N. Lomouri, Museum of Georgian Art

In the first centuries of the Christian era the area from the river Galizga to the river Shakhe was home to both Abkhazian tribes (the Apsils and the Abazghis) and Megrelo-Chanian (Colchian) and Svanian ethnic groups (the Sanigae or Sanigs and the Suanno-Colchians). At the same time, the Georgian (Kartvelian) population occupied a large territory that exceeded the area settled by the Apsils and the Abazghis.

Later on, consequent upon the rise of the Kingdom of Lazians (also known as Egrisi in Georgian sources) that occupied central areas of Western Georgia, the ethno-political map of North-Western Colchis underwent considerable changes: by the beginning of the 5th c., if not earlier, the borderline between the Lazians (or the Ergs) and the Apsils no longer followed the course of the river Galidzga, but was shifted to that of the river Kodori. The Apsils had been pushed by the Lazians up to the north, and the border between the lands of the Abazghis and the Apsils passed somewhat to the north-east of Sukhumi, around the course of the river Gumista. In their turn, the Apsils had pushed the Abazghis beyond the river Gumista onto the territory occupied by the Sanigs on the Black Sea coast between the rivers Shakhe and Psou; now the Sanigs found themselves squeezed between Abkhazo-Adyghe tribes - the Djiks from the west and the Abazghis from the east. We should have thought that the Svano-Colchians were partly with the Sanigs and partly with the Abazghis.

The rise of the kingdom of Egrisi and expansion of its territory began from the 3rd c. After the 4th c. and until the sixties of the 6th c. the territory of historic Abkhazia, i.e. the lands populated by the Apsils and the Abazghis and the major part of the territory populated by the Sanigs and the Suanno-Colchians were part of Egrisi. Among the tribes subjugated by the kings of Egrisi, contemporary written sources along with the Apsils also mention the Misimians who occupied part of the Kodori river gorge and were doubtless a Svanian tribe. It follows, therefore, that Svans lived in the Kodori gorge as early back as at the beginning of the Mediaeval epoch.

According to written sources, the dependence of different political formations on the territory of Abkhazia upon the king of Egrisi varied from tribe to tribe. Thus, the Abazghis had rulers of their own who were vassals to the king of Egrisi, while the Apsils and the Misimians were under his direct rule and their lands were provinces of this kingdom like the saeristavos in East Georgia. The process of breakaway from Lazica germinates as early as at the beginning of the 6th c. This movement was also encouraged and supported by the Byzantine Empire, the result being that in the middle of the 6th c. Abazghia declares itself an independent principality (Archontate), breaks away from Egrisi and becomes a province of the Byzantine Empire with a population comprising the Abazghis per se together with the Sanigs and the Suanno-Colchians. As for the Apsils and the Misimians (the Kodori Svans), they stayed under the king of Egrisi and when this kingdom was abolished early in the 7th c., they remained under the sway of Laz Patricians. It was about the early 8th c., when the north-western part of Apsilia from the river Kelasuri to Anacopia (now Novi Aphon - New Ahos) unified with Abazghia.

The early 8th c. also saw the formation of yet another political unit that was independent of Lazica and subordinated itself directly to the Byzantine Empire. Georgian sources called it the Saeristavo of Abkhazia, while Byzantine authors described it as the Archontate of Abazghia. The border between Egrisi and Abazghia-Abkhazia ran along the course of the river Kelasuri, roughly speaking. The Saeristavo of Abkhazia comprised, along with Abkhazian, also Georgian tribes, and the Georgian (Megrelian and Svanian) population, evidently predominant in that area numerically, occupied a leading position in significance and in its general share in the country. This conclusion is corroborated by the indisputable fact that Colchian (West-Georgian) culture was prevalent here since long

ago, and that all over the Bronze, the Early Iron, the Antique and the Early Mediaeval epochs only Colchian material culture has been proved as flourishing on the territory of historic Abkhazia, characterized by definite local peculiarities but developing within the framework of unified West Georgian and from a definite time later - of general Georgian culture. Analysis of architectural monuments, archaeological finds, the linguistic and religious situation of the Early Mediaeval period allows us to conclude that despite their origin both the Apsils and the Abazghis were, in ethnocultural terms, an integral part of Georgian ethnic unity, such as the Egrs, the Svans, the Kakhis or the Meskhis.

Some Abkhazian researchers (Z.Anchabadze) put forward a hypothesis that the ethnic base of the Abkhazian Saeristavo was "the unified Abkhazian ethnos that had resulted from consolidation of separate Abkhazian tribes and small nations". This hypothesis caused objections on the part of other scholars (N.Berdzenishvili, E.Khoshtaria-Brosset). We cannot agree with it either, because the Early Feudal epoch did not offer any objective conditions, any pre-requisites for Abkhazian tribes to consolidate into a nation. These tribes did not have any tradition of statehood, of a state with a spoken and written language of its own; in other words, they did not have even the necessary minimum of the components that are required as a basis, as a pre-requisite of consolidation of any tribe or tribes into a nation. On the contrary, that period offered every condition for integration of all these tribes into a single Georgian people. Thus, though the establishment of the Archontate of Abkhazia (or the Abazghian Saeristavo) contributed to the unification of the Apsils and the Abazghis, it did not at all mean that the given feudal unification was ethnically separate to any extent. Neither its ethno-cultural character, nor the level of its social development differed it in any manner from other saeristavos of Georgia. And this situation precisely accounts for why the Abkhazian Eristavis seceded from the Byzantine Empire, rallied around themselves the whole of Western Georgia and proclaimed themselves "Kings of the Abkhazians". The state they thus created was, in all parameters, not an Abkhazian, but a Georgian kingdom. The issue of the essential nature of this state cannot be disputed in serious historic science and cannot have an alternative solution. Leon II (Leon I of the newly established kingdom) was styled "King of the Abkhazians" because his dynasty originated from Abkhazia, although it is hard to say who were the eristavis or archons of Abkhazia by their ethnic origin: they could have well been representatives of the local nobility - i.e. Abazghis, Apsils, Sanigs, - or Byzantines. But that does not make much matter, the main thing being what the kingdom under them was like. The character of the "Abkhazian Kingdom" is pretty clear: the majority of its population was made up by the Georgians. Now this new kingdom comprised Svaneti, Racha, Lechkhumi, Mingrelia, Upper and Lower Imereti plus Guria and Adjaria. All these lands had a Kartvelian population: - Megrelians, Svans, Karts and, as mentioned earlier, Abkhazia proper had a considerable percentage of Kartvelians. Judging by the culture, the state language and the language of the church, as well as by the policy pursued by the "Kings of Abkhazia", the "Kingdom of Abkhazia" was actually a Georgian state formation. Understandably, this formation took an active part in all the political developments of the time which resulted in the formation of a unified Georgian kingdom, a Georgian feudal state.

________ Thus, neither in the Antiquity, nor in the Early Feudal epoch was historic Abkhazia an independent state, and Abkhazian tribes never had a statehood of their own. Abkhazia was a visceral part of Kartvelian state formations - first Colchian, then Laz (Egrisi), later the so-called Abkhazian Kingdom and finally, from the close of the 10th c., it became part of the unified Georgian kingdom and until the late Middle Ages it remained as just another administrative unit like other saeristavos of Georgia. The involvement of the Abkhazians into the process of consolidation of the Georgian nation contributed to further integration of the Abkhazian tribes into the Georgian ethnic milieu.

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