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Samtskhe-Javakheti map

The unpronounceably named southern flank of Georgia is a highly scenic region whose cultural and natural attractions have unfortunately not prevented it from becoming one of the country’s most economically backward areas.

Although part of Georgia's historical heartland, with the cave-city of Vardzia at its centre, the present region of Samtskhe-Javakheti has a population that is 90% Armenian and is in many ways autonomous. In 1624 the Georgian ruler of Samtskhe converted to Islam for political reasons; many Georgians left the area, but many of those who remained also converted. These so-called Meskhetian Turks lived here until their deportation to central Asia in 1944 and have not yet been allowed to return; their villages are now largely populated by people from Racha and Lechkhumi. In 1829 the Russians took control of the area, and Armenians came here from Turkey, taking the land of some Muslims who emigrated to Turkey.

Located in southern Georgia, the area encompassed by these two historic provinces has gone by several names. To add to the confusion, both the borders and the possession of these two provinces have changed many times throughout a long and violent history, reflecting Georgia's fortunes as a conqueror in the South Caucasus or as the victim of foreign aggression.

The area now known as Meskheti was called Samtskhe throughout most of its history. Both Samtskhe and Javakheti belonged to a larger principality called Samtskhe-Saatabago. At one point Samtskhe-Saatabago included Ajara, a portion of present-day Turkey and Armenia, and Samtskhe and Javakheti. In the ninth and tenth centuries this southern region of Georgia was the most highly developed both culturally and economically.

From this area the move toward Georgian unification was furthered when David III, the powerful ruler of a region of Tao, supported the young Bagrat III. Bagrat was the son and heir of Gurgen Bagrationi who ruled a large portion of Tao. Bagrat was also the heir of King Theodosi of Abkhazia (west Georgia) since his mother was the king's sister. Al that time both Karlli and Inner Kartli, which essentially comprised all of eastern and southern Georgia, were under the rule of King Theodosi. Inheriting lands from his father Gurgen, his uncle King Theodosi, and David of Tao allowed Bagrat III to begin the process of unification. He became King of Inner Karlli in 975 and of western Georgia in 978. In 1001 he lost to the Byzantine Emperor Basil I the region of Tao previously ruled by David III. In 1008, however, when Bagrat's father Gurgen died, Bagrat inherited his father's portion of Tao Klarjeti. The name for a united Georgia, Sakartvelo, dates from this period.

Although the southern region of Georgia was frequently a battlefield, especially as a result of the periodic invasions of the Seljuk Turks from Iran in the 1060s, the territory became the center of Georgian culture and power at the beginning of the 12th century. This was the time of the Georgian renaissance when, under the rule of David the Builder (Aghmashenebeli in Georgian), the Turks were driven out of Kvemo Kartli, Tbilisi, and Tao, and the Georgian kingdom was extended into parts of present-day Turkey and Armenia as far south as the Araks River.

Georgia's beloved Queen Tamara (reigned 1184-1212) consolidated the gains of her great-grandfather, David the Builder, by keeping the Seljuk Turks out of Georgia and establishing tribute-paying states at the borders of her newly expanded territory. She chose the province of Javakheti to establish Vardzia, the most important monastery and at the time the primary center of culture in all Georgia. Located in a region that had known no end of invaders, a region through which ran the major trade route to the Middle East, her choice was a statement to her people-and to the world at large. That the monastery of Vardzia is a cave complex hewn out of stone and designed to be impregnable was also not a coincidence.

During the time of the Georgian renaissance, Samtskhe also gained a claim to fame: Queen Tamara's bard, the man now regarded as the national poet of Georgia, Shota Rustaveli, author of The Knight in the Panther's Skin (vepkhvis tqaosani) hailed from the village (not the town) of Rustavi, located in Samtskhe.

Georgian power proved no match to the Mongols who invaded in the 13th century, fragmenting the three kingdoms of Georgia into semi-independent principalities and playing the nobles of those principalities against the Georgian throne. The Georgian who rose highest under the Mongols' divide and rule strategy of patronage was Sargis Jakeli, the Duke of Samtskhe and once a chancellor of the Georgian King Ulu David, a grandson of Queen Tamara. In 1266 the Mongol Khan officially granted Samtskhe special protection and the region prospered, attracting peasants from other regions of Georgia, especially Kartli, who were feeling the weight of the Mongol yoke.

In the 14th century George V (the Brilliant) again joined Samtskhe to the Georgian Kingdom, but with the invasion of Tamerlane at the end of the 14th century, Georgia once more began fragmenting into separate duchies and kingdoms. By the 1460s there were four: the kingdoms of Kakheti, Imereti, and Kartli were divided by the Bagrationi, and the Principality of Samtskhe-Saatabago was ruled by the Jakeli family. The continual invasions of the Turks whittled away at the territory encompassed by Samtskhe-Saatabago until all that essentially remained was the area now known as Meskheti and Javakheti. With the Ottoman Empire as its neighbor, this southernmost province of Georgia became a Christian outpost whose independence was constantly threatened by the Turks, who continued to seize territory. In 1624 Века III (of the Jakeli family and lord of the diminished territory of Samtskhe) found it politically expedient to convert to Islam. That decision began the Islamization of the territory. Vast numbers of Georgians migrated away from the area while others converted and intermarried with the ever-growing number of Turks who came to settle.

After the Russo-Turkish War of 1828-1829, Meskheti, defined in this period as the provinces of Samtskhe and Javakheti, joined the Russian Empire. Many Moslems were exiled to Turkey, and their land was given to Armenians from Turkey who had helped the Russians during the war. Many of the remaining Moslems spoke Georgian. However, the Russians instituted a policy of discrimination against them and the Moslems' relationship with their Georgian and Armenian neighbors deteriorated. The result of the discriminatory practices was not the desired assimilation that the Russians hoped for, but rather a stronger sense of Islamic identity.

All of this has important political ramifications on the current scene, and the problem  known as the "Meskhetian question." Before Stalin deported these Мeskhetian Moslems to Uzbekistan, Georgian was spoken in only 14 villages. The rest spoke Turkish. In exile, the few who spoke Georgian forgot the language. Their villages are now inhabited by Georgians from the provinces of Racha and Lechkhumi. Meskheti is now densely populated, and the 1,000 Turks who did feel themselves Georgian have been repatriated to a western province. The Georgians have been opposed to repatriating the more than 150,000 Meskhetian Moslems from Uzbekistan because these people did not regard themselves as culturally Georgian but as Turks and, even more importantly, because some leaders of this group have been active in promoting the creation of an autonomous republic or district on the southern border of Georgia. Given the recent history of ethnic conflict in South Ossetia and Abkhazia this option is frightening to the Georgians who already have been living in the region for two generations.

In June 1989, as a result of a suspected Soviet-organized provocation in the form of market quarrel, the Uzbek government demanded that the Meskhetian Moslems be expelled from Uzbekistan. This demand was met two days later and the Meskhets then demanded their right to return to Georgia. Georgia interpreted this situation as Soviet punishment for Georgia's movement toward independence. Georgia recognized the Meskhets' right of repatriation and in the ensuing years has repatriated some Meskhets to inner regions of Georgia. Others have remained in Azerbaijan and the North Caucasus and are insisting on the formation of an autonomous entity along Georgia's southern border.

Meskheti (Samtskhe) covers 1,081 sq. km and has a population of around 100,000. Javakheti covers 3,261 sq. km  and has a population of around 110,000. Both share a southern border with Turkey and until 1989 were regarded as sensitive military zones where it was extremely difficult, even for Georgians, to get the necessary permission to visit. This, thankfully, is no longer the case.

The rehion's biggest attractions are the spectacular 12th-century cave city of Vardzia and the beautiful Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park. Also here are the popular spa resort of Borjomi and the ski resort of Bakuriani. Landscapes are very varied, from the alpine forests and meadows around Borjomi and Bakuriani to the bare volcanic canyons of the Vardzia area.

Javakheti has within its territory the elegant church of Kumurdo and the extraordinary cave monastery of Vardzia. Javakheti is one of the coldest regions in Georgia, with high mountain plateaus of over 2,000 meters and many lakes of volcanic origin. It is the home of many Armenians who asked to be settled there after the Russo-Turkish War of 1828-1829. Meskheti (Samtskhe) possesses the early 14th-century monasteries of Sapara and Zarzma.