Georgia: An Introduction

Georgia. Not the state, the country. My wife and I are headed there sometime in August. Georgia is a small, mountainous country by the Black Sea, between Russia and Turkey. We are busily working to learn the language, whose alphabet looks like the curling grapevines which are almost a national symbol.

Twelfth-century Georgian script

The name is totally unrelated to that of the American state. Georgia in the United States was named for King George II of England, who chartered the colony. The country of Georgia was first called such by crusaders and pilgrims from Europe. There are a variety of theories as to why, but the most probable is that they took the Persian word for Georgians (gurğ) and correlated it with popular local devotion to St. George. Georgians call their own country Sakartvelo.

Jewelry from ancient Colchis

Before it was known as Georgia, the region was called Iberia (east) and Colchis (west). Colchis, on the edge of the Black Sea and the edge of the Classical world, was the fabled location of the Golden Fleece in the Greek myth of Jason and the Argonauts. Both Colchis and Iberia were ancient kingdoms of ethnic Georgians, divided into small tribes frequently at war. Colchis was conquered by the Achaemenid Persians and partially colonized by the Greeks.

Rome conquered Colchis in the first century BC, but Iberia managed to evade total subjugation and was regarded as a friendly ally. Colchis, no longer a unified state, was reconstituted as Lazica, remaining under Roman rule.

According to legend, during the Christ’s ministry, two rabbis of the Iberian Jewish diaspora heard of Jesus and traveled to Israel, to hold council with the Sanhedrin. They arrived just in time for the crucifixion, but converted by what they saw, they managed to acquire his seamless chiton from the soldiers and returned to Iberia with it. The chiton was buried with the devout sister of one of the rabbis, who died with it in her arms.

Shortly afterward, St. Andrew the first disciple was chosen by the Apostles to evangelize Iberia, after Mary Jesus’s mother (chosen by lot) received a vision telling her that she was not to go there in the flesh, but she would be a spiritual guide to the Georgians after her death. Despite the direct ministry of St. Andrew and the spiritual ministry of the Theotokos, pagan Iberia was not truly converted until the early fourth century.

Meanwhile, the collapse of Parthia and the rise of the Sassanid Empire in the third century meant that Iberia had to take sides in the coming struggle between Rome and Persia. At first, the Iberians were friendly to the Sassanids, who gained some stunning victories against Rome and even captured the Emperor Valerian in battle. The Persians spread their religion, Zoroastrianism, into Iberia, and Manichean missionaries also made inroads. However, the Romans soon rallied, and in 283 and again in 298 sacked the Persian capital, Ctesiphon. The peace treaty between the two gave Iberia over to Rome as a vassal state. Shortly after, in 313, Constantine’s victory at the Milvian Bridge led to the legal recognition of Christianity in the Roman Empire.

St. Nino with her grapevine cross

Meanwhile, a young Christian woman named Nino, possibly from Cappadocia, joined a religious community of thirty-seven virgins that set out to preach in Iberia. The whole community of nuns was put to death by the Zoroastrian King of Armenia, Tiridates III, in 301 AD, but Nino escaped the executions and fled into Iberia, where she gathered a following due to her preaching, piety, and a number of miracles attributed to her. The queen consort of Iberia, Nana, was a Roman lady sympathetic to Christianity, and after she fell dangerously ill, she had Nino pray for her. When Queen Nana recovered, she was baptized, and her husband, King Mirian III, converted several years later. Mirian then sent messengers to Constantine in Rome, requesting that he send priests to lead the new church. Armenia under King Tiridates, meanwhile, had also embraced Christianity, reportedly due to the earnest faith of his secretary, as had the nobles of Lazica (Colchis). Less than three centuries after the death of Christ, Iberia was thus the earliest part of the world to be thoroughly Christianized.1

Emperor Constantine was enthusiastic when he learned of these conversions, if not for personal reasons then for political, and sent not only educated priests, but relics and other religious gifts. Mirian built a church, and bishops from Iberia and Lazica participated in the Council of Nicaea in 325. Subsequent to the conversions, Rome gained greater influence in the Iberian region, which seemed good at first, due to the threat of Rome’s perennial enemy, Sassanid Persia. However, after the disastrous Battle of Samarra in 363, during which Roman Emperor Julian was killed, the Romans were forced to sign a lopsided peace treaty which ceded Iberia and Armenia to the Persians.

Bolnisi Sioni Cathedral, the oldest surviving church in Georgia, 5th c.

The Iberians, understandably, were not happy; but they agreed to become Persian vassals. However, after they resisted paying tribute, the Persians sent in a viceroy and attempted to convert Iberians to Zoroastrianism. In the late fifth century, King Vakhtang led a war of independence against the Persians that lasted twenty years, but Byzantium was unable or unwilling to back him, and Iberia was again conquered. Shortly afterward, due to continued unrest, the Persians abolished the Iberian monarchy.However, Byzantium had not lost interest in Iberia; in fact, after a brutal series of wars centered on the Caucasus region in the sixth and early seventh centuries, the Byzantines divided the country up with the Persians. As the Sassanid Empire collapsed, the Byzantines took over most of the rest of Iberia. The Muslim Arab armies which conquered Persia soon reached Iberia; the Iberian princes, eager to reunite Iberia under themselves, played the two sides off one another and tried to maintain their independence in the mountains. For the next four hundred years, Iberia was either under direct Arab control or largely loyal to Muslim rulers.

King St. David IV “the Builder”

A dynasty of Bagrationi princes, however, rose to power gradually during this time, and began to aspire to unifying all Georgians under a single native ruler. The power of the emirs faded, and the Seljuq Turks replaced the Arabs as the prominent local imperialists. However, a Bagrationi named David IV drove out the Turks in the late 11th century, as they were distracted by the success of the Crusades. King David became known as “the Builder” for his restoration of Georgian independence, and his rule began a golden age for Georgia. In 1121 he routed a much larger Muslim “holy war” army and recaptured Tbilisi, the capital. He built schools and sent scholars to Byzantium to be trained, revived Georgian Christianity, and also declared tolerance for Muslims and Jews. He and his successor Demetrius are both considered saints by the Georgian Orthodox Church; his great-granddaughter Tamar became ruling queen in 1184, and her prosperous reign is remembered by Georgians as the pinnacle of their golden age.

Queen St. Tamar “the Great”

A series of Persian and Mongol invasions in the early 13th century ended this golden age. Although parts of Georgia maintained their independence, the unity and power of the monarchy was shattered, and many Georgian nobles were loyal to the Mongols. The kingdom was at last reunited in the 14th century, but fragmented by 1400 due to Timur’s invasions. The Ottoman Turks in the 15th century captured Constantinople and sealed off the Christian nations of Iberia from Europe. The Turks and the Persians warred over Georgia for centuries, resulting in widespread poverty, death, and cultural disintegration. This was a dark and wretched age for Georgia.

Then the Russian Empire appeared on the scene, and some Georgian nobles hoped that they would provide an ally against the Turks and the Persians. In 1783, King Erekle II, descended from the Bagrationi, signed a treaty with Russia which made Georgia a Russian protectorate. Despite the treaty, Russia mostly ignored the little kingdom when an angered Persia invaded, and the Georgians again suffered sack and conquest. Then Russia in 1800 annexed Georgia and deposed the Bagratid king. The Georgian nobility were forced to swear loyalty to the Russian Emperor.

Although Russians and Georgians were both Orthodox Christian, Russia tried to integrate Georgia into its empire by breaking its ecclesiastical independence. Russia ended the independence of the Georgian Orthodox Church and deported its catholicos to Russia in 1811. Georgian nobles attempted several times in the following decades to revolt, without success. Tsar Alexander II initiated the gradual emancipation of the serfs in Georgia in 1865, further weakening the power of the Georgian nobility. As industry marched into Georgia in the late nineteenth century, it absorbed much of the free peasant labor and inspired new nationalist and socialist movements.

Russian troops in Tbilisi

In the 1880s, Tsar Alexander III cracked down on nationalism with harsh repression. He reduced Georgia to a mere Russian province (rather than viceroyalty), and learning of the Georgian language was discouraged. The hatred of Georgians for the Tsar contributed to the rise of radical socialism; one figure caught up in this movement was the young Georgian Bolshevik Joseph Stalin. In 1905, the Russian army massacred protesters in Saint Petersburg, leading to revolts across the empire, including in Georgia. These revolts failed.

When World War I came, and Turkey and Russia took opposite sides, Georgian response was tepid. The fall of the Tsar in 1917 was hailed in Georgia, but Bolshevik seizure of power was rejected by the dominant Menshevik faction. Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan initially agreed to form a transcaucasian republic to protect themselves from both Turkey and Russia, but these plans fell apart, and Georgia declared its independence in 1918.

However, land disputes soon led to war with Armenia. Georgia was already resentful of Armenia, because of rich Armenians taking advantage of the decline of the Georgian nobility to buy up Georgian land; now that both were independent, arguments about borders flared up where there were populations of mixed ethnicity. This war, though brief, was disastrous for the countries of the Caucasus. Their broken unity discredited their ability for self-governance to the international audience, and they were unable to prevent Soviet troops from invading and taking over in 1921.

Soviet-Georgian military aircraft, 1943

The period of Soviet rule was hard; Stalin’s Georgian ethnicity meant if anything that particular (brutal) attentions were paid to his native country. At least 30,000 Georgians joined the German army during World War II, as opposed to the approximately 700,000 conscripted by the Soviets. Casualties were massive; perhaps as many as 190,000 Georgian members of the Red Army did not return, and civilian deaths were over 100,000. Georgia lost 8% of its population during the war.

Georgians on the other side of the conflict fared no better. The volunteers were disillusioned by Nazi leadership. Many Georgians were also captured on the Eastern Front and pressed into service in the Georgian Legion. In a bizarre turn of events in 1945, a battalion of the Georgian Legion joined Dutch resistance fighters in an uprising on the fortified island of Texel. The fighting went on past the surrender of Nazi Germany, until Canadian troops arrived to clear out the remaining Germans. Only 228 Georgians survived out of approximately 800. Further hardships were to come: the Russian government demanded that all Soviet citizens be returned to Soviet lands. Georgians who had once worn the German uniform were severely persecuted and often exiled. Stalin also deported half a dozen ethnic groups from the Caucasus region for alleged collaboration with Germany.

Nevertheless, the war helped to bring Georgia closer to Russia, and Stalin’s Georgian ethnicity meant he was lionized by young Soviet sympathizers. Khruschev’s policy of de-Stalinization resulted in protests in Georgia that were bloodily repressed. This drove a wedge between Russia and Georgia and fed nationalist movements. Communist officials and party members began to discretely encourage a controlled capitalism, which led to both economic uplift and widespread corruption. Moscow clamped down on Georgian corruption in the 1970s, but nationalism continued to gain strength. In 1991, as the Soviet Union crumbled, Georgia passed an independence referendum with overwhelming popular support.

Georgian soldiers in South Ossetia

This rebirth of Georgia was not smooth. The first president was deposed in a violent coup d’etat in 1992, and soon afterward, ethnic separatist movements, encouraged by Russia, fought to break away from the new government. President Eduard Shevardnadze weathered the storm somehow, escaped assassination, and, assisted by US military aid, cleared out the paramilitaries and brought stability. However, the corruption of Shevardnadze’s cabinet led to a bloodless ousting in 2003. After Shevardnadze won a suspected rigged election, protests forced him to resign. This was called the “Rose Revolution,” and it brought Mikheil Saakashvili to the presidency.

Saakashvili spearheaded a movement toward democracy and modernization. Separatist movements and Russian interference led to the South Ossetia War in 2008; even after the ceasefire, Russian-Georgian relations remained tense. In 2012, Saakashvili, who was unable to run for a third presidential term, conceded the legitimate defeat of his party in the election. The business-organized Georgian Dream coalition under Giorgi Margvelashvili came to power, and they remain there to this day.

President Margvelashvili, presiding

The election was widely praised internationally as a clear sign that peaceful democracy is working in Georgia. Margvelashvili, a former lecturer with a doctorate in philosophy but recently turned politician, was virtually unknown until he was brought to the limelight by the Georgian Dream coalition’s billionaire organizer, who also happened to be the Georgian Prime Minister. Margvelashvili speaks English and Russian as well as Georgian, and reportedly, his private hobby is knitting. Where this “knitting philosopher president” will take Georgia remains to be seen; election opponents attacked him as a pawn of big business, but he won the popular vote by a tremendous margin. He has promised to remain generally pro-Western while attempting to cool relations with Russia.

President Margvelashvili, knitting

Georgia is today known for its wines (supposedly the oldest in the world). The climate ranges from warm and humid (west) to dry and windy (parts of the east). Most of the population remains tied to agriculture, but Georgia also prominently exports oil, gold, minerals, and chemical products. Since the mid-2000’s, tourism is growing rapidly. Georgia is an overwhelmingly Eastern Orthodox country, with Muslims forming the largest religious minority (almost 10%).

We will be leaving sometime in August; we don’t know exactly when. They buy our tickets a week before we fly out.


Traditional Georgian clothing (chokha)


1. The Armenian church is today a part of the Oriental Orthodox communion, while the Georgian church is Eastern Orthodox. Armenians joined the Egyptian, Syrian, and Ethiopian churches in rejecting the Council of Chalcedon (451), while Georgians accepted it along with Rome and Constantinople, the first major schism within Christianity, which remains unrepaired to this day.

Georgian Christmas procession

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