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Unification of the Georgian Statehood

Friday, August 6
The first decades of the 9th century saw the rise of a new Georgian state in Tao-Klarjeti. Ashot Courapalates of the Bagrationi royal family liberated the territories of former southern Iberia from the Arabs. Ashot I the Great was the presiding prince of Iberia (modern Georgia), first of the Bagratid family to reach this office c. 813. From his base in Tao-Klarjeti, he fought to enlarge the Bagratid territories and sought the Byzantine protectorate against the Arab encroachment until being murdered c. 830. Ashot is also known as Ashot I Curopalates for the Byzantine title he wore. A patron of Christian culture and a friend of the church, he has been canonized by the Georgian Orthodox Church.

Ashot was the son of the Iberian nobleman Adarnase who had founded the Bagratid hereditary fiefdom in Tao-Klarjeti (now northeast Turkey) and bequeathed to his son extensive possessions acquired upon the demise of his Guaramid and Chosroid cousins. Ashot initially failed to gain a foothold in central Iberia (Shida Kartli), his efforts being dashed by the Arab control of Tiflis (Tbilisi). Ashot established himself in his patrimonial duchy of Klarjeti, where he restored the Artanuji castle said to have been built by the Iberian king Vakhtang I Gorgasali in the 5th century, and received Byzantine protection, being recognized as the presiding prince and curopalates of Iberia. To revive the country devastated by the Arabs and cholera epidemics, he patronized the local monastic communities established by Grigol Khandzteli, and encouraged the settlement of Georgians in the region. As a result, the political and religious center of Iberia was effectively transferred from central Iberia to the south-west, in Tao-Klarjeti.

From his base in Tao-Klarjeti, Ashot fought to recover more Georgian lands from Arab hands and, though not always successful, succeeded in taking much of the adjoining lands from Tao in the southwest to Shida Kartli in the northeast, including Kola, Artani, Javakheti, Samtskhe and Trialeti. Of the former Chosroid possessions, only Kakheti to the east eluded him. With local Arab emirs in the Caucasus growing ever more independent, the Caliph recognized Ashot as the prince of Iberia in order to counter the rebellious emir of Tiflis Isma’il ibn Shu’aib c. 818. The emir had enlisted support of Ashot’s foe – the Kakhetian prince Grigol – and the Georgian highland tribes of Mtiulians and Tsanars. Ashot, joined by the Byzantine vassal king of Abasgia, Theodosius II, met the emir on the Ksani, winning a victory and pushing the Kakhetians from central Iberian lands.

The Bagratids' fortunes reversed when Khalid b. Yazid, the Caliph's viceroy of Arminiya, moved in to reinforce the central Arab authority in the Caucasian polities in 827-8. Ashot I must have been still alive at that time, and the information provided by the 11th-century Georgian chronicler Sumbat, according to which Ashot was murdered in 826, is doubtful. It is more likely that the event took place four years later, on January 29, 830. Driven by the Arabs from central Iberia, Ashot retreated to the Nigali valley where he was assassinated by renegades at the altar of a local church.

Upon Ashot's death, his daughter was married to Theodosius II of Abasgia and his holdings were allotted to his three sons: Bagrat, Adarnase, and Guaram. These included the Principalities of Tao and Klarjeti, and the Earldoms of Shavsheti, Khikhata, Samtskhe, Trialeti, Javakheti and Ashotsi, which were formally a part of the Byzantine Empire, under the name of "Curopalatinate of Iberia". In practice, however, the region functioned as a fully independent country with its capital in Artanuji. The hereditary title of Curopalates was kept by the Bagrationi family, whose representatives ruled Tao-Klarjeti for almost a century. Curopalate David Bagrationi expanded his domain by annexing the city of Theodossiopolis (Karin, Karnukalaki) and the Armenian province of Basiani, and by imposing a protectorate over the Armenian provinces of Kharqi, Apakhuni, Mantsikert, and Khlat, formerly controlled by the Kaysithe Arab Emirs.