, Emil Avdaliani
As shown in the first part of this series, agriculture played a leading role in the economies of countries in the Middle Ages. Nevertheless, the share of cities was relatively small, and overcoming feudal backwardness eventually depended on the development of cities and urban life. Therefore, even in the medieval era, the level of urban life is considered to be an indicator of the development and decline of a country.
The history of the development and decline of medieval Georgian cities is divided into several stages. In pre-feudal and developed feudal epochs, urban life in Georgia, despite some obstacles, was generally marked by a steady growth. The establishment of feudal relations in Georgia did not lead to the decline of the cities of the ancient era. The old cities – Mtskheta, Urbnisi, Ruisi, Kutaisi, Tsikhe-Goji and others, still remained as trade and workshop centers. However, the share of agriculture in the economies of cities grew further because of the predominance of feudalism.
Urban life in Georgia developed especially in the 9th-10th centuries when Akhalkalaki, Akhaltsikhe, Tmogvi, Oltsi, Telavi and other cities were formed. In the same era, the city of Artanuji, founded during the Vakhtang Gorgasali (5th c.) period, attained its prominence through its location on an important trade route.
Tbilisi was especially advanced from the 5th century, and was steadily developing until the middle of the 13th century. Along with the growth and development of Tbilisi, the rise of other cities in Georgia was observed in the 11th-13th centuries. As a result, the share of urban residents in the country’s population increased. During the united Georgian monarchy, the following Georgian cities existed: Tbilisi, Rustavi, Gori, Ateni, Uplistsikhe, Zhinvani, Surami, Ali, Zovreti, Dmanisi, Artanuji, Akhalkalaki, Akhaltsikhe, Baraleti, Tmogvi, Oltisi, Samshvilde, Khunani, Khornabuji, Telavi, Kutaisi, Vardtsikhe, Shorapani, Petra, Batumi, Poti, Tskhumi, Bichvinta, and Nicopsis. In the 12th and early the 13th centuries, as a result of the country’s political strength, the cities of Armenia, Rani, and Shirvan, including Ani, Dvin, and Kari (Kars), Shamkori, and Kabala, became part of the Georgian kingdom.
Thus, urban life in feudal Georgia reached its peak in the 12th and early 13th centuries. As a result, craftsmanship and trade developed. Many fields of craftsmanship were developed in the Georgian cities of the mentioned epoch. The cities were involved not only in domestic trade but were also connected through caravan routes to Byzantium, Iran, Russia, and other nearby or distant lands.
In the 12th and the early 13th centuries, some cities of great economic significance were incorporated into the Georgian Kingdom, and some of them were indirectly controlled by Georgian kings, including Barda-Dvin-Ani-Kars and the other caravan roads of regional importance.
As a result of economic development in the 12th and early 13th centuries, the revenues of the Georgian state increased significantly. The total revenues of the Georgian monarchy, including the tribute paid by the vassal states, did not fall far short of the revenues of the world’s leading countries of the era, including Byzantium, England, and France.
Jalal al-Din’s 1225 invasion, then the Mongols’ domination over Georgia, caused a decline in the number of Georgian cities, and the economy in general. Georgia’s economy fell into an even more difficult position during the invasions of Timur-Lang at the turn of the 14th-15th centuries. Despite these disruptive factors, with some cities being completely destroyed and others degraded, most continued to function during this period. In the14th-15th centuries, Georgian cities Tskhumi, Poti and Batumi developed to some extent as a result of maritime trade with Genoa. Against the background of the deteriorating economic situation, the eastern part of the country remained somewhat stable. As a result, in the late 15th century, Gremi, Zagemi and Karaghaji emerged in Kakheti. Like Kakheti, the economic situation in Samtskhe-Javakheti was somewhat normal. It is true that during the 13th-15th centuries the cities of south-western Georgia were also affected, but Akhaltsikhe, Akhalkalaki, Artanuji, Tmogvi and other cities continued to exist.
In the 15th century, the following cities functioned in Georgia: Tbilisi, Gori, Ateni, Ali, Mdzovreti, Zhinvani, Gremi, Zagemi, Karaghaji, Telavi, Akhaltsikhe, Akhalkalaki, Artanuji, Artaani, Tmogvi, Kutaisi, Batumi, Poti, and Sokhumi. Although the population in Georgian cities had declined by the 15th century, their role in economic activity was still significant.
An even more difficult situation came to be at the end of the 15th century and in the 16th-17th centuries related to the disintegration of the united Georgian state into kingdoms and the ongoing geopolitical changes near the country’s borders.
Once the Ottoman Empire dominated the Black Sea, Georgia, as a link between Europe and Asia, lost its strategic importance. From the 16th century, the division of Georgia by Iranians and the Ottomans into eastern and western parts not only hampered foreign trade, but also disrupted the domestic market. Two parts of the country, eastern and western Georgia, were torn apart. As a result, urban life in western Georgia declined sharply in the 17th-18th centuries. Under the conditions of Ottoman economic isolation, the slave trade in western Georgia reached an alarming level, caused by economic problems.
The situation worsened in Samtskhe-Javakheti, which was occupied by the Ottoman Empire. Although economic ties between above mentioned regions and Kartli were not completely severed, the Ottoman customs system hampered this relationship. Over time, the deteriorating economic situation in the Akhaltsikhe vilayet became quite noticeable.
As the same time, the kingdoms of Kartli and Kakheti became economically dependent on Iran, as a result of which trade and other relations were mainly with the cities of Iran. In the 17th century and early 18th century, there were four main cities in Kartli: Tbilisi, Gori, Surami and Ali. The cities of Kakheti, which had advanced from the 15th century, were destroyed by the invasions of Shah Abbas I. In the 17th and early 18th centuries, only Telavi was considered a small town in Kakheti.
In eastern Georgia of the discussed era, thanks to the rich traditions, only agriculture was sustainable, and some progress was made in this area. However, in the wake of foreign and domestic disturbances, as well as the increasing number of invasions by Dagestani mountaineers, agriculture was also severely damaged, and the decline of urban life made the overall picture even worse. The population was declining. The economic situation created as a result of the compromise agreement with Iran in the 1730s may have allowed for the physical existence of the people of Kartli and Kakheti, but the country, which was almost completely cut off from European technological development, could not progress. As a result, the economic and social situation in eastern Georgia lagged far behind what it was in European countries. Against the background of the difficult economic situation, the state revenues of the Georgian kingdoms also decreased significantly.
This article was published at Georgia Today