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Levan II (1597-1657)

 

Levan II Dadiani was one of the most powerful figures in western Georgia in the period between the united Kingdom of Georgia and the modern day. His father was Manuchar Dadiani, ruler of the Odishi Principality.[1] (which subsequently came to be known as Samegrelo). His mother, who died giving birth to him, was Nestan-Darejan Bagrationi, daughter of Alexander II Bagrationi, ruler of the eastern Georgian Kingdom of Kartli-Kakheti, where Levan spent his early childhood. In 1611, his father was killed in a hunting accident, leaving the 14-year-old Levan as Odishi’s mtavari (Principal), a position he held for the next 46 years until his death.

Fresco of Levan II

Alliances and Betrayals

As was common in the age, Levan used marriage as a strategic tool to cement alliances and prevent aggression by neighboring rivals. Levan himself married the daughter of the ruler of Abkhazia in 1615. In 1621, he arranged the marriage of his sister, Maria, to the heir to the throne of Guria, Simon Gurieli.

The prospect of an alliance among Odishi, Abkhazia, and Guria troubled King George III Bagrationi, ruler of the neighboring Kingdom of Imereti. In 1622, George launched a war against Odishi, but suffered a crushing defeat to the combined forces of Odishi and Abkhazia, while Guria remained neutral.

However, shortly afterward Odishi’s alliance with Abkhazia disintegrated along with Levan’s relationship with his Abkhazian wife, who was accused of having an affair with a government minister, Merab Kortodze. In an act of breathtaking cruelty, Levan had his wife’s nose and tongue cut off, then returned her to her father. Levan then launched a punitive raid on Abkhazia, destroying several villages. The adultery charges proved fortuitous, for they freed Levan to pursue another woman with whom he was deeply infatuated—Nestan-Darejan Chiladze, at the time the wife of Levan’s uncle George Lipartiani.

Merab Kortodze was exiled to Guria, where he hatched a plot to kill Levan, conspiring with Imereti’s King George, Abkhazia’s ruler Seteman Shervashidze, Levan’s brother-in-law Simon Gurieli (the recently crowned ruler of Guria), and a number of disaffected Odishi nobles, including Levan’s younger brother and stepbrother. The group hired an Abkhazian assassin to kill Levan during the celebration of his wedding dinner to Nestan-Darejan Chiladze, whom Levan had kidnapped from his uncle.

The plot unraveled, however, when the wedding-day attack on Levan by the knife-wielding assassin resulted in little more than superficial wounds. After his recovery, Levan dealt harshly with the conspirators within his reach, blinding his brothers and amputating an arm and a leg from each, and executing Merab Kortodze by drowning. Kortodze’s corpse was then used as cannon fodder—a gruesome reminder to Levan’s armed forces of the fate of traitors. Levan then turned his wrath on Simon Gurieli, sending a force to Guria that resulted in a bloody but inconclusive conflict that was decided only when the Patriarch of West Georgia, Malakhia Gurieli, cast his lot with Levan against his own brother Simon. Simon was captured, blinded, and sent to a monastery in Jerusalem to live out his days, having reigned in Guria for less than a year. After this, Guria—now ruled by Malakhia as a reward for his support—once again became subordinate to Odishi. Finally, Levan turned his attention to Abkhazia, launching a series of incursions that lasted for several years.

The Struggle with Imerti

In 1633, Rostom Bagrationi, a man whom Levan had cultivated as a political partner, became the King of Kartli in eastern Georgia. To strengthen their partnership, Levan again arranged a strategic marriage for his sister Maria—this time to Kartli’s new King.

Drawing of Levan II

To attend the wedding in 1634, the families of both Levan and Rostom were obliged to pass through Imereti, and they received intelligence that the Levan’s old rival, King George of Imereti, planned to assassinate them en route. Thus, both set out on their journey with large numbers of troops. In a resulting engagement between Imeretian forces and Levan’s Odishian fighters, the latter prevailed and King George was captured. He spent two years as Levan’s captive, and was freed only when his son Alexander paid a hefty ransom and ceded Imeretian borderlands to Odishi. However, Levan was not satisfied with these gains, and launched an invasion against Imereti in the hope of subjugating it completely. The forces of Odishi pushed all the way to Kutaisi, Imereti’s capital; but they were unable to take it.

In 1639, Alexander assumed the throne of Imereti upon the death of his father, King George. Throughout the first six years of his reign, Levan’s forces repeatedly raided Imereti, and in 1645 again threatened to take Kutaisi. Once again, however, the city held, due in large part to the efforts of Mamuka Bagrationi, a gifted military strategist and the brother of King Alexander.

Levan later obtained a measure of revenge, capturing and imprisoning Mamuka in 1647. Alexander sent his son Bagrat to plead for Mamuka’s release; Levan not only refused, but for a time held Bagrat as well. Mamuka’s sad fate was to spend the rest of his life—he died in 1654—as Levan’s prisoner, sometimes subject to torture.

The drama continued in 1648, when King Teimuraz I, ruler of the eastern Georgian Kingdom of Kakheti, was deposed by his rival Rostom Bagrationi with the backing of Persia. Teimuraz fled to Imereti, where he hoped to secure assistance from Russia or the western Georgian states to regain his throne. As part of this effort, he approached Levan to discuss a reconciliation with Alexander. However, Levan made such reconciliation contingent upon Alexander ceding half of Imereti’s territory to Odishi—a condition that Alexander could not accept. Negotiations continued for a time, but broke down in 1651, after which Levan once again sought without success to seize Imereti by force.

In 1656, ambassadors from the Tsar of Russia intervened in an attempt to reconcile the feuding rulers of Odishi and Imereti, but Levan continued to insist upon territorial concessions that Alexander refused to meet. When Levan died the following year, his strategic dream of subjugating Imereti remained unfulfilled. Soon after his death, Odishi’s power dramatically ebbed, leaving Odishi the beleaguered defender rather than the aggressor in the region’s ongoing conflicts.

During the time Levan was striving to subdue Imereti, several rulers of Guria came and went. But because all were loyal to Levan, Odishi’s frontiers with Guria remained peaceful. By contrast, Abkhazia was a constant thorn in Odishi’s side—the more so as its cultural ties to Georgia gradually eroded under the influence of Islam and the Ottoman Empire. To prevent incursions from the Abkhazians, Levan ordered the construction of a wall over 60 kilometers along Odishi’s border with Abkhazia.

External Powers

The conflict and intrigue among the Georgian principalities took place within a wider political milieu in which Georgia was split between the Ottoman Empire in the west and the Persian Empire in the east, with Russia a growing force to the north. In Levan’s day, Odishi was a tributary of the Ottoman Empire.

Levan generally navigated Odishi through this difficult political environment with great skill. During the 1620s and 1630s, the Ottoman Empire was occupied with external conflicts, and was content to let Odishi exercise a high degree of independence, so long as it sent its annual tribute to the Ottoman Sultan. Moreover, when Ottoman ambassadors visited from Istanbul, Levan steered them clear of the more prosperous parts of the Principality, dressed himself and his court in shabby garments, and strove to create the appearance that Odishi was destitute, barren, miserable, and not worth the effort to subjugate.

The marriage of Levan’s sister to Kartli’s King Rostom Bagrationi in 1634 was another tactical move. It allowed Odishi to establish cordial relations with the Persian Empire —of which Kartli was a part—and in this way to further discourage the Ottomans from seeking active domination of Odishi. Persian’s Shah, who had a reciprocal interest in good relations with Odishi in the event of hostilies with the Ottoman Empire, sought to maintain Levan’s favor through money and gifts, including an elephant. However, this flirtation with Persia turned out to be one of Levan’s few major miscalculations, and Odishi paid a heavy price for it when the Ottoman Sultan decided to send a warning to Levan by sending an amphibious force across the Black Sea to destroy Drandi monastery and ravage the surrounding region. In any case, the Ottomans and Persians signed an agreement in 1639 pledging noninterference in each others’ spheres of influence.

Levan also took steps to invite other influential players into the regional political arena. In 1636, he sent an ambassador, Gabriel Gegenava, to Russia to try to hammer out a relationship that would afford Odishi some protection while allowing it to maintain its de facto independence. However, this effort failed, because Russia would not agree to provide military support unless Odishi was willing to submit to the Tsar’s authority.

Levan also invested much in an effort to establish ties to Western Europe by cultivating a relationship with the Roman Catholic Church. In 1626, emissaries from Rome arrived in Georgia with gifts and letters from Pope Urban VIII to the rulers of Kartli-Kakheti, Imereti, Odishi, and Guria. Levan was deeply impressed by the Pope’s ambassadors, who were not only highly literate, but also skilled in fields such as medicine, engineering, geography, and astronomy. He came to see them not only as potential political allies, but as agents of modernization who could contribute to the development of Odishi’s backward economy.

To promote the establishment of economic ties to the West, Levan embarked on an ambitious program to develop Odishi’s infrastructure, boost its silk production, and construct a special merchant city to serve as a hub of east-west trade through Odishi.[2] Levan also ordered the construction of a mint to provide money to finance this program.

At the time, goods from the Near East and Far East generally got to Europe through two major routes—by sea via the Mediterranean and overland via the Ottoman Empire. Levan envisioned the diversion of part of this trade to a new route through Odishi, which at the time enjoyed relative stability and security, and which could undercut the high tariffs the Ottomans levied on trade through their territory. A route through Odishi also promised a faster transit time than other routes.

In the 1640s, with the foundations for his economic development plan in place, Levan sent the Papacy’s emissaries back to Rome with a cordial letter entreating the Pope to send manufacturers of silk and wool products to Odishi to teach its people the crafts of weaving and knitting. Levan offered to furnish these ambassadors of industry with land, homes, and servants. However, by the time the missionaries reached Rome, Urban VIII had died, and the new Pope, Innocence X (1644-1655), did not share his predecessor’s interest in reaching out to Georgia. He responded with little more than spiritual blessings, dealing a huge setback to Levan’s hopes for Odishi’s economic advancement.

Personal Legacy

In 1639, Levan was badly shaken by the death of beloved wife, Nestan-Darejan Chiladze. Prior to her death, he sent gifts to every church in Odishi asking the clergy to pray for her; and after her death, the clergy continued to address the ruler and his wife as if both were alive. To honor her memory, Levan paid off all the debts of the Georgian Jvari Monastery in Jerusalem and had the Monastery restored—also requesting, in the fashion of the day, a fresco painting there of himself and his wife.

Drawing of Nestan Darejan Chiladze

Levan had two sons. Hid did not consider the older one, Alexander, competent to rule, so he groomed the younger son Manuchar to be his successor. However, Manuchar suffered an untimely death in 1657, prompting Levan to decree that the throne would pass to Alexander’s son. Shortly afterward, Levan himself died, disconsolate with sorrow over the death of the son in whom he had placed his hopes.

Despite the costly conflicts against Abkhazia and Imereti, Levan brought a measure of power, affluence, and stability to Odishi. He also brought the Principality to the brink of economic and cultural modernity, before being stymied by the Pope’s failure to provide the technical assistance central to Levan’s development plans. After Levan’s death, Odishi suffered an astonishing reversal—going from one of the strongest Georgian states to perhaps the weakest in the space of a few short years. With Levan’s passing, old rivals and ambitious neighbors saw their opportunity, and soon Odishi was being harassed by repeated invasions that left it weak and impoverished.

Although often ruthless in the pursuit of political ends, Levan is rightly remembered as a great Georgian because of his strong interest in the development of Odishi and the preservation of its cultural treasures. In addition to his efforts to modernize the economy, he undertook the restoration of old churches and the conservation of historical manuscripts, and commissioned many new works as well. He is also remembered with special fondness for his habit of placing gold and silver drinking cups for all to use at public water sources. These were much appreciated by the people of Odishi, and no one dared to steal them.

1 As Samegrelo was known before 1803.

2 The latter was set up around a fortress that Levan built near Rukhi. As part of the ransom paid for the release of King George in 1636, Imereti agreed to relocate a community of Armenian merchants from the Imeretian city of Chkhari to the new trade center at Rukhi.

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