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Kartli ( , ) is a historical region in central-to-eastern Georgiamarker traversed by the river Mtkvari (Kura), on which Georgia's capital, Tbilisimarker, is situated. Known to the Classical authors as Iberia, Kartli played a crucial role in ethnic and political consolidation of the Georgians in the Middle Ages. Kartli had no strictly defined boundaries which significantly fluctuated in the course of history. After the paritition of the kingdom of Georgia in the 15th century, Kartli was a separate kingdom with its capital at Tbilisi. The historical lands of Kartli are currently divided among several administrative regions of Georgia.

The Georgians living in the historical lands of Kartli are known as Kartleli (sing., ქართლელი) and comprise one of the largest ethnographic groups of the Georgian people. Most of them are Georgian Orthodox Christians and speak a dialect, which is the basis of the modern Georgian literary language.


The toponym "Kartli" first emerges in written accounts in the 5th-century Martyrdom of the Holy Queen Shushanik, the earliest surviving piece of Georgian literature. According to the medieval Georgian Chronicles, Kartli derives its name from Kartlos, the mythic Georgian ethnarch, who built a city on the Mtkvari; it was called Kartli (probably at the latter-day Armazimarker), a name which generalized to the country ruled by Kartlos and his progeny. Kartlos seems to be a medieval contrivance and his being the eponymous founder of Kartli is not convincing. The medieval chronicler characteristically renders this name with the Greek nominative suffix –ος (os), as Stephen Rapp of Georgia State Universitymarker (Atlantamarker) assumes, "in order to impart the account with a sense of antiquity".

Professor Giorgi Melikishvili has linked the toponym Kartli with a word karta (ქართა), found in Mingrelian (a Kartvelian sister language of Georgian) and in some western Georgian dialects and meaning "a cattle pen" or "an enclosed place". The root kar occurs in numerous placenames across Georgia and, in the view of Melikishvili, displays semantic similarity with the Indo-European prototype; cf. Germanic gardaz ("enclosure", "garden"), Lithuanian gardas ("enclosure", "hurdle", "cattle pen"), Old Slavic gradu ("garden", also "city"), and Hittite gurtas ("fortress"). Parallels have also been sought with the Khaldi and Carduchi of the Classical sources.

Early history

The formation of Kartli and its people, the Kartveli (sing., ქართველი) is poorly documented. The infiltration of several ancient, chiefly Anatolianmarker, tribes into the territory of modern-day Georgia and their fusion with the autochthons played a decisive role in this process. This might have been reflected in a story of Arian-Kartli, the semi-legendary place of the aboriginal Georgian habitat found in the early medieval chronicle Conversion of Kartli.

In the 3rd century BC, Kartli and its original capital Mtskhetamarker (succeeded by Tbilisi in the 5th century) formed a nucleus around which the ancient Georgian kingdom known to the Greco-Roman world as Iberia evolved. The role of Kartli as a core ethnic and political unit which would form a basis for the subsequent Georgian unification further increased as a result of its Christianization early in the 4th century. Located on the crossroads of the Byzantine and Iranian influences, Kartli developed a vibrant Christian culture, aided by the fact that it was the only Kartvelian area with its own written language. With the consolidation of the Arab rule in Tbilisi in the 8th century, the political center of Kartli shifted to its southwest, but the Georgian literati of that time afforded to Kartli a broader meaning to denote all those lands of medieval Georgia that were held together by religion, culture, and language. In one of the most-quoted passages of medieval Georgian literature, the 9th-century writer Giorgi Merchule asserts: "And Kartli consists of that spacious land in which the liturgy and all prayers are said in the Georgian language. But [only] the Kyrie eleison is said in Greek, [the phrase] which means in Georgian "Lord, have mercy" or "Lord, be merciful to us".

After the unification of various Georgian polities into the kingdom of Georgia early in the 11th century, the names "Kartli" and "Kartveli" became a basis of the Georgian self-designation Sakartvelo. The Georgian circumfix sa-X-o is a standard geographic construction designating "the area where X dwell", where X is an ethnonym.

Medieval subdivision

In the Middle Ages, Kartli was traditionally divided, roughly along the Mtkvari, into the three principal regions:
  • Shida Kartlimarker (შიდა ქართლი), i.e., Inner Kartli, centered on Mtskheta and Uplistsikhemarker comprising all of central Kartli north and south of the Mtkvari and west of its tributary, the Aragvi;
  • Kvemo Kartlimarker (ქვემო ქართლი), i.e., Lower Kartli, comprising the lands in the lower basin of the Mtkvari and south of that river;
  • Zemo Kartli (ზემო ქართლი), i.e., Upper Kartli, comprising the lands in the upper basin of the Mtkvari and south of that river, west of Kvemo Kartli.

Most of these lands are now part of Georgia's regions of Shida Kartli (of which Gorimarker is the capital) and Kvemo Kartli (with its capital at Rustavimarker), but also of Samtskhe-Javakhetimarker (of which Akhaltsikhemarker its capital), and Mtskheta-Mtianetimarker (Mtskheta is the capital). A significant portion of Zemo Kartli is now part of Turkeymarker.

Later history

With the fragmentation of the kingdom of Georgia in the 15th century, the kings of Georgia were left with Kartli alone, having Tbilisi as their capital. The kings of Kartli did not relinquish the titles of the all-Georgian monarchs whose legitimate successors they claimed to be. The Europeans, thus, knew it as "Georgia proper" and later also as Kartalinia via the Russian Карталиния [kartalinʲɪjə].

The kingdom of Kartli survived through incessant battles with the Ottoman and Persian empires, neighboring Georgian and Caucasian rulers, and with its own subjects into the 18th century. In 1762, Kartli was united with the neighboring eastern Georgian kingdom of Kakheti into a single state only to be annexed by the Russian Empiremarker in 1801.


  1. Rapp (2003), p. 427
  2. Rapp (2003), p. 136
  3. Khintibidze (1998), pp. 90-97
  4. Khintibidze (1998), p. 103
  5. Giorgi L. Kavtaradze. The Interrelationship between the Transcaucasian and Anatolian Populations by the Data of the Greek and Latin Literary Sources. The Thracian World at the Crossroads of Civilisations. Reports and Summaries. The 7th International Congress of Thracology. P. Roman (ed.). Bucharest: the Romanian Institute of Thracology, 1996.
  6. Translated by Donald Rayfield; Rapp (2003), p. 437
  7. Rapp (2003), p. 420
  8. Toumanoff (1963), pp. 493-5


  • Khintibidze, Elguja (1998), The Designations of the Georgians and Their Etymology. Tbilisi State University Press, ISBN 5511007757
  • Rapp, Stephen H. (2003), Studies in Medieval Georgian Historiography: Early Texts And Eurasian Contexts. Peeters Publishers, ISBN 90-429-1318-5
  • Toumanoff, Cyril (1963), Studies in Christian Caucasian History. Georgetown University Press

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