Despite of some resemblance and intermingling, The Georgians, ethnically and linguistically, are unrelated to the Indo-Europeans (Russians, Armenians, or any Western European groups). They form a group of their own, named "Ibero-Caucasian", "South Caucasian" or "Kartvelian" (the latter is the Georgians' own name for their nation). Professor Nikolai Marr, a prominent scholar of the Caucasian languages, brought into use the term "Japhetic" to designate a group (which includes Georgian) which he and other scholars believed to have inhabited the Mediterranean basin before the arrival of the Indo-Europeans circa II millenium BCE. These scholars believe that of this group of people, known as "Proto-Iberians", the Georgians and the Basques (in Spain) are the sole survivors, though the extinct Etruscans in Italy may have belonged to a kindred family. Certain affinities between the Basque and Georgian languages, as well as resemblances in popular customs, traditions and legends have been (and still are ) used to highlight their probable affinity.

The Georgian language belongs to the Paleocaucasian Ethnolinguistic Family, the representative people of which are the direct descendents of the oldest population of Caucasus. This Family is divided into three branches:

1) Western Caucasian, or Abkhaz-Adighian - unifies modern Abkhazians, Abazians, Adighians, Cherkezians and Kabardians;

2) Eastern Caucasian, or Chechen-Dagestanian - Chechenians, Ingushs and Dagestanians (Avarians, Lezgians, Darguelians, Laks and etc.);

3) Southern, or Kartvelian- represented by Georgian people, which consist of three main subethnical groups - Karts, Zans or Mengrel-Chans and Svans. Division of the previous Kartvelian language into Georgian, Zanian and Svanian branches begins in the III-II mill. B.C.

The Georgian language is the state language of Georgia. Georgian is the only language in the Ibero-Caucasian family that has its own ancient script. The most ancient writings date back to the 5th century AD, though recent findings suggest earlier existence of the literary language. The Georgian script is a unique writing system, conveying the sound composition of the Georgian speech and forming the written and printed symbols of the national Georgian language.

The development of the Georgian alphabet can be broken into three stages: Asomtavruli (unknown dates), Nuskha-Khutsuri (from the 9th century, still used by the Georgians Orthodox Church), and Mkhedruli (contemporary Georgian script, from the 11th century).

Both the ancient and modern alphabets are extremely simple, precious and economic. Each sound has its corresponding symbol and vice versa. Nowadays, the Georgian alphabet includes 33 symbols (5 vowels and 28 consonants). The shape of the letters is unique but their arrangement suggests influence from Indo-European languages.

Asomtavruli is the oldest Georgian script, believed by some Georgian scholars to be derived from Sumerian alphabet (although their no conclusive proof for this). The script is unique in its shape and symbolism.

The Georgian alphabet showing: First column, the Ecclestical (Khutsuri) script; Second column, the Mkhedruli or modern alphabet; Third column the phonetic values

Language and Nationalism

Language remains one of the key elements in the Georgian identity and a fundamental instrument in forging a nation. Its importance became evident in the late 19th century when the Russian imperial policies endangered its status within the Georgian lands. The rise of the national-liberation movement was in part triggered by the desire to save and revive the Georgian language. Thus, Ilia Chavchavadze, Akaki Tsereteli and other prominent members of this movement sought to safeguard the language and adopted a special motto ‘mamuli, ena, sartsmunoeba’ for their program of national awakening in which the language (ena) became one of the three pillars of the national movement. Language also became a subject of bitter dispute between conservative and progressive elements in Georgian society as the Mtkvardaleulni and Tergdaleulni groups discussed the language reform; the latter called for a language reform, which incensed the conservatives, and employed vernacular language in their publications in order to make them more accessible to the common people. The Society for Advancement of Literacy Among the Georgians played an important role in spreading literacy to the masses and Jacob Gogebashvili’s Dedaena served as an important textbook in this process.

During the Soviet era, the Communist authorities made several attempts to abolish the Georgian language as the state language in Georgia, which led to massive protests and revitalized Georgian nationalist sentiments. Georgian dissidents, especially Zviad Gamsakhurdia and Merab Kostava, campaigned under the slogan “ena, mamuli, sartsmunoeba” (language, fatherland, faith) that placed major emphasis on the Georgian language as a rallying point for the Georgian nationalism. In April 1978, the power of Georgian nationalism was revealed when thousands of Georgians took to the streets to protest the Soviet government’s decision to remove Georgian as the official state language of the republic. Facing escalating demands, the government decided against removing the disputed clause and effectively acknowledged its defeat. Currently, Article 8 of the Constitution declares Georgian as the state language of Georgia and the Georgian and Abkhaz languages on the territory of Abkhazia.

Discussions on the place and importance of the language in Georgian history often led to deviations. In 1920s, the Georgian language was studied by Nikolay Marr and his disciples, who founded the Japhetic theory in linguistics. The theory claimed that Japhetic languages, Georgian among them, had existed across Europe before the advent of the Indo-European languages and could be recognized as a foundation over which the Indo-European languages had imposed themselves. Using this model, Marr attempted to apply the Marxist theory of class struggle to linguistics, arguing that these different strata of language corresponded to different social classes. In 1924, he went even further and proclaimed that all the languages of the world descend from a single proto-language which had consisted of four enigmatic elements sal, ber, yon, rosh.

Another important discussion stems from the 10th century scholar Ioane Zosime’s hymn Kebai da didebai kartulisa enisa (Praise and Glorification of the Georgian Language) that glorifies the Georgian language and its unique mission. Ioane Zosime preached, “Buried is the Georgian language as a martyr until the day of the Messiah’s second coming, so that God may look at every language through this language. And so the language is sleeping to this day. And in the Gospels this language is called Lazarus… And friendship it spoke because every secret is buried in this language and dead for four days. Therefore David the Prophet spoke, saying: ‘A thousand years is like one day.’ And within the Georgian Gospels, in Matthew, sits a part, which is a letter, and it will say to all the four thousand secrets. And such are the four days and the man who was dead for four days, for this [it is] buried with him through the death of its baptism. And this language, beautified and blessed by the name of the Lord, humble and afflicted, awaits the day of the second coming of the Lord…”

This hymn spawned messianic tendencies in Georgia of the 1980s and 1990s. Many Georgian dissidents, especially Zviad Gamsakhurdia, explained the hymn in a strictly messianic context, turning it into a major element of nationalist ideology. It was argued that Ioane Zosime’s reference to the Georgian language as Lazarus and his four-day burial referred to the eclipsing of a Japhetic civilization, of which proto-Georgian culture was part, by Indo-European newcomers and the soon-to-be expected revival of Georgia. Furthermore, Gamsakhurdia and his supporters went so far as to claim that at the Judgement Day, the Georgian language, and nation, will take the position of universal spiritual leader and judge of the mankind. Such sentiments, although on the decline, still remain widespread in Georgia and sustain Georgian beliefs of superiority and unique spiritual mission of their language. In recent years, scholars, nationalists and populist politicians often campaign against the influx of Western, particularly American, pop culture and the perceived decline of the Georgian language through numerous English loan-words. The younger generation is especially susceptible to adopting foreign words in the vernacular language.

First Printed Georgian Books

The Catholic and Georgian missionaries in Rome (Italy) helped introduce printed books to the Georgian rulers by the early 17th century. The newly established Catholic Theatine and Capuchin missions also required manuals of the Georgian language and devotional texts for their operations. So, when, in 1626, King Teimuraz I of Kartli-Kakheti sent Nicephorus Irbach (Irubakidze-Cholokashvili) on a diplomatic mission to Rome, the Georgian envoy was enlisted to help solve these problems. During his stay at the Vatican, Nicephorus collaborated with Catholic scholars to produce an extensive Georgian-Italian vocabulary, as well as a brief collection of prayers in colloquial Georgian.

The dictionary, the first Georgian book to be printed, was printed in 1629 and contained over 3,000 words printed in large, clear type of the Mkhedruli alphabet. In 1670, Maggio’s textbook on Georgian grammar appeared in Rome as well. Other religious texts soon followed and, despite their many inaccuracies in light of the limited knowledge of Georgian in Europe, these publications played an important role in the development of Georgian printed culture. In late 17th century, King Archil emigrated to Russia, where he established a vibrant Georgian community at Vsesviatskoe near Moscow and turned his efforts to establishing printing presses that produced Georgians books.

By the late 17th and early 18th century, the number of Georgian books in print had increased but all of them were produced in Moscow or Rome and difficulties of transportation and distribution prevented their circulation within Georgia. The decision to establish a permanent printing press in Tbilisi belonged to King Vakhtang VI (r. 1704-1723), whose reign proved to be a period of constructive activity in almost every sphere. With the help of the prominent Georgian cleric Anthim the Iberian, archbishop of Wallachia (present-day Romania), King Vakhtang set about installing a printing plant in Tbilisi. Archbishop Anthim was himself a master printer and engraver of the first order and pioneer in Rumanian printing, and he sent one of his ablest disciples, the master printer Mihaî Isvanovicî, known in Georgia as Mikheil Stepaneshvili, to open the first Georgian press in Tbilisi.

Opened in 1709, the press operated for the next 14 years producing mainly religious texts. One of its greatest achievements was the first print version of Shota Rustaveli's Vepkhistkaosani published in 1712. Before its destruction at the hands of the Ottomans in 1723, the press produced the following titles: Four Gospels in Georgian, 1709; Psalms of David, 1709 (2nd edition 1711; 3rd edition, 1712; 4th edition 1716); Book of Liturgies, 1710; Prayer-Book, 1710 (2nd edition 1717) Book of Hours, 1710 (2nd edition 1717; 3rd edition 1722); Germanos the Monk, Manual on How the Teacher Should Instruct His Pupil, 1711; Shota Rustaveli's Vepkhistkaosani, 1712; Missal (translated from the Greek) 1713; Book of Church Ritual, 1719-1720; Paraklitoni (a liturgical book of the Georgian orthodox Church), 1720; The Book of the Knowledge of Creation (a Persian astronomical treatise, translated by King Vakhtang VI and other scholars), 1721; books of the Bible, including the Prophets and the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, 1709-1722.

Wine holds a central place in every Georgian’s life and in Georgian culture in general. It is widely believed that winemaking began in the Neolithic Period (8500-4000 BC). Although there is no definitive proof for Georgia to the location of the first viticulture, the concentration of archaeological evidence and written references incline many scholars to favor the idea that winemaking started in southern Caucasia, then spread to Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece and the rest of the world. The modern English word wine itself is etymologically traced to Latin vinum and Greek oinos, which, some scholars argue, were derived from the Georgian gh-vino. Recent archeological excavations produced evidence of viticulture in Georgia dating back as far as 5,000 BCE.

 The importance of wine in Georgian culture is evident in the Christian tradition of St. Nino baptizing Georgia with a cross made from a vine. Thus, the Christian cross of vine and its final product, wine, became inextricably linked in the Georgian psyche and culture. The elements of vine can be seen incorporated in the architecture of many Christian churches and cathedrals throughout Georgia. Over hundreds of years, an intricate culture developed surrounding wine production and consumption. Georgian families usually owned (and some still are) a consecrated place, or marani, beside their main house, where large clay vessels (kvevri) were buried and the wine was matured thanks to the cooling properties of underground streams. When filled with the fermented grape juice, the kvevri were then topped with a wooden lid and covered and sealed with earth. Winemaking is also closely connected with the Georgian tradition of feasts led by tamadas or men respected for their eloquence, expressive toasts and ability to drink deeply. Aided by their assistants (merikipes), the tamadas propose numerous toasts that lead their guests on a journey through the history and tradition of Georgia.

During the Soviet period, the Georgian wineries dominated the Soviet market and their products were exported for sale to other countries. However, following the declaration of independence in 1991 and the subsequent years of conflicts, the wine industry collapsed and production hit rock bottom. The Georgian wine industry was weighed down by outdated machinery and highly competitive export wine markets. Politics also play an important role for the industry since its largest export market remains Russia, which frequently adopted unfriendly policies towards Georgia. The greatest problem, however, is the widespread wine counterfeiting of Georgian wines in the markets of Russia, Commonwealth of Independent States and Europe. According to Georgian Ministry of Agriculture estimates, international markets contain some 17 million bottles of the two top Georgian red wines – Kakheti’s Kindzmarauli and Racha’s Kvanchkara – even though Georgian wineries can produce some 2.5-3 million bottles of the two wines annually. The Russian wine market alone contains some 120 million to 150 million bottles of wine branded as Georgian and as little as 15 to 16 percent of that total is actually produced in Georgia. The reputation of Georgian wines had therefore been significantly undermined. In recent years, American and French companies have made investments in the Georgian wine industry, which showed signs of reviving.

There are about 500 local vine sorts maintained in Georgia today and some 60 sorts of wines are commercially produced. Some of the best Georgian wines are Rkatsiteli, Saperavi, Manavis Mtsvane, Tsolikauri, Tsitska, Khvanchkara, Pino, Khikhva, Krakhuna, Chkhaveri, Ojaleshi etc.

There are five major zones for viticulture:

Kakheti is a major winemaking region in Georgia, producing about two thirds of all Georgian grapes and wines. Located in southeastern part of the country, Kakheti's lowlands of the Alazani and Iori Rivers and the slopes of the Caucasus, with a mild climate, provide ideal conditions for winemaking. The Kakhetian wines are known for the richness of their palette and vary from high quality dry to naturally semi sweet and sweet wines. Remarkably, Kakheti, a small region by itself, is divided into more than two dozen micro-zones that produce specific wines, i.e. Tsinandali, Kindzmarauli, Napareuli, Kvareli, Mukuzani, Akhasheni, Manavi, etc.

Located in the central part of Georgia, Kartli produces many European style wines, including sparkling wines. The region has a continental climate, with hot and dry summers, The most notable wines produced in Kartli are Goruli mstvane, Budeshuri and Kisi.

Imereti (with Samegrelo):
Located in the western Georgia, Imereti enjoys a moderately humid climate due to the proximity of the Black Sea. The region is known for its traditional methods of winemaking and grape varieties cultivated include Tsolikauri, Tsitska, Krakhuna, Saperavi, Aladasturi, Shavkapito, Dzelshavi, black Pint, Aligote, and Chardonnay. A neighboring region of Samegrelo (Mingrelia) is know for its Ojaleshi grape variety that produces a wine of intensive color and semi-sweet taste.

Located in the northern part of Georgia, on the slopes of the picturesque Caucasus Mountains, Racha-Lechkhumi is known for its peculiar soil and humid climate. The region boasts one of the oldest viticultures in the world, with traces of winemaking dating back to the end of the 4th millenia B.C.E. The region is famous for its Khvanchkara, Usakhelouri and Tvishi wines.

The Subtropical or Black Sea Coast zone:
The black Sea Coast Zone includes the regions of Ajara (Achara), Guria, Semgrelo and Abkhazia. Located along the Black Sea coast, this region has one of the oldest centers of viticulture. The region can be divided into main subgroups, Ajara-Gurian (main grape varieties Tsolikauri, Chkhaveri, Aladasturi, Aligote) and Samegrelo-Abkhazian (main grape varieties Ojaleshi, Avasirkhva, Kachichi, Tskhenisdzudzu abkhazuri, etc).

Since the 1950s, Georgian vineries have been awarded over 270 medals, including some 140 gold.

Alexander Mikaberidze

 The earliest theater space in Georgia dates back to the third century BC and can be found at Uplistsikhe. Despite a lack of theatrical texts, performances certainly occurred in Georgia and developed into a unique festive theatrical art with taste for singing, dancing and reenactments of epics. In the Middle Ages, theatrical festivals like berikaoba often became a means of protest against conquerors or feudal oppression and helped preserve oral traditions. Satires and folk performances with masks were common in the period.

The history of modern theater starts in the 19th century. Giorgi Eristavi emerged as the leading dramatist of this age and, in January 1850, he established his own theater where several Georgian plays were produced. In 1879, another company was established in Tbilisi with the help of such luminaries as Ilia Chavchavadze and Akaki Tsereteli. This theatrical center, soon became the famous Rustaveli Theater, became a cultural center of Georgia, where ideas of liberty, humanism and reforms were discussed. The theater quickly gained a following and began producing performances that combined modernity with traditional folk style. Productions varied from Georgian satires and comedies to European and Russian tragedies and plays. The early 20th century was one of the most important periods in the development of the Georgian theater. The theater prospered through the work of Valerian Shalikashvili (1874-1919), Alexander Tsutsunava (1881-1955), Mikhael Koreli (1876-1949), Kote Andronikashvili (1887-1954), Akaki Pagava (1887-1962) and others.

The most important of these artists was the ingenious Kote Marjanishvili, under whose direction the Georgian theater rose to a new level. Marjanishvili himself enjoyed close relations with the finest stage directors of this period, Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko, and merged the elements of Russian and European theatrical art with Georgian romantic and heroic traits. In 1928, Marjanishvili established a new company in Kutaisi, which was later renamed after him, and produced his first play Ernest Toler’s Popola, we are living. He was supported in his work by such prominent artists as Shalva Dadiani (1894-1959), Polikarpe Kakabadze (1895-1972) and others. Among Marjanishvili’s many stage productions were The End of the “Nadezhda” (1909), Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov (1910), Ibsen’s Per Gynt (1912), Offenbach’s Die Schöne Helena (1913), Mozart’s Entführung aus dem Serail (1923), Eristavi’s Partition (1823), Arakishvili’s The Tale of Shota Rustaveli (1923), Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1925), Kutateli’s Midnight Past (1929), Rossini’s William Tell (1931), etc. Following in Marjanishvili’s footsteps was Alexander (Sandro) Akhmeteli, who was instrumental in the further development of the Georgian theater. He sought to create a heroic and monumental stage production that had a unique rhythmical structure and engaging characterizations. Akhmeteli produced such successful theater and opera works as Glebov’s Zagmuk (1926), Shanshiashvili’s Anzor (1928), Lavrenyov’s Break-up (1928) Kirshon’s City of the Winds (1929), Dadiani’s Tetnuldi (1931), Arakishvili’s The tale of Shota Rustaveli, etc.

The establishment of Bolshevik rule in Georgia influenced the development of the Georgian theater. In the 1930s, theatrical productions featured characters of workers, peasants and Soviet revolutionaries and depicted the life on a collective farm or a worker’s toils in a factory. In the 1940s, theater performance shifted its focus to the Georgian past in an attempt to appeal to nationalism during World War II. In the 1950s, plays based on works by European authors were staged, including Shakespeare’s Othello, Antony and Cleopatra, Richard II, Sophocle’s Oedipus Rex, plays by Lope de Vega, Carlo Goldoni, Pierre Augustin Beaumarchais, Bernard Shaw, Alexander Pushkin, Mikhail Lermontov, Nikolay Gogol, Fyodor Dostoevsky and others. The period produced directors such as Vakhtang Tabliashvili (1914-?) and Vaso Kushitashvili (1894-1962) and the actors Akaki Khorava (1895-1972), Sergo Zakariadze (1909-1971), Erosi Manjgaladze (1925-1982) and Akaki Vasadze (1899-1978), designers Ioseb Charlemagne (1880-1957), Irakli Gamrekeli (1884-1943), Vladimir Sidamon-Eristavi (1889-1943), David Kakabadze (1889-1954), Elene Akhvlediani (1901-1975), Tamar Abakelia (1905-1953), Peter Otskhali (1907-1937) and the great Suliko Virsaladze (1909-1988).

In the 1960s-1980s, Georgian theater gradually turned away from realism and experimented with new genres and styles. The period is noteworthy for the works of Giga Lordkipanidze (1928- ), Robert Sturua (1938- ) and others. Sturua emerged as a master of the epic form and gained worldwide fame for his direction of Shakespeare’s plays Richard III (1979) and King Lear (1987) and the critically acclaimed direction of The Caucasian Chalk Circle (1975). Playwrights N. Dumbadze, G. Abashidze, T. Chiladze, A. Chkhaidze, Sh. Shamandze, Lali Roseba and others authored many successful plays. During the period of civil strife in Georgia in the 1990s, the Rustaveli Theatre continued to operate under the artistic direction of Robert Sturua, producing new performances including such experimental ones as ABC, Life is a Dream, Macbeth, Lamara, Irine’s Happiness, Women-Snake and others.

The two most important theaters in Georgia are the Rustaveli and the Marjanishvili Theaters. Another company, the Tumanishvili Studio Theater of Film Actors, was established in 1977 and serves as a stepping ground for less known artists or recent theatrical graduates. The Royal District Theater operates since 1992. The Opera and Ballet Theater functions in Tbilisi since 1851 and produced performances of Z. Paliashvili’s Abesalom and Eteri and Daisi, Taktakishvili’s Mindia, Dolidze’s Keto and Kote, Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades, Swan Lake and Nutcracker, Bizet’s Carmen, Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana, Puccini’s Tosca and La Boheme, Verdi’s La Traviata and Rigoletto, Mozart’s Don Giovanni and many others The Griboedov Russian Drama Theater, founded in 1845, and the Armenian Drama Theater, established in 1863, are other major centers of theatrical art in Tbilisi. The smaller Rustavi Theater exists in Rustavi, the Meskhishvili Theater in Kutaisi, the Dadiani Theater in Batumi and the Youth Drama Theater in Akhaltsikhe. The Abkhazian and the Sukhumi Georgian Theaters operated in Sukhumi prior to the conflict in Abkhazia and several Georgian and Ossetian theaters were open in Tskhinvali. In 1986, the Theater Studio was established on the Rustaveli Theater’s Small Stage. Tbilisi is also the home of the Russian-Georgian Youth Theater and the Russian Youth Theater. In 1982, the State Pantomime Theater was established in Tbilisi and developed under the direction of Amiran Shalikashvili and Kira Mebuke. The Marionette Theater of Rezo Gabriadze has been successfully performing for decades now and gained worldwide fame for its works.

Currently, there are forty theaters in Georgia, drawing some 266,000 spectators annually. In addition to classical theaters, Georgia is also famous for its dance theaters. In 1886, a Georgian Ballet Theater was established under the direction of Maria Perini and later Mikhail Mordkin. But it was Vakhtang Chabukiani who transformed the classical ballet by introducing Georgian traits and characteristics. He became the ballet company’s leading dancer and brought a unique spirit and energy to his dances. Chabukiani worked as the choreographer and artistic director of the Paliashvili Theatre of Opera and Ballet in 1941-1973 and ballet master and director of the Tbilisi Choreographic Academy in 1950-73. Under his direction, the ballet developed a new archetype of a male dancer with strong legs, general athleticism and uninhibited energy. Among many productions of this period were Heart of the Mountains (1941), Sinatle (1947), Laurencia (1948), Gorda (1950), For Peace (1953), Othello (1957), Demon (1961), Bolero (1971), Hamlet (1971), Apasionata (1980) and others. Simultaneously, Iliko Sukhishvili and Nina Ramishvili founded the Georgian State Dance Company in 1954 and played a crucial role in refining Georgian folk dances. The Sukhishvili Dance Company toured worldwide with great success and remains the finest dance company in Georgia.

Alexander Mikaberidze