Today in Caucasian history: the Battle of Didgori (1121)

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Georgian King David IV (d. 1125) is regarded as the restorer of the Georgian nation after its subjugation by the Seljuk Turks in the late 11th century, hence his epithet “The Builder” (or perhaps “The Rebuilder”). He’s also considered arguably the greatest ruler in Georgian history, in addition to being a saint in the Georgian Orthodox Church. So it seems like he was a pretty impressive guy. The Battle of Didgori is where David IV began to cement his legacy, because it was here that his outnumbered army, with a little assistance from the Crusaders and a lot of assistance from technology, trounced the Seljuks and effectively won Georgia’s independence.

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A fresco of David the Builder from the Gelati Monastery in Georgia (Wikimedia Commons)

The Seljuk migration from Central Asia hit the Middle East, Anatolia, and the Caucasus suddenly and with tremendous force, and fundamentally altered the landscape in those regions. The 1071 Battle of Manzikert alone is one of the most consequential events in world history, because it pierced the Byzantine Empire’s defenses and led to Anatolia’s Turkicization, to a steep Byzantine decline, and (as a result) to the Crusades. The Seljuks overran the Caucasus as well as Anatolia, sacking Tbilisi—the historic capital of eastern Georgia but a frequent target for foreign occupiers—in the 1060s. By 1083, Georgian King George II was forced to reduce his kingdom to the status of a Seljuk vassal.

Perhaps tired of being a vassal, George II abdicated in favor of his son, the then-16 year old David, in 1089. The young king undertook a series of centralizing reforms that enabled him to take direct control over what was left of independent Georgia. More importantly for our purposes, he also undertook a total revamp of the Georgian army to focus on something the Seljuks didn’t have: heavy cavalry. At the same time, David further bolstered his army (and repopulated his kingdom, which had been depleted by the Seljuk invasion) by inviting thousands of Kipchaks from the Eurasian steppe to settle on his lands in exchange for military service. David and his new army consolidated control over as much of Georgia as they could, until the late 1090s brought a present from the west: the arrival of the Crusaders, who immediately took the lion’s share of the Seljuks’ attention. It was at that point that David stopped making his expected tribute payments and Georgia reasserted its independence.

By 1121, with things in the Holy Land in something of a holding pattern and the Seljuks increasingly worried about David’s now-slowly expanding Caucasian dominion, Seljuk Sultan Mahmud II (d. 1131) ordered an army, composed of troops provided by a number of Muslim emirates in the Caucasus and under the command of the Emir of Mardin (in southeastern Anatolia), Ilghazi (d. 1122), to bring David to heel. The combined Muslim army (which I’ll call “the Seljuks” even though they were all Seljuk vassals rather than the Seljuks themselves) was probably in the triple digits, maybe as large as 250,000 men but likely closer to 100,000, while the Georgians numbered about 55,000. But David had two things going for him: his heavy cavalry, and his own abilities as a general.

The two armies met at Didgori, a short distance west of Tbilisi. Ahead of the battle, David deployed the bulk of his cavalry on the wings of his army, with one wing under his command and the other commanded by his son, Demetrius. He kept these wings hidden from the Seljuks, who concentrated their focus on the center of the Georgian line, where its infantry was stationed along with the Kipchaks and a detachment of additional cavalry sent by the Crusader King Baldwin II of Jerusalem. David also—and here’s the really clever part—put together a force, posing either as deserters or as diplomats, to enter the Seljuk camp, obtain an audience with their commanders, and then attack them. Basically it was the 12th century version of a decapitation strike.

When his infiltration force made its move, the Crusader cavalry launched a frontal assault on the Seljuk line. When the Seljuks had committed to defending against that assault, the two wings of Georgian heavy cavalry smashed into either flank of the Seljuk army. At that point, the Kipchaks were ordered to deliver the final blow. The combined effect was total devastation. Many Seljuk commanders were killed in the initial strike (Ilghazi was wounded but managed to get away), leaving their forces leaderless, and when the battle was over most of the Seljuk army was either dead or captured, and any soldiers who weren’t either of those things were on the run.

David’s greatest victory, the one that really made him The Builder, came the following year, when he captured Tbilisi from the Seljuks and the city finally, after centuries during which it was constantly falling into the hands of this or that invading power, became the capital of the Georgian kingdom. It wouldn’t stay that way—once the Mongols showed up in the Caucasus in the 13th century, the city once again came under foreign domination. But David is nevertheless credited with establishing Tbilisi as the permanent urban center of the Georgian people, a development that was made possible by his victory at Didgori.