Is Georgia in the Middle East? I’ve found that most people give one of three anwers:
- The general familiar-with-Georgia public usually says “no”, the reasoning being that Georgia is part of Europe / Russia / whatever, and the Middle East is a whole other thing.
- Nerds and people who are boring at parties will tell you that the question is meaningless because the so-called “Middle East” is a eurocentric ideological construct designed to bolster Britain’s interests in the blah blah blah…
- Georgians themselves, as far as I can tell, don’t consider their country to be part of the Middle East mainly because of their religion.
- Related to this, some non-Georgians say that the only thing to do look at is how Georgians self-identify, and that anyone who disagrees with that self-identification is an asshole.
Now to be fair, the nerds are basically right. The “Middle East” is ultimately a bullshit concept, and any purportedly definitive claim about its would-be borders is bullshit too. The problem with this kind of approach is how unsatisfying it is. It’s one thing to be told an answer that you don’t want to hear, but it’s another thing to be told that your question is no good from the beginning. And besides, is the term “Middle East” really completely meaningless? Does it literally have no meaning at all? I think it does have some kind of meaning, even if it is used in wildly varying and even contradictory ways, and I think there is some value in considering whether Georgia (or any other country) belongs to it.
So assuming that the Middle East is a thing, how can we tell if Georgia is a part of it? Clearly we can’t refer to any definitive borders for the Middle East, so what is there to do? In this post, I would like to look at various properties — geographical, cultural, linguistic, etc — that the Middle East presumably has, and see whether Georgia has them too. If it turns out to have enough of them, then maybe Georgia is in the Middle East. (Spoiler alert: it does, and it is.)
First, let’s look at the physical geography of the region. The Arabian Peninsula is its own tectonic plate, so maybe we can just say that the Middle East is whatever is on the Arabian plate up until natural borders. This gives us the Arabian countries, Mesopotamia (Iraq), and the Levant (Syria, Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, and possibly Sinai). This is a restrictive description of the Middle East. Notably missing are Turkey and Iran, both of which are mostly set on mountains (the Taurus and Zagros mountains, respectively) created from the Arabian plate colliding into other plates. We might expand the geological definition of the Middle East to be the Arabian plate plus whatever is caused by its tectonic interactions. This gives us Iran and Turkey, but it also gives us Georgia (and Armenia, Chechnya, etc.), since the Caucasus Mountains are caused by the Arabian plate as well.
We can conclude that in terms of physical geography, Georgia is at least as much a part of the Middle East as Turkey and Iran.
Islam is obviously a hugely important part of the Middle East, so maybe we can say that the Middle East consists of those countries and regions where Islam is widespread. I imagine this is how most Americans think of the Middle East. This ignorant belief severely underestimates the geographical scope of Islam. There are hundreds of millions of Muslims in India and Southeast Asia, more than 100 million in Sub-Saharan Africa, and even around 20 million in China. Clearly this definition is overbroad, i.e. it includes too much.
That said, would Georgia qualify as a country where “Islam is prevalent”? Currently, around 10% of people in Georgia are Muslims. Most of these are Adjarans, who converted to Islam after being conquered by the Ottomans in the seventeenth century, and Azeris, who have lived in Borchali (Kvemo Kartli) for centuries. Prior to 1944, there were also Muslim Turks living in Meskheti. Besides these, there is a fairly small number of Muslim Kists living in the Pankisi Gorge near the Chechen border. The Kists have recently come under scrutiny for producing a high rate of ISIS recruits, including Omar al-Shishani, a.k.a. Tarkhan Batirashvili.
Historically, Georgia (along with Armenia) was basically an isolated enclave of Christianity in Muslim lands, enduring Muslim attacks from all directions (mostly Turkish and Persian invasions from the south and east, but also Dagestani raids from the north). Georgian kings like David XI (a.k.a. Daud Khan) would occasionally convert to Islam in order to gain favor with shahs and sultans. Conversely, Muslim converts to Christianity occasionally rose to prominence as well, like St. Abo Tbileli.
So does Georgia qualify as part of the Middle East under this criterion? Maybe. While Islam may not be widespread throughout the whole country, it remains the case that Islam is an important presence in Georgia today and especially historically.
Next, let’s look at criteria relating the major ethnic groups of the Middle East: Arabs, Persians, and Turks.
First, we have the Arabs. Many people simply identify the Middle East with the Arab world, i.e. they think that the Middle East consists of those places where Arabic is spoken. Since Arabs don’t live any farther north than southern Turkey, clearly Georgia is not part of the Middle East according to this criterion (and Turkey and Iran aren’t either).
Or is it clear? What if we say that the Middle East is any place that was conquered by Arabs? It turns out that parts of Georgia, including Tbilisi, were conquered by Arabs during the initial spread of Islam. In fact, this conquest occurred early in the campaign, during the reign of the Rashidun Caliphs. The Arabs established the so-called Emirate of Tbilisi, which lasted for several centuries. Let me emphasize this: for several centuries, the capital of Georgia was under Arab rule. Does this qualify to make Georgia part of the Arab world? Probably not, but it is certainly a striking fact. Note that while the Arabs also conquered Iran, they did not conquer Anatolia, meaning that by this criterion, Georgia is more Middle Eastern than Turkey.
Further, Arabic has had a nontrivial lexical influence on Georgian. This could perhaps be used as an argument for Georgia’s inclusion in the Middle East. Consider the map below, which shows the word for “hour” in European countries. If you had to draw a line to demarcate the Middle East based on this map, where would you draw it?
What about Persians? What if we say that the Middle East is wherever Persian is spoken? This is a very odd definition, since it excludes all Arab lands and Turkey, but includes areas as far northeast as Uzbekistan (since Tajik is just a dialect of Persian). Still, despite its massive lexical influence on Georgian, Persian is not spoken in Georgia. However, if we broaden the criterion to include all Iranian languages, rather than just Persian, then we get something. Besides Kurdish, which has several thousand speakers around Tbilisi, there is Ossetian. Ossetian is an Iranian language descended ultimately from the language of the Scythians. Even in ancient times the Scythians were rather distantly related to the Persians, so this may be a stretch, but the fact remains that an Iranian language is spoken in a nontrivial part of Georgia.
What if we say that the Middle East consists of the areas conquered by Persians? In this case, the answer is yes, at least for eastern Georgia. Kakheti and Kartli were constantly being invaded from Iran, to devastating effect. The last Persian invasion, during which Tbilisi was razed, was in 1795. 1795! Let’s put that into an American perspective: the capital of Georgia was conquered by Persians during George Washington’s second term as president. And that wasn’t the first time. So certainly we should consider eastern Georgian as being part of the Iranian sphere up until about the nineteenth century. Does that make it part of the Middle East? Maybe.
Last we have the Turks. What if we say the Middle East is those places where Turkish is spoken? Unlike with Persian and the Iranian languages, we don’t even have to expand the criterion to include the whole Turkic language family: plain old Turkish is spoken in Georgia. Specifically, Azeri Turkish is spoken in Kvemo Kartli. As mentioned above, Turkish was also fairly recently spoke in Meskheti. Recall also that the Georgian-Armenian poet Sayat-Nova wrote many of his songs in Turkish. Is Georgia part of the Middle East under this criterion? Maybe.
What if we say that the Middle East is any place conquered by Turks? Actually, if we restrict this to the Ottoman Turks, then this is nearly a viable definition. So, is Georgia part of the Middle East by this definition? Yes, at least for western Georgia. Adjara was under Ottoman control for several centuries, including a few years during the twentieth century. So by that criterion, Adjara would certainly be part of the Middle East. If more fleeting conquests are counted, then almost all of Georgia would be counted, since much of the country was taken during Lala Mustafa Pasha’s campaign against the Persians. During this campaign, Tbilisi was captured by the Ottomans. Perhaps all of Georgia should be counted as Middle Eastern by this criterion.
You may have noticed that I’ve mentioned Tbilisi several times as an object of conquest. This is because Tbilisi has an interesting property shared by only a few other places, and that’s this. We have these three major peoples of the Middle East, Arabs, Persians, and Turks. Suppose we say that the Middle East consists of the union of the lands conquered by these three peoples, i.e. the places conquered by the Arabs OR the Persians OR the Turks. This is an immense territory, stretching from Spain to India and Uzbekistan to Somalia, and it clearly includes too much.
But what if instead we say that the Middle East is the intersection of those territories, i.e. the places conquered by the Arabs AND the Persians AND the Turks? I’ve never heard anyone talk about this, so I don’t know how accurate my conclusions are here, but as far as I can tell, this region is pretty small. It includes Baghdad, which to my mind is the most Middle East-y place there is. It covers most of Kurdistan, including Diyarbakir and Erbil. It covers most of Azerbaijan (Iranian and otherwise) and all of modern-day Armenia (as well as many areas previously inhabited by Armenians, like Van). Most importantly, it includes Tbilisi and a few other part of Georgia.
Excluded are Syria, Egypt and everything west of that, most of Anatolia, and most of Iran, so clearly this property is not a necessary condition for Middle East-hood. Is it a sufficient condition? Maybe. I’ve never heard anyone else talk about this property, so I can’t say for sure that the details are right (the map below, for example, is obviously crude). But supposing they are, why wouldn’t we conclude that Tbilisi, if not the rest of Georgia, is part of the Middle East?
Okay, so what can we conclude from all this? Is Georgia in the Middle East or not? I think it’s clear at the very least that Georgia has significant connections to the Middle East. Since the borders of that region are ill-defined almost to the point of being meaningless, I think those significant connections suffice for inclusion. So I would say yes, Georgia is in the Middle East.
Let’s finish off with some discussion questions.
- Do you think Georgia is in the Middle East? Why or why not?
- What are some other criteria that could be used to see if Georgia belongs to the Middle East? For example, economic ties, cultural similarities, etc.
- Many of the characteristics discussed here have a strong historical dimension. Is it possible that Georgia used to be a part of the Middle East but no longer is? If so, when and why did things change?
- True or false: Most non-Georgians come to be interested in Georgia because of its connection to Russia, not because of its connection to the Middle East.
- If you kidnapped an average American and dropped them off in the outskirts of Tbilisi without telling them anything, would they think they were in the Middle East?
- To what extent is the claim about the “intersection of conquest” accurate?
- Extra credit: A shitty MS-Paint-drawn map was exhibited to illustrate that claim. Produce a better map and share it.
- If the nerds are right and the “Middle East” is meaningless, what value, if any, is there in thinking about whether Georgia is in the Middle East?
- Look through this collection of maps showing different characterizations of the Middle East. Why is Georgia absent from most of them?
- What can be concluded about Georgia’s relation to the Middle East based on these maps?