The History of the Khevsuris | KHEVSURETI

The History of the Khevsuris

Besik Kharanauli* addresses Zurab Eristavi**:
“One thing should be admitted: it was a great piece of luck that you encountered the people who possess nothing but barren soil and poetry. These people defeated you, did not let you have even a small shred of their native soil and their profound hatred to you immortalized your The Khevsuris had been released from any corvee by the kings of Georgia from ancient times and it was their bounden duty to defend the northern borders of the state and attend the king in military campaigns. The martial Khevsuris inhabiting the mountainous region of Georgia were engaged in agriculture and cattle breeding, guarded the northern border and raised well-equipped troops when the country was at war. Ardent and exceptional warriors, Khevsuris were always keen on courageous deeds and combats. No sooner did they learn of warfare, than the enthusiastic fighters eagerly gave up farming or other kinds of occupation and took up arms. name forever.”
Constant danger and threat of attack on the part of foreign invaders, proximity to the border, the sense of self-esteem, that is so characteristic to the highlanders, made the Khevsuris rigorously care for their military readiness. The Khevsuris never parted with their arms and were always ready to give battle. They adored their weapons and anything that was not associated with arms, fighting or hunting was a question of minor importance to them. Personal arms, valor, fraternity and love of freedom made the charm of their existence, their poetry, their delight and passion. Otherwise life would have been worthless to them. Even the habitation of the Khevsuris in the olden days was a well–arranged system of fortress-towers. From the early Middle Ages Khevsureti was part of historical Pkhovi composed of the tribal unions of the Georgian (the present-day Khevsuris, Pshavis and Tushis), Vainakh and Daghestani mountaineers. The Khevsuris seem to have been the major force of the mentioned conglomerate. The designation of the tribal union “Pkhovi” must have stemmed from the name the Kists called the Khevsuris. The present day Kists (Ingush) refer to the Khevsuris only as “Pkhia” or “Pkhie”. When the Roman legions headed by Pompey (1st century A.D.) passed through Mtskheta and marched into the Aragvi Gorge, a small squad of the Pkhovis (Khevsuris and Pshavis) blocked their progress. Pompey was surprised at the daring of Georgians and spoke to them. He asked them who they were and if they had a king. The Pkhovis answered him that they had been promoted the royal guards by Georgian Kings. The Roman warlord wondered how they were going to resist the onslaught of his warriors. On hearing this Georgian highlanders unsheathed their sabers and made a show of martial art. Pompey was fascinated by their military equipment and mastery of combat technique. He gave presents to the brave highlanders and set them free. A historical-administrative unit referred to as Pkhovi is mentioned in the “Moqtsevai Kartlisai”.*** After conversion of the royal Khevsuris family of the Kartli Kingdom to Christianity in 337, at the request of King Mirian, the spiritual enlightener of Georgia St. Nino of Cappadocia**** professed Christianity to the inhabitants of the mtiuleti (common name of the highland area) of Eastern Georgia. Among the named tribes, mention of the “Pkhovelni”, i.e. people of Pkhovi is also made. In the early Middle Ages Pkhovi was subordinated to the king of Kartli and was a royal domain, however, at the outset of the 11-th century Pkhovi is a member of the Kakheti Episcopacy. The Khevsuris, along with Georgian troops, participated in warfares conducted beyond the limits of the country. When the King of Jerusalem Balduin II applied to the King of Georgia David the Builder with a request to support him in the war waged against the Ottomans, the Khevsuri warriors formed part of Georgian forces. In 1147, the Khevsuris took part in the crusade led by Queen Eleanor. According to the Austrian scholar F. Heer, “…the Khevsuris, a Caucasian tribe, still have a recollection of her. They are equipped with medieval weapons, hold tournaments and sing a song: “The French warriors have Queen Eleanor, Eleanor! …” After the crusading wars the European sword blades (“Pranguli”) and swords with crossguards became especially popular in Khevsureti. No reference to Pkhovi is made in the Georgian written sources following the year 1213. It was at that time when Pkhovi rebelled against the king of Georgia and the population of the province was punished severely for disobedience. Regrettably, nothing is known in historiography about the real reasons of the popular uprising in Pkhovi. There are no sources of information to help the historian construct even the rough picture of the circumstance, owing to which the designations “Pkhovi” and “pkhovelni” have vanished from history. Khevsuris From the latter half of the 15-th century, the Khevsuris and Pshavis were mentioned on the territory of Pkhovi. Pshav-Khevsureti was subordinate only to the Kakheti Kingdom and being reckoned among the royal property right up until the late Middle Ages. Paramount importance was attributed to the relationship between the royal family and the population of Khevsureti on account of the fact that this region always guarded the northern border from which the Kakheti Kingdom as well as entire Eastern Georgia was constantly threatened with the danger of enemy attacks. The Georgian kings regarded the Khevsuris as reliable guardians and they always formed the royal escort. They were permanent members, the vanguard of the king’s army and went into action under their own sacred flag of Guidanis Jvari (“Cross of Gudani”). Following the battle, the Khevsuris had the right to choose the best weapons from the spoils of war. And really, they preferred good arms and living in the mountains freely to all kinds of prizes and belongings in the lowland granted by the authorities. The independent Khevsuris and Khevsureti were subject to no one except for the king. Early in the 17-th century (1618-1629), the powerful feudal lords of the Aragvi “saeristavo” (principality) Nugzar and Zurab Eristavis, the father and his son, sought for subjugation of Khevsureti, along with the other mountainous provinces with the intention of turning it into their tributary. The Khevsuris delivered a rebuff to the haughty feudal lords and won a decisive victory over them. King Teymuraz I of Kakheti*****, by the way, among other things, reminded Zurab Eristavi of Aragvi of the military campaign waged in Pshav-Khevsureti and blamed him for the attempt of seizing the royal property. Throughout history the Khevsuris bravely fought against the Persians, Byzantines, Khorezmians, Mongols, Chazars, Arabs, Ottomans and other invaders. The Khevsuris played an important role in the battles of Bakhtrioni, Aspindza and Krtsanissi of the warfare conducted against the Persian and Turk invaders throughout the 17th-18th centuries. The enemy had no sooner appeared in the Aragvi Gorge than the freedom-loving highlanders made a surprise attack and destroyed them.
***

From recollections of the men of the enemy troop: “The Khevsurs were shooting in the standing position and mostly without missing; they never beat the wounded, on the contrary, helped them to rise…”

***

The Khevsuris were devotees of the King of Kartli and Kakheti Heraclius II. A squad consisting of seven Khevsuris constantly accompanied the King and participated in all battles waged by Heraclius II. Noteworthy is participation of the Khevsuri warriors in the war of Krtsanisi in 1795. When Aga Mohammad Khan Qajar, Shah of Persia, invaded Georgia with the army 35,000 strong, the aged King could muster only 4,000 men to meet them. Though the Georgians fought valiantly, the invaders surrounded Heraclius, but his grandson Ioane went to save him with 300 warriors from the Aragvi region. Heraclius escaped to the Aragvi Gorges, but not one of his 300 rescuers survived. Now one of the Tbilisi metro stations is named after the 300 men of the Aragvi and an obelisk in the capital of Georgia immortalizes the courage of men who defended the city. The 300 men of the Aragvi are venerated as saints by the Georgian Church. Having refused to put up with the expansion of tsarist Russia’s colonialist policy in Georgia, the Khevsuris incited two great uprisings in 1813 and 1923. The rebellions were led by Alexandre Batonishvili (Prince) and the national hero Qaqutsa Cholokashvili, respectively. The Russian army, however, defeated the Khevsuris destroying the fortress-towers and settting fire to the villages.

 

* B. Kharanauli – a Georgian poet
** Zurab Eristavi – Zurab Aragvis Eristavi, a feudal lord of one of the upland districts of Georgia
*** “Conversion of Kartli to Christianity” by Leonti Mroveli – a literary monument of the 10th century
**** Cappadocia – an ancient region of central Asia Minor, between Lake Tuz and the Euphrates River, north of Cilicia. It was an important center of early Christianity
***** Teymuraz I (1589-1663) – a famous Georgian king and poet, although brought up at the court of the great Shah Abbas, he kept his Christian faith and devoted his long life to the struggle against Persian aggression. He died a captive in Khorazan. He wrote impressive poems of the vanity of this world and deeply emotional love poems.