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Samegrelo: A Historical Overview

 

The area occupied by the historical Principality of Samegrelo has had numerous names throughout history, including Colchis, Egrisi, Lazika, Odishi, and Mingrelia. It is located in a region that for much of its history has been of great strategic importance, and where powerful empires ran up against one another and often did battle. As a result, it has witnessed repeated incursions of armies of Romans, Byzantines, Mongols, Turks, Persians, Russians, and others.

Early Times

In antiquity, Samegrelo was a part of the Kingdom of Colchis, which encompassed much of what is today western Georgia. In Greek mythology, Colchis—which lay at the outermost edge of the world known to the Greeks until perhaps the seventh century BCE—was the land of the Golden Fleece sought by Jason and his Argonauts. The region was also known in pre-modern times as Lazika (after the Greek name for the tribes of western Georgia) and Egrisi (after a river that runs through it into the Black Sea). Its political center was Archeopolis (or Nokalakevi), near modern-day Senaki

15th century archeological artifact from chkhorotsku, samegrelo, now in fine art museum, Tbilisi

The excavation of an ancient Colchian city at Vani has provided valuable clues about the region’s identity in antiquity. Vani’s extraordinary treasures, dating from the eighth through the first centuries BCE, show the clear influence of both Greek and Persian aesthetics on local styles. The earliest evidence of wine and winemaking—a mainstay of Georgian culture throughout the millennia—also comes from this area. Future excavations of the city and adjoining territories are expected to shed additional light on ties to, and contrasts with, the Greek and Persian worlds.

The Romans conquered the region in the first century BCE, and dominated it for most of the next 400 years. In the fourth century, as the Roman Empire disintegrated in the West and its capital was moved to Constantinople, Lazika embraced Christianity and allied itself culturally with Rome’s successor, the Byzantine Empire, against the Persian Empire to the East.

In the seventh century, Arab armies swept into the Caucasus and conquered eastern Georgia, known at the time as Kartli-Iberia. However, much of western Georgia remained outside the Arabs’ Islamic Caliphate.

Four centuries later, with the power of the Caliphate waning in the Caucasus, western and eastern Georgia formed a unified Kingdom of Georgia that lasted from the 11th to the 15th centuries—albeit in a state of decline after the early 1200s, due to invasions by Mongols and Turks, as well as internal rebellions by local rulers. At the close of the 15th century, the Georgian monarchy broke up into three rival, independent kingdoms—Kartli in central and eastern Georgia, Kakheti in the east, and Imereti in the west—as well as several principalities and smaller states ruled by feudal lords. In addition to the Principality of Odishi, which closely overlaps modern-day Samegrelo, these included Guria, Abkhazia, and Svaneti.

By the middle of the 16th century, the divided kingdoms and principalities of Georgia had been subjugated in the east by Persia and in the west by the Turkish Ottoman Empire. However, Georgian rulers managed to maintain some degree of autonomy from their overlords for much of the next three centuries, as both the Ottomans and Persians often preferred to let the Georgian states serve as a buffer between the respective imperial heartlands.

From the middle of the 12th century through the middle of the 19th century, Odishi was ruled by the House of Dadiani—an appellation that scholars believe may have originally denoted “ruler of strategic lands.” During this time, the most powerful ruler of Odishi was Levan II Dadiani, who reigned from 1611 through 1657. Levan succeeded in subjugating Guria, and came within a hair’s breadth of conquering the Kingdom of Imereti on more than one occasion. Levan also played an important role in strengthening Russia’s influence in the region, establishing initial ties with Russia in 1636 in an attempt to gain Russian support against the threat of Ottoman domination.

Imereti king and Samegrelo principal making a deal

Incorporation into the Russian Empire

The beginning of the end for the Dadiani dynasty, and for Odishi as an independent state, came in the late 18th century. In 1790, in an effort to rein in the endless internecine rivalries and conflicts that had plagued Georgia for centuries, the rulers of the western Georgian states of Imereti, Guria, and Odishi signed a treaty with the eastern Georgian kingdom of Kartli-Kakheti, a union of two formerly separate kingdoms created in 1762. This treaty included an oath of loyalty to Kartli-Kakheti’s King Irakli II—whose Kingdom was itself rapidly falling under the domination of Russia, beginning with the 1783 Treaty of Georgievsk that brought the Kingdom under the umbrella of Russian military protection, and culminating in outright annexation into the Russian Empire in 1801.

However, the 1790 treaty did not bring the power struggles among western Georgian rulers to an end. Within a few years, Odishi’s ruler, Gregory Dadiani, was forced to turn to the east for support in surmounting ongoing challenges to his rule from both usurpers within Odishi (his stepbrother Manuchar) and rivals outside its borders (Imereti’s King Solomon II). After 1801, Gregory’s appeals were directed not to the King of Kartli-Kakheti, but rather to Pavel Tsitsianov, the governor of the Russian Empire’s new territories in eastern Georgia.

Support came at the cost of independence. In 1803, Odishi became a protectorate of Russia, and its name was changed to Samegrelo (in Georgian) or Mingrelia (in Russian). In the spring of 1804, Russian forces moved from eastern Georgia into Samegrelo, which provided the Tsar with a bridgehead for occupying the remaining Georgian territories, a base for Russia’s ongoing struggle against Turkey, and access to Black Sea trade routes. However, for 50 years afterward, Russia continued to allow Samegrelo to enjoy a high degree of autonomy in its internal affairs.

But following the Crimea War (1854-1856), Russia’s rulers saw an opportunity to extend the Empire’s reach and eliminate the Principality. Just before the War, Samegrelo’s ruler David Dadiani had died, and because his son and successor Nikolas was only seven years old, David’s widow Ekaterine became the Principality’s interim ruler. Her short reign was marked by the turmoil of a Turkish invasion and the upheaval of internal political unrest. In 1856, when Ekaterine was in Russia attending the coronation of Tsar Alexander II, the serfs and peasants of Samegrelo openly rose up in anti-feudal, pro-Russian riots. This provided a pretext for the introduction of direct Russian administration of Samegrelo the following year.

Despite Russia’s de facto annexation of Samegrelo, Nikolas Dadiani was still considered the successor to the Principality’s throne for nearly a decade, until he formally abdicated under pressure from Russia’s rulers. On January 4, 1867, the Russian Empire officially abolished the autonomous Principality of Samegrelo.

Twentieth Century

In 1918, grasping the opportunity provided by the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, Georgia declared itself an independent state, and Samegrelo became part of the new Democratic Republic of Georgia. However, the Republic was short-lived. In 1921, the Red Army rolled into Georgia, and the young nation’s sovereignty was soon at an end. Georgia was incorporated into the Soviet Union—first as part of a Transcaucasian Republic along with Armenia and Azerbaijan, and after 1936 as a separate Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic.

In 1991, following the generally peaceful internal collapse of the Soviet Union, Georgia again became an independent state. The territory of the Principality of Samegrelo is now a part of the administrative region of Samegrelo-Zemo Svaneti in the Republic of Georgia.

However, shortly after Georgia gained its independence, ethnic Abkhaz separatists declared Abkhazia, which includes a small part of the territory of historical Samegrelo, a separate and independent state. During a bloody armed conflict over the secession in the 1990s, Abkhaz secessionists expelled many thousands of ethnic Georgians from the region, resulting in a flood of refugees. Although Abkhazia’s sovereignty is not recognized internationally, it maintains an effectively independent status to this day with the support of Russia.

The prospects for reincorporating Abkhazia into Georgia received a setback in 2008, following a brief war between Georgia and Russia over the fate of South Ossetia, another separatist enclave backed by Moscow. This war, which both sides blamed the other for precipitating, hardened Russia’s line on support for Georgia’s breakaway regions.

Samegrelo Today

Today, Samegrelo is well known for its warm, subtropical climate, which is on display in the forest- and marsh-covered Kolkhetian National Park, a favorite destination for bird watchers. Like other Georgian provinces, Samegrelo produces several types of wine, the most famous of which is ojaleshi—a red, naturally semi-sweet wine made from the grape variety of the same name. 

Given its lively and long history, the region boasts many historical monuments and structures. This history is also on display in the Dadiani Palace Museum in Zugdidi, with its impressive collections of art and historical artifacts.

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