Insights into Georgia ahead of a series of talks at Asia House

Insights into Georgia ahead of a series of talks at Asia House

08 April 2016

BY Jemimah Steinfeld

This April marks 25 years since Georgia gained independence from the Soviet Union. Steeped in history and sitting at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, Georgia has a fantastic literary tradition. As part of the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival, we’re hosting three events to celebrate the nation’s best writers.

These events are part of a wider programme on Georgia taking place in London, Where Europe Meets Asia: Georgia25, which features talks, screenings and an exhibition. We asked Artistic Director of the programme and award-winning cultural journalist Maya Jaggi what attracted her to the country and what we need to know about Georgia ahead of the Asia House events.

What initially drew you to visit Georgia?

In May 2014 I was invited to the Georgian capital Tbilisi as a cultural journalist and literary critic to meet writers and publishers during an international publishers’ forum. But I stayed on in Tbilisi (which is now being ‘discovered’ as a Europe-meets-Asia city-break destination comparable to Istanbul). I ended up travelling through the wine-growing region of Kakheti to write a Financial Times article on the cultural history and rising international appeal of Georgian wine.

It was my first visit to a fascinating but, in the UK, little known country. That relative obscurity is partly a legacy of 70 years behind the Iron Curtain as a Soviet Republic, and also of being erroneously subsumed, at times, under Russia – though Georgia has its own language and alphabet, and a distinct culture and history.

Geographically, there is some question as to where Europe ends and Asia begins, so Georgia and the Caucasus may not always show up under either umbrella. Being confined to an ‘ex-Soviet’ sphere also misses a lot of what’s rich and distinctive about the country. Then again, the in-between spaces are often the most exciting culturally.

What strikes you most about the country?

Georgia leaves a deep impression on every visitor I have spoken to. An inescapable first impression is of the landscape, which ranges from sheer mountains to hillside vineyards and sub-tropical Black Sea coast.

The architecture is also striking – from 5th century churches perched on hilltops, and the Narikala Fortress above Tbilisi, to 19th century Italianate villas and Art Nouveau mansions. Since independence 25 years ago, seemingly space-age structures have sprung up too, such as the Peace Bridge over the Kura River in Tbilisi, and glass police stations that were meant to signal transparency against corruption. These developments have been controversial, with a campaign also under way to preserve architectural heritage, particularly in old Tbilisi.

Then there is Georgia’s extraordinary culture of hospitality, with elaborate rounds of toasting by a designated tamada (toastmaster) at every supra or ‘feast’, which might just be dinner between friends.

There is almost an entire genre of feast paintings by the ‘naive’ Georgian primitivist painter Pirosmani (born in Kakheti in 1862), whose portrait of a hog can be spotted in Wes Andersen’s film The Grand Budapest Hotel (in the reading-of-the-will scene).

Food is very much part of the culture and Georgian cuisine is quite distinctive, with piquant walnut and sour-plum sauces and delicious breads such as khachapuri (gondola-shaped bread filled with cheese.)

In terms of history, Georgia’s relationship with its giant neighbour Russia is curious and complex. It was a colony of the Tsarist Empire for more than a century after 1801, then it had a brief window of independence in 1918-21 after the Bolshevik Revolution, before being invaded by the Red Army.

Since ‘re-independence’ in 1991, there have been bitter conflicts with Russia and Russian-backed separatists.

Yet cultural and other links are maintained, with many Russians holidaying in Georgia, including its spas and Black Sea Riviera. Menus are often in Russian as well as Georgian, though English is increasingly taking over as a second language, particularly with the younger generation. In some respects, many Londoners will recognise aspects of the close, but ambivalent relationship between a former colony and an imperial power, though through a very different history.

Best-selling Russian crime writer Boris Akunin, who was born in Georgia and grew up in Moscow, may touch on aspects of this relationship at the launch event of Georgia25 on Monday 11 April at Asia House, when he is in conversation with Boyd Tonkin, Senior Writer at the Independent and jury chair of the 2016 Man Booker International.

Boris Akunin will be in conversation with Boyd Tonkin, Senior Writer at The Independent and jury chair of the 2016 Man Booker International Prize on 11 April

Boris Akunin will be in conversation with Boyd Tonkin, Senior Writer at The Independent and jury chair of the 2016 Man Booker International Prize at Asia House on 11 April


What is your favourite Georgian fact?

Georgia has two UNESCO-recognised intangible world heritages: its unique method of winemaking using qvevri ((also known as kvevri) – red-clay, egg-shaped wine-fermenting vessels buried in the ground up to their necks to maintain temperature – and viscerally powerful polyphonic singing, both sacred and secular. I saw the two heritages come together dramatically at the sixth-century Alaverdi Monastery in the Kakheti region of Eastern Georgia, where a group of monks sang in harmony as they broke open a qvevri and ladled fresh wine into earthenware bowls as a Russian TV crew filmed.

A cradle of wine, Georgia has an 8,000-year-old continuous tradition of viticulture. What’s piquing the jaded palates of global wine connoisseurs is that it also has 525 indigenous grape varieties, from Abistazh to Zerdagi – some of which you can sample for free at the Asia House events!

There is now a bid to have the Georgian alphabet, with its three scripts, recognised as a third intangible heritage. During the week of Georgia25 there is an exhibition about the scripts at the Embassy of Georgia near Olympia in West London.

Georgia lies at the crossroads of Europe and Asia. Can you tell us about any Asian influences in Georgia?

The ancient Greeks knew Georgia as Colchis, land of Medea and the Golden Fleece (sheepskin was apparently used to capture gold from mountain streams).

Because of its location and fertile abundance – not least citrus, walnuts and vines – Georgia was fought over and carved up for centuries by Arab, Mongol, Persian, Ottoman, Turkish and Russian empires. Before 19th-century Tsarist rule, parts of it were under Ottoman and Persian powers. According to the historian and linguist Donald Rayfield, who will be speaking on Tuesday 12 April, the richness of the Georgian language stems partly from the loan words it acquired, not only Greek and Russian, but also Sanskrit, Persian, Arabic and Turkish.

Persian art is recognised as a big influence in Georgia, from Farsi poetry to Iranian cinema. Georgia’s 12th-century national epic, The Knight in the Panthers Skin by Shota Rustaveli, is composed of 1,666 rhyming quatrains of 16-syllable lines – the Persian form of poetry.

Shota Rustaveli

Shota Rustaveli

Written during the ‘golden age’ of Queen Tamar the Great (they actually called her ‘king’), it’s a philosophical masterpiece, partly based on Persian sources, involving an Arabian king who abdicates so his daughter can rule, and the eponymous knight who loves an Indian princess. A new translation by the American poet Lyn Coffin (published by Poezia Press) matches the original in both meter and rhyme.

Georgian wine will be served at all of the Asia House Georgia25 events, which take place from 11 – 14 April.

To find out more about the events on Georgia at Asia House, click here. Check out the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival line-up here. The twitter hashtag is #AHLitFest and #Georgia25.