ETHNONYMS: Self-identification: Margali, Megreli. Others: Mingrelets, Tubal, Zanar.
Identification. Mingrelia (Samargalo) is situated in the western half of the Georgian Republic in the former USSR. It comprises seven administrative districts (raions ): Abasha, Senak'i (renamed Tskhak'aia by the Soviets), Khobi, Ts'alenjikha, Chkhorots'q'u, Mart'vili (formerly Gegech'k'ori), and Zugdidi. The region is ethnically homogeneous except for significant Russian minorities in the towns of Poti, Zugdidi, and Senak'i. Mingrelians also make up large numbers in the Gali and Ochamchire regions in the Abkhazian Autonomous Republic, which is part of Georgia. The Gali region is considered by many Mingrelians to be part of Mingrelia.
Location. Mingrelia is bound on the north by Abkhazia and by the mountainous region of Svaneti. To the east and the south are the Georgian provinces of Imereti and Guria, and to the west, the Black Sea. Of the total land area of 4,339.2 square kilometers, approximately 1,260 is lowland river valley and rolling hills and the remainder foothill and mountain zones mainly in the northeast (Ts'alenjikha, Chkhorots'q'u, and Mart'vili regions). The former swampland of the coast and the Rioni River valley contain rich soils that support a variety of crops including silk, citrus fruits, and tobacco. The lowlands have a subtropical climate with temperatures ranging from averages of 4°-5° C in December to 23°-24° C in July. Winters last no longer than a month. The mountain regions are cooler, especially in the winter months (-6° to -2° C on average in January). The annual rainfall in Mingrelia is between 150 and 230 centimeters.
Demography. The population of Mingrelia in 1939 was officially 323,811. With the addition of Mingrelians living in Abkhazia and elsewhere in Georgia, one author estimates this number was closer to 500,000 in 1941. In 1979 the official population figure for Mingrelia was 405,500, which is almost 10 percent of the total Georgian population. One hundred and forty-five thousand, or 32 percent, lived in five towns and five large settlements (dabebi ), the rest in about 370 villages. In the 1926 census, in which Mingrelians were listed separately, 242,990 identified themselves as Mingrelian and 284,834 claimed Mingrelian as their first language. There have been no official reassessments of these figures since then.
Linguistic Affiliation. Mingrelian is a Kartvelian (South Caucasian) language, not mutually intelligible with Georgian. Most former Soviet and some Western experts recognize Mingrelian as belonging, along with Laz, to a separate division within the South Caucasian Family of languages, known as Megrelo-Ch'an or Zan. The Soviet Georgian scholar A. Chikobava discerned two closely related Mingrelian dialects: the western Samurzaq'an-Zugdidian and the eastern Senakian. Mingrelian is not a written language, and although Mingrelians generally speak it at home, they have adopted Georgian (Kartuli) as their literary language. There are no Mingrelian language schools, books, or newspapers, although there were periodic attempts at establishing Mingrelian as a literary language in the late czarist and early Soviet periods. In the pre-Soviet period, Mingrelian was one of the best-described South Caucasian languages, and today studies of Mingrelian folklore are extensive. Georgian remains the language of business and government. The number of Mingrelian speakers is declining, and most Mingrelian speakers positively identify themselves as "Georgian" (Kartveli).
History and Cultural Relations
Mingrelians now occupy part of a region that was known by ancient Greeks and Romans as Colchis or Lazica, and by western Georgians as Egrisi. In the fourteenth century, it became a separate feudatory under the princely Dadiani family and was known as Odishi. It was not until the nineteenth century that "Mingrelia" became the popular name for the region. Mingrelia has always been part of the broader Georgian cultural and political sphere, in large part through the influence of the Georgian Orthodox church. At times, however, in common with western Georgia, it has come under different cultural influences from the Georgians in the east (Kakhetians and Kartlians) who were separated from the western regions (Georgian imier, "over there") by the Likhi mountain range. The Greek, Roman, and Byzantine empires had much more influence in west Georgia. In the seventeenth century Georgia was divided into two by the Persian and Ottoman empires. West Georgia, including Mingrelia, became part of the Ottoman sphere and east Georgia, part of the Persian. The Georgian church was likewise split into two, and Mingrelia, which established its own mint and customs barriers, became one of the competing feudatories of west Georgia until it was finally taken under Russian protection in 1804 as an autonomous territory. Autonomy was withdrawn after a revolt in 1856-1857, by Mingrelian peasants who seized the regional capital of Zugdidi and threatened czarist control of the region. In 1867 the kingdom was formally abolished by the Russian Empire. Under Russian rule, the serious problem of malaria was solved by draining swampland. Between 1918 and 1921, Mingrelia was part of an independent Georgia; in 1921 it became part of the USSR.
There had been little conflict in the past between Mingrelians and their neighbors, except on a dynastic level. The assimilation of Mingrelians by the Georgians, which accelerated in the nineteenth century under the impact of modernization, was completed after the Soviet annexation. Some half-hearted attempts by local Bolsheviks to establish autonomy failed. Abkhazian and Mingrelian relations in the mixed southern regions of Abkhazia were soured by the Georgianization policies of Lavrenti Beria (a native of Mingrelia) in the 1940s and 1950s. Conflict between local Georgians (mostly Mingrelians) and Abkhazians emerged briefly in the 1960s and 1970s. In July 1989 there was a bloody conflict in Abkhazia between Mingrelians and Abkhazians over Abkhazian demands for secession; more than twenty people were killed. The majority of Mingrelians reject suggestions of a politically autonomous Mingrelia and identify with the struggle for Georgian independence.
Despite rapid urbanization, the majority of Mingrelians live in rural settlements. High population density in the lowlands has not significantly altered the pattern of Mingrelian villages. Houses, each with its own fenced yard and outbuildings, are situated some distance from one another. Villages may extend for several kilometers. Formerly, settlements adopted the name of the dominant kin group. Today, villagers with a common lineage may still be located in one area of the village. Housing has vastly improved from the variety of primitive wooden or mud huts of previous centuries, such as the amkhara, jargvala, and godora. The majority of rural Mingrelians today live in two-story wooden or preferably brick houses with bedrooms on the second floor and communal rooms (kitchen, storeroom) on the first. The five towns in Mingrelia—the largest being Zugdidi, Poti, and Senak'i—contain a mixture of independent dwellings and state or (increasingly) cooperative apartment complexes. The latter are typically two-bedroomed and in buildings no more than five or six stories high. Private housing construction is now permitted in towns.
Subsistence and Commercial Activities . Mingrelia remains a primarily agriculturally based economy. Traditionally, villagers subsisted on ghomi (Panicum italicum ) and, since the eighteenth century, maize, which remains the staple crop, although the rich soil and subtropical climate has led to major tea and citrus-fruit industries. Georgia supplied the USSR with over 90 percent of its domestically produced citrus fruit and 97 percent of its tea, much of which comes from Mingrelia. Pig, cattle and—in the highlands—sheep breeding are important. Mingrelia also produces excellent wine, honey, and cheese, much of it privately. The extended family in the village remains the basic economic unit. Its economic base is diverse, with some family members often working in the local food-processing sites or in other industries, such as lumber, furniture, silk, or cotton. Mingrelia's main urban industries include car components, construction materials, and light manufacturing. Poti is a major port. A naval base located there made it a closed city until recently.
Industrial Arts. Traditionally, most families in Mingrelia would weave silk or cotton. They were also known for their basketry, pottery, and wooden utensils. The mountain villagers produced felt carpets and felt clothing. Such craftwork continues, though on a much smaller scale today.
Trade. Formerly, Mingrelians on the Black Sea coast had a reputation for trading skills. Today most trade is controlled by the state and conducted in Western-style stores, although there are open-air and covered private markets in all urban areas to which Mingrelian farmers bring their produce.
Division of Labor. In the traditionally patriarchal society of Mingrelia, different male and female qualities are taken as given. In the past, the gender division of labor was stressed at birth when baby boys were made to touch a plow or sword and baby girls a thimble or scissors. Agricultural tasks were divided, although men and women both worked in the fields. Domestic work such as cheese making, cleaning, cooking, child care, and weaving was almost exclusively female. In the main, men were the potters, basket weavers, and utensil makers, but women were—and still are—considered mistresses of the home. Today women still concentrate on domestic tasks, although men are expected to make repairs to the house and will share in shopping and, to a degree, in child care. Younger women before childbirth are given only lighter tasks around the home. The growing role of women in the labor force is somewhat reflected in their greater equality within the home.
Land Tenure. During the Soviet period, most land in Mingrelia was held by the state in the form of collective farms. Small private holdings and fruit or vegetable gardens were permitted, however, and much family time was spent on private agricultural activities. Under the new non-Communist Georgian government, privatization of land is expected and many collectives have already voluntarily disbanded.
The most important kinship group in Mingrelia is the extended-family household. Common lineage or a common last name were also traditionally important; each clan or common-name group had its own patron saint and icon. Mingrelian surnames are distinguished by their - (a )ia, -ua, and -ava endings. Mingrelian society is patrilocal, patriarchal, and patrilineal. Lineage structures are based on male kin relationships and are exogamous. In addition, there are important fictive-kin relationships such as blood siblinghood, milk siblinghood (nonrelated children who were breast-fed by the same woman), sworn siblinghood (which can also take place between women), and godparenthood, although only the latter two are still observed to any extent. Although women often keep their own maiden name when they marry, descent remains agnatic. Children adopt their father's name. Some scholars suggest elements of a former "mother-right" culture can still be detected in Georgian and Mingrelian society, as reflected in certain religious customs and language patterns. The patriarchal aspects of Mingrelian society have been somewhat weakened, especially in the urban areas. The lack of male heirs is no longer a social tragedy, bilateral kinship is slowly replacing the exclusivity of male kin relationships, and residence with the bride's parents may take place without social stigma.
Marriage. Traditionally, marriage was arranged—even at birth on occasion—with the bride's eldest brother or her maternal uncle playing a decisive role. Marriage could not take place if couples had a common name, were related through fictive kinship, or shared the same clan icon. Apart from the latter, this generally still applies. Marriage in the same village was avoided and the eldest daughter was always married first. For one year after the marriage, newlywed couples would not communicate with each other in public. The average marriage age was 13 to 14 for rural Georgians, including Mingrelians, and kidnapping of brides was permissable provided a number of complicated rules were observed. Modern marriage is no longer arranged, and although couples still marry young and have children very soon afterward, 17 is now the minimum age. Women are expected to remain virgins until marriage. Divorce, while still infrequent—particularly in the rural areas—is relatively easy and women's rights in any settlement are observed and protected by law. The official marriage ceremony is no longer religious, although couples often undergo a "second marriage" in the church. Most postmarital residence is patrilocal. The major form of birth control has been abortion.
Domestic Unit. The extended-family household, which is a source of mutual economic and emotional assistance, remains the major domestic unit. Large families persist in rural Mingrelia, but the norm of lateral extension, particularly between married brothers, is declining in favor of the more limited lineal extension, incorporating grandparents or unmarried brothers and sisters. Lateral relations still tend to live nearby. In urban areas, the trend is toward nuclear families.
Inheritance. Historically, land and property inheritance went through male lines of descent, particularly among brothers, although women, notably affines, were not excluded from holding some personal private property. Legal codes now specify bilateral inheritance, although the law rarely intervenes in inheritance matters, which are seen as a matter for collective decision by the coresidents of the deceased's household and the extended family. Wills are rarely drawn up.
Socialization. Children are the center of family life. Young children are rarely punished physically. In the past, children were brought up to observe traditional gender roles. Boys were encouraged to be tough and proficient in horse riding, hunting, and with firearms; girls were introduced to domestic tasks. Observance of the father's authority was strictly enforced, as was respect for living parents and deceased ancestors. These patterns—although horses have been replaced with cars—remain intact today and their inculcation is the responsibility of all the family. The state takes a hand in socialization when children begin school at 7 years of age. From adolescence on, children are expected to participate more fully in work within the family household.
Mingrelia, as part of the former Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic (the words "Soviet Socialist" have recently been dropped) and the USSR, was controlled by the Communist party. The regions that comprise Mingrelia elected representatives to the Georgian Supreme Soviet and their own regional and city councils. Mingrelia has no separate representation or regional autonomy—unlike Abkhazia, Ach'ara (Ajaría), and South Ossetia, all of which elect "national" representatives to the All-Union parliament's second house (the Council of Nationalities—to be renamed the Council of Republics). Since the election of a non-Communist Georgian government in October 1990, the role of the Communist party in local affairs has seriously declined, replaced by other parties.
Social Organization. The class structure in Mingrelia is occupational. The urban-educated, upper white-collar class wielded most power in the region through the Communist party and other governmental or administrative structures. Education and white-collar work carry high status. Rural Mingrelian society is seen as somewhat "provincial," although rural families are respected for their preservation of the "traditional" way of life.
Political Organization. The important organizations in local affairs were the village, town, and regional soviets and the local Communist party organizations. The Georgian government recently announced the replacement of soviets with committees of various party representatives. In the past, village soviets contained many non-Communists, although at city and regional levels Communists generally made up the majority. Communists no longer dominate local government, either in electoral or administrative posts and are being replaced by representatives from independent political parties.
Social Control. Conflict resolution and the maintenance of conformity was the function of both informal organizations such as the family, village, and peer group, and formal organizations such as the Communist party, school, local soviets, and the courts. Courts operate at the regional and municipal levels. (There are also circuit courts, which may visit workplaces and different settlements.) All judges are elected and formerly were almost always Communist party members.
Conflict. Mingrelians have always been on the frontline of Georgian conflict with their Moslem Turkish neighbors; the region has been invaded a number of times by the Turks, most recently in 1918. There were also conflicts with other Georgian regions in the times of dynastic struggle and peasant revolts in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the Soviet period, interethnic conflict has been minimal. The July 1989 events in the southern regions of Abkhazia, however, have considerably worsened Abkhazian-Mingrelian relations.
Religion and Expressive Culture
Religious Beliefs and Practices. The principal religion of Mingrelia, in common with the rest of Georgia, is Georgian Orthodoxy. The Georgian Orthodox church is autocephalic. Formerly each clan or lineage had its own patron saint and icon (jinjikhat'i ) which were used to obtain spiritual intercession. Saint George was the most important saint and a number of his relics were allegedly kept in the most sacred of Mingrelian churches, in the village of Ilori. The archangels Michael and Gabriel (sometimes worshiped as a unit) also had high status in Mingrelia; other saints had specific spheres of competence and their name days were always observed. Ceremonies and beliefs of pre-Christian times are mixed in with Mingrelian religious observances. Formerly, Mingrelians believed in wood spirits and other pagan deities. Elements of such beliefs persist in certain customs and superstitions surrounding birth, marriage, and death and New Year or harvest festivals. Mingrelians are not, on the whole, devout churchgoers, although with the new liberal policies on religion, one may expect a degree of religious revival, as elsewhere in Georgia.
Arts. Mingrelian men, like Georgians elsewehere, are famous for their a cappella polyphonic music. Mingrelian song and dance, though in the Georgian style, contains regional distinctions. Distinctive Mingrelian musical instruments, such as the larch'emi ("reed," a form of panpipe), have now disappeared.
Medicine. Colchis, of which Mingrelia was a part, was renowned among ancient Greeks for its medicines. Medea, the enchantress, was a Colchian. Many folk medicines and cures persist, some of which have been incorporated into modern Georgian medicine. Most Mingrelians prefer modern medicines over traditional variants. Many fewer women now give birth at home.
Death and Afterlife. Death in Mingrelia is mourned openly and intensely. In both rural and urban areas, death reemphasizes kinship and lineage solidarity. Financial collections will be made for the deceased's family. Many traditional rules surrounding mourning and burial are still observed. The body is visted for four days during which time no food is prepared in the house, although a feast arranged by kin and close friends may be held for guests. Commemorative feasts are held forty days and one year after the death. Traditionally, close male kin would not shave or work on Saturdays for a year. Mourning can continue for ten to fifteen years, during which time offerings, candles, and food may be set on the grave. Mingrelians also have their equivalent of All Souls' Day (suntaoba ), when families visit relatives' graves.
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STEPHEN F. JONES
Mingrelians call themselves Margali (plural Margalepi) and are Georgian Orthodox. Mingrelian (like Georgian, Svan, and Laz) is a South Caucasian (Kartvelian) language; only Mingrelian and Laz, jointly known as Zan, are mutually intelligible. The ancient Zan continuum along the Black Sea's eastern coast from Abkhazia to Rize was broken by Georgian speakers fleeing the Arab emirate (655–1122) in Georgia's modern capital Tiflis, so that Georgian-speaking provinces (Guria and Ajaria) now divide Mingrelia (western Georgian lowlands bounded by Abkhazia, Svanetia, Lechkhumi, Imeretia, Guria, and the Black Sea) from Lazistan (north-eastern Turkey). The Dadianis ruled post-Mongol Mingrelia (capital Zugdidi), which came under Russian protection in 1803, although internal affairs remained in local hands until 1857. Traditional home economy resembled that of neighboring Abkhazia.
A late-nineteenth-century attempt to introduce a Mingrelian prayer book and language primer using Cyrillic characters failed; it was interpreted as a move to undermine the Georgian national movement's goal of consolidating all Kartvelian speakers. In the 1926 Soviet census, 242,990 declared Mingrelian nationality, a further 40,000 claiming Mingrelian as their mother tongue. This possibility (and thus these data) subsequently disappeared; since around 1930, all Kartvelian speakers have officially been categorized as "Georgians." Today Mingrelians may number over one million, though fewer speak Mingrelian. Some publishing in Mingrelian (with Georgian characters), especially of regional newspapers and journals, was promoted by the leading local politician, Ishak Zhvania (subsequently denounced as a separatist), from the late 1920s to 1938, after which only Georgian, the language in which most Mingrelians are educated, was allowed (occasional scholarly works apart). While some Mingrelian publishing has restarted since Georgian independence, Mingrelian has never been formally taught. Stalin's police chief, Lavrenti Beria, and Georgia's first post-Soviet president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, were Mingrelians. The civil war that followed Gamsakhurdia's overthrow (1992) mostly affected Mingrelia, where Zviadist sympathizers were concentrated; even after Gamsakhurdia's death (1993), local discontent with the central authorities fostered at least two attempted coups, reinforcing longstanding Georgian fears of separatism in the area.
See also: abkhazians; caucasus; georgia and georgians; svans
Hewitt, George. (1995). "Yet a third consideration of Völker, Sprachen und Kulturen des südlichen Kaukasus. " Central Asian Survey 14 (2):285–310.
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