Archive for the ‘ caucasus ’ Category

Georgia: National resurrection through allegorical religious history


Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2012. All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari.


asbtract: In the first decade of this century, President George W. Bush was not the most popular American abroad. Georgia was an exception. Here was his picture , smiling and waving at me, on the sign of a major street named after him in the capital city of Tbilisi. He was obviously much loved. This was, in fact, the only portrait-memorial to any living person I saw in Georgia. Bush’s America was seen as a heroic savior against the menacing Russia. Paradoxically, some two hundred years earlier the Georgian rulers looked to Russia for exactly the same protective role, that time against Persia. Russia came here but it overstayed. I went to see what has transpired since. I found out that for fuller appreciation, one needed to understand the long and tangled history of Georgia’s past. Having just regained its independence, Georgia is in that intriguing transitional stage of shaping its national myths from historical facts. A process that is made more complex as it relies on the distant legacy of religion for a nation that has been dominated by the aggressive secular culture of Marxism in the past century. This is a report on what I learned about Georgia in details necessary for adequate illumination.


A few miles into Georgia, our bus got stuck on a bridge behind a herd of sheep. The shepherd was in no hurry and in the pause our tour guide commented that “Lamb meat is mostly unavailable in restaurants, it is considered cheap villagers’ food, although we eat it at home.”  Restaurant was an institution found only in Georgia’s few large towns. “In restaurants we are most likely to eat pork, chicken and veal.” The guide expounded on the difference between the two Georgias, villages and towns, when she talked about the mixture of ethnic groups in urban centers. She was from the capital city of Tbilisi. There, unlike in most villages, “every person, in addition to being a Georgian is also something else, in contrast to our neighboring Caucasian countries. For example in Armenia, every Armenian is just an Armenian.” She was right, in Armenia this index of “purity” has risen to about 92 percent, largely due to the conflict with Azarbaijan where in turn, for the same reason, that index has also reached about the same level.

“In Georgia everybody wants to know everything about the other person and they usually find out,” our guide continued. “The first thing they ask to find out which kind of ‘other than Georgian’ you are is your last name. I am the complete opposite of anything like a ‘pure’ Georgian. I am only eight percent Georgian, the rest is different ‘nationalities:’ Russian, Jewish, Armenian and Italian.” This raised my first question: what exactly is a Georgian?

The bus had cleared the bridge. Out of window I could see a verdant vast plain with clouds bordering its sky. We were in the southeastern part of Kakheti, having crossed the border from Balakan in northwestern Azerbaijan. Kakheti is a historic region.  Some two-thousand five-hundred years ago it was part of the Persian Achaemenids state. The Persians’ attempt to bring the tribes further to the north also under their control provoked, instead, the formation of an alliance of those proto-Georgian tribes, the Colchians in the west and the Iberians in the east. They eventually merged with the southern indigenous tribes to constitute the Georgian people.

“Georgia is a name the West uses to refer to our country,” our guide said. “We have a different name for it: Sakartvelo which is derived from Kartli, the name of the other main region in Eastern Georgia -not Kakheti.” (My trip would not take me to Western Georgia. Tourists are told that the most important sites are in Eastern Georgia.) Kartli is in the north where Tbilisi, as well as Mtskheta, the more ancient capital of Georgia, are located. As to the Georgian language which is unlike others, nobody knows its origin, although some historians have speculated that “it might be related to those of pre-Indo-European peoples of Europe including the Proto-Basques.”

As we drove through the countryside, our guide offered this reflection: “We were agricultural in the classical time and we are that now.” Our bus had the road practically all to itself. It was a two lane road, narrow, which went through quite a few small villages. No villagers were out on the streets. The buildings we saw seemed to be in dire need of repair. They showed poverty of the kind that prevents needed maintenance. Bricks were used and the architecture was non-descript, not distinguished. 

Wine House

Our first stop in Georgia was at the Wine House Gurjaan. The village of Gurjaan, we were told, was typical in Kakheti, the wine country of Georgia where “hundreds of different grapes” are grown. Each village has “its own particular variety.” This Wine House was a family winery. The women lined up at the entrance to greet us. In the yard a man was barbecuing pork. Corn was hung to dry next to a shack nearby. The family sold wine and also served food to visitors.

We were led to a cellar with brick and stone walls for a demonstration of how wine was made. A man stood at a pit in the middle of the room and stirred the wine in an earthenware vessel, called qvevri, buried below ground level while he explained to us the process. The qvevri was large, with a capacity of about 1,000 liters. This type of vessel existed as early as 8,000 B.C. It has been developed primarily for wine making. It is used for the fermentation and storage of wine. Its inside is coated with beeswax. Grapes are dumped into the qvevri, crushed and left to ferment. Over the next week or so, the grape skins are pushed down and then the qvevri is covered with a stone cap and left standing for nearly two years. Thereafter the wine is ready to be bottled. The qvevri is then sterilized with lime for re-use.

We were told that the qvevri wine, made in this traditional Georgian way, is “rich in tannins, superior in taste” and does not require chemical preservatives to ensure its “long life.” According to our guide, Georgia is counting on qvevri to make its wine popular in the world as the product of a “more natural method” in the industry.

Our hosts now ushered us into a room where a table was set for lunch. On it, there were cucumbers and tomatoes, barbequed pork, fish, an eggplant dip, olives and the famous Georgian cheese bread called khachatury.  There were also pitchers of wine; we were served two kinds of house wine, red and white. This spread was called sofreh. A loanword from Persian, “sofreh literally means table cloth but it also means a feast,” our guide said. “It is important in our culture because in Georgia everything happens around the food table. We have a tradition of having a person be the toastmaster and tell a story, something that goes on for a long time. It is followed by toasts which start, like, to friendship. Then there is another story with another toast, and then comes yet another story.” She said “This lasts quite a bit, and most of this time you are supposed to be listening and not eating or drinking.” She then said “Gaumarjos, which means cheers and your answer will be madlobt, which means thank you, the same to you!”

We responded as she taught us. Then she told us about Georgian food. “We eat basically meat, different kinds of meat. We also eat liver and heart and stuff like that. We also have all sorts of vegetable foods: mostly eggplant with herbs and spices, spinach and beans; also cheeses and smoked cheese; and we have this special cheese bread of which we have many different kinds, also bean bread, meat bread and bread with different herbs. We make a decent beer and Georgian lemonade with different flavors, like tarragon and grape, which some may find too sweet.” In my conversation with her afterward we noted that many Persian words remained in usage in the Georgian food lexicon: badrijani (eggplant); gulabi (pear); lobio (bean); kababi (kebab); mastnis (yogurt); and plovi (pilaf).

St. Nino

The “grapevine cross” is a potent symbol of Georgian Christianity. It is the attribute of the country’s most popular saint, Nino. More than any other name, newborn girls in Georgia are named after her. The common folks’ identification with St. Nino is deep-rooted for her to be so emblematically important, as we would learn from the detailed history of Georgia pertaining to St. Nino which our guide told us.

Toward the end of her life, “when St. Nino was in her sixties,” as the guide estimated, “she withdrew” to the Bodbe gorge, in Kakheti, where she died around the year 340.  The gorge was just a few miles southwest of the Wine House Gurjaani. We drove toward it. Where St. Nino was buried, Georgia’s King Mirian III (284-361), built a small monastery in the hamlet of Bodbe. This was the King who in 327 made Christianity the official religion of his domain, Kartli in Georgian, which was called Iberia by the Greeks.

St. Nino had come there in 320 because, according to Georgian tradition, “she had a dream when she was 14 in which the Virgin Mary told her to go to Iberia and convert its people to Christianity.”  She won “respect from the people by her good deeds and the miracles she performed.” In the capital city of Mtskheta she won a royal convert when her prayers managed to save Queen Nana from serious illness. Her husband, King Mirian, however, was not convinced “until he was struck blind while hunting, and his sight was miraculously restored only after he prayed to the Christian God.” The King then abandoned “the pagan religion, and replaced his Aramazd idol with a cross.”

Nino is a historical person, originally from Cappadocia in present day Turkey.  The Georgian name “Nino” is “Nune” in Armenian, and St. Nino is known as St. Nune in Armenia.  According to Armenian sources of the 5th century, Nune was among a group of 33 Christian women from Rome who had escapade to Armenia to avoid persecution by the Roman Emperor Diocletian. When one of those women, the beautiful Hripsime, refused the Armenian King Tiradates III’s advances to take her as his concubine, the King ordered them all killed in 301. The only one who managed to survive was Nune (Nino). She eventually managed to come to Georgia.

At the time, Tiradates was a follower of the cult of Anahita, the old Iranian goddess. The neighboring Georgian King Mirian’s Aramazd idol, on the other hand, was “a syncretic deity,” of two legendary figures, the Armenian Ara and Iranic Ahura Mazda.  Aramazd came to occupy the top position in this area’s pantheon after interaction with the Persians led to the Armenians’ accepting the Zoroastrians’ Ahura Mazda as their primary deity.

Like King Mirian, the Armenian King Tiradates III was converted to Christianity when he was cured of a disease (melancholy leading to insanity resulting from being spurned by Hripsime) by a Christian Saint, the Armenian St. Gregory (257-331). This is also a part of religious traditions, not necessarily a historical fact. But such traditions were often more potent than history. Christian beliefs indeed shaped the history of Georgia in this period as I was about to learn.

Georgia from the 3rd to the 7th century was the scene of intense competition between Persia and Rome (and its successor, Byzantium). The first king of Georgia or Iberia, the legendary Pharnavaz I (302–237 B.C.), had used Persian institutions as models for organizing his realm.  But later, as the kings of Georgia came to rely on Rome to uphold strong monarchical control, the Georgian nobles sought help from Persia to counter their kings’ centralizing ambitions.  By the middle of the 3rd century Iberia effectively became a part of the domain of the new Persian Sassanid dynasty. The Persians’ vigorous propagation of their Zoroastrianism soon established this religion in Iberia. By the middle of the 5th century the Sassanid King Yazdegerd II (438-57) decreed that the people of all of the Caucasus had to renounce Christianity and embrace Zoroastrianism. Most of the Georgian nobles submitted, but the common people resisted. Christianity had taken deeper roots among them.  This was in part due to St. Nino. Our guide said: “At the point when Nino was ready to  die, she asked all the sick people from all over to come and she prayed and healed them all and this was heard all over Georgia, even before they became Christian.”

Christianity became a major barrier to Persian influence in Georgia. To weaken it, Persian rulers tried to exploit the disputes among Christians by protecting the Monophysites who opposed the Chalcedonian doctrines (that Christ had two natures, one divine and one human) promoted by the Byzantine emperors. The Persians sponsored, at the Council of Devin (capital of Armenia) in 506, unity among the Georgian, Armenian and Caucasian Albanian (in present day Azerbaijan) churches which had adopted the Monophysites’ doctrines. Only when the Persian influence waned, did the Chalcedonians gain prominence in Georgia, causing Monophysitism to disappear by the end of the 6th century.

We had now entered the grounds of St. Nino’s Monastery and were admiring the tall cypress trees which gave it a sense of natural serenity. The triple-church basilica that faced us was not the original but one from the 8th century which has been renovated many times since. It is dedicated to St. George ( 275 –303), the holy Christian warrior, who, according to Georgian tradition, was the gentle Nino’s cousin. St. George is the most venerated Saint in Georgia which at one time (in the 18th century), reportedly, had 365 churches named after him, to match the number of days in the year. The English name for the country is connected to St. George. It is believed to be an anglicisation of the Persian Gurj (via the Arabic pronunciation, Jurj). On the assumption that Gurj was derived from the Persian word gorg (wolf) and thus referred to the frightening and heroic people in that land, the early medieval chroniclers translated it as George, the same as the fearless Christian Saint.

The St. George Church at Nino’s Monastery in Bodbe became a favorite of the kings of Kakheti in the late Middle Ages, a place where they held their coronations. Its future history, however, was tied to the changing tide of the domination of Georgia by foreign powers. The Muslim troops of the conquering Persian King Shah Abbas I plundered it in 1615, but it thrived when Christian Russia annexed Georgia until the Soviet regime closed it in 1924, converting the monastery building itself into a hospital. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Bodbe monastery was reopened as a convent and extensive restoration work on the St. George Church followed.

Today the St. Nino Monastery is one of the major pilgrimage sites in Georgia. “What we are seeing now is how these buildings basically looked in the 19th century,” our guide said as she specifically pointed to the St. George Church . The Church’s bell tower was built in 1815 and appropriately looked like a Russian bell tower . The frescos remaining inside the Church were also painted in the period under the Russian rule but by Georgian artists. In a small chapel to the right of the alter of the Church under a marble slab was Nino’s simple grave.

“The areas where the nuns live are behind the trees and inaccessible to us,” our guide said. Down the slope northeast from the church, a short distance away, was a small chapel over a spring named after St. Nino. “Water sprang there as she prayed,” our guide said. “Pilgrims drink and wash their face with that water which is considered to be holy and to have a healing effect.”


Just outside of the St. Nino Monastery we could see the red tile roofs of the houses in Sighnaghi perched on top of another cypress green ridge . Under the blue sky with fluffy clouds Sighnaghi beckoned you with its publicized reputation as the most attractive town in Kakheti. With substantial help from the government since 2007, Sighnaghi is being developed as a tourist center for Kakheti with an emphasis on wine. It now has a week-end long wine festival every October.

Sighnaghi has an “Italinate feel to it,” our Georgian guide summarized her impression. The place did look a bit like the south of Italy, or other parts in southwest Europe, with its balconies and their ironworks. Many of its buildings have been renovated but with an eye to preserving and restoring their original versions from the 18th century. Galleried houses are located around small cobblestone  squares where elderly men still sit to a game of backgammon . When we went for a walk around the compact center of town, we noticed some newer buildings, like the City Hall in which “some of the old architectural stylization, in terms of columns, was used,” as our guide said.  A “modernist” looking building which was built in 1820 during “the Russian Imperial time” continues to be the theater.  Another building with iron balconies “used to be the house of an aristocratic family and now has been turned into a hotel.” A few steps away was a newly established casino. Many of the visitors to Sighnaghi are from Tbilisi which is only one and a half hour away. “The first thing they opened here was the wedding house and ever since it has been used all day long,” our guide said.

“On the right,” the guide now pointed, “there is a wall with names inscribed on it. Those are the names of the people who took part in the Great Patriotic War, as WWII was once called here. But we now consider that war as a part of the history of the Soviet Union.” She paused and said “Every 7 citizens of Georgia took part in that war and every 16th Georgian never came back.”

From many locations in this small settlement of about 2,000 we had impressive views of the valley of the AlazaniRiver and the Caucasus Mountains in the distance. Sighnaghi is still surrounded by much of the four kilometer long wall  that was built in the middle of the 18th century to defend it against attacks by “Persian and Lezgin  enemies of King Erekle II,” our guide said. Each of the six entrances to the wall was named after a local village whose residents would come through it to this sheltered refuge in case of danger. Sighnaghi itself was populated by artisans and trades people, mostly Armenian, who were brought here by Erekle as “he wanted this to be a thriving town of art.”  By the 19th century Sighnaghi had evolved into a leading trading center.

Historic pivot

We went for a walk on a part of Sighnaghi’s wide wall. “King Erekle II was a major figure in Georgian history,” our guide began a conversation with me. As we both knew, that history took a radical turn during Erekle’s rule, changing a long-standing relationship with Persia and ushering in a dramatically different era of relations with Russia. The walk offered an opportunity for me to hear the guide’s version of what happened. It was long and informative. I interrupted her occasionally for clarification. I paraphrase much of our conversation here as it sheds light on momentous periods in the past of Georgia, often forgotten or misunderstood.

Kakheti was an independent feudal principality from the end of the 8th century until the Georgian King David the Builder (1089–1125) incorporated it into his Kingdom. After the disintegration of the GeorgianKingdom which was due to foreign invasions by the Mongols and Tamerlane, and domestic conflicts among local rulers, Kakheti became an independent kingdom in the 1460s.  In 1762, the KakhetianKingdom was united with the neighboring Georgian Kingdom of Kartli. In 1801 the Kingdom of Kartli-Kakheti was annexed by the Tsarist Russian Empire.

Through most of its turbulent history, before the arrival of Russia on the stage, Kakheti was a tributary to various Persian kings, whose efforts to keep this reluctant Georgian kingdom within their sphere of influence resulted in a series of military conflicts.

The rulers of the Kingdom of Kartli, who had continued to claim the titles of the all-Georgian monarchs after the 15th century, were not immune to pressures by Persia either. Indeed, Kartli (then called Georgia proper by Europeans and Gorjestân by Persia) became a battleground in the wars between the Persian Safavids and the Ottomans of Turkey. The Ottomans finally conceded all of Eastern Georgia to Persia by the Amasya Treaty of 1555. Relations between the Safavids and Kartli thereupon developed into the system of vassalage. In the 1630s the Kartli Georgian rulers reached a “compromise” with Persia. Accordingly, Persia allowed Kartli to retain a measure of autonomy under the lords of the Georgian Bagrationi (Bagratids) dynasty, provided that they adopted Islam and remained subordinate to the Persian shah. In Georgian documents these Georgian rulers were mentioned as kings, while Persian official documents referred to them as the wali (viceroy) of Gorjestân, marking their subservience to the shah.

Nader Shah Afshar who succeeded the Safavids in Persia reasserted that country’s control over Eastern Georgia against the Ottomans who had intruded there in the meantime. He appointed a Persian as governor of Kartli in 1735, but a decade later, as a reward for the services of his Georgian wali of Kakheti in putting down the rebellion of the nobles of Kartli, Nader gave Kartli to that wali, Teimuraz II (1744-62), and made his son, Erekle II, the wali of Kakheti.  Further, he permitted Teimuraz to be crowned as “king of Kartli” according to Christian customs in 1745. The “politics of compromise” thus came to an end. In the chaos that followed Nader Shah’s death, those two Georgians rulers found an opportunity to assert their authority, when the new Persian ruler (Adel Shah) who was married to one of Teimuraz’s daughters sought their help in consolidating his control over of Persia.

From 1748 onward the kingdoms of Kartli and Kakheti were in effect independent although they still observed the formality of vassalage to Persia. Upon the death of Teimuraz in 1762, Erekle succeeded his father in Kartli and united it with his own realm, Kakheti, thus making a single united state in Eastern Georgia under a Georgian ruler for the first time in three centuries. Realizing that his independence from Persia remained precarious, Erekle II (1762-98) sought the protection of Russia. In 1783 he signed the Treaty of Georgievsk making the Kartli-Kakheti state a Russian protectorate.

Persia did not concede immediately. Its new ruler, Agha Mohammad Khan Qajar, demanded that Erekle acknowledge that his position was just the wali of Kartli-Kakheti. When Erekle refused and instead reaffirmed his attachment to Russia, the Persian Shah launched a campaign that led to the destruction of the Georgian capital of Tbilisi in 1795.  The Russians failed to provide timely support.  Agha Mohammad Khan’s successor, Fath Ali Shah, in 1798 similarly demanded the submission of Erekle’s son and successor, Giorgi XII (1798-1800). Giorgi also rejected him. This time Russia’s firm support prevented the Persian armies from moving to Georgia, and instead led to the unilateral declaration by Tsar Paul I of Russia incorporating the Kingdom of Kartli-Kakheti in his Empire.


History followed us into the only store we were taken to in Sighnaghi by our guide. The sign outside gave its full name: Georgian Carpet Knitting by Old Methods Educational Experiment Center .  “You are now in the sole remaining carpet factory where carpets are produced in the old method,” the manager of the Center told us.  In Western literature on carpets Georgia is usually not given much notice. “Before the period when we became part of the Soviet Union,” our host said, “in this area there was a special weaving method, but we have almost forgotten that art. In this Center we are trying to revive it. For that we go looking in many villages with the help of a group of knowledgeable women villagers we have employed. They collect carpets and information for us.”  This was not a government operation, his shop was “a private enterprise.”

The manager now told his men to spread a carpet before us on the floor. “In this design we have a fight between the phoenix and dragon, the good and the evil. This kind of design we have been using in Georgia since the very first century A.D.  Dragon was considered evil in the pagan time, and it has been incorporated into our Christianity. So in Georgia we see St. George depicted as killing the dragon snake. Phoenix was the symbol of good and entered in Christianity as such too. The fight between good and evil is something that happens everyday in each of us.” He went on: “The symbolic negative value of dragon here is similar to that given it in old Persian tales. In fact, our Georgian term for dragon translates as ‘the master of snakes’ which is the literal equivalent of the Persian ozhdha (lord of snakes).” From this he moved to show us a carpet that he said “was produced in Iran.” Another one, which was similar in design, was a local Georgian product, “wool on wool which is not very popular in Iran.”  He said: “For 125 years in Shiraz, Iran, carpets were actually woven by Georgians who were taken there from Georgia some 400 years ago by the Safavid King Shah Abbas. Even today there is a place in Iran called Faridan where Georgians live.”

In support of the long-standing significance of carpet weaving, our tour guide now told a story “which in Georgia we connect to Sighnaghi.” She said, “According to legends there was once a very beautiful lady in this town. A prince hears about her and comes to ask her father for her hand. She tells him that he first has to learn some craft to do with his hands because, she said, ‘what would happen if the kingdom should be no more? How would we survive?’ So the prince decides to learn how to make carpets. Couple of years later he comes back and she agrees to marry him. They live happily for a few years but when he is the king and she the queen and their children are grown up, suddenly, the king is captured and taken away. The captors ask for ransom. He says to them ‘Let me make a carpet which my wife could give to you as ransom.’ They agreed. He makes a carpet and within its geometric design he indicates where he is kept. The carpet is then given to the queen to be used as the ransom, but it enables her to find out where the captured king is and to come and rescue him.”

Diaspora Georgians

The guide did not specify the place of the king’s captivity, but the general theme of Georgians taken in captivity to Persia is well-known, and frequently told to tourists in Georgia. The conversation we just had specifically connected it to carpet weavers moved to foreign lands. There were, however, some obvious discrepancies in this casual reference to an important part of Georgia’s history.  The 61,000 Georgian-speaking people who now live in the town of Fereydunshahr, in the Faridan region of Iran, are indeed an important phenomenon in understanding contemporary Georgia. They constitute one of the largest Georgian-speaking communities outside of Georgia.

They trace their ancestral origins to 19 Georgian clans or extended families, relocated to central Iran four centuries ago. They are believed to have come from Tianeti and other northern mountainous areas of Georgia. They were not the only group from Georgia who were brought to Iran, but those other Georgians have all fully integrated (in language as well as religion) into the general population in the other parts of the country, especially Mazandaran, Fars and Isfahan. There is no evidence, however, that any of these transplanted Georgians were especially skilled in carpet-weaving.

Many were peasants, and a large number of Georgian women were taken to the harems of the shahs and the elite where some came to gain notable influence and power. Several queen mothers in Persia of the 17th century came from Georgia. What the Georgians excelled at, however, was military service to the Persian shahs, especially during the Safavid dynasty. They fought in the army of its founder, Shah Esmail I (1501-1524). Under his successor, Shah Tahmasb I (1524-76), Georgians, taken captive during the Shah’s four excursions into Georgia, began to be imported into Safavid territory. Shah Abbas I (1587-1629) vastly enlarged the pool of Georgians in Persia by capturing many in his campaigns of 1614, 1615 and 1616 in Kartli and Kakheti. The number of his captives has been estimated as high as 200,000.

The moving of many of the Georgian peasants by Shah Abbas to the Faridan region was intended to implement his plan for a systematic depopulation of the area north of the Persian province of Azarbaijan to discourage Ottoman incursions. Later, Shah Abbas also institutionalized the practice begun by Shah Tahmasb of employing Georgians in the Persian army and even civil administration. He formed his bodyguard from the estimated 12,000 of his Georgian gulam (dedicated servants) and his Georgian cavalry guards reportedly numbered 25,000. Indeed, both he and Tahmasb pursued a policy of creating a new “ force” to diminish the power of the Turkish qezelbash on whom the Safavid had initially relied but which had since become suspect. Accordingly, a Georgian, Allahverdi Khan, served as the Persian army’s commander-in-chief for eighteen years (1595-1613), and his son Emamqoli Khan led the war that freed the Persian Gulf from control by the Portuguese navy. Many more Georgians were settled along Persia’s strategic roads, Tehran-Mashad and Isfahan-Shiraz, to defend them against bandits and predatory nomads.

The Georgians who were brought to Iran converted to Shia Islam. The Georgians allowed to serve as wali in Georgia were also required to convert to Islam. From 1620 these walis’ sons were appointed to serve as the darugha (city perfect) of the capital of Persia (Isfahan) “in perpetuity.” In the waning years of the Safavid dynasty, the wali of Kartli, Vakhtang VI (1711-14, 1719-23) began to oppose Persian predominance, expressing pro-Russian and pro-Christian sentiments. He was forced to give up his throne. A few years later, receiving no foreign assistance, he accepted Islam and became wali again (1711-14, 1719-23). His eventual successor several decades later, Erekle II, also refused to be a mere wali of Kartli-Kakheti and proclaimed his attachment to Russia. When in response the Persian king, Agha Mohammad Khan attacked and captured Tbilisi in 1795, he took some 15,000 of its inhabitants to Persia.(Russia accommodated him as it withdrew its forces for use in its war with Turkey.)  This would be the last time, however, that Persia took captives to Georgia. Defeated in a subsequent two-year war with Russia, by the Treaty of Torkamanchay in 1828 Persia confirmed Russia’s control over Georgia.

Old Tbilisi 

“Almost all the buildings you see in Tbilisi were constructed after 1795,” our guide said. “Agha Mohammad Khan left nothing standing.”  We were standing on the site of Narikala Fortress. This was once the citadel established by the Persians in the 4th century. The Fort which they called Shuris-tsikhe (Impregnable Fortress) was built to keep watch over the narrowest passage of the River Kura (called Cyrus by ancient Greeks, after the Persian Achaemenian King, Kuros) and the opening to the all important Kura Valley, the birthplace of the Georgian people. The citadel was expanded by the Arab rulers who captured Tbilisi in 645 and stayed for 400 years, and then further expanded by the Georgian king David the Builder after he moved his capital here from Kutaisi in 1121. The 14th century Turco-Mongol invader Tamerlane gave it its current name, Narin Qala (Little Fortress).  The Georgians have since also renamed the river Kura as Mtkvari.

“Most of the fortifications you see here are from the 16th and 17th centuries,” our guide told us,  “parts of them damaged by a 19th century  earthquake.” Of the original Shuris-tsikhe only a little portion of the front wall still exists.  Down the slope we could see the ruins of the frame of a building which was called Shah-takhti (Shah’s Throne) by the Persians and had been turned by the Arab Emirs into their residence first and then into an observatory in the 7th to 9th centuries . Inside the fort the Arabs had built a mosque which when David the Builder came was replaced by a church in the 12th century. Called the Church of St. Nicholas, this too was destroyed in 1827. The church is the only structure that has since been rebuilt, in the 1990s.

Oligarch’s Compound. The Narikala Fortress is atop the peak of Sololaki Range of mountains, offering a panoramic view of Tbilisi which grew below the Fortress’ walls, stretching along the river to the east. We followed a path down the western gentle slope of the crest now dominated by a surprisingly modernistic complex of buildings which, we were told, served as the headquarters of Georgia’s top “Oligarch.” Some say he is the new de facto ruler of Tbilisi. He provides the financial backing for the opposition which in the last election won in the Capital. Our guide said there was a helicopter pad on this property. “And when there is no helicopter on the pad it means he is not home, which is most of the time.” The Oligarch has had vast investments in Russia. To certain Georgian intellectuals, he is an anathema, our guide continued: “As a friend told me, he reminds her of what the German novelist Erik Maria Remarque once said: the best way to make money is either to help build a civilization or to ruin it. To her this was a time a civilization was being ruined by crass materialism here.”  Georgian scholars we heard later echoed this critical sentiment when they talked about the “grand corruption among top level officials” produced by the post-independence growth of a market economy, while large parts of the population were still deprived of “a basic source of livelihood.”

Soon we reached the statue of Kartlis Deda (Mother Georgia). It is a 20 meter aluminum image of a woman holding a sword in one hand “to defeat enemies” and a cup of wine in the other “to welcome friends.” This combination is considered “very Georgian,” our guide said. Therefore, erected in the Soviet times in 1958, the statue is still “one of the symbols of Tbilisi.”

Botanical Gardens.  To our right were the many trees of the Botanical Gardens. It had opened to the public in 1845 on the grounds that had been the royal gardens. For more than a decade after Independence, however, ordinary Georgians could not dare to go there. This was the period of the virtual civil war in Georgia that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. “All the weapons of the Soviet regime became available to anyone. So everyone had a gun and some even had tanks. Bullets were flying like crazy.” Our guide talked about her own experience:  “First thing I saw when I opened my eyes in the morning and looked out the window was a tank outside on the street. Neighbors were fighting against each other. The illegal formations of these militarized people basically positioned themselves in the botanical garden and in the Fortress. So these places were unavailable for us to enjoy.” She continued: “The first time I could go to the botanical gardens was in 2000.” Her parents had had even a longer wait before they visited the Fortress, because during World War II and just after it, it was used as storage for ammunition. “It was there but they could not reach this symbol of their town, almost like Mount Ararat for the Armenians which they can see from Yerevan but can’t go there.”

Wishing tree.  As we continued our descent we came to a look-out next to a tree with many pieces of paper and cloth attached to it. It was a wishing tree. “The GeorgianChurch is against such trees because they are considered paganistic,” our guide said. The force of custom has proved stronger. “One teenager puts a wish on a tree and then another one and then another, then we end up with a whole tree of wishes.” Ironically, she said, “Youngsters suppose that the more spiritual the place is, the better are the chances that the wishes will come true. So in some places, like a monastery we end up with whole bushes of wishes and the main job of the monks becomes untiing the wish bands.” She continued: “Take this point where we stand. I once counted the many churches you can see from here. There were twenty. So this is considered a very spiritual place, ideal for a wishing tree.”

Origin. Historical facts notwithstanding, Georgians liked their legends about how Tbilisi came to be settled. “It seems that in Georgia, everything happened by the will of the king, and he made his important decisions when something happened during his hunt,” our guide commented. There are in fact two different folk stories about how the king of Georgia decided to make a settlement in Tbilisi. One has him shooting a pheasant which then fell into the hot sulfur spring here and was cooked for dinner. The other version is about the deer which the king wounded in the hunt. “The deer then washed himself in the water of the spring and miraculously ran away healthy.” Either way Tbilisi, indeed, took its name from the Georgian word tbili (warm), the water of the hot spring that attracted the king to this location. That king, the legends tell us, was Vakhtang Gorgasali (447-522) of Kartli (Iberia) who thereupon moved his capital here from Mtskheta, some 25 kilometers away. Tbilisi remained the capital when Georgia later became the united Kingdom of Kartli and Kakheti.

In fact, evidence of settlement in the Tbilisi area stretches back to the fourth century B.C., long before Vakhtang. The latter, called Gorgasar (Wolf-headed) by the Persians (Gorgasa in Georgian) because of the shape of the helmet he wore, was charged with guarding the northern passes through Kartli for the Persians who had occupied this area since 368. Gorgasar participated in Persian campaigns against Byzantium between 455 and 458. He was married to a Persian princess but later came to resent the Persian encroachments on his authority. In 482 he rose up against his suzerain and also declared war on “Persian Christianity,” which was Monophysitism. His rebellion was put down, however, by punitive Persian expeditions in 483 and 484. After a lull, when the Persians attacked again in 517-18, Vakhtang appealed to the Byzantines for help, but they provided none, and he fled to Lazika where he died in 522. (This Byzantine disappointment was an early version of what Georgian kings would experience in their relationship with Russia in 1795.)  For more than a century thereafter, Tbilisi remained in Persian hands, with occasional interruptions by Byzantium, until the Arabs established their domination in the 7th century. The Georgian kingdom in Tbilisi, abolished by the Persians in 580, was not revived until 1122 when King David the Builder (Davit Aghmashenebeli)took Tbilisi and made it his capital.

MetekhiChurch.  We were discussing the outline of this complicated history at the rocky outcropping above the river, across the Narikala Fortress, which was the site of David the Builder’s former Palace. Instead of the Palace there was now the 13th century Metekhi Church of the Virgin, constructed by King Demetri Tavdadebuli (the Self-Sacrificing) like its original from the 5th century. The latter had been built by King Gorgasali. This King’s equestrian statute  on a pedestal facing the river, erected in the 1960s, now dominates the front yard of the Church.

There was still one more Georgian historical luminary who left a mark here. Tamar, the Queen Regnant of Georgia from 1184 to 1213, was married here in the Palace, our guide said. As the first woman to rule Georgia, Tamar was indeed given the title of mepe (king), as she presided over what is deemed the “Golden age” of the medieval Georgian monarchy.  Her monarchical Bagratid dynasty that had been established by Ashot I (813-830) soon would see its decline with the Mongol invasion of the 1220s.  The Mongols destroyed King David’s Palace.

We walked to the MetekhiChurch. It had been converted into a theater by the Communist regime in 1974, but was reconsecrated in the 1980s. Once again history engulfed us. There to the left of the altar was the tomb of the early Christian St. Shushanik, martyred by her husband in 475 for refusing to convert to Zoroastrianism. Her husband was a Georgian feudal lord who opposed Vakhtang Gorgasali and took a pro-Persian position, renouncing Christianity and adopting Zoroastrianism. For that he was put to death by Vakhtang in 482.

OldTown. “Ever since its beginning in the 1st century, Tbilisi began to develop on both sides of the river,” our guide said as we looked out from where the outstretched arm of the statue of Gorgasali was pointing. The east of the river “has always been for the ordinary citizens: merchants, artisans, etc.; the other bank , especially the elevated area, was meant for the royal family and aristocrats.” She pointed to the “highest part of Tbilisi” on this western side: “We refer to it as the Holy Mountain.” There is a church there which “started as a monastery in the 6th C,” and near it is “the cemetery which is our ‘Pantheon,’ where famous Georgian poets, writers, politicians, dancers, etc. are buried.” She completed the description of those hills: “There is also a restaurant there, famous as it was mentioned in many novels, with a funicular, which was so popular in the Soviet period that some of the Moscow officials would fly to Tbilisi just to have a meal there with some Georgian wines and attend a concert.”

Most of what we saw on the other side of the river is referred to as “the OldTown.” There are historic neighborhoods which have been populated by various ethnic groups. Armenians still have their own church. The Jews have two synagogues on the same street. There is a Catholic Cathedral. The foundations of a former ZoroastrianTemple still exist. The Muslims have a Mosque. “Most of these religious temples are in active use,” our guide said.

Sulfur Baths. Also in the Old Town are Tbilisi’s iconic sulfur bath-houses, the abanotubani. Their architecture is recognizably distinct with beehive domes rising at the ground level. These date back to the 17th C. “Bath-houses existed from the very beginning,” our guide said. “They are concentrated where the subterranean hot spring stops but the spring is present in many other places in Tbilisi as well.”  Then she told us this about the use of the hot spring water and the baths:

“Some people are fortunate to have this water coming straight into their water tubs as hot water. They are lucky because everywhere else since 1991 hot water does not come anymore. In Soviet times everything was centralized, you got your heating and hot water. Then for many years there was nothing and you had to install the connections yourself and, of course, that was not cheap or easy to do so. But now the majority of people in Tbilisi have something to heat at least one room in winter time and some hot water. Yet there are some people I know personally who come to these bath-houses a couple of times a week to wash themselves.”

She paused and then continued “But there is also a part of the Society that comes here for entertainment: to get a bath, get a massage, relax. There are common rooms here for women and under age children, and for men, separately of course. In the private rooms there is a small pool and you can also get a massage.”

There are six bath-houses in Tbilisi. We went to where most are located, the Abano (Bath Street). We saw the colorful Orbeliani Baths which had a blue-tile mosaic facade, specifically stylized to look almost like a mosque. The lobby, on the other hand, was simple with clear lines and sported a modern leather chair. We were told that the French writer Alexander Dumas and the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin were among those who had bathed here. Pushkin is memorialized by a plaque on the outside wall which quotes him saying “I have never had better fun than in the bath in Tbilisi.”

Mosque.  As late as 1795, there were 68 bath-houses in Tbilisi. “Many were demolished in the attack by Agha Mohammad Khan,” according to our guide. Worse than the fate of the bath-houses, only one Tbilisi mosque has survived, even though Muslim rulers dominated this town for many centuries. For a long time there was a celebrated Shiite Mosque in Tbilisi built in 1524 by the Persian Safavid King, Ismail I. In 1951, to facilitate the construction of the Metekhi bridge over the river, the Communist government of Georgia demolished that mosque. The Persian king Nader Shah had destroyed, in 1740, the early 18th century Sunni mosque that had been built by the rival Ottomans in the OldTown. It is this mosque, which was restored in 1864 by a Volga Tartar family, that now stands in Tbilisi. We went a short distance uphill behind the sulfur baths to see it.

In contrast to the Orbeliani Baths, the Mosque had a simple brick facade.  We saw a sign for a religious school  within the Mosque. “Students go there everyday after the regular school. There is also a Turkish language public school,” our guide said. Most of Tbilisi’s Muslims are Azeris. There are some 10,000 of them and over 80% are Shiites. But they pray alongside their Sunni brethren in this mosque, which is usually simply called the Tbilisi Mosque, but sometimes also referred to as the Dzhuma (Community) Mosque. This true community use is unusual between the two branches of Islam, perhaps made possible by both necessity and ethnic and linguistic affinity of the Azeri minority (both Shiite and Sunni) in a foreign land. A new leader of the Mosque also helped in 1996 by ordering the removal of a curtain that had separated the two denominations during prayers.

In comparison with the sole mosque, fourteen old Armenian churches have survived in Tbilisi, including the Saint Gevorg Church which was near the Fortress.  The Armenians had thrived under the Russian Tsarist government.  Their number in Tbilisi jumped to about 40% of the population after the Russian conquest. At the beginning of the 19th century the Muslims in Tbilisi constituted the majority of the population, but by the end of the century Tbilisi had become mostly Armenian and Russian. Armenians formed the majority in the city until the early 20th century. There were at that time some 24 Armenian churches in the city.  Then the Soviet anti-religious campaign of the 1930s took its toll: ten Armenian churches were destroyed.  After Independence, Armenians left Georgia in huge numbers. Some 200,000 migrated, mostly in search of employment. A large number of those remaining live in the Javakheti region, in the south of the country. In Tbilisi the Armenians are now only the second largest ethnic minority, after the Azris, at 7.6% of the population. As a result there are only two working Armenian Churches in the city.

The same has happened to the Jewish community of Tbilisi. From a height of 100,000 in the 1970s, the number of Jews in Georgia has declined to some 3,500 as many have left for Israel. Most of those remaining live in Tbilisi but being so small in number, for economic reasons, the two congregations, Ashkenazi and Sephardic, are now housed on two stories of one of the formerly separate synagogues, according to our guide.

Georgian Churches. The oldest surviving religious temple in Tbilisi is the Georgian Anchiskhati Basilica which was built in the 6th century and restored many times, especially in the 17th century. “It is the favorite of the Catholicos-Patriarch who is the head of the Georgian Church’s” our guide said. “He comes here to pray on holy days.” The residence of the Patriarch is at a square around the corner.  Opposite these we could see the Presidential Palace across the river. We went inside Anchiskhati and admired the fresco paintings which were done by Russian painters in the early 20th century. The Russians also built a bell tower here in 1812 which still stands. A block away was the Sioni Cathedral which was originally built in the 6th century as well, but it was later destroyed and rebuilt many times. The current structure is from the 13th century.  This church is distinguished for sheltering the important sacred Cross of St. Nino. According to Georgian tradition the Cross, made with vine branches, was given to Nino by the Virgin Mary. Nino later bound it with her own hair. We could not see the Cross as it is kept in a safe.

Kala. In early 19th century, Tbilisi had 13 caravanserais. One of them has survived in the Old Town. It is being restored and turned into a series of modern offices. The Old Town, however, continues to reflect a bit of the past. The locals still call it by its old Persian name, Kala (Fort), just as they have kept the Persian names for street (qucha), square or circle (moedani), and lane (sikhi). The Old Town’s famous Bath Street is called Abano, derived from the Persian word for water, ab.

There are graceful houses with wooden balconies in the OldTown which have laced ironwork  with vines growing on them. These stand in contrast to the Soviet era housing still found in the Old Town’s half-hidden covered courtyards. We visited one. “Several families live on the second floor,” our guide said. “They are from different ethnic groups. They get along playing soccer in the courtyard.” At one corner there was a stairway that went down to “a place for them to get water from.”  The guide added: “There is one kitchen and one bathroom which they share on each floor.  There are separate gas stoves and meters for electricity and gas for each family. ” She spoke from experience. “My grandparents lived in this kind of courtyard. Similar courtyards still exist in other parts of Tbilisi too. ”

OldTown has become chic. On some streets, such as Shardenis Qucha, which the fashionable young Tbilisis frequent, smart cafes have sprouted up right under the old Ottoman style balconies. They have names like KGB: Still Watching You. A recently built clock tower tries to be the answer to the famous old one in Prague; accordingly, it is made crooked and antiqued. It is called the PuppetTheaterTower. From the window above the clock dolls come out on the hour, walk around in a circle and go back in. The forthcoming programs of the theater, when we visited, were the whimsical Battle of Stalingrad and Autumn of my Springtime .

Flower Story. Ethnic neighborhoods have survived in the OldTown. Many Azeris live in the Abanotubani area near the Mosque. In 2007 a memorial statute of Heidar Aliev, the founding President of the independent state of Azerbaijan was erected there. The traditional Armenian quarter is the nearby Avlabari. There is also a flower market here, and this was where our guide told us the following story:

“One day I saw a tour bus pull up in front of Aliev’s statue. A man stepped out of the vehicle. He went to the flower market and bought one hundred white roses for a big amount of money and gave one to each of the passengers on the bus. While the Armenian tourists sat still on the bus, the Azeris all came out. One by one, they marched to Aliev’s statue and put their rose at his feet; you could almost hear the marching drums! Then they all went back on the bus. As soon as the bus left, the white roses were picked up and went back to the flower shop! The Georgians who were witnessing this just laughed.”

There was a moral in this story, our guide said. “In the last two decades because Azerbaijan and Armenia have been not so friendly with each other, Tbilisi has become where all the regional conferences are held so that representatives of Armenia and Azerbaijan could both attend. We actually are very happy with this role.”  Our guide continued: “Azerbaijan is happy that Georgia is neutral, but Armenia is not and also wants Georgia to condemn the Turkish Genocide.”

The human side of the triangular relationship of these countries was more personal to our guide: “When all the three were just one county under the Soviet Union, at the age of 16 I was in love with an Azeri boy. We would hold hands and read poetry. I even thought I could marry him. Once we went to Baku. At the Memorial to the Martyrs there which has a magnificent view of the city we sat down. He held my hand as he said ‘tell me how much Armenian blood you have?’ I answered ‘what if I told you fifty percent?’ He let go of my hand and walked away and I have never seen him again.”

New Tbilisi

Tbilisi has functioned as the geopolitical center of south Caucasus, in fact, since the Russians arrived in the 19th century. Where the OldTown ends, to the west is a most impressive square from which six streets branch out. This is now known as Freedom Square, but it was originally named Erivan Square to honor the general who earned the title of Count of Erivan by conquering Erivan (Yerevan) for the Tsarist Empire. Indeed, the Russians lost no time in building a whole new city for Tbilisi, which they made the seat of their Viceroy of the Caucasus. In contrast to the old city, this one had big squares and wide streets, the most illustrious of which was the Palace Street, today called Rustaveli Avenue. The Viceroy’s Palace was here, today turned into the YouthPalace. In between these changes in names and functions, many of these landmarks of Tbilisi had undergone other transformations during the Soviet regime. The Viceroy’s Palace became the PioneerPalace. The mansions of the rich in the Sovolaki district, just to the south of Erivan Square, each were split into parts and given to several families. Erivan Square itself became first (Lavrentiy) Beria Square and then Lenin Square.

Here at that time stood a statue of that leader of the Bolsheviks. It was brought down after Independence from Soviet Russia in 1991 and has been replaced by a golden statue of St. George spearing his dragon, as the resurrected patron saint of Georgia. The name Freedom Square itself was a resurrection: it was first given to this Square in 1918 by the short-lived (1918-1921) First Georgian Republic. The leaders of that Republic, however, were Mensheviks, who “liberated” the Square following the collapse of the Tsarist Russian Empire. Like their rivals, the Bolsheviks, the Mensheviks were generally hostile to religion and insisted on the separation of church and state. St. George would not do as the symbol of their freed polity.

Demonstrations. The vast Freedom Square which is where Tbilisi’s  City Hall is located has been the venue for mass demonstrations for independence from the Soviets as well as other dramatic political changes since, including the 2003 Rose Revolution that brought down the first President of the new Georgia, Eduard Shevardnadze.  On the day of my visit, however, the Square was quite. In the little park on one corner of it, with a newsstand full of newspapers, several duos of men were sitting on the benches playing chess. Each duo had at least one spectator, another man standing and looking at the progress of the action on the board. They seemed oblivious to a smaller demonstration that was now passing in front of the Old Parliament House , just a few blocks away on Rustaveli Avenue.

The Parliament House had become the primary venue for political demonstration after the “storming” of it brought to power the current President, Mikheil Saakashvili in January 2004. Many times since, his opponents have come to march in protest here. While winning re-election in 2008, Saakashvili is not popular in Tbilisi which he lost, garnering his majority in the rest of country. Perhaps to avoid the same environment that led to Shevardnadze’s resignation, Saakashvili has arranged to move the seat of the Parliament to the 12th century capital Kutaisi, a city more than 200 kilometers west of Tbilisi. At a lecture I attended in Tbilisi, an American expert on Georgian politics offered this assessment of the move: “Saakashvili has proven once again that he is the best politician in the country.”

The demonstration which I saw today was non-threatening. There was no noise. I saw no police or marshal. Rustaveli was blocked off where this crowd of some 1,500 marched on the wide street. They carried a white banner which, in Georgian, said “Our Language,” as a fellow observer explained to me. “This is for Mother Tongue.” The march was “for purification of the language: getting rid mainly of Russian words, but also more.” The English language newspaper next day wrote that the demonstrators’ goal was “Georgia for Georgians.” Judging by their clothes, the majority seemed to be middle-class. Most were middle age, but several youth carried the banners. A few clergy led in the front row.

Our guide had told us that the most influential voice in Georgia was that of the GeorgianChurch’s Patriarch. The Parliament building was balanced on the other side of Rustaveli by Kashveti (Stone Birth) Church. It is said that a “pagan ritual” used to take place on this spot. According to tradition, this StoneChurch was first built in the 6th century by Davit (David) Gareja, one of the ascetic Syrian Fathers who came from the Middle East to spread Christianity in Georgia. As our guide related: “A nun accused David of impregnating her. He replied that if this were true she’d give birth to a baby and if not, to a stone, which is what duly happened.” The Stone Church commemorates that incident.

After the demonstration I stood looking at the venerated Church. Women and men, passing by, stopped before the Church and crossed themselves.

Rustaveli. Rustaveli is a mile long. Georgians say “It is a mile of democracy because all the events since Independence have happened here.” But Rustaveli has been much more.  The majority of its stately buildings date back to the 1840s-1860s. The most impressive one, the baroque-style building of the Opera and Ballet State Theatre was built later in the same century. Like the other structures it was damaged in the violent civil conflicts of the 1990s. Most have been restored since, including the 1910 Hotel Majestic, called Hotel Tbilisi in the Soviet time, still considered to be the best in town. It has been given a different name, The Tbilisi Marriot, by its new owner, the American company. Also commensurate with the new regime, the old Institute of Marxism-Leninism building, a pet project of the Georgian high-ranking Soviet official Lavrentiy Beria from the 1930s, is being renamed and turned into the luxury Kampinski Hotel.

Rustaveli itself was originally called Golovin Avenue, after a Russian Viceroy. In 1918 the First Georgian Republic changed the name to honor Shota Rustaveli who is regarded by Georgians as their greatest poet.  In its present form Rustaveli is oddly more like a freeway than a boulevard: there is no traffic light stopping the cars, nor a pedestrian cross walk. To go from one side of the street to the other, a pedestrian has to use underpasses. In one of these underpasses I found a picture of Shota Rustaveli with a plaque that explained how his major work and the Georgian national epic poem, The Knight in the Panther’s Skin, came to be attributed to him: by the words of the prologue in that work. Rustaveli’s picture and those of the others in the pages of that mediaeval book of poems, posted on the wall of the underpass, were of the style customary in Persian miniatures of his time (1172–1216). This was a portrait of Rustaveli quite different from how he was depicted later, in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, almost as a Georgian saint, or in the 1937 monument to him in the square named after him at the western end of Rustaveli Avenue.

Rustaveli’s name means “from Rustavi,” a native of his home village of Rustavi in the southern Georgian region of Meskheti. He is believed to have been a “Treasurer” at the royal court of Queen Tamar of Georgia 1160-1213). I looked up a summary description of Rustaveli’s Knight in the Panther’s Skin. It is a long poem of approximately 6,500 lines. They consist of over 1,600 shairi quatrains, in places showing strong Persian influence. Shairi is in fact from the Persian word for poem. The story of the poem, surprisingly, has almost nothing to do with Georgians. It describes the adventures of Avtandil, a young Arab nobleman, and his friend Tariel, an Indian prince. Sent by the ruler of Arabia on a mission to find a mysterious knight clad in a tiger’s skin, Avtandil finds the knight who turns out to be Prince Tariel, grieving over the disappearance of his beloved, the daughter of the king of India. Avtandil and Tariel succeed in freeing the beautiful princess from captivity in the hands of evil spirits. The poem has a happy ending with the double wedding of Tariel and Avtandil to their respective beloved.

Literary Heritage. When I discussed these observations with my young learned Georgian friend in Tbilisi, she was not surprised. Already a polyglot –fluent in English, Russian, Armenian as well as Georgian– she said she was now studying Persian because that was “necessary for understanding not just Georgia’s history, but also its literature.” Her language instructor was “a Persian woman married to a Georgian in this town,” but her introduction to the literary influence of Persia had come from the courses she had taken at the Tbilisi State University. According to her understanding of the literary contacts between Georgian and Persia, they began from the very beginning of the development of Georgian secular literature in the 11th century. The New Persian literature had emerged just a couple of centuries earlier.

The Georgian literary elite’s connection with the Persian poets of the neighboring Persian province of Shirvan (in today’s Azerbaijan), such as Nezami Ganjavi, and Khaqani Shirvani, was especially strong. Not only in Rustaveli’s Panthers Skin, but also in almost all Georgian literary works of this period there are names of Iranian heroes borrowed from such classical Persian texts as Abu’l-Qasim Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh. The Georgian readers of the time must have been quite familiar with those texts. Later, in the renaissance of Georgian literature in the 16th to 18th centuries, which followed its decline in the previous two centuries, Persian literature again greatly influenced the upper classes in Georgia.  Georgian kings had an important role in this. King Teimuraz I (1603-63) who was born and later died in Persia was fluent in Persian and highly valued Persian poetry.  King Vakhtang VI (1711-14, 1719-23) who had a long stay in Persia where he mastered the language, had several works from Persian translated into Georgian. It was only from the 19th century that the Persian-Georgian literary and cultural contacts decreased markedly. As Georgia became a part of the Russian Empire, Russian language gradually replaced Persian and Russian themes became dominant in Georgian literature.

Russian Influence. We had a glimpse of the impact of Russia on Georgian arts when we walked beyond Rustaveli Square to the House Museum of Elene Akhvlediani. Born in 1901, Akhvlediani lived 73 years and became an influential representative of a generation of Georgian artists. Best remembered for her “atmospheric” paintings of Tbilisi, she is also credited with custom designs for over seventy theater productions. Her house became a salon for artists, musicians and poets. Turned into a museum four years after her death, the house reflected that era. Its round balconies overlooking vines with grapes still on them were typical of the Russian Caucasus. Inside, a concert of European classical music was awaiting us. Two women played the violin and a third was at the piano. On the walls were Akhvlediani’s paintings, in all sizes. Hand-woven thin textile on other walls and old pitchers and jars lined below on wooden cabinets reminded you that this was not quite a Western European setting.

Toastmasters. In the waning years of the Soviet Russia’s Empire, “ensembles of singers” represented Georgia in the cultural offerings that General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev took with him in his visits to the West. They are still playing in Tbilisi, singing “traditional and religious songs.”  One of these ensembles entertained us at a “toastmasters dinner”  in a basement restaurant. These singers were four men in their fifties. They had met at the university and had continued to sing together. They said they had “their own original compositions too but tonight would sing the traditional songs.”

As we sat down one from the ensemble stood up and offered this toast:  “Thanks for this beautiful day.”  We had been reminded that the protocol required us not to drink or eat before the toast was finished, and that the toasts could last as long as the toastmaster had “stories” to tell. This first toast was brief. The man sat down to eat. Soon another of the men got up and offered a toast to “friendship”. Then the first man picked up his guitar to play while others joined him in singing in Georgian. The guitar player introduced the next song, in English: “One more song about Tbilisi.” The others accompanied him as he also sang while playing the guitar, which was the sole instrument used that night. After a pause, one of the performers stood up and offered a new toast: “What makes life possible is love.”

Now the men took a cigarette break, after offering their CDs at $15 a piece: “There are up to 12 songs on a CD.” When they came back they gave a toast to “the family, children.” This was followed by their singing Elvis Presley’s “Love me Tender, Love me True” in English. It was our turn now to offer toasts. One from our group of guests said this: “A toast to friendship between American and Georgian peoples.” He was followed by a woman who asked “all women to toast the men.” This prompted a reply from a husband. He remembered a Mexican toast from his honeymoon 48 years ago: “To health, love, wealth, and time to enjoy them all.”

The last toast was from the ensemble: “Everything has to come to an end and this is to meet again. Have a good journey and the last song is the Travelers’ Song.”


The ensemble singers told us that some of the religious songs in their repertories were one thousand years old. A church that old and venerable where those might have been sung was the “Svetiskhoveli Cathedral  in Mtskheta, believed to be the most important “religious center” and the biggest ecclesiastic construction of medieval Georgia. It was originally built by in 1010-1029 by the Catholicos Patriarch Melkisedec, and since then has undergone several restorations.  It is a “must visit” for Georgians, our guide said. Today, indeed, we shared it with some local pilgrims .

The Svetiskhoveli Cathedral represents Georgia’s “inscribed cross” type church (with a central dome and four smaller domes at the tips of the arms) and has a layout of elongated rectangle . I walked inside the Cathedral. There were mural paintings on the walls which mostly date back to the 17th century.  The floor was covered with stone markers for tombs.  Erekle II and a few other Georgian kings as well as patriarchs and nobles are buried here.  In a prominent place before the altar there was a tomb with Arabic script on its stone. Some clue as to the date of his burial was indicated by the tombstone next to it which marked the times of this deceased: 1729-1799.  That was the era Persia still dominated this area.

Walls surrounding the courtyard of the Cathedral are from the second half of the 18th century, but on their western section we could see gates which were dated to the 9th century. There were also fragments of a palace built by Patriarch Melkisedec on the site. We were shown fragments of earlier churches as well. In the 4th century there was a wooden church erected here, over which in the 480s there was built a bigger three-nave basilica, our guide said.

The Georgian state’s conversion to Christianity, in 337, took place in this town, Mtskheta. According to legend, the reigning King Mirian, once converted by St. Nino, arranged a mass baptism in the nearby AragviRiver for the townsfolk. Mtskheta had been the capital of the eastern Georgian kingdom of Iberia from the 3rd century.

Starting as an important market town because of its location at the confluence of Aragvi River and MtkvariRiver, Mtskheta evolved into a center of the Iberian civilization both culturally and spiritually. Iberia’s “founding” king was Pharnavaz I. In addition to the Iranian origin of his name, his connection with Iranian epic traditions has been noted by scholars. He is said to have created a Zoroastrian sanctuary at Armazi, the ancient capital of Georgia near the future Mtskheta. The word Armazi, which is also the name of a deity in the Georgian pantheon, is associated with the Zoroastrian Ahura Mazda.  Mtskheta has been “refurbished” since Independence by the Georgian government, our guide said. We could tell this by the recently paved streets and the new houses  just outside the Cathedral.

From the Cathedral in Mtskheta we could see the JvariChurch on the peak of the surrounding mountains. It was not hard to imagine the strategic significance of that location when Mtskheta was the capital. It was also easy to understand why it could be an ideal location for a Christian cross. That is exactly what was erected there in the 4th century. It is called the Holy Cross (Jvari in Georgian), although it is not clear if the huge wooden cross was set there by St. Nino herself, or later by King Mirian or by both.  To many Georgians Jvari has become “the holiest of holies, the country’s spiritual heart,” we were told. For them Jvari is another “must visit.”

On the day we went there, we were the only visitors. In the grassy field fronting the Church a single rusting sign anchored in the dirt among the grazing cattle was presumably intended for busier days as it warned: “Do not litter. Fine 200 Lari.” Against the majestic background of the Caucasus Mountains we saw the imposing structure of the Church atop a hill overlooking the confluence of the Kura and Argavi Rivers. Down below were spectacular views over Mtskheta, giving us the full measure of the significance of the town, positioned at the foothills of the mountains and the opening to the plains in the south.

The building of the Church dates back to 585-604 when Stepanoz I, the ruler of Kartli constructed it over the original cross. The sign at the JvariChurch, also called Jvari Monastery, called it “the most significant monument of Georgian architecture… a classic of early Georgian tetra-conch design with appendixes.” The angles between the four equal arms of its cross-shaped plan are filled in with corner rooms. The low dome sits on a squat, octagonal drum, with the overall result of a beautifully symmetrical little building. At one time this was surrounded with a wall from three sides, a crumbling portion of which is still there.

The exterior of the JvariChurch has rectangular pink stones. Its interior is rather bare . “An octagonal pedestal” of the original Cross has been preserved in the church, according to a sign, but the cross that now stands there is of a later vintage. The JvariChurch is in need of repair as the presence of workers, ladders and scaffolding indicated .


St. Nino might be revered by Georgians, but not long ago it was a Georgian apostle of another system of beliefs who was more admired by many more, if not necessarily in Georgia, certainly in the wider world. Joseph Stalin was not always a Communist, indeed as a youth he was a student at a Tbilisi seminary of the Georgian Christian Church that St. Nino had established. Now held in despise in most countries, Stalin is still remembered in Gori as a native son. That Georgian town, some 60 miles northwest of Tbilisi, is where Stalin was born in 1878 and lived as Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili until 1883. Stalin (Man of Steel) was a title he acquired later.

Gori which now has a population of some 50,000, is an old town perhaps existing as early as 65 B.C. Where Stalin lived was a poor neighborhood, demolished in the 1930s in the reshaping of the town to glorify its favored son, while his home was perfectly preserved for a future museum. The street we now saw was wide but empty, with utilitarian, long five-story apartment houses. There was only one store in sight. On the outside wall in red paint it advertised, in English, “Hot Bread .”

On the other side of the street was an impressive building, The Stalin Museum. Built in 1957, it has been a major source of income from visitors for Gori. It has a specious courtyard where a bigger-than-life statue of Stalin in white-stone stood, dominating the scene.  We went through the rather ornate door of the building of the Museum. Inside a wide staircase faced us. On its landing, there was another white-stone bigger-than-life statue of Stalin, identical to the one in the courtyard.  Unimaginative repetition also characterized the few items in the gift shop on the first floor. Glasses and plates were all embossed by the same picture of Stalin. There was only one book of his poems written when he was as a teenager, with a picture of him as a school boy on its cover. On the souvenir banners you had the choice of two pictures of Stalin.

Exhibits. The exhibits were on the second floor, in a huge hall and smaller rooms connected to it. Stalin’s life from the Gori school to his death in 1953 is depicted selectively and mostly in copies rather than the original artifacts. There was no sign in English. His revolutionary work from before 1905 was portrayed in photographs with ample evidence of his collaboration with Lenin. This was followed by pictures of the two of them upon their triumph in 1917. Next, however, a copy of Lenin’s final testament recommending that Stalin be removed from the top position in the Communist Party stared you in the face. That advice was, of course, not followed by the leaders of the party, to the eventual detriment of many of them.

More pictures chronicled the highlights of Stalin’s rule, including his attending the signing of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Non-Aggression pact with the Nazis in 1939 and his meeting with his new, opposite allies, President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill four years later in Tehran . A picture with Britain’s Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden was special in that it is a rare showing of one of Stalin’s physical deformities: his left arm which was cut short in a horse ride accident and carefully avoided in other pictures of him. His other deformity, the marks of small pox on his face, also usually hidden from cameras, is caught yet in another rare picture on display in this Museum.  A reminder of how Stalin was glorified by Communists and sympathizers in the world was a picture of him framed in an exquisite inlaid frame presented to him as a gift by the Youth Organization of the Tudeh Party of Iran. It was inscribed with this greeting: “Nam-e stalin kabir gharin eftekhar bad (Glory be to the name of Stalin the Great).”

Stalin’s overcoat is virtually the only personal item in the Museum.  There is a picture of his first wife, the Georgian Ekaterina Svanidze. She died in 1907. At her funeral Stalin said “This creature softened my heart of stone. She died and with her died my last warm feelings for humanity.” Many members of Ekaterina’s family would later be executed during her husband’s “Great Purge” of the Soviet Union’s elite in 1937-1938.

Jakob (Yakov) Iosifovich Dzhugashvili was Stalin’s son from his first wife. Serving in the Soviet Army during the Second World War, he was captured by the Germans. They offered to exchange him for one of their Field Marshals captured by the Soviets. Stalin turned down the offer, saying, according to our guide: “No, he is just a soldier. I will not trade a Marshal for him.” Jakob eventually died in the German prison. There is a picture of Jakob’s son, Yevgeny Yakovlevich Dzhugashvili, in the Museum. He is a retired colonel of the Soviet and later Russian Air Force. Yevgeny has gained world-wide notice as a defender of his grandfather’s reputation. Currently residing in Georgia, he was visiting Gori on the day we were there, our guide reported. Yevgeny has named his son after Stalin, Soso (Joseph Dzhugashvili). A picture of this young boy taken in 2009 sitting at a desk with Stalin’s picture on the wall behind him is also posted in the Museum.

Fear and Cruelty. With all that ability to cause fear in others, Stalin was himself afraid of flying. He traveled by train even to far away places abroad. His private railway car which took him to World War II conferences in Potsdam, Tehran and Yalta was on display in the Museum’s backyard. I climbed the steps onto the green historic train. Its conference room could accommodate about ten persons in the upholstered chairs around a wooden table. Stalin’s bedroom was furnished with a simple bed and desk. Next to it was a washroom with a hand-held shower. The train had a primitive air-conditioning system and was bulletproof.

A Few yards away from the train on the Museum’s grounds stood the original wood-and-mud brick cottage where Stalin’s parents rented a single room. There he lived with them for the first four years of his life. The room on a narrow open corridor was now marked with a sign. It was reached by three short wooden steps from the street.

Stalin’s father, a cobbler named Vissarion Dzhugashvili, was cruel and abusive.  Our guide said:  “Stalin did not show mercy for Georgians.” Having engineered the Red Army’s take-over of Georgia in 1921, he led the Bolsheviks’ eventual elimination of much of the opposition elite. Georgia suffered as much from his purges as any other Soviet republic. The guide told us a personal history which she said was not atypical. Her great grandfather was sent to Siberia and shot there in the Stalin era. “My grandmother toward the end of her life was so feeble that she could not recognize anyone, but on the day in May which was the anniversary of his death, she would cry and say ‘Stalin: I remember, always. You killed my father!’” The guide said her great grandfather “was merely an accountant so chances are that somebody just said bad things about him.”

Poet. Stalin went to church school in Gori before going to a Georgian Orthodox seminary in Tbilisi at sixteen. His mother wanted him to become a priest but he rebelled against both the church and the Russian imperialist order before he was finally expelled five years later. It was during his early years in the seminary that Stalin wrote romantic and patriotic poetry in Georgian which later came to be “widely read and much admired.”  They were memorized by school children in Georgia. Among Stalin’s earliest sources of inspiration was Rustaveli’s epic, The Knight in the Panthers Skin, which he read as did other Georgian children of his time.

“Stalin’s poem Morning was still required reading in schools in my time,” our young guide said and recited for us a few stanzas, translated as:

The pinkish bud has opened,

Rushing to the pale-blue violet

And, stirred by a light breeze,

The lily of the valley has bent over the grass.

Stalin published all of his poetry anonymously and never publicly acknowledged them. The small book of his poems sold at the Museum which was titled Poetry by J. Stalin was published in 2011. I browsed through it. It only had 6 short poems which were translated into English. (There were several in Georgian and in Russian.) All these poems were written in 1895 when Stalin was 17.  They were all signed “In Iberia, by Soselo (Stalin’s nickname given by his mother),” except the earliest poem which was signed by “J. J-shvili.” In one poem, Stalin referred to his birthplace as “my beautiful country, Land of Iberia;” but in another as “Georgia.”  The poems The Rosebud Flowered and To T.R. Eristavi were patriotic in subject; When the Shining Moon was about social justice;  To the Moon was inspirational; He wanders like a shadow was about the ignorant mobs’ reaction to a Socrates-like bearer of truth; and Old Ninika was about the old age of a strong farmer now living for his memories.

Change of Fortune. As late as 2008, one could find statutes, busts and portraits of Stalin in all corners of Georgia. He had become the emblem of national pride in Independent Georgia. After all he had been the most famous and influential person in the world ever to come from this country. Stalin had projected himself as a Russian leader, publicly referring to Georgia as “that small area of Russia.” In private, however, he spoke, ate, sang Georgian, and ruled Georgia through hand-picked local lieutenants. Like many in the Soviet Union, Georgians had come to revere Stalin as the leader who defeated fascism in World War II. Later, when many of the same Soviet compatriots denounced Stalin following the disclosure of his crime by Nikita Khrushchev in 1956, the Georgians refused to join in. Instead, thousands gathered in Tbilisi to commemorate the third anniversary of Stalin’s death.

In the last decade there has been a remarkable switch between the positions of Georgia and Russia on how Stalin should be viewed. Under President Vladimir Putin, Russia has been rehabilitating Stalin. Meeting with the newly elected Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili in 2004, Putin reportedly said: “Thanks for giving us Stalin.” The Russian re-adoption of Stalin has only intensified the campaign to reject him by pro-Western Georgian politicians led by Saakashvili. Their attitude was summarized by this quote from one of them I heard in Tbilisi: “In the new Georgia, Stalin is no longer Georgian. He’s a Russian emperor.”

The short war between Russia and Georgia in August 2008 crystallized this attitude. Russian planes bombed Gori, targeting apartment buildings and a school and killing civilians, but leaving untouched Stalin’s Museum and his statue then standing in the main square of town. This has been considered by Georgians as a sign of Russia’s unwelcome reverence for a man many now disfavor. The Russian bombs reportedly killed 60 persons in Gori. When the government brought down Stalin’s statue a short while later there was no protest by the local residents.

The Conflict

The war of 2008 was over Abkhazia and South Oscetia. These areas were small autonomous entities within the GeorgianSovietRepublic under the USSR.  The Abkhaz Republic was in the northwest of the country with around 8,500 square miles and the South Oscetian Autonomous Oblast was due north, half that size. They were also small in population, Abkhazia’s barely reached 500,000, and South Oscetia’s not many more than 70,000. Both, however, were diverse in ethnicity. These different ethnic groups historically have gotten along except in the two periods of Georgia’s independence. In 1918-1921, the Menshevik Georgian government had problems with non-Georgians in Abkhaz who demanded greater autonomy, and it faced rebellious Oscetians which it accused of cooperating with Russian Bolsheviks.

It was, therefore, not a total surprise that ethnic tension resurfaced as the Soviet rule collapsed. In the referendum of March 1991, the non-Georgian ethnic groups residing in Abkhazia (mostly Abkhazians but also Armenians and Russians), constituting 65% of the population, by overwhelming majority opted to stay within the Soviet Union and boycotted the separate referendum for Georgian independence. At issue for them was preservation of the autonomy they had enjoyed under the Russian rule, with control over language and culture, against the fear of Georgian nationalism.

The same was true with South Oscetians (an Iranic ethnic group, speaking an Iranian language but mostly Eastern Orthodox Christian) who constituted two-thirds of the population in their territory. Seeing signs of what they feared was an attempt by the new government in Tbilisi to eliminate their autonomy, South Oscetians declared independence from Georgia in 1990, calling themselves the Republic of South Oscetia. The Georgian government responded by trying to regain control by force.  This led to the 1991–1992 South Oscetia War which ended by putting more than a half of South Oscetia under de-facto control of a Russian-backed government. Most of the ethnic Georgian parts of South Oscetia, in the south of the territory, remained under the control of Georgia. Two more fights occurred in 2004 and 2008 before Georgia lost to the combined Oscetian and Russian forces all that rest of the territory of the former South Oscetian Autonomous Oblast. The Russian-backed independent government of South Oscetia came to be recognized by a handful of other countries, Venezuela and Nicaragua being the biggest. The rest of the international community recognize Georgia’s right to call South Oscetia simply a part of its Kartli region under Georgian sovereignty, but occupied by the Russian army.

Meanwhile, a parallel, similar yet more complex, story was evolving in Abkhazia. There the ethnic Georgians were the largest single group, about 48 percent, at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Ethnic Armenians and Russians, however, continued to support ethnic Abkhazians (a north Caucasian group related to Circassians and Orthodox Christian in religion except for one-sixth who are Muslim) in their fight for independence from Georgia. In the Abkhazian battles of 1992-1993, the Georgian army was no match for the separatists supported by the Russians and helped by forces from the militants across the border in North Caucasus. In the lull that followed, only a small eastern region remained under Georgian control.  That was the upper Kodori Gorge where on 9 August 2008, Abkhazian forces fired on Georgian forces just as the battle in South Oscetia flared. In three days the last of Georgian forces and civilians were forced out of Abkhazia and Russia moved down the same historic Military Road [125] it had greatly improved in the early 19th century to come to the help of Georgia in defeating Persia. This time Russia captured Gori and threatened Tbilisi in the Georgia which had just declared its independence from some two centuries of Russian rule. A week later Russia recognized the independence of Abkhazia, followed by the same configuration of countries as friends and foes as in the case of South Oscetia. Indeed by now these two regions had become the focus of a new great power competition.

New Great Power Competition

When Putin obtained the right to construct a Russian military base in Abkhazia in 2009, the United States confronted his ambition to re-assert Russian power in the region by offering to train Georgia’s army. Massive economic assistance followed. The Georgian government was an active agent in the brewing of this major drama about a country of fewer than 4.5 million people. As an American professor of Georgian history reminded us in Tbilisi, “Being a small nation, Georgians always tried to have others fight their fights against big powers.” That was indeed the case when they had first invited Russia in, against Persia. As the example of that attempt had shown, of course, the solicited supporters had to be ready and willing. In this case, the American government of President George Bush was receptive. When Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili came to Washington in 2006, he was received as “a hero of democracy.” Saakashvili made it clear that he wanted to get Abkhazia and South Oscetia back.

His predecessors had not been so bold in challenging the Russians. It was not that they were any less nationalistic. They could not afford to be as the separation of Abkhazia and South Oscetia has been the central issue of Independent Georgia’s domestic politics. The promise of American support enhanced Saakashvili’s ability to benefit from nationalistic fervor that, ironically, gained strength from defeat in the conflict with a foreign power.

In his lecture about Georgian domestic politics, the same professor of history pointed out the significance of the intelligentsia in the Russian-dominated Georgia. They were “petty nobles” who had been “adopted” by the Russians at the expense of the traditional nobles. Educated by Russia they eventually came to be “resentful” if employed by the Russian rulers or “even more if they were not so employed.” This group became the core of the Mensheviks’ struggle for independence. The rulers of the new Independent Georgia immediately after the Soviet Union were the Russian-educated intelligentsia of their generation. A senior Western diplomat located their position twenty years later in this demographic outline of Georgian politics he offered during a private conversation with us: Georgian who are potentially active in politics may be divided into three age groups, 25-35 year-olds who are not yet influential, 35-45 year-olds who were about to come of age in the changes of 1991 and are perhaps the most important, 45-55 year-olds who were functionaries under the  Soviets, and 55 and over who are “hard core” Soviet types. He placed the current opposition in Georgia squarely in this last group, while calling the ruling group reformist. The latter were mostly from the diplomat’s category of the 35-45 year-olds. They want to move the country in the direction which is favored by the United States, democracy and free market, the diplomat said. We met some younger members of this group at a private reception. They were organized in an alumni association of prestigious American universities. The contrast with the venue of the education that the elder members of the Georgian political elite had received, in the Soviet Union, was telling.

Internally Displaced Persons

One more demographic fact that the diplomat in Tbilisi recited also deserved special attention: “Two-thirds of the Georgian population still live in villages and village is also a way of life.”  We were reminded of this as we went to see a camp for Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) near the border of South Oscetia. This was set up after the 2008 war to accommodate the Georgian villagers from that territory who had escaped to the south. Much of the human cost of Georgia’s war with the Russian-backed rebels has been borne by the villagers from South Oscetia and Abkhazia. They are the bulk of the 250,000 IDPs in Georgia. The biggest group, exceeding 200,000, came from Abkhazia after the first battles of the 1990s. At the time they were not provided for adequately by Georgia. It was hoped that they will be able to return. Some did return during the lull, but they have come back after the 2008 fights. The number who escaped in the early phases of the conflict from the far smaller South Oscetia was correspondingly low, about 15,000. The IDPs we were now going to visit were the newer arrivals, from the 17,500 ethnic Georgians who had stayed in South Oscetia until 2008.

Regretting its past records regarding the IDPs, the Georgian government now even has a Ministry of Displaced Persons to deal with their needs. The camp built just north of Gori is far superior to the previous shelters for the IDPs, which had been described by foreign observers as “grim Soviet-style blocks and faded government buildings.” This new camp which was called a “village” had modern looking houses in rows. It shelters some 6,000 villagers barely ten miles from their original homes on the other side of the Caucasus Mountains which towered over the landscape. We were told that all of these villagers hoped to go back home. In the meantime, they could move anywhere within Georgian but only if they could prove to a certain “commission” that their intended new housing was better. They were employed in some factory work and the government hoped soon to establish new factories with even better-paying jobs for them, our guide said. We were met there by the village’s school administrator. He told us that all the 900 children in the village attended school; 350 of them were in kindergarten. Some were learning English.  We were then taken to a class where they were being taught a type of martial arts by an instructor. Some looked as young as five. They wore black. They looked serious .


While the Georgian future remained murky in the north, the country has found pride in the south where it has dug for its past.  When we visited the HistoryMuseum in Tbilisi, it showcased ancient gold decorative pieces and 1.8 million year old hominids. The latter were found recently in the ruins of the medieval town of Dmanisi. The Sakdrisi gold mine near the town of Kazerti, under excavation since 2004, is claimed to be the world’s oldest. We went to see both of these sites, which are within 40 miles south of Tbilisi.

Sakdrisi is in an area where the ethnic Azeri and Turkish Muslims constitute more than fifty percent of the population. In some locations, flags of Azerbaijan waived on the side of the road. We were told that the main town, Bolinisi, was 40% Azeri, 40% Armenian, and 20% Georgian of German descent.  We hardly saw any of these people as we passed through Bolinisi’s streets which were also devoid of shops. We then came to an equally empty park that was one of the Victory Parks built in such Georgian towns to commemorate The Great Patriotic War in the Soviet time.

A few miles further our bus pulled to the side of the country road in a field of rolling hills . A Georgian archeologist was waiting for us there. We took the dirt trail on a 10 minute walk behind him. When we came to his car, the archeologist lifted the trunk and gave us helmets which he had stored there. “Not pretty but they were just cleaned,” he said. Our shoes were muddy by now. “You are among the first tourists to see our work in this mine,” we were told as we approached the main entrance to the mine.

We followed him into one of the tunnels which the archeologists have found here recently. It had been dug by the inhabitants of this area many centuries ago to obtain ore. It was 30 meters long. It stopped and started again .  There were gaps and fissures in many places.

The existence of these mines had become known as early as in the 1750s. Then in 2004 a new tunnel was made on the site by miners. “The miners soon found something unusual and called the archeologists for help,” our archeologist said. They had found fragments of ceramic pottery. There were also tools made of river stones. “The gold here is in quartz.” He showed us some . It needs to be separated. “They used those tools in ancient times to chisel out the gold from the volcanic rocks.”  The pieces here have large percentage of gold.  “We have also found areas with evidence for scorching the ore.”  He said “One kilometer from here were dwellings of people who worked these mines those many centuries ago.” The mines and tools and other artifacts from here have been dated to the fourth millennium B.C.  “This makes Sakdrisi’s the earliest case of underground hard-rock gold mining in the mountains, to the depth of 20 meters, ever discovered.  In Egypt they might have mined gold earlier, perhaps in 4,000 B.C., but only in quarries.”


A few miles southwest down the road from the gold mines of Sakdrisi we climbed a gentle slope of hills through a forest of trees and arrived at the Dmanisi Archaeological Site. The sign that greeted us told its significance for Georgia. It is a “narrative of history” of this country, because “simultaneously it presents the Medieval, the Bronze Age and the Early Stone Age sites.” Archeologists have been excavating ruins of the medieval Dmanisi since 1936. Starting in 1983, beneath the layers of that town “prehistory” archeologists discovered human ruins, stone tools and fossils of extinct animals. The hominids found here are deemed to have been among the earliest humans who lived in Eurasia.

We passed the guard house  and met our guide, Irma. The examples of the prehistoric holes dug under the medieval layers  were now in our plain view . “The site consists of 13 hectares,” Irma began. “There are two rivers, one on each side, which were important for settlement. The rivers were created by lava which flowed through here.” Discoveries have included remains of ancient animal remains and stone tools , as well as hominids.  “The tools were primitive and easy to make,” the guide said, “just by cutting one stone with another.”  Signs indicated that one of those ancient animals was an elephant from 1.8 million years ago, and another was the ancient saber-toothed cat megantereon .

We now stepped on a Plexiglas walkway above some of the ancient pit graves. The remains of a Bronze Age, 35-40 year old woman had been found in one grave lying on her back in the lotus position. No goods were buried with her in this grave.  The originals of the remains of hominids found here have been removed to museums. Among them were two “homo skulls”, and four jawbones (mandibula). These hominids , were about 1.5 meters tall, weighed 50 kilograms in weight and had a small brain, our guide said. As they have been dated to 1.8 million years ago, they are older by ½ million years from any other discovered elsewhere outside of Africa.

Medieval Town.  The hominids who lived in Dmanisi were “hunters and gatherers,” Irma said.  “Their ancient settlement did not survive because they ran out of animals for food.” More than a million years later Dmanisi again became an important site. It was first mentioned in the 9th century writings as a town under the Arab Emirate of Tbilisi. It was conquered, destroyed and rebuilt several times since by a succession of rulers, the Seljuks, Georgian kings, Tamerlane and finally the Turkomans in 1486. After that it declined to a sparsely populated small village.

Now abandoned, in the Middle Ages Dmanisi had thrived as a commercial center at the crossroad of trade in the region, helped by the confluence of its two rivers. It had a multiethnic population with mosques, churches, baths, caravanserai, bridges and custom houses. Some of these buildings  were constructed right on the top of the buried ruins of its ancient hominids settlement. Dmanisi’s strategic position eventually turned it into a royal fortress as well. It was in a dominant position for defending the large area below it which we could see from the elevated points nearby. Around where we stood were the foundations of the imposing fort which continued to be used until the end of the 18th century.

DmanisiSioniChurch. Amidst the ruins of that fort, we could see the Georgian Dmanisi Sioni Church built in the 6th century as well as the 9th century addition to it. These are the only structures standing, repaired and maintained in the entire Dmanisi site. The original stone Church is probably the oldest Christian church in Georgia. Equally significant, it holds possibly the oldest example of Georgian script dating to the late 5th century. We walked inside the vast basilica and noted its collection of well preserved frescos  of saints.

David Gareja

On the day we were at Sakdrisi and Dmanisi we were the only visitors. In fact, we did not see that many tourists, foreign or Georgian, at other important sites around the country. In contrast, as we began our drive to the David Gareja monastery complex our guide said that site “gets over 200,000 visitors a year; every Sunday a couple of thousand go there -mostly Georgians.” We saw hardly anyone on the road, however. Granted that it was not a Sunday, but this arid landscape  of southeast Georgia was empty of much interest. We were on a plateau some 600 meters above the sea.  Trees did not grow here; we could only see some grass .

Treating it virtually as a wasteland, the Soviet army used this area as an artillery range for training during its Afghanistan war of the 1980s. Ironically, the damage that this exercise caused to David Gareja called the Georgians’ attention to the monastery after nearly a century of neglect when it was closed and uninhabited. Students in Tbilisi focused on this issue to ignite the first large scale protests in Georgia against the Soviet rule in 1987 and 1989, at the dawn ofthe perestroika. The Russians stopped their artillery, but in 1996 the Independent Georgia’s army also came to the conclusion that such was the best use of this land. They too, however, had to abandon their project when protesters camped in their firing range. Indeed, by now David Gareja had become “one of the most sacred sites in the country,” as our guide said. Its buildings were fast repaired and it was once again inhabited by monks. As our guide said “Starting with David Gareja, there were some 20 monks by 1991 and their number would increase ten-fold in the next two decades. In Georgia today, it is popular to become a monk or a priest.”

The restoration of David Gareja was financed largely through private donations, our guide explained, “especially by the Oligarchs, sometimes anonymously but such things do not remain secret long because this is a country where everyone talks about the others.” Just now we were going through the village of Udabno which had been built by the government for refugees from a 1974 avalanche disaster, but subsequently used in Soviet military exercises. It resembled the war-torn villages of Afghanistan. It was un-repaired but still inhabited .

The Monasteries were further south at the border with Azerbaijan. Their location, the Plateau of Lore, is the most arid and barren area of Georgia. The road narrowed, its surface became gravelly , and ended in David Gareja.

Lavra. There are 15 Monasteries in the David Gareja complex, spread over a large area, and we were at the gate of the one called Lavra. It is the most visited. As we approached the tall stone wall of its entrance I noticed a man peering from a window above its gate. Presently, two SUVs (Sports Utilities Vehicles) pulled up to the door and a clergy disembarked. The man at the window had now come down. He crossed himself, bowed and took the clergy’s hand to kiss it, as the latter patted the man’s head. The clergy was the “abbot” of a neighboring monastery, our guide explained. His entourage followed the abbot through the gate. Among them were two women, covered in black clothes. “Priests can marry but not patriarchs or bishops, who must take the oath of celibacy, although they could be divorced from a previous marriage,” our guide said.

Lavra was the only inhabited monastery in David Gareja today. We could see the residence building above us as we walked on the entrance passage inside the monastery. Next to it was the small 17th century Church of St. Nicholas. Lavra had three levels, constructed in several different periods. The most important was the lowest level. In its yard a white cross marked the cave which St. David Gareja carved himself in the mid-6thcentury as his own dwelling. He came here, to the slopes of MountGareja, after years of preaching in the Tbilisi area to seek a life of solitude. He had chosen to avoid “worldly concerns.”  David was accompanied only by one disciple, St. Lukiane. “At the beginning the Holy Fathers subsisted with grass and milk,” which was given to them by deer “who appeared miraculously,” according to the Monastery’s official guidebook. Still another miracle attributed to St. David Gareja was the “healing water called St. David tears, which appeared after he prayed for several days with all his heart.” This spring is the only drinkable water in this area. It runs at the bottom of a rocky slope in the western part of Lavra.

Next to David’s cave we saw several other caves . Lukiane and another of David’s disciples, Dodo, were the first among several monks to add their own cave dwellings here. They “would heat the sandstone, and then pour water on it to break it off the cave walls in chunks.”  In this fashion they created cells, and later “refectories, storerooms and chapels” in the Monasteries

David died in Lavra and is buried in the Church of Transfiguration which was erected over his grave in the 9th century. The Church is opposite David’s old cave dwelling. When we went inside the Church we encountered the abbot and his entourage. David’s grave is considered “one of the most sacred objects” in Georgia, the guidebook said. On this day, however, we were the only other group visiting it. On the top of this simple rectangular grave a single object caught my eyes: a small stone. Our guide explained: “This symbolizes the only stone St. David was able to bring back from his pilgrimage to Jerusalem; the soldiers there took away from him two other stones believing that these stones were the ‘spiritual power’ of Jerusalem. That is why tradition calls for three trips to David Gareja.”

Although David’s disciples expanded his Larva and founded two other Monasteries, the next important phase in David Gareja was in the 9th century. Under the guidance of St. Ilarion Kartveli, the Church of Transfiguration was enlarged, embellished and modernized and new cave chapels were created. This was also the beginning of the fresco art in these Monasteries. From the 11th century all the Monasteries in Gareja came under the control of Georgian rulers and construction reached it peak toward the end of the 12th century.  By this time, the community of monks here had grown to 2,000, and the Monasteries had gained a reputation for a distinctive style of fresco painting and manuscript illumination.

Udabno. The Church of Transfiguration in Lavra had it own share of David Gareja’s frescoes. What we saw, however, were not the old ones; these were newly done frescoes kept in cases.  “The best examples of Gareja frescos were done in the Udabno Monastery,” our guide said. This Monastery was originally built in the 9th century as a branch of Lavra, a little further west. The best of Udabno’s frescoes dated from the first half of the 11th century to the 13th century, the period of the general prosperity of the medieval Kingdom of Georgia. “These frescoes depicted different episodes from St. David’s life.” Much of those frescoes now lay in the ruins of the old Udabno Monastery.

Those ruins tell the rest of the history of the David Gareja Monasteries. As narrated by Georgians that history is full of dramatic tales of death and destruction by foreign enemies and subsequent resurrection by faithful Georgians. First came a lengthy period of decline following devastation by the Mongol army that arrived here in 1265. Revived in the early 14th, the Monasteries were sacked by Tamerlane later in that century. The Georgian kings subsequently restored the buildings and the glory of the Monasteries, so much that in the 16th and early 17th centuries, in addition to the frescoes, a local “literary school” was established here with “unique manuscripts” including those translated from other languages.  Much of this work of Georgian art and literature were again destroyed in 1615 by the army of the Persian Shah Abbas I.  In 1675 Georgian King Archil initiated some restoration and a new Father Superior of David Gareja, Onopre Machutadze appointed in 1690, once more resurrected the Monasteries. They regained their position as the “spiritual center of Georgia.” They remained active until the end of the 19th century, but, as the Monasteries’ guidebook put it, even in this period “many Garejians took martyr crown.”

Recent visitors to the Udabno Monastery have reported that some of its old frescoes have survived all that turmoil, including the 1980s artillery fire of the Soviet training exercises which felled walls and shattered ceilings. Among those frescoes is an exquisite depiction of the last supper on a refectory wall. In many of the frescoes, however, the figures have been effaced – not by the Mongols or the Persians but by the Bolshevik Russians. Yet, today it is the impact of the Persian invasion of 1615 that appears seared into the Georgians’ historical memory.

On Easter Day of 1615, “numerous Holy martyrs … were slaughtered” by the Persian invaders, according to the Monasteries’ official guidebook. The book does not quantify the “numerous,” but one often hears in Georgia that 6,000 monks were killed that day. Carved into the cliff of the Udabno Monastery are “room after room” which could have accommodated many. The question that is left unanswered, however, is how they could have lived in that desert environment with St. David Tears Spring as the only source of drinkable water. On the day of our visit the Spring was locked behind a door but there was no evidence that it was especially large.

There is a “small church” in Udabno where, according to Georgian tour guides, “the Gareja fathers were brought to, tortured and martyred.” It has been enshrined as the Church of Easter Day. The alleged reason for this brutal orgy was the refusal of the monks to convert to Isalm. Only two of them acceded to that demand by the Persians. Their fate, according to our guide, was to be turned into snakes. The bones of the rest who became martyred are “now relics distributed among all holy places in Georgia.”

According to historians, the Safavid dynasty maintained Persia’s political dominance over Eastern Georgia in part by placing converts to Islam on the thrones of Kartli and Kakheti where the David Gareja Monasteries were located.  When the Ottoman Turks interrupted that dominance briefly at the end of the 16th century, it fell on the new Safavid Shah, Abbas I, to restore it.  In 1614, he undertook a campaign into Kartli and Kakheti, replacing their kings with Muslims. When the nobles of Kakheti rose in revolt in 1615, Abbas’s troops ravaged it as a punishment. Some 70,000 people were killed and another 100,000 were deported to Persia.

Azerbaijan’s Claim. Persia’s dominance in Georgia continued for another two and a half centuries until Russia replaced it at the end of the 18th century. The neighboring Azerbaijan shared that history with Georgia. Also like Georgia, as a newly independent country after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan has been in search of its identity in its past. This has brought it into a dispute with Georgia about David Gareja. Azerbaijan claims not only the territory of the Monasteries which straddle the border between the two countries, but indeed also their cultural legacy.

The dispute has been the subject of ongoing talks between the two former SovietRepublics since 1991. The Soviet Union had drawn their borders in such a way that part of the David Gareja complex ended up in the AzerbaijaniRepublic. Georgian officials have admitted that, by that “administrative” decision, the Udabno Monastery has been an Azerbaijani territory since the Soviet times. It is located in the Agstafa rayon (district) of Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan maintains that the origin of its right goes further back in history. It has called the Udabno Monastery an Albanian cultural monument, a part of the Caucasian Albania, a kingdom which existed from the 4th century B.C. to the 8th century A.D. mostly in present day Azerbaijan where its capital Gabala was located. The Caucasian Albanians became Christian as early as the beginning of the 4th century. David Gareja is referred to in Azerbaijan as Keshish Dagh (Priest’s Mountain). Contemporary Azeris, however, are Muslim, even those who live closest to David Gareja. Evidence linking David Gareja to the Caucasian Albanians may be lacking. This, however, does not dissuade Azerbaijan which, additionally, covets the strategic value of the high grounds of the site.

Mirroring Georgia

In many ways the David Gareja Monasteries exemplify Georgia. Their long history of glory and defeat reflects the fortunes and misfortunes of the nation. The harsh landscape in which they thrive is a reminder of the difficult environment which has tested the Georgians’ endurance. The large number of pilgrims David Gareja attracts shows the power of religion in making a cohesive people out of Georgians. The Monasteries are awe-inspiring in their simplicity. The white cross that marks St. David’s cave here is the opposite of the impressive opulence of temples of other countries. That type of large church does not exist in Georgia. St. David’s writ, however, runs large and wide. Crowds in cosmopolitan Tbilisi acknowledge it with respect, as they do also St. Nino’s legacy. The same is true in villages of Georgia where worship unusually takes place at home in a simple shrine at a corner of the living room holding their icons.

The bonding that the church of St. David and St. Nino creates among ethnic Georgians who constitute no more than 70% of the population risks alienating the other groups in the nation. In the north especially, excessive nationalism has contributed to strife and separatist sentiments. Internal dissension is not new in Georgia, nor is seeking help from outside powers. When the government of Georgia so engages foreign powers it might be following historical precedent, but it does so with the same concomitant potential for entanglement. The dual legacy of Georgia’s relationship with Russia is a case in point. Russia fended off Persia as it was invited to do, but it only stayed to own Georgia. When that yoke was broken its consequences did not disappear. They show even in the dispute regarding David Gareja with the fellow former SovietRepublic, Azerbaijan, as well as the wars in Abkhazia and South Oscetia.

While the new politics in Georgia is democratic, the small number of people in the elite of intelligentsia and oligarchs play an inordinately large role, reminiscent of the nobles of the past, who left their impact on the fate of the David Gareja Monasteries and many other historical developments in Georgia. Huge street demonstrations, especially on Tbilisi’s Rustaveli Avenue, have replaced the rebellions of bygone years. The mode of expression of vox populi may be its only changed aspect. Notwithstanding, the fate of the nation is still determined in large measure by the villages. They were the ones who determined the outcome of the last national election. For villagers, as a Georgian expert at a Tbilisi think tank summarized, traditional patriarchal culture and historical feeling of trust for a charismatic leader led to supporting concentration of power in the hands of the president. There you have it: look into tradition and history to understand today’s Georgia.