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ETHNONYMS: Kartveli (Georgian person), Sakartvelo (Georgia). Names for the country in other languages include Gruziya (Russian), Gurjistan (Persian), Iberia (Latin), Vrastan (Armenian).


Identification. Georgians are one of the most numerous peoples of the Caucasus region, which divides Russia from Turkey and Iran. Georgians speak a group of languages that are not known to be related to any others. They have lived in Caucasia for at least three millennia and are counted among the area's native peoples. Most Georgians are Orthodox Christians, but some are Sunni Muslims. Georgians are the majority people of the Georgian Republic, which declared its independence in 1991.

Location. Georgians live at the east end of the Black Sea in a wedge of land between the Caucasus Mountains and the Armenian plateau. To the south and east are Turkey, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. Northeast across the mountain crests live Circassian, Karachay, Balkar, Ossetic, Chechen-Ingush, and Daghestanian peoples in autonomous regions and republics of the Russian Republic. Georgia itself is divided into about twenty traditional provinces marked by distinctive landscapes, dialects, histories, cooking, folklore, and architecture. Kakheti and Kartli are the principal eastern provinces; Imereti, Mingrelia, and Guria the largest western provinces. The Georgian Republic also includes the Ajarían Autonomous Republic in the southwest next to Turkey, the Abkhazian Autonomous Republic in the northwest, and the South Ossetian Autonomous Region in the middle Caucasus. Ajarians are Muslim Georgians. Ossetes and Abkhazians are non-Georgians, many of whom wish to secede from Georgia.

Georgia covers 70,000 square kilometers, mostly hills and mountains. Across the north, the main chain of the Caucasus makes a wall of snowcapped peaks, the highest reaching above 5,000 meters. The Surami range then divides the southern lowlands in two: a wet, western crescent where rivers flow down toward the Black Sea, and long, drier eastern valleys that lead into Azerbaijan. The countryside is thus extremely varied and includes mountain slopes with rocky river gorges, alpine meadows, and old pine forests; a southern highland area of upland steppe, extinct volcanoes, and scrub-covered hills; a central, temperate band with fields, orchards, vineyards, and deciduous forestthe heartland of the country; and, in the far west, a subtropical coastal strip of tea and citrus plantations and forests thick with undergrowth. Georgia's capital, Tbilisi, stands in the east on the Mt'k'vari River (also known as the Kura or Cyrus).

Demography. As of 1989 the Republic of Georgia had a population of 5,456,000, of whom 538,000 live in Abkhazia, 382,000 in Ajaría, and 99,000 in South Ossetia. Georgians make up about 69 percent of the total, Armenians 9 percent, Russians 7 percent, Azerbaijanis 5 percent, Ossetians 3 percent, Greeks and Abkhazians each 2 percent, and Ukrainians and Kurds each 1 percent. Russians and Armenians are concentrated in cities; Abkhazians and Greeks live mostly in Abkhazia. Ossetes are the majority of South Ossetia (Shida Kartli), but a greater number live in other parts of Georgia. Only 4 percent of the Georgians in the Soviet Union, some 200,000 people, live outside Georgia, mostly in major cities. An estimated 150,000 Georgians, or people who recognize Georgian ancestry, are in Iran, and another 150,000, including 50,000 Laz, in Turkey. In the thirteenth century Georgians numbered some 5 million people, but waves of invasion and war reduced that figure to around 500,000 in 1800; Russian rule then allowed a recovery.

The birth rate in the Georgian republic is 16.7 per 1,000 people, the death rate 8.6. Infant mortality is 19.6 per 1,000 live births; life expectancy is 76 years for women, 68 for men. In 1917 about 25 percent of Georgia's population lived in cities; by 1989 this had risen to 56 percent. Tbilisi alone has a population of 1.2 million. In fact, some rural Georgians commute to city jobs, and urban dwellers spend much time with relatives in the country. Nearly all Georgians are literate in Georgian, and 15 percent have completed higher education, one of the highest percentages in the former Soviet Union. According to the 1989 census, 98 percent of Georgians considered Georgian their native language, and 33 percent claimed mastery of Russian. Most Georgians know some Russian, but for children, grandparents, and those in rural areas this may amount to very little. Nine percent of Georgian men and 6 percent of Georgian women marry people of other nationalities.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Georgian language, together with the less widely spoken Mingrelian, Laz, and Svan languages, makes up the Kartvelian (or South Caucasian) Family. Mingrelian and Laz are closely related, and neither is intelligible to those who speak only Georgian; Svan is quite different and apparently diverged from the others at an earlier date. Mingrelians live in Georgia's western lowlands, and Svans in two valleys up in the highest parts of the Caucasus; both peoples now also speak Georgian. Despite their linguistic differences Mingrelians and Svans regard themselves as Georgians, and Mingrelia and Svanetia are counted among Georgia's provinces. Almost all of the Laz live just over the Turkish border in Artvin and Rize provinces; they sometimes consider themselves distinct from Georgians. Scholars have tried to relate the Kartvelian languages to the neighboring Northwest and Northeast Caucasian families, to Indo-European, and even to Basque, but this question remains open.

Georgian is written in an alphabet of its own; there are three related scripts, only one of which is in current use. The order of the letters and their numerical values are based on those of the Greek alphabet, but the shapes of the Georgian letters themselves indicate no regular correspondences to other alphabets. The first surviving literature in Georgian dates from the fifth century, soon after the country was Christianized; before this time, Georgians wrote in Greek, Persian, and other languages. There may have been a pre-Christian Georgian literature that was lost or destroyed. The Georgian language is conventionally divided at the eleventh century into Old and Modern periods; Georgians today can read even the oldest texts with fair comprehension. The speech of Kartli Province is the basis of a standard literary language, developed in the nineteenth century; the north Georgian mountain dialects (Pshavian, Khevsurian, Rachan) have more archaic grammatical features, and western ones (Gurian, Ajarian) share some grammatical features with Mingrelian. Mingrelians, Svans, and the few Laz in Georgia use Georgian as their written language. Modern Georgian has twenty-eight consonants and five vowels, each represented by a single letter. Up to eight consonants may cluster together at the beginning of a word; however, Georgian favors open syllables and polysyllabic words. Stress is weak; Georgian verse utilizes lines with a fixed number of syllables and makes much use of alliteration and rhyme. Georgian has seven noun cases, ten basic tense-aspects, and four classes of verbs. The verbal system is complex: verbs are agglutinative and mark both subjects and objects. The grammar is sensitive to animacy and plurality, but there is no grammatical gender. Georgian has borrowed words freely from Arabic, Persian, Greek, and the modern European languages.

The Russian language was formerly a mandatory school subject in Georgia, and the urban intelligentsia speaks it fluently. Many, even in villages, also know some German, English, or Turkish; linguistic facility is a cardinal virtue, along with bravery and intelligence. Nonetheless, Georgian remains the dominant language in all aspects of people's lives and a national rallying point. Government, business, and university classes are conducted in Georgian; most newspapers, books, and television programming are also in Georgian. In 1978 the Communist party proposed giving Russian and minority languages equal status with Georgian under the Georgian constitution but backed down in the face of demonstrations.

History and Cultural Relations

Humans have been living in Georgia for an extremely long time, as attested by the recent discovery near Tbilisi of a Homo erectus jawbone that may be over a million years old. Stable agricultural and stock-raising cultures left archaeological remains beginning around 5000 b.c. In the third millennium b.c. these cultures were in contact with Akkadian Mesopotamia and then with the Hittites in Asia Minor; trade networks developed and the people learned to work in bronze. Around 2000 b.c. Indo-European groups began passing through Caucasia, mingling to some extent with the native population. Between the twelfth and seventh centuries b.c., according to Assyrian and Urartian records, there were a number of proto-Georgian tribal unions: Colcha and Diaokhi, also Mushki and Tabal, and possibly the biblical Meshech and Tubal. By 500 b.c. the first Georgian kingdoms took shapeColchis (or Egrisi) in the west and Iberia in the east. These were at first tributaries of the Achaemenid Persian Empire, then independent states; the first ruler described in Georgian chronicles, King Parnavaz, lived in these times. In the first century b.c. Romans invaded and established weak control over both kingdoms. Over the next four centuries Romans and the Iranian Parthians fought over Caucasia while Georgian princes sided with one or the other and tried to preserve as much independence as possible. Beginning in the seventh century b.c. Greeks established trading colonies along the Black Sea, where they played a leading role in commerce into this century. In the first century b.c. Strabo described four social classes in Georgia: rulers, priest-judges, soldiers and farmers, and common people.

In AD. 337, according to tradition, Saint Nino of Cappadocia converted King Mirian, and Christianity became the state religion of Iberia. Over the next 300 years, however, Christian Byzantium fought the Mazdaist Sassanids for control of Georgia's various principalities. In the fifth century, King Vakhtang Gorgasali repelled Ossetian and Khazar raids and brought an era of strength and security; according to legend, he also founded Tbilisi. Arabs conquered Georgia in the seventh century, decimating the people and splintering the land into tiny kingdoms. By 1008 the Bagration dynasty managed to unite all of Georgia except Tbilisi, only to have the country destroyed again by Seljuk Turks. King David the Rebuilder drove the Seljuks from Georgia and portions of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and the Black Sea littoral, recapturing Tbilisi after 400 years of Muslim domination. He invited Kipchaks and Armenians to settle depopulated areas in Georgia and proclaimed religious toleration. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries Georgia enjoyed a golden age under Queen Tamar and her son Giorgi Lasha. Tamar Mepe (King Tamar), as she is known, conquered all Transcaucasia from the Black Sea to the Caspian, including present-day northeastern Turkey. She made the northern mountaineers her tributaries, built many churches, and brought the Georgian feudal system to its zenith of complexity and centralization. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, however, Georgia was invaded and conquered by waves of Mongols. With the fall of Constantinople in 1453, Georgia's Christian kings lost their main ally; soon after, the country split into three kingdoms and numerous principalities. In the following years the Ottoman Turks, Safavid Persians, and occasionally the Russian czars fought over Georgian lands. Especially in western Georgia, slave trading and constant warfare drastically reduced and impoverished all classes of society.

In the early eighteenth century, King Vakhtang VI codified the laws of Georgia and brought a cultural revival. Despite repeated betrayals, Georgia's kings were convinced that their only hope for survival against the Turks and Persians lay with Russia. In 1783 King Irakli II signed the Treaty of Georgievsk, placing the Kakheti-Kartli kingdom under Russian protection; in 1801 Czar Paul I annexed it to his crown. By mid-century all of Georgia was under Russian rule. The nobility became Russianized, but there were also repeated anti-Russian plots and popular revolts. In the 1860s, Georgian serfs were emancipated but remained burdened with debts to their former lords. Many nobles were themselves heavily in debt to a rising urban class of merchants and capitalists. In the late 1800s, the writer Ilia Ch'avch'avadze headed movements to improve the lot of serfs, bring universal education, and unite all classes into a Georgian nationality. In the 1890s, the "third group" (mesame dasi ) of Georgian poets and intellectuals took up Marxist ideas; the young Stalin was linked with this third group, but later parted ways with it. In 1917 local revolutionary groups arose and took power as the czarist government collapsed. Georgia was briefly part of a Transcaucasian federation and then became an independent democratic state for three years under Social Democratic (Menshevik) leadership. The new government established close relations with Germany; the British, victorious in World War I, then replaced German troops and advisers. France and England eventually recognized Georgia, but offered no concrete support. In 1920 Lenin and Georgia's president, Noe Zhordania, signed a nonaggression pact; early in 1921, apparently at Stalin's instigation, the Red Army invaded and conquered Georgia.

An insurrection in 1924 was crushed, leaving an estimated 10,000 dead and 20,000 deported to Siberia. Under Stalinan ambiguous, highly charged figure, a Georgian who became Russianizedmany more people were imprisoned, exiled, or killed. A period of enforced political conformity ensued. It was not until Eduard Shevardnadze became secretary of the Georgian Communist party in 1972 that moderate reforms were instituted. In 1988 Georgian nationalist groups began demonstrations in the center of Tbilisi. Soviet troops killed nineteen protestors on 9 April 1989, and the groundswell of revolutionary feeling accelerated. In autumn 1990, as Mikhail Gorbachev's policies swept the Soviet Union, Zviad Gamsakhurdia's Mrgvali magida ("Round Table") coalition defeated the Communists in Georgian parliamentary elections. In spring 1991 a referendum on Georgian independence gained 99 percent approval, and on 9 April 1991, invoking the act of independence of 26 May 1918, the parliament redeclared Georgia a sovereign state. President Gamsakhurdia began dismantling Soviet institutions, replacing local councils with prefects. At the same time he acknowledged that Georgia remained de facto part of the Soviet Union. In parliament, the former Supreme Soviet, Gamsakhurdia's Round Table coalition held 155 seats, the former Communist party 60, and liberals and independents 26. Radicals and intellectuals formed an alternative National Congress that advocated an immediate, complete break with the Soviet Union. Gamsakhurdia's opponents pointed to press controls and political arrests as evidence that he was becoming a dictator; he, in turn, accused them of being agents of the KGB and emphasized his popular support (he was elected with 86 percent of the votes cast). In early 1992 a coalition of opposition groups, joined by many former members of Gamsakhurdia's administration, mounted an uprising in Tbilisi, which after several weeks succeeded in overthrowing the government and forcing Gamsakhurdia into exile. Shortly after consolidating their power, the new government asked Eduard Shevardnadze, the former Communist party leader, to be the new head of government. His appointment was confirmed in the election of October 1992.

Georgia's northern mountaineers traditionally raided the Muslim tribes across the crests, and also each other. Nominally Muslim and Christian villagers in the mountains had many shared traditions and habitually attended each other's festivals. Across the south and around Tbilisi, Azerbaijani, Armenian, and Turkish communities blend into Georgian ones, making Georgians sometimes feel overrun. Ajarians, Laz, and other Muslim Georgians, however, feel ties to Turkey. In 1944 Muslims in the province of Meskheti, including some Georgians, were deported to Central Asia; they still seek permission to return. Jews have lived in Georgia for twenty-six centuries without persecution, but they are now emigrating to Israel. The merchants and craftsmen in Georgia have always been largely of other nationalities, especially Armenian. Greek and Turkish influences are strong in western Georgia, whereas eastern regions have borrowed more of Persian culture; Russian and German ties are also important today. In earlier centuries, rulers often changed religions and orientations depending on which foreign power was in ascendance. In the nineteenth century Georgia was a common place of exile for Russian officers; Pushkin, Lermontov, and Tolstoy all spent time in Georgia and wrote works about the Caucasus that became popular in Russia. Educated Georgians, in turn, immersed themselves in Russian and Western literature and ideas.

In the late 1980s, as Georgia began seeking independence from the Soviet Union, Abkhazians and Ossetes renewed campaigns to secede from Georgia. The Abkhazians are a minority in their republic and complain that Georgians have not supported their culture and economy. Ossetes wish to form a single entity with their compatriots in the North Ossetian Autonomous Region of Russia. In 1990 the South Ossetian Autonomous Region declared its independence, and in 1991 fighting broke out between small groups of Ossetes and Georgians. Gamsakhurdia abolished South Ossetia's sovereignty (restoring the province's ancient Georgian name of Shida Kartli) and sent in Georgian troops; Soviet authorities responded with troops of their own. Sporadic fighting continues in both Abkhazia and South Ossetia.


Georgia's central valleys and coastal regions are thickly settled with towns and villages of from 50 to 50,000 inhabitants. Town suburbs often sprawl out and divide into clusters of houses, like villages themselves. In the mountains and hills, villages rarely exceed 1,000 people and are often at a considerable distance from one another. Even the smallest villages typically consist of several named areas, each originally settled by a different family. In eastern Georgia, houses cluster compactly, with both private plots and collective-farm fields surrounding them; in the west, each sits in its own large garden. A small village usually includes a stone water fountain, a shop, a kindergarten, and a threshing ground, also used for summer meetings and dances. Larger villages may have a recreation hall, a bathhouse or café, clinics, grammar schools, and one or two factories or workshops.

A standard house in eastern Georgia is square, two stories high, and built of cement or brick with a tile roof. In the west the older style, still preserved, favors wide, one-story, all-wood houses with elaborate carvings. Houses often have eight or ten rooms; the kitchen is on the ground floor with its own entrance, the best room is on the second floor. All houses have verandas, outside staircases, and balconies, where people work and eat in the summer months. Each house, or sometimes several dwellings belonging to a father and his sons, stands in a courtyard with a fence and a gate. The gates are now usually metal, painted blue or green (once regarded as protection against the evil eye); a visitor pauses at the gates and calls to the people inside. The garden invariably includes a grape arbor and rose bushes as well as fruit trees and vegetables. Men build their houses carefully over a period of years, as they have the time and can buy the materials.

In Tbilisi most people live in apartments, either five-story prewar buildings or modern high-rises. The center of the city is Rustaveli Prospect, a wide avenue of public buildings, theaters, and stores, where crowds stroll in summer. Nearby is the old town with its jumbled balconies and courtyards, the old sulfur baths, and the most important churches. A traditionally Armenian quarter lies across the river, along with the central market and most of the city's industry. Abandoned cliff and cave dwellings, refuges during the wars of earlier centuries, remain across southern Georgia. In mountain villages many houses still have old stone defense towers, some dating from the twelfth century or perhaps earlier. Into the twentieth century, poorer western Georgians lived in ancient-style round houses with central hearths.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Most Georgian families have gardens or private plots in which they grow beans, maize, fruits, vegetables, and spices for their own consumption. Men make wine and sometimes keep bees; women make condiments, pickles, and preserves and may raise chickens and pigs. In mountainous regions, people are mostly engaged in raising sheep and cattle. Only potatoes, barley, rye, and oats can be grown in the highest villages, so vodka and beer take the place of wine. The staple food of eastern Georgia is fresh, flattish white bread, now usually bought from stores; in the west the staple is cornmeal, either in cakes or as porridge. A meal also commonly includes various bean dishes (lobio ), cheese or yogurt, and fruits and vegetables in season. Among the most popular Georgian dishes are shish kebab (mts'vadi ) with sour plum sauce (t'q'emali ), chicken with spicy walnut sauce (satsivi, bazhe ), lamb-stuffed dumplings, and cheese bread (khach'ap'uri ).

In previous centuries Georgian cities had highly disciplined guilds of merchants and craftsmen, including armorers, tailors, blacksmiths, butchers, bakers, and wine merchants. Tbilisi was known for its sharp-tongued street hawkers, roaming musicians, and cellar restaurants. Today professional craftsmen are few, but private cooperative stores and restaurants are once again allowed. State stores offer staples, including bread; open markets and specialty stores have a wide variety of produce, nuts, and preserved meats, but at much higher prices. Clothing, toys, and household items appear in stores randomly or not at all, and may cost weeks, months, or years of the average person's wages. Georgians, while participating in the cash economy, thus rely heavily on the assistance of relatives, friends, and co-workers to obtain inside access to goods and services.

In this century the Soviet policies of collectivization and industrialization have commercialized Georgia's economy and increased the standard of living. Large state farms in the lowlands now grow warm-weather, labor-intensive crops for export: tobacco, tea, and citrus in the west; wine, fruit, and vegetables in the east. In other areas collective farms produce more varied crops, mostly for local consumption. Georgia has one of the world's largest manganese mines (at Ch'iatura) and significant reserves of coal, timber, and various minerals. Other industries across the country include food processing, clothing production, steel works, and oil refineries. Tourism is also a major industry; Georgia has many natural mineral water spas in addition to its coast and mountains. Russian workers in Georgia are concentrated in tourist services and in industry.

Trade. Georgia produced over 90 percent of the tea and citrus consumed in the Soviet Union and much highly prized wine. Owing to its increasingly specialized agriculture, the country is now dependent on imports of grain. Batumi in Ajaria is a major port, especially for oil that comes by pipeline from Baku. Overland routes to Russia are limited: the only railway runs along the Abkhazian coast, and the main roadthe Georgian Military Highwayis through the difficult Darial Pass into North Ossetia. (Plans to blast a tunnel through the Caucasus to allow a more direct rail link between Russia and Tbilisi were abandoned after a popular outcry over the environmental and cultural consequences.) In Russia, Georgians have earned a reputation as entrepreneurs and speculators.

Division of Labor. Georgian family members cooperate economically, even though some may have official jobs and residences in the city and others in the country. Traditionally, all wage workers put their earnings into a common fund kept by the senior woman of the household. When major purchases were to be made, the whole family conferred, with the oldest man having final say. In Tbilisi nowadays, family members simply give each other money as needed. In rural areas men do most of the fieldwork, cut hay, and take animals to high pasture in summer. Women do the cooking, washing, and cleaning and have the primary responsibility for taking care of children. Only men slaughter animals and serve as priests (in the Georgian Orthodox church or in pre-Christian ceremonies still observed in many remote parts of the country). Women are expected to teach their children to read and to ensure that they do well in school. Both men and women usually have nonagricultural jobs, sometimes in a neighboring larger village or town. One typical pattern is for grandparents to remain in the village, registered in the collective farm, while some of their grown children work or get training in town.

Land Tenure. Collectivization in the 1930s eliminated differences in family landholdings and competition for scarce arable land. Most fields and pastures now belong to collective farms, with individuals drawing wages and portions of the harvest in proportion to hours worked. About 30 percent of the agricultural land belongs to the state, which pays workers a fixed wage. Under Soviet law, people have the right only to use their houses and individual plots, with inheritance based on coresidence. In practice, however, Georgians ensure that sons or other appropriate heirs are official residents, thus keeping property within the family. In pre-Soviet times, fields belonged to families, pastures to villages, and forests to nobles, churches, or to all for free use.


Kin Groups and Descent. Georgian families are typically of three generations: an older couple and married sons with children, plus unmarried sons and daughters. Increasingly, however, married sons may work in separate places and so form semi-independent households. Families are grouped together into patrilineages (sadzmo ), or "branches" (sht'o ) of four to seven generations. In villages, families of a single branch occupy a section of adjacent houses. A branch also refers to all relatives up through the seventh degree, with whom marriage is prohibited by the church. In addition, people with the same surname (mogvare ) assume they are related and do not marry. Families from western Georgia tend to have surnames ending in -dze, those from eastern Georgia in -shvili; Mingrelian, Svan, and some aristocratic family names have other endings. Many surnames are further identified with specific regions and villages.

Membership in all kin groups is patrilineal, marriage is exogamous, and residence patrilocal. Thus a villager grows up among his father's kin and sees his mother's relatives as guests. Nonetheless, Georgians consider their mothers' and grandmothers' relatives close "blood" kin, the same as their fathers', and visit them frequently if they live in the same town. Adults call on both their fathers' and mothers' relatives for help and in both groups enjoy the reassurance of being among kin. A man's honor is closely bound up with his mother, and his conduct reflects back on her most of all. A woman usually does not take her husband's name when she marries. She remains under her father's and brothers' protection throughout her life, but she is buried with her husband.

Georgians also recognize several categories of "spiritual" kin. In pre-Soviet times a nobleman sometimes gave his child to be suckled and raised by a peasant's wife. The child and the mother's own children would then be "milk brothers/sisters" (dzudzumt'e ), binding the families for generations. As a variation, a grown man could publicly touch his lips to the breast of a woman, and so become adopted into a family. Even today two people who feel strong affection for each other cut their fingers, let their blood intermingle, and swear siblinghood. In a form of ritual kinship contracted between a man and woman, the couple could have affectionate, even intimate relations; on the other hand, since they were considered kin, they could not marry (this custom, known as ts'ats'loba in the mountain province of Pshavi, and as sts'orproba in the neighboring district of Khevsureti, was practiced up to the early years of the twentieth century). All Georgian children today have godparents; those of the first child are the mother's and father's lifelong best friends, who stood with them at their wedding. Parents' and godparents' descendants should not marry for fourteen generations.

Kinship Terminology. A Georgian names relatives by their relation to his or her ancestral line; maternal and paternal lines are not distinguished. Blood uncles are called by a special term (bidza or dzia ) and their wives by another (bitsola ). All other relatives are referred to by compound terms of the form "mother's sister," "grandfather's brother's wife," "brother's child's child," and so on. Terms distinguish gender when counting up generations, but not down. "Uncle" and "mother's sister" (deida ) are general terms of respect for older people; an older woman of the same village is "uncle's wife." A wife has a set of terms to call her husband's mother, father, brother, and sister; and the husband likewise has a separate set for his wife's immediate kin (e.g., husband's mother, dedamtili; wife's mother, sidedri ). All the members of each family then reciprocate with a single term. Husbands of sisters, wives of brothers, a married couple, and the parents of a married couple each have a reciprocal term. There is also a complete set of terms for families joined through godparenthood.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriages are initiated by the groom's side, but require the eventual consent of both young people and both families. A boy in love may simply ask a girl to marry him, then tell his parents. More often, a young man's female relatives arrange for him to meet potential brides on various pretexts, then open formal negotiations. If the bride and her family consent, the groom or one of his relatives brings a gold watch or ring as a sign of betrothal. The two families feel bound to help each other because they will share the same grandchildren. A bride should be a virgin, a good worker, and have done well in school; the groom's family should offer a reasonable standard of living and not be difficult to get along with. Ideally, the two families should be of the same class and region. Divorce was unusual in Georgia, but is now increasing. A divorced woman's family is supportive, but it is hard for her to remarry.

On the wedding day, the groom and his best man drink a glass of wine in the bride's house, then drive off with the bride and her bridesmaid for the civil ceremony. This is often accompanied, even today, by a service in church with an exchange of rings. At the threshold of the groom's house, the groom's mother gives him a plate to break under his foot (in another variant of this practice, the bride and groom compete to be the first to crush the plate; this is believed to be indicative of who will have the upper hand during their married life). Then both bride and groom are offered wine and something sweet. The couple preside as "king" (mepe ) and "queen" (dedopali ) at a lavish banquet of toasts, with singing and dancing for up to three days. In some areas the bride and groom are expected to sit with lowered eyes and eat little. In villages, the morning after the wedding the bride is asked to sweep the courtyard and fetch water from the spring, where other women come to greet her. A new wife is treated kindly and given only light work to do; in return she does not show too much how much she misses her family. The husband's relatives call her "little daughter-in-law" (p'at'ardzali ) until she has had her first child; only then is the marriage considered consummated. A Georgian man still sometimes abducts his bride, nearly always with her tacit consent. Urban Georgians will run off together to another town, then return in a week to tell their parents. In rural areas, the groom and a few friends bring the bride first to one of the groom's paternal relatives' houses and then to his own. The groom's family quickly swallow their surprise and rally behind him; the bride's family are very angry, particularly her brothers. Intermediaries then try to calm the bride's family and win their consent to the usual marriage banquet. Once a man and woman are known to have spent the night together, it is assumed that they have had sex and so must marry. Thus the bride's family always eventually relents, and the birth of a child heals remaining hard feelings.

Domestic Unit. Two to four generations usually eat together and share the same house or courtyard. Large families are considered fortunate. Traditionally, the oldest man heads the household, supervises other men's work, and has the final say in all matters; he therefore tends to reserve his opinions. The oldest woman manages the house's money and food, apportions work among other women, and has the largest hand in arranging her children's jobs and marriages. When a young couple marries and has children, however, their own small family is understood to become their primary focus. Georgians usually marry in their twenties and have two or three children; they hope for at least one son. New mothers take a year's maternity leave; after that the grandmother often stays with the children while the parents work. Husbands and wives avoid displaying affection openly; brothers and sisters are typically very close. The men and women of a family have a sense of gender solidarity, but do not keep separate from each other.

Georgians have a strong, sacred tradition of family hospitality. A household marks weddings, funerals, birthdays, holidays, or the arrival of any guest with a ritual banquet (supra). The supra may be a banquet for hundreds or just two friends sitting and talking, but it shows a family's honor and prosperity. The table is spread with rich and beautifully arranged food. The host, or an older man with authority and eloquence, raises a glass of wine and begins to lead the table in certain standard toasts, as well as some of his own invention. Guests elaborate each toast in turn, growing gradually drunker and more sentimental. Standard toasts are to the house, to parents, to children, to siblings, to the reason for gathering, to each of the people present, to women, to the departed, and finally, to "the holiest of all" (q'ovelta ts'minda ) an epithet originally referring to the Virgin Mary). Strangers learn about each other's lives; enemies must find something kind to say about each other. Older women may participate fully, but younger women keep quiet and concentrate on serving food.

Inheritance. A family's house and land are common property; even after a man dies his married sons and their wives prefer to live together. In villages, a family that grows too large builds houses nearby for the older sons and leaves the old house to the youngest son and the grandparents; other property is divided equally. Women may inherit land, especially if they live in the village and head households; otherwise the property reverts up the patriline. Old people often distribute their property before they die to forestall arguments. In the highlands, a woman used to have a personal fund of land, stock, jewelry, or linens, which passed to her daughters.

Socialization. Georgians believe people learn slowly, with age, experience, and good teachers. Babies and small children receive much love and attention from all their relatives. They are encouraged to do things for themselves, not to wander away or cry too much, to know how the other gender behaves, and to be polite to elders. When a child misbehaves he or she is not punished severely, but is considered to be still learning. Until recently, schoolchildren were taught a Soviet version of history and morals with which their parents usually did not agree, but were afraid to question too openly. Without being told explicitly, a child learned to read between the lines of official publications and not to speak of family business to strangers.

Older children usually act as their parents would wish, without needing to be told. By around age 15, children take a considerable share of the household work, and by age 20 they and their parents start thinking about future careers and spouses. Young men had been required to spend two years in the Soviet army, but many managed to bribe their way out or simply never reported. For children of the intelligentsia, the years at university, especially the general exams, are the great rite of passage. All young people are considered prone to strong emotions of love, jealousy, and anger, which temper when they marry. For both men and women, becoming a parent, and then a grandparent, are felt to be life's happiest, most important achievements.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Georgian society is patriarchal: the head of a Georgian table is by custom always a man, and the men of a family are protective of the women. On the other hand, mothers are especially revered, and the language contains far more idiomatic expressions that refer to mothers than to fathers: the world is "mother Earth" (deda mits'a ), Georgian is the "mother tongue" (deda ena ), and so on. The Georgians revere the twelfth-century Queen Tamar as the symbol of their nation at its apex, and all mothers for the power to give life. Georgians expect men and women to have distinct natural inclinations, but regard each other as equals. Most doctors, teachers, and philologists are women, whereas men dominate in government, science, and heavy industry; many other professions are mixed. Georgians respect all older people's wisdom and control; in return they expect parents and grandparents to watch over children and be patient with their mistakes. People pay attention to each other's ages and sit and toast at suppers in roughly decreasing order of age. In general, Georgians do not enjoy eating meals or going places without the company of relatives or close friends.

Georgia has a large, loosely defined class of leading families whose members are academics, doctors, writers, artists, and political leaders. Old Tbilisi families have the highest status, but every village has an intelligentsia, usually including the former nobility. Communist party members, some from leading families and some not, formed a special class, at once elite and outcast, now disintegrating. Working and farming families receive respect insofar as they are large, prosperous, established, and honorable. Georgians feel working in business or any kind of service job is degrading, even if sometimes necessary. The Russians, Armenians, Azerbaijanis, and Jews who fill these jobs are therefore considered tainted by them or marked as separate people with separate roles. People recognize and reward individual merit, but access to education and employment also usually involves family guidance and patronage, thus replicating existing social divisions. The Communists, while they were in power, followed this traditional system, their ideology to the contrary notwithstanding.

The control exercised by Soviet offices, factories, schools, and clubs was to some extent circumvented by private ties that were the bases of society. People were accustomed to using their connections and paying bribes to gain government permission to build houses, change residence, or travel outside their republic. In general, Georgians consider it natural and moral to favor relatives and friends, provided that the beneficiaries are worthy. Under feudalism, the king, the church patriarch, and a few dozen princely families commanded lesser nobles as warriors and attendants; nobles, in turn, ruled farming families, who owed them labor, crops, and respect. City dwellers were organized into guilds, and foreign prisoners of war became slaves. In some areas peasant families were essentially free, watched over by village elders; elsewhere princes exploited their serfs, even selling them into slavery. Nobles were usually raised in local peasant families, and all classes carried arms, fought in battle, and had a sense of honor.

Political Organization. Under Soviet rule, Communist party leaders, government officials, and heads of institutions and industries effectively formed a single ruling body. Party members, supervisors, collective-farm chairmen, and schoolteachers represented this authority in everyday life, earning respect according to their individual qualities. Major decisions were made in Moscow, and formal opposition was not tolerated. Factions of the local nomenklatura schemed aggressively against each other for government wealth and favor, however. In earlier centuries, nobles, members of the royal family, and rulers of neighboring states formed shifting alliances. The central monarchy and the Christian church became closely tied to the idea of a unified, independent Georgia. Strong kings developed a feudal system similar to that of Europe, with hereditary land rights conditional on services rendered to a lord. However, princes and local leaders also made wars and alliances as extensions of their private affairs, building power by tradition, kinship ties, and personal ability.

Social Control and Conflict. Disputes are mediated by older men in the families involved or by third parties who have the respect of both sides; occasionally they simply simmer unresolved. Soviet police and courts were politically controlled and sometimes instruments of terror. People avoided litigation and resorted to bribery and influence when arrested. This system is now breaking down but has not been replaced. Georgia's traditional law codes, administered by nobles, bound offending families to pay fixed restitutions for death, injury, and loss of property; there was no distinction between purposeful and accidental wrongs. Parties took oaths on icons or brought witnesses to swear support. Families also took justice into their own hands, retaliating back and forth over generations. Georgians who feared revenge or official punishment sometimes fled to the forest and became bandits.

Georgia was thus historically a land of blood feuds and frequent raiding and warfare. A dagger belted around the waist and cartridge belts across the chest were standard elements of dress. This was balanced by a chivalric code of honor and strong traditions of kinship and hospitality. With the weakening of Soviet control, people are again dividing along political, national, and family lines, and leaders are building private armies. Georgian banquet tables may erupt into drunken fights, but can also heal rifts through adroit toasting; the supra is ideally "the academy," a place to learn and discuss. A fight most often starts between young men; older men, friends, or women then step in and try to calm them. A man's relatives and close friends may, however, also feel obligated to take his side. Formerly a woman could stop a fight by throwing her kerchief between the combatants.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs and Practices . Most Georgians belong to the Georgian Orthodox church; Ajarians and the Georgians of Turkey are Sunni Muslims of the Hanafi rite. A small group of Georgians in Azerbaijan, the Ingilos, are Shiites, as are the Fereidanian Georgians of Iran. About 25,000 Georgian Jews live in Georgia. Georgians, especially those of the mountains, also maintain cults of local deities and traditions of honoring the spirits of ancestors. These older traditions, Christian beliefs, and even Mazdaist and Muslim ideas, have fused in different proportions in different regions. In addition, Georgian academies of the golden age embraced Neoplatonism and established a strong tradition of humanism that continues today. The autocephalous Georgian Orthodox church was incorporated into that of Russia in czarist times, then mostly suppressed under Soviet rule; celebrations in the countryside have thus been left to families. Georgians are now renovating churches and reestablishing services. The church patriarch (presently Ilia II) has reemerged as an important national figure.

Georgian churches are dominated by an iconostasis, traditionally made of elaborately carved stone, pierced by three ceremonial doors and set with icons of Mary, Christ, John the Baptist, and other saints and angels. Georgians associate knowledge, faith, light, and the Holy Spirit; baptism and subsequent mysteries (sacraments) are understood as growing enlightenment. Major Georgian Orthodox holidays are Easter, Christmas, New Year's, the Day of Souls, and days to honor Mary, Saint Nino, Saint George, and Georgia's old capital and religious center, Mtskheta. Holidays are celebrated with processions, special services, sacrifices, offerings of wine and bread, and periods of fasting and feasting.

Georgia's traditional pantheon consisted of an all-encompassing god (ghmerti ) and a host of lesser deities called angels, saints, or icons (khat'i ). Most likely these represent the cults of earlier pagan deities modified and renamed under the influence of Christianity. These included the many incarnations of Saint George, dragon slayer and chief protector of humankind; the Svan hunting goddess Dali; Tamar, queen and conqueror, associated with the sun; Saint Barbara, patron of fertility and healing; K'op'ala, victor over the race of demons; Saint Mary; the Archangel Michael; and even Christ as ruler of the underworld. Each saint (or version of a saint) has its own sanctuary, holiday, and (in pre-Soviet times) lands and families of attendants. The sanctuary belongs to the local community, but pilgrims from other regions (including representatives of some non-Georgian peoples) also bring sheep to sacrifice and join in feasting. Many churches have been built on mountains or near sacred trees and groves. According to myth, the shrines are linked to heaven by invisible chains, along which the saint travels in the form of a bird, winged cross, or light. In the mountains, standards topped with crosses were kept in the sanctuaries and were carried on raids and used to draw out drowned souls. In some mountain localities one can still see stone shrines adorned with antlers, drinking horns, and other offerings (metal objects, bullets) left by petitioners.

Arts. Through the eighteenth century, the Georgian high arts developed in connection with those of Persia, Byzantium, and Armenia. Old churches, still revered and reproduced today, are cruciform or octagonal with alternating square and rounded masses piling up to a central tower with a conical roof. Doors, friezes, and altar screens are carved with geometrical designs, human figures, and birds and beasts; inside walls have frescoes in red and blue. Medieval Georgia is also famous for cloisonné enamel icons and repoussé metal frames, crosses, cups, and arms in silver and gold; the country retains many fine metalsmiths and jewelers. Men's traditional dress was a tightly belted woolen tunic and trousers tucked into soft leather boots; women wore silk or cotton gowns with flared hems and sleeves. Only the mountaineer Khevsur now wear their embroidered costumes in ordinary life, but tailoring and leather-working traditions remain strong. Pottery, wood carving, and knitting are also all old and popular arts in Georgia.

The eleventh to thirteenth centuries were Georgia's artistic golden age. The masterpiece of this period, Shota Rustaveli's romantic verse-epic Vepkhist'q'aosani (The Knight in the Leopard Skin) remains the Georgians' most beloved work of literature, both for its language and for the ideal picture of society it presents. Other classical works, many still read today, are lives of saints, historical chronicles, works of philosophy, love lyrics, and narrative poems of romance, history, and reflection. There are also many translations and retellings of literature from other countries. The silver age of the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries brought a renaissance of poetry, the introduction of printing, the first monumental dictionary of the Georgian language, and works of history and criticism that established modern scholarship. Georgian folklore includes myths, historical tales, stories featuring literary characters, fairy tales, fables, battle epics, love poems, songs of mourning, work songs, humorous poems, lullabies, and hymns. Festive suppers are favorite times for songs, and winter evenings for stories.

Georgians have a distinct tradition of polyphonic a cappella folk singing, sung by men divided into two or three main voices and up to four additional voices. Other song styles need just one voice and are sung to instrumental accompaniment. Tbilisi has given rise to a genre of urban folk songs, many written by nineteenth-century poets. Traditional Georgian instruments include three-stringed mandolins and lutes, pipes, clarinets, drums, and, in various areas, bagpipes, panpipes, and harps. Medieval Georgians enjoyed chamber music and had a system of musical notation. In Georgian dances men imitate the art of warleaping, spinning, and battling with swords; women move proudly and gracefully, with elaborate movements of their hands. Men and women never touch each other while dancing. Often the company makes a ring, clapping or revolving while individuals show off in the center. In sports Georgians excel at wrestling, fencing, equestrian events, and chess (especially women's chess, which has been dominated by Georgians for the past two decades); soccer is also extremely popular.

Beginning in the early nineteenth century, Georgian arts came under Western influence. Many Georgians have excelled in painting, sculpture, lyric and narrative poetry, fiction, symphonic music, opera, ballet, theater, and cinema. Professional artists draw heavily on folk themes, and their work is known to people from all walks of life. Georgian painters and sculptors favor portraits and scenes of gatherings; many use strong, sharp lines and give their subjects an impression of weight. Among painters of the postwar period, Lado Gudiashvili has pride of place; the naive painter Niko Pirosmanishvili has become famous for his murals in cellar restaurants depicting scenes from urban and village life. Over the course of the nineteenth century, Georgian poets and novelists turned from romantic to realistic styles; common subjects remain the fate of the country, historical episodes, everyday life, and intense portraits of character and emotion. Important poets of earlier generations include Nikoloz Baratashvili, Ak'ak'i Ts'ereteli, Galak't'ion T'abidze, and those of the symbolist "blue horn" circle. Perhaps the greatest poet of the modern period is the early-twentieth-century writer Vazha-Pshavela, whose poems were inspired by the epic oral literature of his native mountains.

Medicine . Georgians go both to state clinics and to doctors who use traditional remedies. Certain families are famous for their knowledge of curing; recipes and rituals are also found in old books. Georgians traditionally had shamans who fell into trances and prescribed cures in the voice of a local deity. Similarly, some women could speak in the voices of the dead. Some Georgians fear old women's curses and unhappy local and ancestral spirits, blaming them for illness or bad fortune. Many believe in the healing powers of mineral-water drinks and baths. Old women see their families' futures written in dreams in standard sets of signs; some are also known as fortune-tellers. Many women like to get together in winter, drink coffee, and tell fortunes from the grounds. Mountain priests used to divine the future from shoulder bones of sacrificed animals. Many Georgians consider certain days of the week lucky or unlucky for doing certain household tasks or for individuals in their lives.

Death and Afterlife. Georgians want very much to die in the company of their families and be buried in their native land. As a person is dying, relatives place a bowl of water beside the bed and open a window, so the soul can be clean and fly away. On the third, fourth, and fifth days after death, hundreds, or even thousands, come to pay their respects; a priest is also called, if one is available. A candle burns behind the head of the corpse and grains of wheat are strewn alongside; the women of the family sob and lament, the men stand quietly. For the burial, the pall-bearers carry the coffin three times around the room, then knock on the door and let themselves out. The family follows with wine and special dishes. That evening neighbors organize a large funeral banquet; the toasts must total an odd number. Forty days after death, the family celebrates the soul's departure for the other world; on the first anniversary, they mark the end of mourning. Thereafter, on anniversaries, on holidays, and especially on the Day of Souls, people return to the cemetery and have a small supper, including toasts and offerings to those who have passed away. A person in mourning consumes no milk or meat and wears black. Some women mourn husbands or brothers their entire lives, but young widows and widowers often remarry. In folklore Georgians associated death with journeys to the west, into caves, and through water. They envisioned the afterlife as a dim, shadowy replica of the present one: the dead sit at a vast banquet at which they do not eat, drink, or speak. Souls maintain family loyalties and still crave food, drink, and, according to some, clothing and entertainment. Their well-being depends on their character in this world, and their relatives' continuing care. Georgians also have Christian ideas of a heaven and hell.

See also Ajarians; Georgian Jews; Ingilos; Khevsur; Laz; Meskhetians; Mingrelians; Svans


Allen, W. E. D. (1932). A History of the Georgian People. London: Kegan Paul. Reprint. 1971.

Charachidzé, Georges (1968). Le système religieux de la Géorgie païenne. Paris: Maspéro.

Davitaia, F. F. (1972). Sovietskaia Gruziia (Soviet Georgia). Moscow: Progress.

Dragadze, Tamara (1988). Rural Families in Soviet Georgia. London: Routledge.

Grigolia, Alexander (1939). Custom and Justice in the Caucasus: The Georgian Highlanders. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Lang, David Marshall (1966). The Georgians. New York: Praeger.

Papashvily, George, and Helen Papashvily (1946). Yes and No Stories: A Book of Georgian Folk Tales. New York: Harper.

Suny, Ronald G. (1988). The Making of the Georgian Nation. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Tuite, Kevin (in press). Violet on the Mountain: An Anthology of Georgian Folk Poetry. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.

Volkova, N. G., and G. N. Dzhavakhishvili (1982). Bytovaia kultura gruzii XIX-XX vekov: Traditsii i inovatsii (Georgian domestic culture in the 19th-20th centuries: Tradition and innovation). Moscow: Nauka.



views updated May 23 2018


ALTERNATE NAMES: Kartveli; Gurji
POPULATION: 4.3 million (2002)
LANGUAGE: Georgian
RELIGION: Georgian Orthodoxy


The people we know as Georgians call themselves kartvelebi and their country Sa-kartvel-o, literally, "the land of the kartvelebi." The word Georgia probably comes from the Turkish word Gurji, which is what Turks call Georgians. It is hard to pinpoint exactly where the Georgians came from, but proto-Georgian tribes, such as the Diauhi, the Tabali, and Muskhi, began to make their appearance at the end of the Bronze Age, splinters possibly from the ancient kingdoms of Urartu and the Vannic kingdoms of the first millennium bc. By the 6th century ad, the west Georgian kingdom of Colchis and the east Georgian kingdom of Iberia (unrelated to the Iberian Peninsula) were established.

The inhabitants of what is now Georgia were well known to the Greeks and Romans. The Georgians had a reputation for gold and metalworking, which explains why the Greeks set the myth of the Golden Fleece in the Georgian kingdom of Colchis. Until this century, many Georgians used a fleece to catch gold from mountain streams. Ancient Greeks also set the story of Prometheus in the Caucasus Mountains on Georgia's northern border. After Prometheus gave fire to humans, Zeus punished him by chaining him to one of the highest Caucasian mountains (some say Elbruz, others Kazbegi). An eagle ate his liver, but it rejuvenated overnight, and the eagle revisited to torture him the next day.

Throughout the centuries, because of its strategic location as a crossroads between Europe and Asia, Georgia was invaded and settled by Greeks, Romans, Persians, Turkic tribes, Arabs, Mongols, and Russians. Georgia was also on one of the many branches of the Silk Road, which carried trade from China and India to Europe and back. As a result, the Georgian population was influenced by a multiplicity of cultures both Oriental and European. This is reflected in the country's architecture, language, literature, and cuisine, which draw upon Persian, Arabic, Greek, and Russian sources. Such intermingling over many centuries resulted in a population with both dark and light skin and brown and blue eyes. Physically, Georgians resemble Greeks or Turks and think of themselves as part of Eastern Mediterranean culture.

Georgians probably developed a proto-national identity around the 10th century, when the Bagratid dynasty established an independent and powerful Georgian confederal state uniting both East and West Georgians, along with other ethnic groups including Turks, Armenians, and Persians. The dominant Kartlian tribe gave its name to the new state (Sakartvelo), although Georgian regional groupings, such as the Mingrelians, Khevsurs, and Svans, have retained separate identities to this day. Georgians share their country with other nations who have settled in the region over many centuries. Georgians number 3,661,173 and make up 83.8% of the population in Georgia. The largest ethnic minorities are Azeris (6.5%), Armenians (5.7%), Russians (1.5%), Ossetians (0.9%), Greeks (0.3%), and Abkhazians (0.1%).

Until recently, most ethnic groups in Georgia lived peaceably together. Georgia was cosmopolitan in culture but, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the country has been torn apart by secessionist wars. Both the Abkhazians (an indigenous Caucasian group related to the Adyghe and Cherkess nations of North Caucasia) and the South Ossetians (who speak an Iranian-based language) wish to secede from Georgia.


The total population of Georgia in 2002 was 4,371,535. In 2002 urban dwellers made up 52.4% of the population. The capital of Tbilisi had a population of 1,081,679 that year, with many people continuing to move there from the villages. This has led to a serious population decline in some rural regions. Fighting in Georgia since 1991 has displaced approximately 400,000 people from Abkhazia and former South Ossetia. Almost 300,000 people are registered as IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons). In 1995 approximately 70,000 of these IDPs (which some call refugees) lived in Tbilisi; the rest were scattered throughout Georgia.

Georgia is between 40°E and 47°E latitude and 41°07'N and 43°35'N longitude and occupies 27,657 square miles, approximately twice the area of Belgium. On its northern border lies the Russian Federation. To the south are Turkey and the Republic of Armenia and to the west and east are the Black Sea and the Republic of Azerbaijan, respectively. Georgia is dominated in the north by the Greater Caucasian Mountain range (Elbruz is Europe's highest mountain at 18,481 feet) and in the south by the Southern Georgian Highlands.

Two-thirds of Georgian territory is mountainous, and between the mountains lie fertile lowlands crisscrossed by some of Georgia's 25,000 rivers, which surge in the spring and summer when the snows melt. Here one finds orchards, vineyards, and in the west, subtropical plantations. Because of the mountains and forests, which make up two-thirds of Georgian terrain, arable land is in short supply, accounting for only about 18% of the total land area. This is made up by its fertility. Most of the population lives in the river valleys, and at least one-third earns its livelihood from the land.

The Georgian climate varies from semi-desert to alpine, but on the whole the climate is hospitable. The Black Sea coast, which forms Georgia's western border, is warm, subtropical, and very rainy, perfect for growing citrus fruit, tobacco, and tea. In East Georgia, the climate is a drier Mediterranean type, similar to that of Greece, and wine, fruit, vegetables, and grain are the major crops.

Georgia is rich in fauna and flora with more than 5,000 types of wildflowers, 100 different mammals, 330 types of birds, and 160 kinds of fish. Indigenous species include Pitsunda pine, Caucasian spruce, Abkhazian hedgehog, Colchis lizard, Caucasian jay, and Caucasian wild goat (ibex), the horns of which are still used for toasting during feasts. The forests provide good cover for deer, boar, bears, and wolves (the latter have been reintroduced). Hyenas and wild leopard are increasingly rare despite hunting restrictions, and environmental degradation includes deforestation (leading to mudslides in the mountains) and serious pollution of the Black Sea.


Georgian is part of the southwest Caucasian group of languages: Zan (Mengrelo-Chan), Svan, and Georgian proper (Kartuli). It does not belong to any of the world's major language categories (Indo-European, Semitic, etc.) and is incomprehensible to all neighboring peoples. Mingrelians and Svans still speak their own languages at home, although all speak Georgian in public communications. Georgian has its own alphabet, which dates from at least the 5th century ad, influenced by Phoenician-Aramaic and Greek scripts. Since then, there have been two major modifications. The latest alphabet, called mkhedruli, has 33 characters and is written from left to right.

Some scholars have suggested Georgian is connected to Basque, but the similarities are superficial. Although there are many word borrowings from Arabic, Turkic, Persian, and Russian, Georgian is quite distinctive. In Georgian, "father" is mama and "mother" is deda, which can be quite confusing to foreigners. Georgian is particularly rich in indigenous words concerned with agriculture, winemaking, and metalworking-areas in which Georgians have long specialized. For example, all metals have indigenous words: gold is okro, silver is vertskhli, brass is titberi, and copper is spilenzi.

For Georgians, language is central to their identity. They are very protective of it. In 1978, when Georgia was still part of the USSR, students organized a major demonstration to defend their language when they felt it was threatened by Russification and diminished legal status. The earliest surviving Georgian literary works date from the 5th century ad. Currently, 98.2% of Georgians consider Georgian their native tongue, and business, political, and cultural activities within the state are conducted in Georgian. Everyday terms in Georgian include gamarjorbat ("hello"), ki ("yes"), ara ("no"), g madlobt ("thank you"), and nakhvamdis ("good-bye").


Folklore in Georgia is extremely popular. Its sources are Christian, Greek, Hindu, pagan, and Persian. The Georgian Visramiani (mid-12th century), for example, is based on a Persian and (maybe Indian) prose romance, and the "Wisdom of Balahvar" (10th-11th centuries) is a Georgian Christian version of the story of Buddha. Amiran-darejaniani (11th century) is a collection of myths based in part on the Greek tales of Prometheus, and the Rusudaniani (17th century) borrows extensively from Arab sources, in particular the Arabian Nights. Other sources of Georgian folklore are the tales of surrounding Caucasian peoples such, as the Ossetians and Cherkess, who share pagan Nart epics focused on the earth-goddess Satanei and her off-spring. Georgian folklore includes stories of knights, heroes, fantastic battles, chimeras, monsters, and spirits. Many of these stories crossed over into Georgian folk tales where one commonly encounters anthropomorphic animals, mzetunakhavi (the most beautiful woman in the world), modzalade devi (a beast often with three heads), and natsarkekia (a layabout).

Georgian folklore is intertwined with all aspects of Georgian life, from literature and religion, to cuisine, dance, music, and architecture. One of the greatest early 20th century Georgian poets, Vazha Pshavela, depends heavily in his poetry on the semi-pagan world of the Georgian mountain peoples, such as the Pshavs, Khevsurs, and Svans. In his works, he incorporates their magical myths about demons, sorcerers, the underworld, and describes their local deities and demi-gods.

Folklore legends instill in Georgians fabulous versions of their history. One Georgian legend, known by every school child, concerns the location of the capital, Tbilisi. The legend states that the Georgian king, Vakhtang Gorgasali (ad 452- 502), was hunting on the site of present-day Tbilisi when he wounded a deer. The deer, bleeding to death, fell into a warm sulfur spring. The spring water healed the wound. The king, impressed with the therapeutic qualities of the water, decided to establish his capital by the spring.


Georgia's multi-ethnicity is reflected in its multiplicity of religions. The religion of most Georgians is Georgian Orthodoxy, a branch of Eastern Orthodoxy. East Georgia under King Miriam was converted to Christianity by St. Nino of Cappadocia in 330 ad, the third state following Armenia and the Roman Empire to adopt Christianity as its official religion. St. Nino shares with St. George, the patron saint of Georgia, a special popularity among Georgians. She allegedly created the first Georgian cross out of vines tied together with her hair, a relic that is still preserved.

The early influence of Christianity in Georgia is evident from artifacts dating back to the 3rd and 4th centuries. Christianity was introduced to Georgia through contact with local Jews, as well as by Greek and Roman officials. Ancient Greek and Georgian historic sources suggest-though it is unlikely- that St. Andrew may have visited the area. King Rev of Kartli, who ruled during the middle of the 3rd century, was familiar with the scriptures and became a devout Christian. Historically, Georgians have shown a tolerance for other religions.

The adoption of Christianity helped unite Georgians. With a Christian monarchy in place, the state began to promote a separate identity that contrasted with the neighboring Muslim states of Persia and, after the 15th century, the Ottomans. Georgian Christianity was deeply influenced by Byzantium and when the split between the Roman (Catholic) and Constantinople (Orthodox) Churches occurred in 1054, the Georgian Church sided with Eastern Orthodoxy.

The church is a symbol of national unity to Georgians. It held the country together culturally when it was territorially divided in the late Middle Ages. Georgian churches, influenced by Byzantine style, were built in the most inaccessible places to prevent attack by Muslim armies. They date from the 5th century. Perhaps the most famous is Svetiskhoveli ("life-giving pillar"), which is located in the old capital of Mtskheta.According to Georgians, the original church was constructed from a sacred wooden pillar that grew from the grave of Sidonia, a devout Christian who was buried clutching Christ's shirt brought to Georgia from Jerusalem. The Georgian Orthodox service is similar to that of most other Eastern churches; there are no pews or sermons, but a ritualized liturgy with a choir and much burning of incense. Women still cover their heads. In common with other churches in the USSR, the Georgian church was devastated by the Soviet state's atheist policies, and its more than 2,000 parishes in 1917 were reduced to 80 by the 1960s. The church began to recover with the arrival of Gorbachev's glasnost policy of the late 1980s, and since independence in 1991 the Georgian church has revived and played a prominent part in national life. Patriarch Ilia II was elected in 1977.

There are also a small number of Georgian Catholics and larger numbers of Georgian Muslims in Achara in southwest Georgia and along the state's southern periphery. The Ossetians and Abkhazians are mostly Eastern Orthodox; the Azeris, Assyrians, and Kurds are mostly Muslim; and the Armenians, Greeks, and Russians are Gregorian, Greek Orthodox, and Russian Orthodox, respectively. Georgia was noted for its religious tolerance-despite persecution of Western sects like the Jehovah Witnesses in the late 1990s-and the capital of Tbilisi has two working synagogues, churches of different denominations, and at least one working mosque.


Georgians venerate tradition, and after the collapse of the USSR, the new government replaced the old communist-inspired holidays with patriotic or religious ones, such as Independence Day (May 26), the day of National Unity (April 9), St. George's Day (November 23), and Mariamoba (August 28). Many Georgians continue to celebrate Christmas and Easter according to the old-style calendar observed by the Georgian Orthodox church. In September and October, the rtveli, or grape harvest, is marked by festivals in the villages. Georgian cities also hold celebrations. In the autumn Tbilisi has a Tbilisoba festival, which celebrates the life and history of the city. Georgian regions, such as Svaneti and Khevsureti-and even small villages-have their own feast and saints' days.


Orthodox baptism and wedding ceremonies serve as important milestones in Georgian life. Since independence, almost all marriages are celebrated in church and almost every child is baptized. High school children consider graduation an important change and celebrate it with mutual congratulatory writing on their school uniforms. Death and funerals are conducted in a highly formalized manner in Georgia. For three days before burial, there is a panashvidi (wake), during which people, often in their hundreds, visit the family. Forty days later, a kelekhi, or commemorative feast, is organized by the family. A one-year commemorative feast is also considered obligatory.


Georgians are both Middle Eastern and European in manner and share many social attitudes with neighboring Mediterranean cultures. Georgians are shaped by values of honor and shame, and view tradition, loyalty to friends and kin, and generosity toward guests as important values. The words patiosnoba ("honesty"), sitskhvili ("shame"), and pativi ("respect") are commonly heard in Georgian conversation. In contrast to official American values, nepotism—the system by which kin help each other in their careers—is considered mandatory and honorable. This system of mutual help extends to friendships, which in Georgia last for a lifetime. The word for friend in Georgian is megobari, which literally means someone who has "shared your drinking bowl." Important relationships might help a child reach university, secure a promotion for a family member, or give a close friend a new business opportunity. Being disloyal to family or friends or failing to provide suffi-cient help in time of financial and emotional need mark one as a dishonorable person. Neighborliness is highly valued and Georgians, who in the towns and cities traditionally shared common courtyards, often share food with neighbors.

Guests are held in great esteem. A Georgian proverb says that "a guest is sent by God." When a guest visits a Georgian house, he or she is lavishly treated, even if the host cannot afford to do so. An offering of food is mandatory. According to Georgian tradition, an enemy who crosses your threshold must be treated well and not harmed. The best way to show respect for a guest is to honor him or her with a keipi, or feast. Feasts are opportunities to invite family and close friends, to exchange gossip, to praise Georgian traditions, and to remember the dead. The keipi is a central part of Georgian social life, and on formal occasions, such as marriages and deaths, one can expect hundreds of guests. Feasts are characterized by long toasts. A great deal of wine is drunk. During these feasts men should not get visibly drunk, and toastmasters compete eloquently to show their poetic talents. Guests have obligations too and should bring a symbolic gift, such as flowers or chocolates, when they visit. Relationships between friends and family are close. There are certain important rules of behavior that all Georgians remember: greet a person properly, stand up when someone enters a room, and never sit with your back to anyone.

Georgians are very superstitious, and many pagan customs and beliefs are preserved today. In the countryside you still see trees with ribbons attached to them, each symbolizing a wish (they are known as "wishing trees"). This is connected with the old Georgian belief in wood spirits. Before setting off on a journey, Georgians will sit on their suitcase for a few seconds to ensure a safe journey. If a knife falls off a table, Georgians expect a male guest. No female should sit at the corner of a table, which suggests she will not get married.


Sixteen percent of Georgians are 14 years of age and under; 16.6% are 65 and over. The median age is 38.3. Life expectancy in 2004 was 76.51 although there are significant regional and rural differences, and statistics are not reliable in Georgia. Although there are a large number of centenarians in Georgia, the Georgian reputation for longevity has been undermined by modern life. A major killer is heart disease. The infant mortality rate in 2006 was 28 per 1,000 live births, a high figure compared to West European rates. The average family size is 4.1. The percentage of family members living apart from their families (single persons) is 3.1%. The Georgian government is seriously worried about declining birthrates and migration patterns. Between 1989 and 2002, Georgia's total population declined by 1,129,000, almost a quarter of the total population. This is in part because of the loss of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and declining birth rates; however, the greatest factor is emigration due to poor living conditions and unemployment.

When Georgia was part of the USSR, from 1921 to 1991, the economy was state owned. The USSR transformed Georgia into an industrial country with hydroelectric power, coal and manganese mining, and truck and ship-building. Light industries, such as textile production (silk, cotton, and wool), and food processing (tea, fruit, vegetables, and mineral water) were supported by Georgia's local agricultural economy. People lived reasonably well, although their incomes were small. Services, such as health care and education, were free, and people paid very little for rent and utilities. Transportation by metro, bus, or trolley was a few cents. Food was cheap and, if it could not be found in the state shops, (which was often the case) it could be bought at small private markets at a higher price. However, medicines were in short supply, and sophisticated medical equipment was only available for the elite (usually communist party officials). Service for plumbing, electrical repairs, and telephone installation was poor. Some people waited 15 years for a telephone or 10 years to buy a car. Televisions, refrigerators, and washing machines were of poor quality. Many times people had to go to the black market, which was illegal, and pay a high price for things, such as video or tape recorders. Housing was in poor condition, and most families in the cities lived in three- or four-room apartments (two bedrooms, a living room, and a kitchen).

When Georgians gained independence, they believed that things would get better, but switching to a market-based economy has proved very difficult, and for many, economic conditions have worsened. The subsidies for food and services are gone, and the state cannot afford to pay people proper salaries or pensions. Since the Rose Revolution in November 2003, which led to a change of government and major economic changes, macroeconomic figures have improved significantly. Government revenues have quadrupled due to tax reform and improved collection, and annual gross domestic product (GDP) growth rates averaged 8-9% by 2008. Per capita annual income was $591 in 2008, but in reality, despite official figures of just 13.6% unemployment, poverty is widespread. Officially, 31% of the population lives on or below the poverty line, and the average pension is about $30. Inflation is currently about 9.2% and increasing food prices are hurting the less well-off in particular. Higher education and medicine are no longer free, and transportation is increasingly expensive. Georgians now have to be more self reliant. Things are made worse in the winter due to the high cost of oil and gas. Despite all this, most Georgians are aware they have gained important political freedoms, even though it has been at great economic cost, and do not want to return to the communist period. Georgia has great economic potential and is attracting significant foreign investment. When tourists return to Georgia's ski resorts and beaches, things may begin to improve for broader sections of the population.


Georgian society is patriarchal, patrilocal, and patrilineal. Male culture is dominant, married couples usually move in with the husband's parents, and children adopt their father's name. However, women keep their own surnames when they marry, and there is no longer any real stigma attached to a husband living with his wife's parents. Young couples increasingly choose to live on their own. Social life centers on the family and children. Children are brought up in a structured environment, which inculcates strong respect for family values. Children are expected to respectfully greet older people in the polite form of the Georgian language. (The Georgians, like the French, have two forms of "you"—the familiar shen, which is used among friends, and the polite form tkven, which is used to address elders or strangers.) Young people are expected to get married and have children relatively quickly. Male children are preferred, although that attitude is changing. In the 1980s, 16% of women married before they were 20, and 55.2% before the age of 25. Divorce was frowned upon. In 1960, there were only 3 divorces per 100 marriages, but that figure rose to 18 in 1992, an indication of changing attitudes and greater pressures on the family. Now it is not unusual to meet divorced parents. Women now marry later than ever before at 25.9 years in 2004, compared to 24.7 in 1990. However, women in Georgia are still expected to do most of the domestic work and child rearing. Women, for example, will always prepare food for guests, clear up afterwards, and do most of the cleaning.

Families are increasingly nuclear (parents and children living in a single unit), with an average of two children, but relatives usually live close by. Grandparents often live physically close enough to take care of the grandchildren. For Georgians, uncles, aunts, nephews, nieces, cousins, and even godparents, are considered close family and should be seen frequently. A person is obligated to help relatives in times of crisis, and it is shameful to neglect family in any way. With unemployment being a major problem in Georgia, the extended family has become important once again as a means of economic survival.


Georgians have always had a reputation for being stylish dressers, and this is still evident today as people stroll down the main boulevard, Rustaveli Prospect, in the capital city of Tbilisi. Although Georgians now wear casual clothes and follow the latest fashions, on special occasions they wear traditional costumes. Georgian men still wear different types of regional hats, such as the svanuri kurdi, a round brimless felt hat from the Svaneti mountain region, or the tushuri kurdi, a black brimless hat made of wool, which comes from Tusheti. In the mountains, shepherds occasionally wear the nabadi, a black felt cloak with stiff wide shoulders that can be used as shelter in winter weather, and the papakhi, a large shaggy woolen hat. At festive occasions, one can see other traditional costumes, such as the chokha, a tunic that is usually magenta, black, or white and belted at the waist with decorative cartridge casings on the chest, or the kartuli kaba, the traditional female costume made up of a silk veil and an embroidered long dress gathered in at the waist and with wide sleeves. There are costumes associated with various regions and professions. The women in Khevsureti are well known for their talavari (intricately patterned, woven tunics) and tsinda-pachichi (knee-length, thick socks colored by natural dyes). Traditionally, Khevsur women also wear jewelry of silver and semi-precious stones. People dressed as kintoebi—tinkers and traders of the 19th century who wore flat, black peaked caps and baggy black trousers in the Persian style—appear at festivals. Women, particularly in the villages, wear black for a year after a death in the family.


Food and wine are a vital part of Georgian culture, and feasting is central to Georgian social life. Georgians eat in abundance and will present guests with dish after dish. The Georgian table, known as the supra, is colorful and diverse. It is a mixture of Turkish, Greek, Arabic, and even Indian influences. Food is often spicy, particularly in Samegrelo and Western Georgia, with coriander, tarragon, and khmeli suneli (a mixture of spices) being the favorites. Hot and cold dishes are served with side dishes of tomatoes, cucumber, spring onions, sulguni (a soft cheese), and puri (unleavened bread baked in an open brick oven much like the tandoori). Dishes are brought to the table on small plates, which are often piled up one on top of another. Guests are expected to help themselves. As soon as a guest pauses or a plate is empty, someone will offer another dish.

A typical colorful supra might consist of puréed beet and spinach sprinkled with pomegranate seeds, khachapuri (a baked cheese bread), satsivi (a chicken dish in walnut sauce), ghomi (a Georgian version of grits), chanakhi (a lamb and vegetable stew), tolma (minced meat wrapped in vine or cabbage leaves), and badrijani nivrit (eggplant with garlic). Below is a simple khachapuri recipe.

Khachapuri (Georgian cheese bread)

2 cups unbleached white flour ½
teaspoon salt
12 tablespoons (1½ sticks) cold butter, cut into pieces
2 eggs, beaten separately
¼ cup plain yogurt
1¼ pounds mixed Muenster and Havarti cheeses
1 egg yolk, beaten

Place flour and salt in a bowl and mix in butter pieces. Stir one beaten egg into the yogurt, and then add the liquid to the flour mixture. Shape the dough into a ball and refrigerate for one hour.

Grate the cheese and combine with the other beaten egg. Preheat oven to 350°F.

Roll out dough to form a 12"x 17" rectangle, trimming the edges. Put the cheese mixture on one half of the dough and fold the other half over the top, sealing the edges

Place cheese dough on a greased baking sheet, brush with egg yolk. Bake for about 30 minutes at 350 or until brown.

Makes 12 to 15 serving pieces. Best served warm.

Other popular Georgian items include lobio (beans with grated walnuts and chopped onion) and chakhokhbili (chicken stewed with tomatoes). A favorite ingredient in Georgian dishes is walnut, which grows abundantly alongside Georgian highways. Wine, which is sacred to Georgians and has been cultivated in the region longer than most places in the world, is an essential part of any meal. Georgians make a wide variety of both red wines, such as mukuzani, and white, such as tsinan-dali, and often store the wine in a kvevri (an amphora) buried deep in the ground to keep the wine cool. Regional differences in cuisine are pronounced in Georgia. In Western Georgia, one is more likely to eat mchadi (cornbread) and cheese bread, such as acharuli, which has an egg baked in the middle of the cheese and dough. Of course, such lavish meals are not a daily occurrence, and Georgians eating at home are more modest, especially in these days of declining standards of living. For sweets, Georgians love to eat extravagantly prepared cakes.


Georgians have a long history of educational achievement. Monasteries and academies have been vital centers of learning from the Middle Ages onwards, preserving Georgia's national heritage in times of occupation. The Soviet period saw a rapid expansion of mass education and today, as a result of compulsory schooling, illiteracy has been largely eliminated. In 1979, 30.7% of Soviet Georgia's working population had completed higher or specialized middle education, which made it a highly educated population. However, the educational approach in the Soviet period was both conservative and narrow, and many subjects, such as sociology, could not be taught due to censorship. In the later Soviet years, higher education institutions were extremely corrupt. After independence, many educational reforms were introduced, but declining revenues and economic chaos led to a decline in school attendance, minimal budgetary support for schools, and increasing corruption. Between 1990 and 1997, total enrollments in educational institutions dropped from 1.242 million to 924,000. This decline affected all age groups. Preschool enrollments in public institutions declined most dramatically from about 200,000 to 83,000. Upper secondary enrollments (grades 10-11) fell from 105,000 to 70,000 and vocational education from 42,000 to 20,000. Some of these declines can be explained by emigration, but other indicators, including poverty, government insolvency, and corruption, are significant factors.

Since the Rose Revolution in November 2003, there has been significant reform of curricula (with more emphasis on a liberal arts approach), teacher training, management of schools (parent-teacher councils have been introduced), and the examination system. A universal entrance exam for higher educational institutions, which replaced university-set entrance exams, eliminated much of the corruption at university level. Investment has increased after a report in 1997 noted that 18% of school buildings were in dangerous or unusable condition, while a further 55% needed significant capital repairs. Under the present constitution, education is compulsory and free of charge up to grade 9, but fees have been introduced for students in grade 10 and 11 and almost all university students now have to pay tuition fees. Higher education is largely private. There are 117 accredited universities in Georgia.

Currently, primary school in Georgia includes grades 1-6, basic education goes up to grade 9, and upper secondary covers grades 10 and 11. The completion of 11 years of schooling in theory qualifies a student for higher education. University usually lasts five years. At the same time, teaching styles are still quite formal, with much learning in school done by rote. Children finish school knowing a great deal of poetry by heart. Final examinations in schools are oral and marked on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the best. An excellent student is known as a khutosani (a "fiver"). Children no longer wear uniforms but are generally respectful toward teachers.


Georgian cultural life draws upon European, Middle Eastern, and on its own indigenous traditions. Georgian singing, whether it is secular or ecclesiastical, dates back to the 5th century. Most folk and sacred songs are polyphonic (multiple harmonized voices) and a cappella (without accompaniment). Most performing choirs are male, although female choirs are becoming more popular, and women sing at church services. There are many regional singing styles; the Gurians in West Georgia are well known for their complex use of krimanchuli (yodeling). Many Georgians play the piano or guitar, favorite instruments for accompaniment of popular urban songs. Traditional instruments, such as the duduki (a double-reeded clarinet-like instrument) and the panduri (a three-stringed lute), are used to accompany urban folk songs.

Since the formation of the Georgian State Dance company in 1945, which has toured more than 80 countries, Georgian dance has become a favorite of foreign audiences. The lezginka, the samaia (a dance performed by three women), and the mkhedruli (the military dance), are particular favorites. The men are acrobatic, dancing on the knuckles of their feet, using swords in skillfully choreographed mock fights. The women, in long dresses, glide across the dance floor (on the balls of their feet) using their hands in a symbolic manner reminiscent of Indian and Middle Eastern dances.

Georgians love going to the theater and classical concerts. Georgia has many great classical performers, such as pianists Alexander Toradze and Eliso Virsaladze, violinist Leana Isakadze, bass Paata Buchuladze, prima ballerina Nino Ananiashvili, and composer Gia Khancheli. Georgia has its own symphony orchestra, dance, opera, and ballet companies, but the current political and economic crisis in Georgia has put enormous pressure on all arts companies and organizations, and fewer are performing. Under Soviet power, the arts were heavily subsidized, but now they have to be profitable to survive. The Rustaveli Theater Company is widely recognized as one of the most imaginative and talented theatrical groups in the contemporary theater world and continues to tour. Georgian film, with a history going back to the early 20th century (the first Georgian film was made in 1912) and that has produced famous filmmakers, such as Eldar Shengelaia, Giorgi Shengelaia, and Tengiz Abuladze, has been less fortunate. Today, for lack of money, the Georgian film industry has essentially collapsed.

The Georgian literary tradition began with ecclesiastical literature. Early Georgian scholars translated the Bible and other sacred works from Assyrian, Aramaic, Arabic, Armenian, and Greek. Early Georgian literature—hymnography, homilies, hagiography, chronicles—emerged in the 6th and 7th centuries in the Christian monasteries and academies of Greece, Georgia, Mount Sinai, Mount Athosm and Jerusalem. An early chronicle of Georgian history is kartlis tskhovreba (The Life of Kartli), a collection of histories and tales of Georgian kings originally compiled in the 12th century but continually expanded until the 18th century.

Poetry is considered one of the purest arts in Georgia and is frequently recited at the dinner table or among friends. The greatest classic of Georgian secular literature is a 12th-century epic titled Vepkhistqaosani, or "Knight in the Panther Skin,"by the poet Shota Rustaveli. Half pagan, half Christian, and influenced by Persian sources (particularly Firdousi's Shah-Nameh ), it is about friendship, infatuation, and the search for lost love. Aphorisms from Rustaveli's epic are used like proverbs: "A lion cub is just as good, be it female or male" and "What you give is yours, what you keep is lost." Georgian poetry continued throughout the Middle and late Middle Ages, often from the pens of Georgian kings, such as Teimuraz 1 and Archil, but it was the 19th century that witnessed a major Georgian literary renaissance. For the first time Georgian poets, novelists, and essayists, such as Ilia Chavchavadze, Akaki Tsereteli, Galaktion Tabidze, Vazha Pshavela, and Ana Kalandadze, became popular national figures. In the 20th century, many Georgian poets and writers were executed in the purges of the 1930s. Despite brutal oppression and censorship, Georgian literature remained highly lyrical, being motivated by love of country and nostalgia for the past. Georgian literature has produced brilliant works of both prose and poetry, such as Konstantine Gamsakhurdia's The Hand of the Great Master, or Galaktion Tabidze's great poems "The Moon of Mtatsminda" and "The Wind Blows." Georgia's poets and writers have been translated by Russian poets, such as Boris Pasternak and Yevgeny Yevtushenko.


About 2.2. million Georgians are in the labor force. Approximately 35.5% work in services, 8.9% in industry, and 55.6% in agriculture. The self-employed account for about 65% of the workforce (mostly farmers). Most Georgians today survive by working two or three jobs, or, in many cases, rely on help from families and friends. The government is unable to pay living wages, stimulate employment, or pay proper social security benefits. The most vulnerable groups are the quarter million "internally displaced persons," the 700,000-800,000 pensioners, and single mothers. Most of those in state employment receive no more than $300 a month and are forced to seek extra income, usually by working in small commercial operations or by trading on the black market. A new business class, in many cases former communist party officials, has replaced the old communist elite as the most privileged in society. Income and wealth inequalities have increased considerably over the last 15 years. It is estimated the poorest 10% of Georgians share 2.4% of household income and consumption, while the top 10% share 27%.


Traditional Georgian sports include wrestling, archery, fencing, javelin throwing, horse riding, tskhenburti (a form of polo), and leloburti (a field game similar to rugby). Today, the most popular sport in Georgia is soccer, and the best Georgian team until the 1990s was Tbilisi Dynamo, which won the Soviet championship on two occasions and the European Cup Winners' Cup in 1981. Georgian teams now have their own league and have entered UEFA and FIFA (the international soccer association that handles the World Cup). Georgian footballers play on European teams, such as Kakhka Kaladze, Zurab Menteshashvili and Levan Kobiashvili. In addition, Georgians have achieved renown in basketball, rugby, mountain climbing, and skiing (a popular sport in the republic's mountain resorts). As part of the USSR Olympic team, Georgians won 23 gold medals between 1952 and 1980. Since Georgia entered the Olympics in 1994 as an independent state, Georgian athletes have won many medals, mostly in judo and wrestling. In chess, women, such as Nona Gaprindishvili and Maia Chiburdanidze, kept the world championship in Georgian hands for more than 30 years between 1961 and 1991.


A favorite Georgian pastime is feasting and singing with friends around a table or at a picnic in the countryside. Some of the most popular songs are " suliko," " mravalzhamier " ("Be long living"), and " shen khar venakhi " ("You are the vine") are heard at the table. The younger generations are keen followers of the Western rock scene, and there are many Georgian rock bands. Since the collapse of communism, bars and clubs have emerged alongside casinos.


Georgian folk crafts date back more than 2,500 years. The first examples of local pottery come from the 7th century bc. Pottery is still a village craft in Georgia and pots, plates, and all manner of drinking vessels can be bought at the market or even at the roadside. Most pottery is connected with drinking. Simple bowls, known as pialebi, are raised to the lips with both hands, and dokebi are long-necked pots from which wine is poured. Other crafts include rug making, either woven in traditional Georgian patterns or made from compressed felt with abstract patterns. The colors used most often are deep red, brown, blue, and yellow. Georgians are also very proud of their skills with metal, particularly gold and silver. Their reputation as skilled metalworkers has lasted since the time of ancient Greece. Metal chasing, which Georgians call chiduroba, is a treasured craft, as is enameling and jewelry making. Most Georgian women wear jewelry-bracelets, necklaces, and earrings-made of silver and set with semi-precious stones, such as piruzi (turquoise) and dzotsi (garnet).


Since independence and the breakdown of familiar economic patterns, Georgians have suffered enormous hardship, job insecurity, and poor health. Mutual support among friends and family is extremely important. In the past, housing, food, transportation, health care, and education were heavily subsidized or free. Women received partially paid maternity leave for a year and a half if they wanted to stay at home with a new baby and could retire at 55 (men at 60). Although the quality of support was poor by Western standards, this rudimentary welfare system has disappeared. The current health system, for example, is no longer free and all hospitals have been privatized. Attempts to introduce private insurance schemes have for the most part failed. Medicines are prohibitively expensive for ordinary people. Except in emergencies, people no longer go to the hospital. Deterioration in health care, poorer diets, greater stress, and inadequate immunization programs have led to adecline in the Georgians' health. This is reflected in increasing death and child mortality rates.

In June 2003 the Georgian government introduced the Economic Development and Poverty Reduction Program (EDPRP), the first comprehensive document outlining a strategy for economic recovery and employment. Poorly implemented, the Rose Revolution leadership quickly abandoned the EDPRP in favor of its own strategy—the Basic Data and Directions (BDD) document in 2006, which outlines its priorities as sustainable economic growth and increased private sector-fuelled employment. However, at the same time, it cut back on state employment, and 30,000 civil servants lost their jobs between 2003 and 2008. By November 2007, when opposition-led demonstrations almost toppled the Georgian government, it was clear the new government strategy was failing politically. The population was angered by increasing joblessness (20-24 year olds are among the most seriously affected), rising prices, and declining services. Life was getting harder for the vast majority of the population and social problems, such as crime, drug abuse, AIDS and fuel costs, were, it seemed, intensifying.


In the Soviet period, women in Georgia made significant gains in gender equality but still remained unequal in many areas, such as in the home, where traditional patriarchal attitudes remained; at work, where women were paid smaller salaries and concentrated in certain professions, such as teaching and nursing; and in government, where women rarely gained significant posts or power. This situation has continued and worsened in the post-Soviet period. The majority of women employed in the formal sector work in the low-paying fields of agriculture, education, healthcare, and light industry. Vertical and horizontal gender segregation persists in the labor market. According to the State Department of Statistics, in 2004 the average nominal monthly salary of women in all fields of the economy and all sectors was 60% that of men's. Self-employed women in the trade sector earn an average monthly wage that is 68% of men's. As of 2008, women accounted for around 9.4% of members of parliament (MPs), which is indicative of the legislative and internal party barriers to support for women candidates. Women made up 6.4% and 7% of total MPs in the 1995 and 1999 parliaments. There are, however, successful women. In 2008 the foreign minister, Eka Tkeshelashvili, was female, as was the former parliamentary speaker, Nino Burjunadze. Women are well represented in the media, judiciary (44% of judges are women), and in nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). There were 200 women's NGOs registered in Georgia by 2008, but not all are active). Popular attitudes are very supportive of equal employment rights for men and women but the highly respected and influential Georgian Orthodox church supports traditional family values and the domestication of women. Gender equality is not a priority of the government. Despite signing onto the United Nations' Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women in 1994, there is little concern or focus on legislation on women's issues although two important steps were made in 2006, when legislation on human trafficking and domestic violence against women were introduced in parliament. There is also an Advisory Council on Gender Equality attached to the parliamentary speaker's office.


Areshidze, Irakly. Democracy and Autocracy in Eurasia: Georgia in Transition. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 2007.

Jones, Stephen. "Georgia: Nationalism from Under the Rubble," Lowell Barrington (ed.). After Independence: Making and Protecting the Nation in Postcolonial and Postcommunist States, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2006.

— ——. "Presidential and Parliamentary Elections in Georgia, 2004." Electoral Studies, Vol. 24, Issue No. 2, June 2005, pp.303-311.

— ——. "The Rose Revolution: A Revolution Without Revolutionaries?" Cambridge Review of International Affairs, Vol. 19, No. 1 March 2006, pp.33-48.

Lang, David Marshall. The Georgians. New York: Praeger, 1966.

Pitskhelauri, G. Z. The Longliving of Soviet Georgia. New York: Human Sciences Press, 1982.

Wheatley, Jonathan. Georgia from National Awakening to Rose Revolution: Delayed Transition in the Former Soviet Union. Aldershot, U.K.: Ashgate, 2005.

—by S.F. Jones


views updated May 17 2018



ALTERNATE NAMES: Kartvelebi; Gurji


POPULATION: 55.4 million (total population); 3.8 million are ethnic Georgians

LANGUAGE: Georgian

RELIGION: Georgian Orthodoxy


The people we know as Georgians call themselves the Kartvelebi and they call their country Sa-kartvel-o, literally, "the land of the Kartvelebi."

Georgia is strategically located at a crossroads between Europe and Asia. Through the centuries, it has been invaded and settled by Greeks, Romans, Persians, Turkish tribes, Arabs, Mongols, and Russians. Georgia was also on one of the branches of the Silk Road, which carried trade from China and India to Europe. So the Georgian people have been influenced by many cultures, both Asian and European. The Georgians' architecture, language, literature, and cooking draw upon Persian, Arabic, Greek, and Russian sources. Georgians probably developed a national identity around the tenth century ad. At that time the Bagratid dynasty founded an independent and powerful Georgian nation. The Georgians resemble Greeks and Turks in appearance, and they think of themselves as an Eastern Mediterranean culture.


Georgia covers 27,657 square miles (71,632 square kilometers), about twice the area of Belgium. The Greater Caucasian mountain range rises in the north and the Southern Georgian Highlands in the south. Two- thirds of Georgian territory is mountainous. Between the mountains lie fertile lowlands with orchards and vineyards. Most of the land can be farmed.

Ethnic Georgians number 3.8 million and make up 70 percent of the population in Georgia. Ethnic groups, including the Abkhazians and the Adjarians, make up the rest of the population of Georgia, which was part of the former Soviet Union (192191). The capital of Georgia is Tbilisi.


Georgian is part of the South Caucasian family of languages: Zan (Mengrelo-Chan), Svan, and Georgian proper (Kartuli). It does not belong to any of the world's major language categories, such as Indo-European or Semitic. Over 98 percent of Georgians consider Georgian their native tongue. Business, political, and cultural activities are conducted in Georgian.

Although it has borrowed many words from Arabic, Turkic, Persian, and Russian, Georgian has remained distinctive. For example, "father" in Georgian is mama and "mother" is deda. Georgian is rich in words connected with agriculture, winemaking, and metalworking. These are areas in which Georgians have specialized for a long time. For example, all metals have native words, not borrowing from Latin or some other language. For example, gold is okro, silver is vertskhli, brass is titberi, and copper is spilendzi.

Everyday terms in Georgian include gamardzhobut (hello), ki (yes), ara (no), getakhvat (please), madlobt (thank you), and nakhvamdis (good-bye).


Georgian folklore is rich in magicians, beasts, heroes, and spirits. Many are preserved in song, and in popular customs and superstitions. Some of the favorite characters in Georgian folk tales are mzetunakhavi (the most beautiful woman in the world), modzalade devi (a violent beast, sometimes with three heads), and natsarkekia (a ne'erdo-well, or a person who cannot do anything worthwhile).

A well-known Georgian legend is about the location of the capital, Tbilisi. According to the legend, King Vakhtang Gorgasali (ad 452502) was hunting on the site of present-day Tbilisi. He wounded a deer. As the deer was bleeding to death, it fell into a warm sulfur spring. The spring water instantly cleansed and healed the wound, and the deer ran off into the woods. The king inspected the spring. Because he was pleased with the healing power of the water, he decided to settle there.

Another famous Georgian legend tells of two Georgian Jews, Elioz Karsneli and Longinoz Mtskheteli, who witnessed the crucifixion of Jesus. At the moment that Jesus died on the cross in Jerusalem, the mother of Longinoz died as well. The two men returned from Jerusalem and brought the tunic of Jesus back with them. The sister of Elioz died when she held the tunic next to her heart. According to the legend, the tunic is buried somewhere in Mtskheta, which is just north of Tbilisi.

Georgians are very superstitious. In the countryside one still can see trees with ribbons tied to them, each ribbon standing for a wish. Before setting off on a trip, Georgians often sit on their suitcase for a few seconds to ensure a safe journey. If a knife falls off a table, Georgians believe they will have a male guest.


The country's great variety of ethnic groups is reflected in its variety of religions. The religion of most Georgians is Georgian Orthodoxy, a branch of Eastern Orthodoxy. St. George is the patron saint of Georgia.

The Georgian Orthodoxy service is very similar to that of most other Eastern churches. There is a formal prayer service with a choir and the burning of incense. However, there are no pews and no sermons. People walk in and out during the service, and women still cover their heads in church. The Georgian church was almost destroyed by the atheist policies of the Soviet era (192191). Its more than two thousand parishes were reduced to eighty by the 1960s. Since independence, the Georgian church has played an important role in national life.

There are also a small number of Georgian Catholics. There are larger numbers of Georgian Muslims (followers of Islam) in Achara in southwest Georgia and along the southern border.


After the collapse of the Soviet Union (in 1991), the Georgian government replaced the communist holidays with patriotic or religious ones. These include Independence Day (May 26) and St. George's Day (November 23). Many Georgians continue to celebrate Christmas and Easter according to the old-style (Julian) calendar observed by the Georgian Orthodox church. In September and October, the rtveli, or grape harvest, is marked by festivals in the villages. Georgian cities also hold celebrations. In the autumn, for example, Tbilisi has a Tbilisoba festival, which celebrates the life and history of the city.


Saints' days are celebrated by Georgians. Each day on the calendar is assigned a saint's name, and people with that name are honored on that day. Orthodox baptism and wedding ceremonies serve as important milestones in Georgian life.


Georgians share many social attitudes with neighboring Mediterranean cultures. Tradition, loyalty to friends and family, and generosity toward guests are viewed as important values. Nepotismthe system by which relatives help each other get jobsis considered honorable. Important relationships might help a child enter a university, gain a promotion for a family member, or give a close friend a new business opportunity.

According to a Georgian proverb, "A guest is sent by God." Guests are always treated generously in a Georgian home, even if the host cannot really afford it. Guests usually bring a symbolic gift, such as flowers or chocolates, when they visit. Even if an enemy crosses a Georgian threshold, he or she must be treated well and not harmed. The best way to show respect for guests is to honor them with a keipi, or feast. The keipi is a central part of Georgian social life.

There are certain important rules of behavior that all Georgians observe: always greet a person properly, stand up when someone enters a room, and never sit with your back to anyone.

The Georgian language, like the French, has two forms for "you": the familiar shen, like the French tu, which is used among friends, and the polite form tkven, like vous, which is used to address elders or strangers.


When Georgia was part of the U.S.S.R. (from 1921 to 1991), people lived well, although their incomes were small. Services such as health care and education were free. Most people in cities paid very little for rent and utilities, and food was cheap. Most city families lived in three-room or four-room apartments (two bedrooms, a living room, and a kitchen). If a family was large, beds were often set up in the living room at night.

The switch to a market-based economy, which began in 1991, has been very difficult. Allowances for food and services are gone, and the state cannot afford to pay people proper salaries or pensions. University education and medicine are no longer free, and transportation is expensive. Georgians now must be much more self-reliant, doing their own house repairs and the like. In the winter there often is no heat, no gas for cooking, and no electricity for long periods.


More and more Georgian families are increasingly nuclear (just parents and children living in a single unit). Couples have an average of two children, but relatives always live close by. Children are brought up with a strong respect for family and for older people. Women in Georgia are expected to do most of the housework and child rearing. In 1960, there were only three divorces per hundred marriages, but that figure had risen to eighteen by 1992.

Grandparents usually live close enough to take care of the grandchildren. Uncles, aunts, nephews, nieces, cousins, and even godparents are considered close family and are seen frequently. A person is required to help relatives in times of crisis. With the current high rate of unemployment, the extended family has become important for of economic survival. When the time comes, both sons and daughters take equal care of their aging parents.


Georgians have always had a reputation for being stylish dressers. Today they wear casual clothes and follow the latest fashions. However, on special occasions they wear traditional costumes. The chokha is the man's tunic. It is usually magenta or white, is belted at the waist, and has decorative cartridge pouches on the chest. The kartuli kaba is the traditional female costume. It consists of a silk veil and a long, embroidered dress having wide sleeves and gathered at the waist.

There are also costumes associated with various regions and professions. The women in Khevsureti are well known for their tsinda-pachich, thick knee-length socks colored with natural dyes. In the mountains, shepherds still wear the nabadi. This is a black felt cloak with stiff wide shoulders that can be used for shelter in winter weather.


(Georgian cheese bread)


  • 2 cups unbleached white flour
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 12 tablespoons (1½ sticks) cold butter, cut into pieces
  • 2 eggs, beaten separately
  • ¼ cup plain yogurt
  • 1¼ pounds mixed Muenster and Havarti cheeses
  • 1 egg yolk, beaten


  1. Place flour and salt in a bowl and mix in butter pieces.
  2. Stir one beaten egg into the yogurt, and then add the liquid to the flour mixture.
  3. Shape the dough into a ball and refrigerate for one hour.
  4. Grate the cheese and combine with the other beaten egg. Preheat the oven to 350°f.
  5. Roll out dough to form a 12-by-17-inch (30-by-43-centimeter) rectangle, trimming the edges.
  6. Put the cheese mixture on one-half of the dough and fold the other half over the top, sealing the edges.
  7. Place cheese dough on a greased baking sheet. Bake for about 50 minutes or until brown.

Cut into small squares to serve. It is best served slightly warm.

Women, especially in the villages, wear black for a year or longer after a death in the family.


Georgian food combines Turkish, Greek, Arabic, and even Indian influences. It is often spicy, flavored especially with coriander, tarragon, and khmeli suneli (a mixture of spices). Hot and cold dishes are served with side dishes of tomatoes, cucumber, spring onions, sulguni (a cheese), and puri (unleavened bread baked in an open brick oven).

A typical festive table (supra) might consist of puréed beets and spinach sprinkled with pomegranate seeds, khachapuri (a baked cheese bread), satsivi (chicken in walnut sauce), chanakhi (a lamb and vegetable stew), tolma (minced meat wrapped in vine leaves), and badrizhani nivrit (eggplant with garlic).

Wine is an essential part of any meal. Georgians make a wide variety of red wines (such as Mukuzani ) and white wines (such as Tsinandali ).

Regional differences in cuisine are pronounced. In the west, one is more likely to eat mchadi (cornbread) and cheese bread such as Acharuli, which has an egg baked in the middle of the cheese and dough.


Most children attend school from age six to age fifteen. Their classes include geography, Georgian literature, history, physics, chemistry, choir, and foreign languages. Russian is still the most often taught language, although English is the most popular. Students can attend two more years of school beyond age sixteeneither high school or vocational (job-training) schoolif they pass a test. The completion of eleven years of schooling qualifies a student for University education. University usually lasts five years.

Teaching styles are formal; much learning is done by repetition and memorization. Final examinations are oral and marked on a scale of one to five, with five being the best. An excellent student is known as a khutosani (a "fiver"). Currently, most schools are in poor repair, with roofs leaking and a lack of equipment such as computers, scientific instruments, and even textbooks.


Most performing choruses are male, although there are also women's choirs that sing at church services. The Gurians in west Georgia are well known for their complex use of krimanchuli (yodeling). Many Georgians play the piano or guitar. Traditional instruments include the duduki (a double-reed instrument similar to a clarinet) and the panduri (a three-stringed lute).

The Georgian State Dance Company has helped make Georgian dance a favorite of international audiences. Dances include the lezginka, the samaia (performed by three women), and the mkhedruli (the military dance). Georgian children often start dancing and performing at an early age.

Georgia has many great musicians including pianists Alexander Toradze (1952) and Eliso Virsaladze (1942), violinist Leana Isakadze (1946), and bass-player Paata Buchuladze. The Georgian Republic has its own symphony orchestra, and dance, opera, and ballet companies. However, because of the current economic crisis in Georgia, many arts organizations are not performing. The renowned Rustaveli Theater Company does continue to tour. The Georgian film industry has a history dating back to the early twentieth century. Famous filmmakers include Eldar Shengelaia (1933), Giorgi Shengelaia, and Tengiz Abuladze (192494).

The Georgian literary tradition owes its origin to the adoption of Christianity. The earliest surviving Georgian literary works date from the fifth century ad. An early chronicle of Georgian history is known as the Kartlis Tskhovreba, written in the early years of Christianity in Georgia.

Poetry is considered one of the highest art forms in Georgia. It is recited at the dinner table and among friends. The greatest classic of Georgian literature is a twelfth-century epic by the poet Shota Rustaveli, called The Knight in the Tiger's Skin. Quotations from this work are still used as proverbs, such as this piece of advice: "What you give is yours, what you keep is lost."

Georgian writers include Ilia Chavchavadze (18371907), Galaktion Tabidze (18921959), Vazha Pshavela (1942), and Ana Kalandadze. Georgian literature has produced prose and poetry classics such as Konstantine Gamsakhurdia's The Hand of the Great Master, or Galaktion Tabidze's great poems The Moon of Mtatsminda and The Wind Blows.


In the late 1990s, Georgia's government was unable to pay high enough wages, create and promote new jobs, or pay social-security benefits. Most Georgians today survive by working two or three jobs or by selling their belongings. Many rely on help from families and friends. Most of the people employed by the state are forced to seek extra income. Usually they work in small businesses or trade on the black market (illegally). At least one-third of Georgians earn their living from the land.


Traditional Georgian sports include wrestling, archery, fencing, javelin throwing, horse riding, tskhenburti (a form of polo), and leloburti (a field game similar to rugby). Today, the most popular sport in Georgia is soccer. Georgians have also achieved fame in basketball, mountain climbing, and skiing (a popular sport in the mountain resorts). As part of the U.S.S.R. Olympic team, Georgians won twenty-three gold medals between 1952 and 1980. Georgia entered the 1996 Olympics independently for the first time.


Georgians love going to the theater and classical concerts. A favorite Georgian pastime is sitting around a table with friends and singing. Some of the most popular songs are Suliko, Mravalzamier (Be long living), and Shen khar venakhi (You are the vine). Most young people are fans of Western rock bands. Many have their own rock bands as well.

In chess, players such as Nona Gaprindishvili (1941) and Maia Chiburdanidze (1961) kept the world women's chess championship in Georgian hands for more than thirty years.


Making pottery is still a village craft in Georgia, and pottery can be bought at the market or even at the roadside. Most pottery is connected with drinking: simple bowls known as pialebi, which are raised to the lips with both hands; and dokebi, long-necked pots for storing and pouring wine.

Another important craft is rug making. Rugs are either woven in traditional Georgian patterns or made from compressed felt in abstract patterns. The colors used most often are deep red, brown, blue, and yellow.

Georgians are also very proud of their skills with metal, particularly gold and silver. Metal chasing (ornamentation), which Georgians call cheduroba, is a treasured craft, as are enameling and jewelry making.


Following independence and the breakdown of their economy, Georgians have suffered enormous hardships. Mutual support among friends and family is extremely important today. There are food shortages, and medicines are either not available or too expensive to buy. A lack of fuel has led to hospital closings and an insufficient emergency system. A decline in health care, poor diets, and inadequate immunization have led to a decline in Georgians' health. Lessening supervision by parents and police has led to increased crime, including organized crime.

Two nationalist movementsone in South Ossetia and the other in Abkhaziathreaten the stability of the national government and the quality of life of the people. Some Georgians are also worried that civil wars in neighboring nations might spill over into their country.


Brook, Stephen. Claws of the Crab: Georgia and Armenia in Crisis. London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1992.

Dolphin, Laurie. Georgia to Georgia: Making Friends in the U.S.S.R. New York: Tambourine Books, 1991.

Gachechiladze, R. G. The New Georgia: Space, Society, Politics. East European Studies, no. 3. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1995.

Spilling, Michael. Georgia. New York: Marshall Cavendish, 1998.


Embassy of Georgia, London, Eng. [Online] Available, 1998.

World Travel Guide, Georgia. [Online] Available, 1998.

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