Georgia is a land of contradictions, of plenty and of poverty, looking to propel itself into the future by delving into the past. Lingering spectres of the Soviet-era continue to clash against the pressures of modernity as this unique place attempts to shape its identity in the 21st century. As the birthplace of Stalin, an abiding cult of personality centred on the nation’s erstwhile son endures. When officials attempted to remove a statue of Uncle Joe from outside the Stalin Museum in his hometown of Gori in 2010, they met with stiff resistance. When I first travelled to this hospitable, mountainous country in 2014, it was meant to be a one off trip. This flying visit turned into an obsession, though, and over the next six years I’d return nine more times.
The Georgian creation myth encapsulates the nation’s great obsessions: when God was divvying up the world between different peoples, the Georgians were sleeping off a particularly nasty hangover. When they finally awoke, everything was allotted except for a piece of Earth called ‘Paradise,’ which God had set aside for himself. The Georgians beseeched God for a home, saying they were only unconscious because they’d held a supra – the feast literally translated as ‘tablecloth’ – in his honour. Thus, they were given a slice of paradise which others have coveted ever since, forcing them into factional alliances with would be conquerors in order to survive.
Georgia became the second Christian kingdom on Earth after being converted by St. Nino. Born in the year 280AD, according to most accounts, Nino hailed from Cappadocia and was a relative of St. George, the patron saint of Georgia. Legend tells how the Virgin Mary appeared to her, handing her a cross made from a grapevine and telling her to go to what the Ancient Greeks called Iberia and spread the good word. Travelling through Armenia, Nino was the sole survivor of a party of 35 virgins beheaded at the hands of King Tiridates III before he converted to Christianity, and the unfortunate nuns were canonised en masse.
Nino crossed into Georgia in around the year 320, purportedly curing Queen Nana of a severe illness and gaining disciples. The queen converted and was baptised by Nino, which so infuriated her husband he threatened to divorce her if she did not renounce her faith. Shortly thereafter, the king was struck blind whilst on a hunting trip, and lost and alone in desperation he beseeched his wife’s God for help. As soon as he mouthed his prayer, a light appeared which guided him back to the palace. Georgia was duly declared a Christian kingdom in the year 327. Nino remains by far the most popular name for Georgian women.
Today, looking over the moss green Mtkvari River in Tbilisi, the new three-thousand square metre Tsminda Sameba (Holy Trinity) Cathedral sits perched upon Elia Hill. A symbol of religious revival, young and old alike engage in kissing the walls and murmuring their approval. With Christianity once more a central facet in the make-up of the national psyche, worshippers flock to sermons throughout the city. At the sixth century Sioni Cathedral, babushkas in long black dresses and knee-length black socks perform the sign of the cross with fervour.
In 2002, Orthodox Christianity was granted special status above all other religions and the church took on a consultative role in government. With 83.4% of Georgians identifying as Eastern Orthodox, in many ways religion has replaced communism as schools increasingly become places of indoctrination. Certainly, inter-religious violence is on the increase. In 2018, the Public Defender’s Office reported receiving nineteen cases of violence based on religious intolerance; this was compared to five the previous year.
Georgia is also the land of wine, the likely birthplace of the holy beverage historically buried to ferment in the clay-rich soil. The nation with the largest diversity of wine in the world, the tradition of the tamada – the toastmaster at feasts – dates back to time immemorial. With evidence of wine consumption dating back to 6,000BC, medieval monasteries were veritable temples to viticulture. A key part of the heritage of Sakartvelo – as the natives call the country – Georgians never took to vodka as the other republics of the former Soviet Union did, preferring their own traditional brew which comes in a multitude of varieties.
From the Gori Region, there is Kartli, from Central Georgia, Tavkeveri rosé fermented with the skin, a sweet and mellow experience. From Kakheti, there is the amber Rkatsiteli, and from Khevsureti, Khevsery wines. According to the proprietor of the Okro Winery in Sighnaghi, there are 537 varieties of grape in Georgia, and for many, it has become their dream. As Manana Zanderashvili, the friendly and accommodating silver-haired doyenne behind her family’s guest house in Sighnaghi told me: ‘Now, we have five vines, but I want to make a great garden, to make a vineyard. I want to see my wine in bottles.’
Since independence, Georgia has seen troubled times: an economic meltdown, revolution and wars both with Russia and separatist enclaves backed by their former overlord, in part caused by rampant nationalism. Despite this, Georgia remains by far the most ethnically diverse nation in the Caucasus. Sometimes referred to as the ‘Mountain of Languages,’ there are a vast multitude of tongues extant in the country, one of which has eight genders, another seventy-six consonants. As Noe Zhordania, the leader of independent Georgia from 1918 to 1921 before it disappeared behind the ‘iron curtain’ asked: ‘What do we have to offer to the cultural treasure of the European nations? A 2,000 year-old national culture, democratic system and natural wealth. Soviet Russia offered us a military alliance, which we rejected. We have taken different paths; they are heading for the East, and we for the West.’ At the time, his entreaties fell on deaf ears, but now, with tourist numbers racking up 31% of the GDP, interest from the West in this fascinating nation is finally on the increase.
Text by Stephen M. Bland