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Levan I (d. 1572)

 

Levan I Dadiani was the first of the Dadianis to rule Odishi[1] as a mtavari (Principal)—a position similar to a King, in the sense of not being formally subject to a higher secular authority—and not merely as an eristavi (Duke). He played a major role in the establishment and consolidation of Odishi as an independent state. Much of his success was a result of skillful diplomacy with respect to the major power of the region, the Ottoman Empire.

Fresco of Levan I

Levan’s year of birth is unknown. In a fresco at the Tsalenjikha church, he is portrayed as a tall man with a long moustache, almond-shaped eyes, and short hair, wearing clothes decorated with fur and pearls. His father, Mamia III Dadiani, governed Odishi as eristavi from 1512 until 1533, when he was killed in a battle against a rival Caucasian tribe. At the time, Odishi was still formally subordinate to the Kingdom of Imereti,[2] rather than an independent state.

Conflict with the King of Imereti

In 1535, shortly after Levan’s reign began, Bagrat III Bagrationi, the King of Imereti, called for Odishi’s support in a war against the separatist region of Samtskhe-Saatabago, and Levan’s forces contributed to the a successful effort to crush the rebellion. However, when the King distributed parts of the subjugated lands to his allies as spoils afterward, Odishi did not receive anything.

Eight years later, Bagrat again called for Odishi’s military assistance, this time to defend Samtskhe-Saatabago against an incursion by the Ottoman Empire. On this occasion, Levan refused to assist, for reasons that remain unclear. Some scholars suggest Levan was retaliating for King Bagrat’s failure to furnish appropriate rewards for his support in the previous campaign in Samtskhe-Saatabago. Others claim that Levan had simply come to realize that these internecine battles rarely resolved anything for long, and did not want Odishi to become entangled endless military campaigns that did not serve its interests. Whatever the reason, the implications of Levan’s choice were momentous; refusal by an eristavi to honor such a request from his King was tantamount to a declaration of independence.

Although Bagrat won the 1543 battle (with military assistance from Guria and Kartli), the Ottomans soon regrouped and renewed their attack on the contested region. Again King Bagrat asked Levan to join the fight, and again Levan declined. This time, Bagrat’s forces were defeated, and the angry King resolved to punish Levan for his refusal to support Imereti. The opportunity for revenge came in 1548, when Levan traveled to Imereti to attend a feast to which Bagrat had invited him. Rather than the hospitality he expected, Levan was captured and imprisoned in Bagrati Monastery.

In Odishi, outrage over King Bagrat’s treachery was widespread, and an army commanded by Levan’s wife Marekh marched on Imereti in an effort to free Levan. However, Imereti’s army proved more than a match for the forces of Odishi. Bagrat then contacted the Duke of Guria, urging him to join forces with Imereti to take Odishi. But the Duke refused, fearing that after swallowing up Odishi, Bagrat would move to overthrow Guria as well.

After two years in captivity, Levan escaped with help from the ruler of Samtskhe-Saatabago, who had his own reasons for defying King Bagrat. Levan returned to Odishi as a hero, and apocryphal tales soon spread about how he had tied sheets together, climbed out of a window, and stolen away for his homeland.

Cultivating Ottoman Favor

In 1550s, the strategic realities in the region were shifting significantly, with the Ottoman Empire attempting to subjugate Georgia in a series of steps. In 1554, the Ottomans conquered Lazeti, followed by Guria. In 1555, the Ottoman and Persian Empires signed the Amassya Peace Agreement, which divided Georgia into spheres of influence, with the Ottomans taking the western part and Persia the eastern part.

Levan understood the implications of the Agreement for Odishi—which, like Imereti, lay within the Ottoman sphere of influence. Resolving to turn the situation to his favor, he paid a visit in 1557 to Istanbul to try to curry favor with the Ottoman Sultan and gain recognition for Odishi as an independent state. As a gift, Levan brought an exquisitely fashioned gold chalice, which so delighted the Sultan that he kept it for his personal collection.

Levan agreed to recognize the Ottomans’ interests western Georgia and to pay tribute to the Empire. In return, he hoped to secure Ottoman military assistance in Levan’s ongoing campaign against a tribal enemy (the Jicks). The Sultan agreed to recognize the autonomy of Odishi within the Ottoman sphere of influence—thus giving Levan grounds to claim the title of mtavari—because a compliant tributary state in Odishi served his purposes nearly as well as outright conquest, and at far less cost. However, the Sultan indicated that military assistance would be forthcoming only if Odishi agreed to submit to Ottoman rule, which was one step farther than Levan was willing to go. (Levan later resolved the conflict with the Jicks through diplomacy.)

In the decade before Levan’s death in 1572, Odishi became embroiled in a series of battles with Imereti and Guria for dominance in western Georgia. By 1567, the balance of power had tilted away from Odishi, and Levan again turned to Istanbul for support. This time, the Sultan was only too happy to help, because a policy of divide-and-rule worked to his benefit. (After all, if Imereti were to conquer Odishi, the result could be a larger, unified state that was better able to resist Ottoman dominance than two smaller, constantly bickering ones.)

Under Levan I, Odishi emerged as a powerful independent state. However, Odishi’s rise came to a sudden halt upon the death of Levan. Without his steady hand, Odishi fell into disarray. Although three of Levan’s four sons went on to become rulers of Odishi, none was able to match his father’s diplomatic, political, and military success.

[1] As Samegrelo was known before 1803.

[2] One of the independent Kingdoms (along with Kartli and Kakheti) to emerge from the breakup of the united Kingdom of Georgia in the previous century. Owing to Odishi’s subordination to Imereti, the ruler of Odishi could not claim the title of mtavari, because he was subject to the authority of Imereti’s King.

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