The Rise and Reign of the Abkhazian Kingdom: A Tapestry of Power, Culture, and Conflict

Following the decline of the Lazica kingdom and under the umbrella of the Byzantine Empire, the Abasgi people, inhabiting the dense forests of Abkhazia, began to solidify their power and influence. Their growing strength is reflected in the term “Abasgia” coming to encompass a larger territory. This region housed a diverse tapestry of ethnicities, including Mingrelian and Svan-speaking South Caucasian tribes, all overseen by Byzantine-appointed princes known as “archons” (Greek) or “eristavis” (Georgian). These leaders resided in the city of Anacopia and served as champions of Byzantine political and cultural influence in the western Caucasus.

However, the 8th century witnessed a shift in the regional power dynamic. The Arabs launched incursions into the area around the 730s, but were unable to fully subdue it. This period also saw the emergence of the term “Abkhazeti” (“the land of the Abkhazians”) in Georgian chronicles. This term gradually evolved into the modern name “Abkhazia” used in most foreign languages.

Through a series of strategic dynastic intermarriages and alliances with other Georgian princes, the Abasgian dynasty expanded its control. By the 780s, under the leadership of Leo, they had acquired most of Lazica/Egrisi territory and established themselves as the “Kings of the Abkhazians.” With crucial assistance from the Khazars, Leo managed to expel the Byzantines and further expand his kingdom. Interestingly, he even moved the capital to the Georgian city of Kutaisi.

The nature of this kingdom’s ruling family remains a topic of debate among historians. While some argue for an Abkhazian origin, most scholars agree that the Abkhazian kings were Georgian in both culture and language. This cultural influence is evident in their efforts to eradicate Byzantine religious influence. The Abkhazian dynasty successfully subordinated the local dioceses to the Georgian Orthodox Patriarchate of Mtskheta.

Modern historians often refer to this period as the Egrisi-Abkhazian kingdom, reflecting the continuity seen by medieval authors who viewed the new monarchy as a successor state to Egrisi and sometimes used the terms interchangeably. The kingdom’s golden age arrived between 850 and 950 AD. During this era, Abkhazia dominated the entire western Georgian region and even laid claim to some of the easternmost Georgian provinces. Notably, the terms “Abkhazia” and “Abkhazians” took on a broader meaning, encompassing the entire kingdom’s population regardless of ethnicity for some time. This period also witnessed the rise of the powerful Bagratid dynasty. In 989, Bagrat III, whose mother was Abkhazian royalty, ascended to the throne of Abkhazia. In 1008, he inherited the kingdom of Kartli from his father, effectively uniting Abkhazia and Georgia into a single Georgian feudal state.

This unified kingdom reached its peak under the reign of Queen Tamar (1184-1213). Interestingly, a Georgian chronicle from this era mentions a people called the Apsars. The chronicler even explains Queen Tamar’s son and successor, George IV’s, nickname “Lasha” as meaning “enlightenment” in the Apsar language. Some modern linguists suggest a connection between this Apsar language and the modern Abkhaz language, potentially linking the Apsars to the ancestors of the modern Abkhaz people. However, the exact identity and location of this tribe remains unclear.

According to Georgian chronicles, Queen Tamar bestowed lordship over a portion of Abkhazia upon the Georgian Shervashidze family. Traditionally, this family is believed to be an offshoot of the Shirvanshahs, as reflected in their dynastic name, which translates to “sons of Shirvanese” in Georgian. The ascendancy of this dynasty, also known as Chachba by the Abkhaz form of their surname, would continue in Abkhazia until the Russian annexation in the 1860s.

While the 14th century saw the Genoese establish trading posts along the Abkhazian coast, their presence was short-lived. Unlike much of Georgia, Abkhazia was largely spared from the devastating Mongol and Timurid invasions that brought a halt to the “golden age.” However, the kingdom did fragment into several independent or semi-independent entities by the late 15th century. The Principality of Abkhazia emerged as one of these independent entities. The Abkhazian princes engaged in frequent conflicts with their nominal suzerains, the Mingrelian rulers. These conflicts led to fluctuating borders between the two principalities. Over the following centuries, the Abkhazian nobility gained the upper hand and expanded their territory, ultimately reaching the Inguri River,


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