Monday, July 30, 2007

Travel Journal (16)--And Now for Something Completely Different...

Near Dmanisi

Georgia, that is. What a remarkable little place this is. Not much larger than West Virginia, with a population of only 5 1/2 million, Georgia is not exactly a major player on the world stage. A visit by George Bush in recent years, the NATO question, and disputes with Russia occasionally put the little nation in the headlines. But despite this, Georgia remains relatively unknown to the West.

I doubt that this worries the Georgians terribly. One remarkable aspect of their history is that they are not particularly warlike, having never been bent on conquest and expansion outside of Georgia. Throughout the centuries they have been content, seeking little more than to be left alone in their lush valleys, to raise their crops, drink the best wine in the world, worship according to their Orthodox faith, occasionally squabble among themselves, and sing and toast one another until the wee hours of the morning.

The 10th through the 13th centuries saw the glory days of the kingdom. Leaders like King David the Builder and "King" Tamar earned respect at home and abroad. The royal patronage of the Church and the arts made Georgia a beacon of civilisation. It was Georgia that salvaged the eastern part of the empire for the Byzantines after the Latin invasion of 1204. And their princesses provided brides for the Grand Comneni of Trebizond. But this golden era passed, as Georgia lay in a tough, tough neighborhood--the hinge where the expansive Persian, Turkic and Russian empires met (and clashed). From the 14th-century on, the Georgians have struggled to merely survive as a culture, in the light of successive waves of invasion from the Turks, from the Mongols, from the Persians, and from the Russians. And truth be told, the Georgians were not above fighting among themselves, and did not always present a united front in their struggle to survive.

Queen Tamar

And survive and persevere they have. The long years of Persian and Russian domination have left their mark (more so, probably than they would like to admit). But the Georgians have clung fiercely to their rich culture and traditions, their Faith, the unique Georgian language, and their alphabet (one of only 14 in the world, and one that puts you in mind of Tolkein's Elvish script). The Georgian Orthodox churches are packed--with young people, no less--and the liturgical life of the Church is rich and flourishing. The economy--while struggling--is improving. I was impressed with the sleek, new airport terminal. Tbilisi is enjoying a real estate and building boom. Things were simply cleaner than last year. There is hope for the future.

Despite their remote location, Georgians consider themselves proud Europeans, and are quite insistent on being considered as an integral part of Europe (hence the push for NATO membership). And they are European, but with an exotic twist. Their cuisine is much more akin to Turkey and Persia than Russia. Their Orthodoxy is rooted in Syria and Jerusalem, rather than Constantinople or Moscow. Their language and alphabet are totally unique. And their singing...well, Georgian polyphony is simply other-worldly, and unlike anything found in Europe. So, in short, Georgians are their own thing. They have no doubts about themselves. They know who they are, they know their God, and how they fit into the cosmic nature of things. European? Well...yes, but a European style tempered by long exposure to the Near East.

I like to step back and take a long, historical view of things. And I tend to fret about our culture. While we have certainly hogged the spotlight for the last 200 years or so, I wonder if our mongrel nation has what it takes, culturally, to survive for the long haul? Of course, as a Christian, our prayer must always be "Lord, come quickly." We hope not for a long haul, but for a rather short haul, actually. But, that being said, I still wonder about our staying power and the strength of a culture that is terribly broad, but often somewhat shallow. I don't worry about the Georgians. I'm sure they haven't seen their last invasion, but with what they've been through, I am convinced that there will always be a Georgia.

View from Sighnaghi


Mimi said...

Do you have a CD recommendation of Georgian Liturgical music?

Beautiful! Georgia is near the top of my "places to see before I die" list.

John said...

Mimi, I recommend Zedashe Ensemble, but I don't know if their CDs are available here. Also, you might try to find something of the Anchiskhati Choir, who have toured in the US. In the meantime, I will check around to see what my Georgian contacts recommend.

John Ananda said...

Check out to see their store on Georgian music books and recordings. Best liturgical music: Anchiskhati Church Choir, Me Rustaveli, Basiani, Rustavi, and Zedashe Ensembles.

I have a few copies of the Me Rustaveli recording if someone wants to order it: $16 plus shipping.