9 Things You Probably Didn’t Know
Flag of Georgia
Mention that you are traveling to Georgia and most people in North America will automatically assume you are talking about the Peach State. In fact, the Georgia I am referring to is the Republic of Georgia, bounded on the north and northeast by Russia, to the south by Turkey and Armenia, to the southeast by Azerbaijan and to the West by the Black Sea. It is about twice the side of Belgium.
The Caucasus Mountains, Georgia
Georgia is a land of cities, green meadows, high mountains, tropics, deserts, rivers and seas. A turbulent history, religion, wars, invasions, cultural diversity, as well as vines and food, have shaped its multicultural, tolerant society into a magical, unique world.
Although it is still largely unknown to travelers from North America, Georgia is quickly becoming a popular destination for Europeans and others from the Mediterranean region.
Before we embark on a series of blogs about different aspects of our travels, we thought we would share some of the things we learned about the country that we didn’t know before we left.
- What’s in a Name?
Georgians refer to their country as “Sakartvelo,” and call themselves “Kartvelebi.” Some say the name refers to the land settled by Kartlos, one of Noah’s descendants, considered as the father of all Georgians.
Russians know it as “Gruzia,” the Azeri call it “Gurjistan” and the Armenians as “Vrastan.” The origins of the Anglicized name “Georgia” have never been definitively determined, but the role of invaders certainly had something to do with it. Some say that when the Persians conquered the Kingdom of Georgia, they called it the “Land Where Wolves Roam,” (“Gurg” is the Farsi word for wolf). Another theory opines that the name came from the Greek “geo” (earth) because when the Greeks arrived in the country, they saw the Georgians working their land.
Some point to the Crusaders who swept through here on their way to the Holy Land and transformed Gurjistan into Georgia, after St. George with whom many of them were familiar. Legend even has it that some of these Crusaders remained hidden in Georgia for centuries.
Irrespective of what name the Georgians use for themselves, St George is one of the most popular saints in Georgia, a fact you can’t help but notice when you see the enormous golden statue of George slaying a dragon in the middle of Freedom Square in Tbilisi.
The most recent Georgian flag (known as the Five Cross Flag) also pays homage to St. George – a large red cross in the middle of a white background with smaller red crosses in each quadrant. Originally a banner of the Kingdom of Georgia in medieval times, then-President Mikheil Saakashvili readopted it as a symbol of the 2003 Rose Revolution.
2. The Language
Georgian is like no other language. It belongs to an ancient linguistic group, its 33-letter alphabet possibly based on the Aramaic spoken at the time of Christ. Most words consist of a jumble of consonants nestling together, interspersed with a vowel or two. Inspired by the vineyards, Georgian writing is a calligraphy of swirls and flourishes where one letter can easily be mistaken for another. Despite my best efforts I only learned to say “hello,” “thank you” and “cheers”! (See our earlier blog for more details)
- The Origins of the People
Golden Statue of St. George and the dragon, Tbilisi
Recent archeological discoveries (2002) reveal that the earliest hominids outside Africa lived in Georgia. Homo erectus georgicus dates back 1.7 million years with an even older skull discovered at the archeological site of Dmanisi, a medieval Georgian town overlooking the confluence of two rivers where Silk Route caravans used to pass. Once all the excavations and scientific analysis are completed, this finding could significantly affect the current view that a single early species of man came out of Africa.
- Religion and religious tolerance are an important part of society
Christianity came to Georgia in the 4th century CE, thanks to the efforts of a young Roman woman, St. Nino, daughter of Zabulon, a general of the Roman Emperor Maximian’s army. (Nino is the correct feminine spelling of her name in Georgia).
Following a dream, St. Nino traveled to Georgia carrying a cross that she made of vine branches secured using her own hair. Following St. Nino’s conversion of Queen Nana (by curing her from a serious disease), King Mirian accepted Christianity for Georgia. Soon afterwards the entire population of Mtskheta (the ancient capital of Georgia) was baptized in the waters of the Aragvi River.
While religious adherence continues to decline in many countries, in Georgia it is booming. Over 80% of Georgians belong to the Georgian Orthodox Church. Many attribute the ability of the Georgian people to maintain their identity and culture through many conquests and upheavals, to their attachment to their religion.
Bodbe Nunnery, Signaghi, Georgia
However, Georgia is probably the most religiously tolerant country in the world. In Old Tbilisi a Georgian Orthodox Church sits next to a Greek Orthodox Church, a Catholic church, a Jewish synagogue and a mosque, the latter probably is the only place in the world where members of both the Sunni and the Shiite sects pray in the same place.
- The highest mountain range in Europe
If you thought the Alps were the highest mountains in Europe, you would be mistaken. The Caucasus Mountains, marking the border between Georgia and Russia are the highest. Georgia claims the second highest mountain in the chain (Mt. Shkara), which at 17,040 feet beats Mont Blanc by 1,312 feet. The highest mountain in the Caucasus, Mt Elbrus (18,510 feet), is on the Russian side of the mountain range.
- The importance of Legends and the pagan tradition
In Greek mythology, the Caucasus Mountains are one of the pillars holding up the world. These mountains were where Zeus is said to have tied up Prometheus, as punishment for giving fire to humanity. Prometheus was condemned to having his liver eaten by eagles during the day, only to have it regenerated over night.
A wishing tree, Georgia
Other ancient legends speak of Jason and his Argonauts seeking the Golden Fleece in Colkhis (Colchis), a part of western Georgia where Medea lived with her father, the king. In fact, the Georgians “panned” for gold by submerging a sheepskin into the flowing river water where nuggets would become entrapped in the hair; hence, the Golden Fleece.
Many of the churches stand on sites that once were pagan temples. In addition, throughout our treks in the Caucasus Mountains, we came across small pagan shrines adorned with animal skulls and horns. Women are not allowed within 800 feet of the shrines, many surrounded by barbed wire. No matter how many people we asked, no one could enlighten us about why women are barred from approaching.
Elsewhere “Wishing Trees” around the country become impromptu places where offerings of bits of cloth and plastic are left together with wishes and prayers, a throwback to pagan times.
Buried qvevris, Okro Winery, Signaghi
Le vin c’est tout! (Wine is everything)
Georgia is considered the cradle of winemaking. As recently as 2014, archeological excavations found the remains of grape skins and pits going back to 8,000 BCE. These discoveries certainly lend weight to the evidence that ancient people from this part of the world used wild grapes and vines for religious and spiritual purposes long before other parts of the world. Georgia is the only country that has preserved the ancient methods of making, fermenting and storing wine in qvevris (clay amphora-like containers) through the centuries.
Over the years, many conquerors including the Persians and Soviets tried to destroy the Georgian vines. The Persian king, Shah Abbas, had the vines ripped from the ground while the Soviets under Stalin (himself a native-born Georgian) tried to limit the production of grapes and vines to only a small variety, all in the name of progress.
Fortunately for us, they failed. Today there are over 500 endemic species of vines in Georgia, many of which are being used to make excellent wine across the country but specifically in the province of Kakheti (more about this later).
The wine is an intrinsic part of every Georgian meal, which is an intricately choreographed dance of eating, toasting and drinking.
- Georgian Feasts
Georgian hospitality is the stuff of legends, and the backbone of Georgian social culture is the “Supra” or feast. The word means “Tablecloth” and comes from the Persian “Sofre” or eating surface.
At every feast one person is appointed as the “Tamada” or toastmaster who leads the toasts and manages the pace of the meal. These toasts can last anywhere from a quick “Gaumarjos” or “cheers” to several minutes in length.
There are specific rules to be followed. The first toast is always to Sakartvelo, then to God, followed by family, friendship, the world, etc. When the tamada has finished his toast, each of the guests responds. In this way, many serious topics are broached and discussed, almost like a debating society made mellow by glasses of wine. Of course, the larger the number of guests, the longer the dinner. Be sure to think about how you will respond when your host makes toasts!
In between the toasts, guests are plied with mountains of food, starting with several types of salads, multiple main courses and a myriad of sweets. One constant that will appear at almost every meal is Khachapuri or cheese bread.
According to tradition, a supra continues until every inch of the table is covered with food. It continues to come until the plates are stacked on top of each other down the table. The wine? It just keeps coming! A point of etiquette to remember is that you only drink your wine after a toast has been made.
Old Qvevris, Kakheti, Georgia
Georgia has one of the oldest and most intriguing polyphonic vocal traditions of Europe
Georgian polyphonic singing has existed possibly since the 5th or even the 8th centuries BCE. The Assyrian King, Sargon, and the Greek historian, Xenophon, make reference to the songs that Georgians would sing whilst celebrating, working and fighting.
Contrary to their neighbors who only have a single melodic line with accompaniment, in Georgia two independent melodic parts are sung together, creating a magical sound that echoes across the hilltops and valleys.
In 2001 UNESCO proclaimed Georgian Polyphonic singing a masterpiece of the “Intangible Heritage of Mankind.” In 1977 NASA included a recording of “Chakrulo,” a patriotic song about Kakheti, on the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft to Jupiter, Saturn and the stars.
Georgia is a fascinating, intriguing, magical country. There is so much to see, learn and photograph that even our two-week expedition only scratched the surface of what exists. Any excuse to return!
IF YOU GO
There are a limited number of airline companies that fly into Tbilisi. Among the more popular are Lufthansa (www.lufthansa.com), KLM (www.klm.com), Turkish Airlines (www.turkishairlines.com) and Georgian Airlines (www.airzena.com).
We booked our adventure travel in Georgia through Wild Georgia (www.wildgeorgia.ge).
For more images of Georgia visit www.allegriaphotos.com/Recent-Additions/Republic-of-Georgia/