Georgia stands at one of the many crossroads between Western Asia and Eastern Europe. Its name may be derived from the ancient Persian designation for the Georgian people, gurğ, ğurğ, and its strategic location has always made it a tempting target for marauders and conquerors.
In the 12th to early 13th centuries, during the reigns of King David IV (known as the Builder) and Queen Tamar, the Georgian Kingdom enjoyed a Golden Age. This period of Georgian history was characterized by a romantic-chivalric tradition, philosophical enlightenment, and an array of political and social innovations, including religious and ethnic tolerance.
David IV is considered to be the greatest and most successful Georgian ruler. He drove the Seljuk Turks out of the country, winning the Battle of Didgori in 1121 and retaking Tbilisi, an ancient Georgian city which had been under Muslim rule for over four centuries. David’s granddaughter Tamar consolidated an empire which dominated the Caucasus and extended over large parts of present-day Azerbaijan, Armenia, and eastern Turkey, until it collapsed under Mongol attacks two decades after her death.
In the very north of Georgia, isolation has long preserved the Upper Svaneti region, with its characteristic landscape of small villages set in gorges and valleys against a backdrop of snow-clad mountains. Svaneti is known for its wonderful scenery and its architectural treasures, including dozens of churches and the famous Svanetian towers erected in the 9th-12th centuries. Tribal relations in this region were often hostile, with raiding parties from different groups attempting to seize another’s property. There were also inter-family blood feuds to contend with.
Each tower is attached to a machubi, a big two-storey house. The ground floor is a single hall with an open hearth and accommodation for both people and domestic animals, usually separated by a wooden partition which is often lavishly decorated. The upper floor, called a darbazi, was used by the family in the summer and also served as a store for fodder and tools. A door at this level provided access to the tower, which was also connected to a corridor that protected the entrance.
Over time many tower-houses have disappeared or collapsed into ruins. However, the village of Chazhashi located at the head of the Enguri gorge in Upper Svaneti has been preserved as an open-air museum with more than 200 towers.
Until recently there were practically no English-language histories of Georgia. Then in 2012 Donald Rayfield – professor of Russian and Georgian at Queen Mary University of London– published Edge of Empires: A History of Georgia and Stephen Jones – professor of Russian Studies at Mount Holyoke College in the USA – published Georgia: A Political History Since Independence. Both expertly and admirably retell the turbulent history of a country that deserves to be better known.
Georgia is associated with the Greek legend of Jason and the Argonauts. It tells of a fabulously wealthy land called Kolkheti or Kolkha from which Jason stole the Golden Fleece from King Aieti, helped by the king’s daughter Medea. In fact, the ancient kingdom of Kolkheti comprised land that today forms part of Georgia.
The Kolkhetian people were experts in smelting and casting metal long before that skill was mastered in Western Europe. The Greek historian Strabo (44 BCE – 23 CE) mentions the kingdom of Kolkheti in Geography: “In the mountain rivers of this country there is a lot of gold mined by these barbarians using perforated vessels and sheepskin.” This has given rise to the theory that rather than stealing a golden fleece, Jason may have been looking for a traditional method of panning for gold – one still in use in some parts of the Caucasus Mountains. A different kind of fleecing altogether.