My first weeks in Georgia have been a blast, so it’s definitely time to share some thoughts about this unique country. Starting with its capital, Tbilisi, one can feel an atmosphere that radiates cultural, social and architectural versatility. Within Edward Said’s framework of orientalism, such a place could easily be dubbed as a space ‘Where East meets West’ (and vice versa). While this indeed covers the idea of Tbilisi finding itself at a geographic, cultural and political crossroads, it fails to explain the blending which has taken place in Georgia’s capital throughout centuries. The Caucasus region, Georgia not being an exception, has always been a plaything for bigger regional powers. In fact, the Georgian national identity heavily relies on its heydays in the so-called Georgian Golden Age (between the 11th and 13th century), as it never regained independence ever after until 1991.

The predominance of Turkic tribes, Persians, Ottomans and Russians, however, has left its traces, and could be pictured as a cultural, political and economic melting pot, which in this region has often been embodied in a caravanserai (etymologically originating from the Persian kārwānsarā, and in Arabic often translated as fanduk). A caravanserai back in the day was an inn where travellers could rest, but primarily share information and negotiate with one another. They were primarily located along the Silk Road and other trade routes in Asia, Northern Africa and South-eastern Europe. ‘Tiflis’ found itself at a junction between the different regions and roads, and thus possessed over a bunch of caravanserais. One of the largest ქარვასლა (/karvasla/, in Georgian) of the city can be found in the Sioni Street and now hosts the Tbilisi History Museum.

Tbilisi has steep hills, and reaching different neighbourhoods can be a hefty climb, as is the case here in Avlabari (‘Havlabar’ in Armenian), which was already mentioned in chronicles from the 11th-13th century and could for a long time be seen as the Armenian nucleus of the city.

The Kartvelian perseverance

Although the Georgian equivalent of caravanserai, as can be noted above, is borrowed from Persian, the Georgian language (ქართული, /Kartuli/) is less of a blend when comparing it to Georgia’s history and culture. Georgian belongs to the Kartvelian languages, unique to the Southern Caucasus. In fact, they are not related to any other language group and are only spoken by roughly 5 million speakers worldwide (Georgia itself has around 3.7 million inhabitants, of which 85% are ethnic Georgians). The modern Georgian script, called Mkhedruli, is the used writing system for all four Kartvelian languages (Georgian, Svan, Mingrelian and Laz). While the script is unique in its appearance, and its origins are not known, some sources state Greek might have influenced it, as the alphabetical order in both scripts is similar. There is a fairly overall consensus about the Georgian script emerging out of a trend in Eastern Europe and the Near East to create an own script during the process of Christianization. In the Southern Caucasus, this led to the creation of the Georgian, Armenian, and Caucasian Albanian alphabets. Caucasian Albania was the territory comprising most of modern-day Azerbaijan and Russian Dagestan before their conversion to Islam under Persian rule.

Going back to the uniqueness of the Kartvelian languages and their perseverance, it’s noteworthy that Georgian national identity is heavily rooted within this language family, and the root –kartv– is used to denote all things ‘Georgian’, such derivations being /Sakartvelo/ (Georgia, საქართველო), the previously mentioned /Kartuli/ (the Georgian language), and /Kartveli/ (a Georgian person, ქართველი). While Georgians themselves firmly hold on to this Kartvelian character, it is interesting noting that their geographical denomination in other languages has no Kartvelian origin. The word ‘Georgia’ seems to originate from the Indo-European Persian gurğān (‘wolf’), indicating Georgia as Gorgan (‘land of the wolves’), which was later adopted by most other Indo-European languages.

Georgian, furthermore, has seven noun cases, which is rather modest comparing to other Caucasian languages, such as the Dagestani Lak, which has 56. Culturally being a blend, the Caucasus can also linguistically be seen as a rich region, hosting six language families. In Georgia itself, it is noteworthy that besides the Kartvelian languages, Abkhazian (a Pontic language) and Ossetian (an Indo-European Iranian language) are spoken in their respective disputed territories in the north, and one will encounter ethnic Armenian (an Indo-European language) and Azeri (a Turkic language) communities in the south, meaning four of the aforementioned six language families of the Caucasus are present in the country. Due to its Soviet past, the dominance of Russian should also be added to this spectrum, while the younger generation might be more fluent in English in some cases.

Persian-influenced café in the old centre of Tbilisi.