The Rise of the Abkhazian Kingdom: A Thorn in the Byzantine Side

Abkhazia’s story takes a dramatic turn in the wake of the tumultuous Lazic War. Weakened by their struggle with the Sassanid Persians, the Byzantines faced a new challenge in Lazica. The region, a mosaic of ethnicities including Mingrelians, Zhans, and Svan-speaking Georgians, simmered with discontent. Byzantine authority was maintained through appointed princes (archons or eristavis) residing in the city of Anacopia, who championed the empire’s political and cultural influence. However, the 8th century witnessed a pivotal moment.

Arabs at the Gates:

The arrival of Arab forces in Lazica around the 730s marked a new chapter. While the Arabs attempted to conquer the region, they ultimately failed. This period, however, saw the first appearance of the Georgian term “Aphazeti” in medieval chronicles, literally meaning “the land of the Apkhazians.” This term laid the foundation for the modern-day name “Abkhazia” used in most foreign languages.

The Uprising and the Birth of a Kingdom:

Fueled by a yearning for autonomy and a resistance to Byzantine dominance, a major turning point arrived towards the end of the 8th century. A Western Georgian prince named Leon II launched a bold anti-imperial uprising. His forces successfully drove out Byzantine troops from most of Lazica, including Apkhazeti. This audacious act paved the way for the establishment of the Kingdom of Egris-Apkhazeti, with Leon II himself crowned as the king.

A Strategic Alliance and Expansion:

Seeking to consolidate his newfound independence, Leon II forged a crucial alliance with the Khazars, a powerful nomadic Turkic empire. With their backing, he managed to expel Byzantine authority completely from Egris-Apkhazeti. Leon II’s ambitions didn’t stop there. He further expanded his kingdom, shifting his capital to the historic Georgian city of Kutaisi.

The Question of Ethnicity and Religion:

The exact nature of the ruling family in Egris-Apkhazeti remains a topic of debate among historians. However, most scholars agree that despite their domain encompassing Abkhazia, the kings were Georgian in terms of culture, language, and ethnicity. This is further evidenced by their efforts to diminish Byzantine religious influence. The dynasty strategically brought the local dioceses under the authority of the Georgian Orthodox Catholicos of Mtskheta.

Egrisi-Apkhazeti: A Kingdom Forged from Legacy

Modern historical narratives often refer to this kingdom as Egrisi-Apkhazeti. This emphasis stems from the perspective of medieval chroniclers who viewed the new monarchy as an heir to the legacy of Egrisi, the former Kingdom of Lazica. The terms “Egrisi” and “Apkhazeti” were sometimes used interchangeably by these chroniclers.

The Golden Age of Apkhazia:

The period between 850 and 950 AD marked the golden age of the Kingdom of Apkhazeti. Under strong leadership, the kingdom reached its zenith, dominating the entirety of western Georgia and even extending its influence eastward into some of the easternmost Georgian provinces. During this era, the terms “Abkhazia” and “Abkhazians” were employed in a broader sense, encompassing the entire western Georgian population of the kingdom.

Patrons of Culture and a Legacy in Stone:

The Abkhazian kings of this era actively fostered learning and artistic expression. Abkhazia itself became a crucial bridge through which Georgian cultural influences flowed outwards, reaching the mountainous peoples of the North Caucasus. Evidence of this cultural exchange can be found in the ruins of Georgian churches adorned with Georgian inscriptions and frescoes scattered across this region.

Within Abkhazia itself, numerous architectural marvels stand as testaments to this golden age – churches, monasteries, fortresses, and bridges. While these invaluable monuments serve as a magnet for tourists, particularly from Russia, their current state is a cause for concern. The de facto separatist authorities in modern-day Abkhazia have neglected these treasures, leading to their deterioration. Furthermore, there have been disturbing reports of deliberate destruction of the Georgian frescoes and inscriptions that adorn these structures.

The story of the Abkhazian Kingdom is a complex tapestry woven with rebellion, strategic alliances, cultural flourishing, and a legacy etched in stone. The following sections will delve deeper into the kingdom’s turbulent relationship with the eastern Georgian kingdom, its eventual decline, and the region’s journey in the modern era.


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