There are differing opinions on how Georgia got the name by which it is known throughout the world. Some think it is named after St. George while others point to the Greek name for agricultural tribes, Georgi. A third option is a Persian-Arabic word, ‘’Gurg’’ which means ‘’land of wolves.’’ Whatever is more accurate, the fact is that locals know their country as Sakartvelo, which translates as “Kartvelian habitat.”
Georgia is at the eastern end of the Black Sea with borders to the north and northeast with Russia, to the east and southeast with Azerbaijan and the south with Armenia and Turkey. Its western boundary is the Black Sea itself. With a population of almost 3.75 million, Georgia has mountainous regions with some of the highest peaks in Europe above 5,000 meters and a diverse landscape, in general, resulting in quite a variation in climate. Wile highlands are rich with ever freezing ridges and alpine zones, lowland areas have even rainforest and swamp with a climate that is hot and humid in the summer.
Georgia has rich and diverse vegetation. Over a third of the country is forest and brush. Pine forests, oak, beech, alder, and chesnut are predominant in the country with the abundance of evergreens in the west and higher altitude areas. You will also see large groves of citrus fruit, tropical vegetation, palms and bamboos at the seacoast and rows of eucalyptus trees along the country roads. In the east, there are relatively fewer trees, with grasses and underbrush replacing them in some areas. In the higher mountains, alpine vegetation prevails.
The wildlife in Georgia is similarly abundant and colorful. There are bears, wild boars, deers, rock goats, rabbits, wild cats and lynxes, foxes, wolves, and jackals, as well as a wide variety of birds and fish plentiful in the rivers and the Black Sea.
The majority of the population of Georgia lives in the valley region between the Greater Caucasus mountains to the north and the Lesser Caucasus to the south and the stretch of coastline of the Black Sea in the extreme west. The Capital Tbilisi is towards the east and was first settled many centuries ago. It is known for its historical landmarks as well as being thoroughly modern.
There are two regions within Georgia that are in dispute. South Ossetia and Abkhazia have effectively left Georgia even though that reality will never have international recognition beyond a handful of countries, and most notably Russia. The latter being the very culprit of those notorious conflicts, with the excuse of guaranteeing their security, has effectively occupied both autonomous republics (20% of Georgia’s historical land).
A Feel for Georgia
The major natural riches in Georgia are its people and its history and culture. There are not too many commonly valuable resources such as oils or precious metals and so far Georgia lacks notable advancement in high tech development too. Still, its location between Europe and Asia with easy links to the Caspian Sea and the East has helped Georgia to become a very important hub for communications and trade.
Its moderate climate and fertile soils have resulted in Georgia being a country where some of the best fruit and vegetable are grown while its history of winemaking goes back thousands of years.
Despite its small size, tourists to Georgia can sunbathe on a lovely coastline, hike or ski in its mountains, learn more about its rich history and visit religious and cultural landmarks that are proof of its importance over many centuries.
Georgia is very accessible with direct international flights into its three main cities, the Capital, Tbilisi, the Black Sea resort of Batumi, and the second city of Kutaisi. The road and rail systems are good and travel within the Country is reasonably cheap as is the general standard of living. Tourist money will stretch a long way.
Independence was achieved almost 30 years ago, with Georgia at that time having fairly poor infrastructure, minimal stability, and an economy in need of development. Without claiming that everything is perfection, in three decades, the business sector has grown much stronger, inflation is under control, education services have improved greatly, and Georgia has become a safe and secure country, with leading democracy standards in the region. Even though there seems little likelihood of resolving the issues with Russia and the two ‘’breakaway’’ provinces in the near future, elsewhere, everything is looking to be okay.
A Brief History of Georgia
Archaeologists have found evidence of Europe’s oldest human life here in the early Paleolithic and Neolithic periods. Tribes fashioned essential tools raised cattle and grew grain. While engravings on survived gold and silver items suggest influences from regions to the east in Asia, it is believed that Georgia is the home of the world’s oldest gold mines.
Georgia was still a long way away. The land saw the arrival of different tribes, the presence of Greek and Roman, who took control of the Cochis Kingdom and the Black Sea Region in general. The arrival of Christianity followed and one of the many delights of visiting Georgia is to see the religious landmarks that were built.
The weakness of Byzantine Emperors allowed the region to get freedom from Byzantines, Persians, and Arabs. Between the 10th and the 13th Centuries, this land was a powerful kingdom, grown to the extent to be mentioned by some contemporaries as New Byzantium. The arrival of the Mongols early in the 13th Century saw things change for the worse. Subsequent Persian and Ottoman invasions lasting three centuries devastated the country, and this followed with the Russians annexing Georgia in the 19th Century. For a brief period of 3 years after the end of the First World War, Georgia enjoyed independence, but its application to join the League of Nations was rejected, and in 1921, the Russians returned.
In 1936, its status was a constituent republic within the Soviet Union and that was how it remained until the collapse of the USSR.
Who Are the Georgians, and What Is Their Language?
The movement of peoples over these lands over the centuries obviously resulted in today’s Georgians being a mix of ‘’races.’’ DNA testing would probably identify that there are inhabitants who came from lands far from Georgia’s borders.
What is more important than origins, however, are characteristics. The first one that tourists will see when they visit Georgia is natural hospitality. A Georgian family in rural areas is likely to instinctively invite a stranger into its home, even offering a room for the night if it is needed, and certainly filling the table with delicious Georgian cuisine and wine. This comes from the belief that every visitor is a messenger from god. Those in need are certain to find help from their community.
Georgia has its own language and alphabet. It is known as Kartuli and has its roots in ancient times. There are no genders (he and she) nor articles (a, the etc) in the language, and many words end in ‘’i’’. In common with a number of languages, a single word will be used for the personal pronoun and verb. It can look strange, especially as there are words with several constants with no vowels in sight.
The alphabet is beautiful, though impossible for non-Georgians to read. It was devised in the 5th century and is one of the only 14 unique scripts used in the world. Georgian writing has 33 letters, uses no capitals and is known as Anbani; Ani and Bani are actually the first two letters in the alphabet. Don’t let this worry you if you are thinking of visiting Georgia. English is regularly there on the road signs and in restaurant menus.
The Culture of Georgia
Georgia’s literary tradition dates back to the 5th Century when schools taught Greeks and Georgians. Several centuries later, academies were established in Ikalto and Gelati. The Vepkhis-tqarsani (The Knight in the Panther’s Skin) was a 12th Century poem by Shota Rustaveli. In later literary history, Georgia produced Sulkhan-Saba Orbeliani, Ilia Chavchavadze, and Giorgi Eristavi, who is seen as the founder of the modern Georgian theatre.
During Soviet ‘’occupation’’ such talents were often seen as subversive; Mikhail Javakhishvili, the novelist and poet Titsian Tabidze were executed while poet Paolo Iashvili committed suicide after government censure.
Other notable Georgians who made their names in the arts are painters Niko Pirosmani (Pirosmanashvili), Irakli Toidze, Sergo Kobuladze, Lado Gudiashvili and Elena Akhvlediani, composers Zakaria Paliashvili and Meliton Balanchivadze (who is the father of the choreographer George Balanchine); and the founder of Georgian ballet, Vakhtang Chabukiani.
Even though the arts were often frowned upon during the Soviet era, Georgia still produced some talented directors during that time; Kote Mardzhanishvili, Sandro Akhmeteli, and Robert Sturm, each of whom made an impact outside Georgia into Europe and elsewhere.
The Georgian film Repentance was a brave production. It was critical of the repressions in the Stalin era. Its director Tenghiz Abuladze was delighted that his courage was recognized with a Special Jury Prize at the 1987 Cannes Film Festival.
Our culture manifests itself in a vast number of architectural landmarks. They include many monasteries and churches, at least some of which visitors to Georgia should get on their itineraries. If you visit any of Georgia’s museums, you will see beautiful examples of metalwork in bronze, gold, and silver, which date back as early as the 1st and 2nd Century BC. Centuries later, those skills were still in evidence with some fine examples in gold of religious crosses, icons, and jewelry.
The richness of Georgia’s cultural heritage is the envy of many nations. Theater, opera, poetry, architecture and paining all have a rich past. In 2001, UNESCO recognized the importance of Georgian music; song and dance are national treasures. Even the presence of the Soviets was not able to destroy traditional culture yet not everything is traditional. Tbilisi is a city where visitors can listen to rock, jazz and electronic music in many venues. Indeed, check the diary for festivals in the Capital.
Gradual urbanization was a feature of Soviet times, and that is continuing in the 21st Century. Even in rural areas, the need for processing of crops has led to modernization in the village communities.
Parts of the economy remain, labor-intensive so there is work even in rural areas; tea and citrus fruit plantations both contribute to the economy with agriculture still representing around half of the gross domestic product. Some of the mountainous regions are of little value for agriculture, but the land is valuable, so hillsides are certainly farmed.
The split with the USSR did lead to the contraction in the national economy because of the loss of a huge market but significant restoration has been achieved. Georgia’s exports include fertilizers, agricultural products, and some metals, but it needs to import fuels, machinery, foodstuffs, including grain and pharmaceuticals.
A Paradise for Food and Wine Lovers
One of the things you should try to do when you visit our Country is to go to a supra. This a feast that involves plenty of food and drink and toasts done by the Tamada, who ensures that the traditions involved in the supra are observed. You can expect poems folk song and dancing, all in all, a great evening’s entertainment.
The food you will get will be the best of Georgia’s traditional favorites. Our history is one of contact with peoples from east and west, and the influence that they have had in Georgian cuisine as it is today is undeniable. Herbs and spices have long been part of Georgian cooking with Arab and Mongol, Persian, Ottoman, and Mediterranean, in general, all having their roles.
Georgian wine may not have had the exposure to the outside world that it would have liked, but the word is spreading. Wine was first produced in this land 8,000 years ago, and the traditional method of placing crushed grapes in clay jars and buried below ground is still followed. You can expect to get rich dark reds and aromatic whites that will compliment any Georgian meal. Khachapuri is a famed cheese bread, baked with an egg on top while main dishes come using pork and beef, lamb and chicken. With fish readily available and a wide variety of fruit and vegetables, you will lack for nothing when you sit down for a Georgian meal.
A Few Tips Before You Go
- It is common for locals, men, and women to greet friends by kissing them on the cheek. That does not mean that outward displays of affection between couples is approved of, especially amongst gay people.
- If you are visiting religious sites, you will be expected to show due respect. Dress conservatively with women expected not to wear trousers but also to cover their heads.
- A service charge is often added to your bill in a restaurant. Tipping, in general, is up to you.
- If you are invited to a family’s home, take a small gift as a token of appreciation.
- Tap water is drinkable though by bottles if you have any doubts.
- The money exchanges in the cities usually give a better rate than the banks.
- Despite Georgia being relatively cheap, car rental can be expensive.
- Always carry a little cash if you are traveling extensively just in case a credit card is not acceptable (rare)
- You can expect to find WiFi available throughout Georgia except in remote rural areas.