History of the Modern Middle East (Richard Bulliet)

I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it here before, but I love listening to audio recordings of lectures, especially of university classes. I prefer them to books because I can put them on my phone and then listen to them while walking around, which prevents me from falling asleep (something that happens often when someone with a video-game-rotted brain tries to sit down and read a book). I prefer them to audiobooks because listening to someone read straight from a book is even more boring than actually reading the book yourself. Of course there are bad lecturers who just read straight from their notes or whatever, but a good lecturer is able to deliver the same information and ideas in a more conversational style, which is more interesting to listen to and also easier to follow.

One of my favorite audio-recorded lecture series is History of the Modern Middle East by Columbia University historian Richard Bulliet. HMME was given as an undergraduate history class at Columbia in Spring 2009 (so in particular it doesn’t cover the Arab Spring). It consists of 26 lectures which are about 75 minutes apiece (for a total of a little over 30 hours). Bulliet covers a wide variety of topics related to the Middle East, but also spends quite a bit of time discussing whether the Middle East is even a real thing (see below for his answer to the question of whether Georgia is in the Middle East!).

Before I go into a more detailed review, let me say that I recommend this course without reservation to anyone who reads this blog.

strip mall ottoman fountain

The Modern Middle East

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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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In Bloom (2013 Georgian film)

In Bloom is a 2013 film directed by Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Gross. Set in Tbilisi in 1992, the movie depicts the lives of two teenage girls, Eka and Natia, as they deal with typical teen problems: boys, bullies, teachers, domestic violence, food shortages, armed gangs in the streets, and abduction and forced marriage.

In Bloom was the Georgian submission for Best Foreign Language Film for the 2014 Academy Awards.

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Mashtots and Me

The Armenian alphabet, legend has it, was invented by a monk named Mesrop Mashtots (Մեսրոպ Մաշտոց, მესროპ მაშტოც). Legend also has it that Mesrop Mashtots invented the Georgian alphabet and the Caucasian Albanian alphabet as well. I don’t believe that second part of the legend, and even the details of the first part are iffy. But regardless of the particulars, the Caucasus is a grammatological wonder, and Mesrop Mashtots stands as an avatar for its diversity of scripts. So if you love different alphabets — and I do — you have to love Mesrop Mashtots. With this in mind, I made it a goal on my recent trip to Armenia to take pictures with as many statues of Mesrop Mashtots as I could. I didn’t get all of them, but I got a few. Here they are. [Note: Not long ago I started using an image-editing program. I may have gone past the bounds of good taste in some places.]

The most dramatic of all Mesrop Mashtots statues is the one in front of the Matenadaran, a.k.a. the Mesrop Mashtots Institute of Ancient Manuscripts in Yerevan. Around five meters tall (15-20 ft.), it shows Mesrop sitting stately with Koriun, his loving student and biographer, kneeling by his side.

mesrop mashtots matenadaran statue

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Return to the South Caucasus (and gsykw’s new header image)

I recently took a trip back to Georgia, and I went to Armenia too. I’m not much for travel writing, so I’ll just give you the itinerary and some photos. Then I’ll point out updates I’ve been able to make to past posts.

Before that, however, I’d like to explain this blog’s new header image. For the past two and a half years I’ve used an image of some old Georgian calligraphy that I pulled from Wikipedia. That was fine for a while, but aside from the fact that it wasn’t my own image, it now strikes me as too limited. For while this blog started out as being only about Georgia, regular readers will have noticed that its scope has expanded somewhat to deal also with the regions and cultures surrounding and influencing Georgia. So this new image is fitting: the decayed ruins, covered in Russian graffiti, of an Armenian church in Tbilisi.

tbilisi armenian church ruins

Now, on to the trip.

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Sayat-Nova

Sayat-Nova (Սայաթ-Նովա, საიათნოვა, Саят-Нова) was an Armenian troubadour poet and musician. He is an important figure in the history of Armenian literature, but he composed songs in all the major languages of the South Caucasus and maintained friendly relations with Georgians and Azeris. For this reason, it has become something of a cliche in writings about the South Caucasus to invoke Sayat-Nova as a symbol of peace and ethnic neighborliness. Besides his intrinsic importance, Sayat-Nova was also the quasi-subject of Sergei Parajanov’s brilliant film The Color of Pomegranates.

sayat nova sofiko chiaureli

Sayat-Nova as portrayed by Georgian actress Sofiko Chiaureli in The Color of Pomegranates

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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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