Is Georgia in the Middle East?

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.)

georgia middle east

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Flags of Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, etc

Here are some flags from Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and associated places in the South Caucasus. I won’t go into the details of the symbolism because I don’t care — white symbolizes purity or loyalty or something, red symbolizes blood spilled, blah blah blah, whatever. I’ll just list the flags along with historical remarks.

Note to readers: This will be a dry, picture-heavy post, but there will be a couple of decent jokes, so it is recommended that you read the whole thing.

  • Georgia

Georgia‘s current flag consists of a red St. George cross on a white background (like the flag of England) with a red Bolnisi cross on each of the four white patches.

georgian flag design

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South Caucasus: Transcaucasia

The South Caucasus, consisting of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, used to be known as Transcaucasia. The word “Transcaucasia” was coined as a translation of the Russian Zakavkazie (Закавказье), meaning “the far side of the Caucasus”. Far from what, you ask? From Russia, of course. From about 1800 until the collapse of the Soviet Union, the South Caucasus was dominated by Russians, and “Transcaucasia” connotes that time period and that domination.

So if neutrality is desired in nomenclature, then clearly “Transcaucasia” should be abandoned in favor of “South Caucasus”.*** But the biased term is not all bad, for it also carries with it the memory of a South Caucasus far more ethnically mixed than it is today. It even recalls a brief time when the South Caucasus was independent and politically united.

transcaucasian sfsr

Transcaucasia in early Soviet times

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Georgia’s North Caucasian Territories, 1944-1957

Georgia used to possess two regions in the North Caucasus. The “used to” part is no surprise. There are quite a few territories that were once controlled by Georgia but no longer are. Abkhazia and South Ossetia are the obvious ones, but there is also Sochi (Russia), Lori (Armenia), Saingilo (Azerbaijan), and Tao and Klarjeti (Turkey). What’s remarkable about these North Caucasian territories is just how Georgia came into possession of them. The story, which involves considerable human misery, goes back to World War Two.

georgian ssr 1944-1957 north caucasus

Note the two large protrusions along Georgia’s top edge.

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Thailand, Cambodia, Qatar

I could give a complete run-down of all the details of my Thailand / Cambodia trip, but I’ve seen enough travel blogs to know that such a post would be boring. Instead, I’ll give a brief overview of Southeast Asia and then give the highlights of my itinerary.

thai car

Bad credit? No credit? No problem! Come on down to Prasong’s Used Car Emporium and take home the used car of your dreams today!

Southeast Asia consists of the stuff east of India and south of China. It can be conveniently divided into two parts: the islands — Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei, East Timor, and Singapore — and the mainland — Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. I don’t know nothin’ about the islands, so I’ll stick to talking about the mainland (though I don’t know much about that either).

east asia

Languages: Burmese is related to Tibetan, and ultimately to Chinese. Thai and Laotian are both members of the Tai language family, and are to some extent mutually intelligible. Vietnamese and Cambodian both belong to the Austro-Asiatic language family. Cambodian is by far the ugliest language I have ever heard. It has a very harsh start-stop pattern, with the result that all conversations between Cambodians sound like they are taking place over a bad cell connection. I didn’t hear all that much Thai, since everyone involved in tourism in Thailand speaks an unrefined but surprisingly fluent sort of English. This includes the young children who try to sell knick-knacks on the street. This showed me that I really need to step up my English-teaching game, since even the teenagers at my school can barely speak English. This may be because there’s no urgency for them to learn, whereas the Thais’ livelihoods depend on it.

Alphabets: The Burmese, Thai, and Cambodian scripts (yes, each country has its own script) are not alphabets; rather, they are abugidas, meaning that vowels are mostly indicated by diacritic markings on the consonants (alphabets like Greek mark vowels explicitly; abjads like Arabic and Hebrew mostly don’t mark them; and syllabaries like Japanese combine vowels and consonants into unique letters). They are distantly related to the scripts of India. I have no idea how to read any of them.

devanagari-tai-burmese-khmer

Khmer is the Cambodian word for Cambodian. “Khmer Rouge” just means “Red Cambodian,” but it sounds more exotic.

Vietnamese used to use a modified version of Chinese, but since French colonial times they have used the Latin alphabet.

Religion: Most people in mainland Southeast Asia are Buddhists, but in Vietnam they are Mahayana (the Buddhism of China, etc) and in the other countries they are Therevada (what used to be the Buddhism of India). This is because Vietnamese culture is mostly spillover from China, and Thai, Cambodian, and Burmese culture is mostly spillover from India (as we saw, their writing systems are evidence of this). In Cambodia, many of the old Angkor temples were originally dedicated to Vishnu, but were later converted to Buddhist temples.

History: I don’t know much that you don’t already know or can’t look up yourself.

Enough of that. Here’s where I went:

1) Flew from Tbilisi to Doha, Qatar (judging by what I could see from the window, a very ugly place), and then to Bangkok;

2) Immediately took a long, filthy train ride to Cambodia;

3) Spent a day looking at the Angkor temples, including the Indiana Jones-looking Ta Prahm;

ta_prohm_1

Ta Prohm has been reclaimed by gigantic trees. I bet some people stupidly take this to be evidence of the futility of man’s labors.

4) Immediately took a long bus ride back to Bangkok;

5) Spent a few days screwing around in Bangkok;

6) Took a long bus ride down to the beach (Phuket and Ko Phi Phi);

7) Spent about a week screwing around on and by the beach;

8) Went back to Bangkok and took the same route back to Tbilisi.

The whole trip was about two weeks. Lots of fun, but very tiring.

I should add that on three of our four flights, we were on planes which gave each person their own personal TV screen. This may not be new to others, but it was new to me, and I was amazed.

inflight-entertainment

This meant that instead of being bored, I was able to watch: The Day of the Jackal, The French Connection,  the first third of The Dark KnightThe Bourne Supremacy, the intro of The Bourne Identity, and maybe eight Simpsons episodes. If I ever go to that part of the world again, I’m definitely flying Qatar Airways.

This post brought to you in part by Qatar Airways. Qatar Airways: booking online is free and easy. When you think Qatar, think Qatar Airways.

Georgia Q&A

Q: Where are you going?

A: Georgia.

Q: Cool, I have a cousin in Athens.

A: No, I don’t mean Georgia the American state. I mean Georgia the country.

Q: There’s a country called Georgia?

A: Yeah.

Q: Oh right, I think I’ve heard of that. Isn’t it, like, in Eastern Europe?

A: Not quite. It borders southern Russia, but it also borders Turkey, and it’s much closer to Iran than it is to any European country. But it’s not really Central Asian either. You could say it’s part of the Middle East if you didn’t care about being sloppy, or you could call it Near Eastern if you didn’t care about sounding like you’re from the 1800s. Take a look at this map if you don’t believe me.

caucasus political map

Georgia is in Europe, just like Iran.

Travel advertisers typically bill Georgia as being “at the crossroads of East and West,” which, while cheesy, might be accurate. All this generally holds also for Armenia, which borders Georgia to the south, and to a lesser extent for Azerbaijan, which borders Georgia to the southeast.

Q: But they must be European, since they play in the big European soccer league.

A: And the Rams play in the NFC West. So what?

Q: Fine, but it was part of Russia, right?

A: Yes. Having been conquered and destroyed several times over the centuries (by the Romans, the Persians, the Arabs, the Mongols, and the Turks), Georgia looked to Russia for protection and was annexed at the beginning of the nineteenth century. After the Russian Revolution, Georgia enjoyed a few years of independence, but was soon re-conquered by the (Soviet) Russians. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Georgia became independent again. That’s pretty much where things stand today.

Q: And they speak Russian there?

A: No.

Q: Some other Slavic language?

A: No.

Q: A language even distantly related to Russian?

A: Wrong again, idiot. The Georgian language is not related to any major language. It is not part of the Indo-European language family (which includes most European, Persian, and Indian languages, as well as Armenian), the Uralic language family (which includes Finnish, Hungarian, and some Siberian languages), the Afro-Asiatic language family (which includes Arabic and Hebrew), or the Turkic language family (which includes Turkish and Azerbaijani). Georgian belongs the Kartvelian language family (also called South Caucasian), which also includes Laz, Mingrelian, and Svan. However, none of these other languages have standardized written forms, all are spoken alongside Georgian, and the three combined have fewer than a million speakers, so practically speaking we can ignore them and say that Georgian is not related to any language anywhere at all.

south caucasian kartvelian georgian languages

Don’t worry, I had never heard of these either.

It has been proposed that Georgian might be related to Basque or some other language isolate, but this is just linguists’ fanfic.

Q: So the Caucasus is home, if I’ve counted right, to three distinct language families?

A: You did count right, but no. In fact there are two more. Georgian is spoken on the south side of the Caucasus mountains. To the northwest of the mountains are spoken the Northwest Caucasian languages, including Abkhaz, and to the northeast of the mountains are spoken the Northeast Caucasian languages, including Chechen. Neither of these families is related to the other, or to Georgian, or to anything else.

Q: The Caucasus sounds like a very linguistically diverse region.

A: I’m glad you asked. Take a look at this map, which gives a good idea of what a mess the whole place is.

caucasian languages

A mess

Q: Do they use the Latin alphabet or the Russian?

A: No. They use their own alphabet. It doesn’t look anything like either of those alphabets or the Greek alphabet.

georgianalphabet-table

This alphabet has two T’s, two P’s, two K’s, two TS’s, and two CH’s, which makes transliteration a crapshoot.

Armenian also uses its own alphabet, and it doesn’t look anything like the Georgian one.

armenian alphabet

Believe it or not, this is a real alphabet in use today.

To make things more confusing, there is an old form of the Georgian alphabet which does look like Armenian. Fortunately, it’s not in use anymore today except for decorative purposes.

georgian_asomtavruli

There’s another alphabet that came after this one and before the modern one, but I won’t bore you with it.

Incidentally, the phrase “Russian alphabet” is a pet peeve of mine. Although the Russians do have an alphabet different from ours, many other languages also use that alphabet. Us saying “Russian alphabet” would be like Russians talking about the “French alphabet.” The proper name for their alphabet is “Cyrillic,” so-called because it was devised by ninth-century missionary and burlesque stripper Lili St. Cyr.

lili st cyr

St. Cyr and her brother Methodius are credited with inventing two alphabets for the Slavs.

In case you were wondering, Azerbaijani and the rest of the Caucasian languages generally use Latin or Cyrillic according as whether or not they hate the Russians.

Q: Good story. So are they Muslims over there or what?

A: No, for the most part. About 10% of Georgians are Sunni Muslims, and most of them are located in the southern “autonomous republic” of Adjara. The rest of the Georgians are Orthodox Christians.

Q: Oh, are they Catholic or Protestant?

A: Wow you’re stupid. Orthodoxy is distinct from both, and in fact Orthodoxy is older than Protestantism. It is exactly the same age as Catholicism, since the two resulted from a schism in what was one church. Basically, cultural differences and political problems led the Western and Eastern parts of the old Roman Empire to excommunicate each other around 1100. Orthodoxy is the church that resulted in the East and Catholicism is the church that resulted in the West (which would, of course, later splinter again with the Protestant Reformation). Georgia is in the East, so it’s Orthodox.

east west catholic orthodox schism map

Georgia is on this map, but it almost isn’t.

Q: So that’s why Greek and Russian churches look so weird.

A: Right.

Q: And Armenians too?

A: No. The Armenian church is part of Oriental Orthodoxy, as opposed to Eastern Orthodoxy. The Oriental churches (which today also includes the Christianity practiced in Egypt and Ethiopia) broke off from the rest of Christendom in the fifth century. Their separation was due not to any power struggles, but to a good old-fashioned Christological debate. The question was simple: is Christ human? divine? both? neither? or what? The Nestorians held that he had two natures, one divine and one human (the two-nature view is called dyophysitism). The Eutychians held that although Christ was both human and divine, his humanity was vanishingly small in comparison with his divinity, so that his nature was pretty much just divine (monophysitism). To settle this problem, the Council of Chalcedon in 451 came up with a compromise: Christ has two natures, but just one person, and the two natures are united perfectly in that person (this is the doctrine of hypostatic union). The churches that would eventually become Oriental Orthodox rejected this solution, arguing that it amounted little more than Nestorianism. Instead, they claimed that Christ had only one nature, but that this nature was itself both divine and human (they call this position miaphysitism), and they went on to establish their own church on this basis.

christology

I bet you didn’t think you would learn anything about Christology on this blog.

Q: That is so boring that I can’t even finish the paragraph.

A: Well, that’s pretty much how theology goes. The take-away here is that the Armenians don’t belong to the same church as the Georgians.

Q: But there are Muslims near Georgia, right?

A: Yes. The Chechens and some other people to the north of the Caucasus are Sunni Muslims, and in Azerbaijan nearly everybody is a Shia Muslim (this is due to Persian conquest).

shia sunni demographics map

I leave it as an exercise for the reader to find Azerbaijan on this map, and also to figure out what the colors mean.

However, such self-identification is mostly nominal, Azerbaijan is one of the most irreligious countries in the Muslim world. Indeed, my understanding is that this is also true in Georgia, where being Orthodox is more of an national affiliation than a religious one (just as being nomincally Catholic is often considered an important part of being Italian or Mexican).

Q: How are the gender roles in Georgia?

A: I’ve heard it’s very patriachal, but I can’t say for sure yet. Expect a report on the matter.

Q: What about the food, scenery, weather, etc?

A: I’m there will be plenty of time to discuss that stuff when I get there.

Q: It sounds like you intended this Q&A to cover general cultural, historical, and geographical background, and not so much the concrete details of everyday life with which you have no experience.

A: Uh…yeah, that about sums it up.