Gaumarjos Sakartvelos! A Few Glimpses of Georgia
by Mary Childs1
On September 1, 2009, I found myself pacing nervously in the Seattle-Tacoma Airport, waiting for the students participating in our Exploration Seminar to gather so we could finally take off for Georgia. We were set to take a group in August 2008, but the outbreak of the brief but shocking war between Georgia and Russia forced the seminar’s cancellation. We regrouped in the fall of 2008, watching and waiting patiently through the spring and summer, hoping both countries would remain calm, allowing our group to travel. At last in the Tbilisi Airport – a sleek, airy building built in 2007 – we were met by our driver and delivered to our respective home-stays.
This was my fourth trip to Georgia since 2006, and I welcomed the complex yet familiar smells and sounds of a country that for centuries has stood at the crossroads of so many empires, experiencing only brief periods of independence – the most recent beginning in 1992, with the break up of the Soviet Union. Even now, its move towards independence and democracy is fragile, threatened by hotly disputed borders and internal politics.
The author (right) exploring the cave complex at Vardzia.
My own interest in Georgia was not sparked by its turbulent politics or geopolitical relationships, but by its history and culture, originating in my training as a Classicist and deepening as a student of Russian literature. I jokingly credit my maternal grandmother for the confluence of these two interests: her bookshelves, in rural Idaho, held Homer and Aeschylus in the original Greek side-by-side with English translations of the greats of Russian literature – Lermontov, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, and Nabokov.
I first heard the Greek myths at my grandmother’s knees, learning about Prometheus, Medea, and the Amazons, all of whom came from the edges of the Ancient Greek world. This hinterland on the far shores of the Black Sea, then called Colchis, is now western Georgia. I caught my first glimpse of the exotic Caucasus on the opening pages of Lermontov’s A Hero of our Time, in his descriptions of the beauty and fragrance of the trees flowering outside the hero’s windows. Preparing for my PhD exams, I had the opportunity to study the Georgian language, and, not one to turn down an interesting proposition, I decided to add a few extra years to my graduate studies and committed to including Georgian literature in my dissertation.
Meeting Georgia through History and Culture
In 2006, I took my first trip to Georgia. As part of my dissertation research, I had started to translate a novel, A Man Walked down the Road, by Otar Chiladze, one of Georgia’s most revered contemporary authors. Set in Vani, the ancient capital of Colchis, the novel begins with a nominal retelling of the myth of Jason and the Argonauts, and the successive waves of Greek foreigners who set foot in Colchis. Chiladze has insisted that it is also about the results of Russian aggression in Georgia, and from its mythic beginnings the story develops into a celebration of the Georgian language and culture, with its main hero, Pharnaos, a dreamer and humanist who is named after Georgia’s first king.
The author (left) with Otar Chiladze and a friend.
Once committed to translating the novel, I decided to travel to Georgia and to meet Mr. Chiladze, or as he is addressed in Georgian, batono otar.2 It was an amazing trip, and I experienced legendary Georgian hospitality firsthand. I was welcomed into Otar Chiladze’s family home, given a lengthy interview and introduced to local scholars. My host, Dmitri Kordzaia, a surgeon I had met in Seattle, also treated me, along with two of his colleagues, to a wonderful weekend in Kakheti, the region in eastern Georgia famous for its wines and its history.
We visited the immaculately kept Bodbe Monastery, the site of the burial place of St. Nino, who brought Christianity to Georgia in the early 4th century. We then made our way to the Alazani Valley, where we witnessed sheep being dragged into the Alaverdi Cathedral to be blessed before being slaughtered. And we were treated to no less than four supras, legendary Georgian feasts that go on for hours, and on the rare occasion, days. After we helped harvest grapes, we had our first supra at proverbial plank table under the shade of a tree. It included delicious chkmeruli, (chicken and garlic), badridzhani nivrit (eggplant with walnuts, cilantro, garlic, and pomegranate seeds) and, of course, ghvino, freshly pressed wine.3 The second supra was more formal, held outdoors at a new winery with a commanding view of the distant Caucasus mountain range. Sunday morning, in the shade of a grape and pomegranate arbor, we were served a traditional soup, oven-fresh bread, more grapes, and yes, more wine.
A morning supra.
We visited the ruins of the Iqalto Academy, a scholarly center from the 6th to the 13th centuries, where Shota Rustaveli, author of Georgia’s national epic, The Man in the Panther Skin, had studied. The Chavchavadze Museum,the ancestral home of the Chavchavadze family, was another stop. This noble family gave Georgia both Princess Nino, who at age 16 had married the Russian playwright and diplomat Aleksandr Griboedov, and Ilia Chavchavadze, author, humanist, and political activist of the late 19th century. This visit was capped by a final picnic in a beech forest, with light delicately filtering through the early autumn leaves, next to the unexplored ruins of a 6th century church, holding strong beneath ivy and weeds.
I returned from my first trips committed to taking US students to Georgia. I wanted to introduce them to the bigger picture of Georgia’s history and culture, and not focus solely on current politics and conflicts. Most opportunities for students involve internships with NGOs that concentrate on international relations, political science and sociology. I thought it would be useful for those intrigued by the area to understand other facets of Georgia’s culture and history, which can illuminate why so many Georgians feel so committed to their language, literature, traditional songs and the Orthodox religion in the context of a country, and a region, that is traditionally multireligious and multiethnic.
Bringing the UW to Georgia
Out of these ideas came the UW’s Exploration Seminar, entitled Golden Fleece, Panther Pelt, Rose Revolution: Under the Skin of Today’s Georgia. With the help of the Ellison Center at UW, we developed an itinerary of excursions to all corners of Georgia and to hear lecturers in Tbilisi, as well as home-stays for the students. Finally, in 2009, Professor James West of the Slavic Department and I spent three and a half weeks exploring Georgia with a small but intrepid group of students who had been drawn to the program by their varied interests in linguistics, international studies, history, not to mention the sheer adventure of visiting a still-unfamiliar country.
Students by a shrine outside of the Sameba Church.
On our first field trip -- to see the “real” Georgia -- we stayed in Stepantsminda, in the shadows of the famous Mt. Kazbegi near the Russian border, in a guesthouse frequented by mountaineers who come to climb in the high Caucasus. We hiked to Sameba Church, perched on a hill part way between the valley floor and Mt. Kazbegi.
After an evening meal of local dishes and peach compote, we stayed up into the wee hours playing charades with local Kazbegians and their friends from Tbilisi. It was a perfect game for bridging linguistic and cultural barriers: the Georgians knew enough English, and our guide helped with the Georgian. One of our students, a dual Russian/American citizen, was asked to act out the word “occupation.” He did so calmly and collectedly, and together we breathed a huge sigh over the previous year’s tensions. Our new friends brought out a guitar, and we joined in singing favorite Beatles tunes, before listening intently while they sang a few traditional songs.
Recording session on one of the ruined towers of Mutso.
The next day found us hiking again, this time out of the hamlet of Djuta, towards the Gudamakari Ridge, along a stream littered with granite shards and late summer flowers. We spent the next night in the small village of Roshko, high in the Khevsuri Mountains, waking to a beautiful sunrise and wag-tails (a species of birds found in the Caucasus) sporting with the cows. We made our way over rough “roads” to the medieval stone towns of Shatili, and Mutso – exotic destinations even for native Georgians – where we stumbled onto a recording session in one of the ruined towers.
Other trips took us to Sarpi, on the Turkish border, where we sampled the local bakhlava and coffee; the port of Batumi, with its Roman and Ottoman ruins; and Gremi Church and Castle in Kakheti, overrun by the Persians in 1616. We explored the monastery cave complexes of Vardzia and Davit Gareja, where monks, hiding during the course of multiple invasions, had preserved their religion and Orthodox treasures. Vardzia, near the Armenian border, houses the county’s most famous fresco of David Aghmashenabeli (“David the Builder”) and Queen Tamara, who, in succeeding generations, oversaw Georgia’s unification and Renaissance in the 11th and 12th centuries. Standing in the caves at Davit Gareja, we could turn from the frescoes of angels and chariots, and look out over oil rigs in Azerbaijan. The sense of the span and upheavals of history was tangible.
Stone keeps and homes in Shatili.
Back in Tbilisi, the students – from majors as diverse as Civil Engineering, Astrophysics, Math, and International Studies – pursued individual projects, meeting with local experts, using their powers of observation and locating sources on the Internet. One, interested in international politics, conducted research at GFSIS (Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies), heard first-hand, insider accounts of the August 2008 war and wrote a paper on the current state of Georgia’s ethnic and territorial integrity. Another, and working with scholars at Tbilisi State University, explored the complex history of Georgian-Byzantine literary connections. A third, with a practical and creative eye, drew up plans for improving social interaction and pedestrian safety in the unique environment of Old Tbilisi, with its narrow, cobblestone streets now crowded with both people and cars.
The students explored Tbilisi and spent time with their host families, who shared their rich traditions and pastimes; the students experienced everything from morning hikes up the hills behind Tbilisi and eating more watermelon than they had thought possible, to visiting local, family-owned wineries and discussing politics and culture.
I am now looking forward to the second Exploration Seminar to Georgia. We have a slightly larger, but once again intrepid group! Hoping to see how Georgia is connected not only to Europe, but also to a greater continuum of Eastern Mediterranean culture, we will start our trip in Istanbul, and then fly to Erzurum in eastern Turkey (a southeast outpost of the Russian Empire in the 19th century). From there, we will tour four villages, which still feature stunning Georgian churches, though they are now on Turkish territory.
Mosaic along the road to Kazbegi.
Tbilisi will be different this year. Otar Chiladze, whose novel first brought me to Georgia, died last year and is now buried on Mtatsminda, along with Griboedov, Nino Chavchavadze, and other greats of Georgian culture. But, in many ways, Tbilisi will be just as it has been: the hot and salty khachapuri will be as delicious, the restaurant music as loud, and the watermelon, wine -- and my favorite, an electric-green, tarragon-flavored soda called tarkhun -- will be as sweet. The culture and its history remain very much alive, as Georgia continues to change: the country is pursuing its rocky road toward democracy, political actors make connections with Europe and America, new businesses open, young authors publish new works, and aspiring directors make films that are claiming international attention. Two years ago our students chose the program because they did not know that Georgia existed. This year, reassured by the continuing calm, they are choosing to explore a small corner of the Caucasus that is finally garnering its share of the world’s attention.
Mary Childs is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Comparative Literature. She has an interest in film studies, and is currently finishing her dissertation, which explores Georgian and Russian relations, expressed in contemporary literature, through the lens of the Classics.
- “Gaumarjos Sakartvelos!” is a traditional toast to Georgia (sakartvelo in Georgian), meaning essentially, “long live Georgia”. The verb root is shared with the word for hello, gamarjobat, which literally means "may the victory be yours."
- Georgian, which does not use capital letters, uses
batono with a person’s first name as a polite address. It is something like "Mr. Otar," friendly, yet at the same time full of respect.
- For those interested in testing their culinary skills, Darra Goldstein's The Georgian Feast is an excellent introduction to both Georgian culture and food!